Home & Design

Georgetown, House by House

THE 88TH Georgetown House Tour takes place in Washington DC this Saturday, April 27, 2019, and features a selection from the seemingly endless collection of houses that are remarkable whether for their age and historical significance or their interior furnishings or their clever use of space.

For example, on this year’s tour are a couple of grand Second Empire “villas” on Q Street, among the eight houses built by Henry J. Cooke, the first Governor of the District of Columbia, for his 12 children, beginning in 1868. Another, very different  home is pre-Civil War, a flat-front Victorian that was built as a “tenant house” in 1850—and was owned by members of the original family for 143 years.

Descriptions of the houses highlight massive crown moldings on some of the fancier houses, bays added to Federal-style properties during the Victorian era, even a dining-room floor made from marble removed from the old Ebbitt Hotel downtown (that last place belonged to Evalyn Walsh McLean, famous as a Washington hostess and for having owned the Hope Diamond).

The mention of homes having original pine floors (usually on the upper levels), or moldings, or fireplace mantels, causes my stomach to churn. It’s not for nothing that this year’s tour theme is “Deep Roots.” But as I’ve walked the length of N Street in recent years, I have watched the dismantling and, I would argue, destruction of a number of Georgetown houses.

The facades of our houses are protected by the Fine Arts Commission as integral pieces of a historic neighborhood. The interiors are not so lucky. One morning I watched workers take a sledgehammer to a plaster wall just inside the front door of a stately Second Empire house, probably from about 1870. “Are they taking out the radiators?” I (basically) shrieked. “Don’t they know that radiant heat is the best, most consistent form of heat?!” (Yes, I managed this unwieldy sentence from the sidewalk.) The supervisor nodded and shrugged his shoulders as a workman dragged out a radiator. “It’s your country, lady,” he said.

Yes, it is. And it sometimes seems as if homebuyers won’t be happy until they’ve wrung every drop of history out of it, especially in Georgetown.

Walking past one house dating from 1890, I watched, over a few days, as workmen removed bookshelves, then doors, then fixtures from the recently renovated kitchen—then the original heart-pine floorboards. Noise emanating from the house one day caused me to stand back: I watched as a workman sledgehammered the brick chimney breast in a bedroom upstairs, above the living room fireplace. But that made sense: The fireplace had already been destroyed, its mantel now sticking out of the omnipresent dumpster.

When I last dared to peek in, the interior had been peeled back to the studs, not a shred of its 19th-century self left in evidence.

This place, like quite a few, will no doubt be decked out by an architect who will later report, if a bit defensively, that the interior style was now sleek and modern, with the mandatory flat-screen TV hanging over the fireplace, as there had been no original details to preserve. Well, after all that, there sure weren’t! (And to be fair for a moment, a lot of the more modest houses never had fancy crown molding or ornate mantelpieces. But they did have silent, effective radiators!)

As the recent seller of a modest Georgetown property myself, I’m ashamed to have contributed to this wholesale obliteration of charm and history. Mea culpa, a little too late.

I always wonder whether the buyers executing these plans come to the city with a suburban sensibility and why they have no compunction about inflicting it on a 150-year-old house. I know that others come from elsewhere and have no sense of the Georgetown communal aesthetic. Georgetown is by no means a neighborhood of only fancy mansions; there are, as well, small apartment buildings and modest houses that have survived into our century. But the buyers seem not to appreciate the history of the neighborhood, whether they come from California or by way of the World Bank.

Why they choose to buy an old house in Georgetown when their aesthetic lies elsewhere I cannot say. I do think that people who want to live here should be urged to walk the streets of the village and join the  house tour. Perhaps they might be inspired by seeing homes whose interiors retain old-fashioned charm while yet boasting air conditioning and Sub-Zero refrigerators (if that’s their thing) and marble-slab bathrooms and lower-level family rooms.

Every spring the Georgetown House Tour, which benefits social programs run by St. John’s Episcopal Church on O Street NW, lays out the architectural bounty of Georgetown for all who have been infected by the historical charm of the place. I can only hope that it can extend its reach to those who haven’t been.

—Nancy McKeon
88th Georgetown House Tour, Saturday, April 27, 2019, 11am to 5pm. Tickets can be purchased two days beforehand at the St. John’s Parish Hall ($50), online in advance ($50) and on Saturday ($55) at St. John’s Church, 3240 O Street NW, Washington DC. Purchase includes afternoon tea served at St. John’s and an Architects and Designers panel discussion at 3pm. For more information, go to georgetownhousetour.com, or call 202-338-1796.


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