By Stephanie Cavanaugh
I RECENTLY spent two stultifying hours touring parts of my Washington DC neighborhood.
The Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) House and Garden Show was canceled again this spring, thanks to Covid. It would have been the 64th tour, an event wherein people line up in sweltering heat, drizzle or downpour to gawp at the luxury, or kvetch at the excess, in the 10 or so homes on display.
With about a year’s advance notice, the houses and gardens are groomed beyond natural, to a state normally achieved only before selling; as good a reason as any to volunteer for such a thing—getting to enjoy your finished home well before you move on.
Our house was on a tour once, 20 years ago: the first Renovators House Tour, which benefits the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools, three schools that glide kids from kindergarten through 8th grade. These are homes that are still in the process of being finished. While they have admirable qualities, some level of disrepair is expected—which was, of course, perfect for us that year (and every year since, as it turns out).
Even so, months of primping were required. I lost 10 pounds painting and hanging and moving and hiding. My Prince kept saying, “I thought we didn’t have to do anything. “
Yeah, ha. It’s like cleaning the house before guests and then apologizing for the mess.
This was before we installed central air, so we were lucky it was cool and breezy that day. Which also showed the house to particular advantage, the ceiling fans spinning, curtains billowing ever so slightly, no-account fish swimming in a sparkling (for once) tank: The house felt in motion, sparkling.
I knew there was a reason I’d bought heavy linen sheets at an estate sale years before. Hand-embroidered with someone’s family crest, they’d been stuffed in a bin in the basement for a decade. Here, finally, a reason to starch and iron and use them. My, didn’t they look swell.
We stood across the street and watched the line flow up the walk and through and up and down and out the back garden gate, smiling.
Well, that was fun.
There was a strange vibe to the place after the hundred or two people departed. Climbing under my crisp sheets that night I felt the crowd was still standing around the bed, checking my thread count.
That was weird.
We have not been among the chosen for the big tour, the CHRS tour, but then we’re still not done renovating. In fact, what was done back then now needs redoing and we haven’t made much progress on the stuff that needed doing since then. Following this, are you? Good.
Returning to the original subject (refer to Paragraph 1, if you will) the CHRS tour was canceled for the second year in a row. Last year they did some video thing instead. This year they did a series of neighborhood tours, guided and self-guided.
Pressed (hammered) into it by our architect friends Robert and Judith, who between them have more knowledge of the community fabric than most anyone else alive, we took a guided tour of several parks clustered near the Capitol.
The guide, who did her research on Google, she said, was weakly informed but handed out xeroxed maps and charts for us to yawn over. Is this mean, I ask you? Possibly.
Judith thought so. “Give them a break, they’re volunteers,” she said when I grumbled.
But I take no prisoners.
Meanwhile, Judith had been standing with her back to the speaker, sketching the aged police station for the previous 10 minutes.
We spent 20 minutes looking at the side of St. Peter school, the oldest parochial school in the city. Built in the 1860s, the only note of interest is that the red brick building, undistinguished by any ornamentation, could easily have been built in 1955. You can imagine how fascinating that was to look at. They didn’t even include a photo in the handouts.
I turned to Robert, “Is that it? Can we go now?”
“Nope,” he said, leaning back on a patch of someone’s lawn and gazing skyward. “There are six more stops.”
This about gave me the vapors, but leaving would have been so rude. Sigh.
Moving at a shuffle on the mile-long route did force us to examine streets and properties that we’d passed a few thousand times without stopping. Now forced to do so, we were often charmed (though rarely by anything the tour guide was droning on about).
Duddington Place is right around the corner from Baby’s primary school, but I cruised by it nearly every day for eight years, without noticing. If someone dropped me on the street and said, Where are you? I would not say DC. Perhaps Charleston? Maybe London? These small, circa 1890 row houses, each a different mannerly color, have no backyards to speak of and stingy gardens out front, a rose here, a boxwood there. So, the residents have taken to the streets, adding tables and chairs, settees and such. These line the sidewalks on both sides of the narrow street. One can imagine the neighbors in bustled skirts, the men in ice cream suits and Panama hats, sipping lemonade in the shade of the ginkgo trees that shade the block.
The gardens along the way are glorious with roses and iris and peonies spilling over walls and filling tree boxes; clematis clamber and spill. The boxwoods are lush and green. It’s a gray day, which carries the scents.
Not on the tour, but eye-catching, was a house guaranteed to give My Prince hives, with ivy growing up the winding iron staircase and across the stair treads to the front door, wonderfully gothic if maybe a bit labor-intensive. Tripping is a distinct possibility. Mosquitos too.
But what price romance, my love?
Speaking of romance. Rising like a gothic fantasy, Carbury House, in the main photo above, is a grand Victorian, started in 1802 and enlarged with turret and porch in 1889. The house and deep front garden have changed little over the decades I’ve been eyeing it, always overgrown with just a hint of decay. It has such an admirable Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil atmosphere. I haven’t heard that it’s haunted, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Maybe next year they’ll let us in.