The history and the stature of the White House tends to overshadow all other homes in the city. But the fact is, history has been made in many of Washington, D.C.’s homes, both its grand mansions and its humble houses. You can learn a lot about D.C. history by stepping away from the federal buildings and grand memorials to visit some of its most historic—and glamorous—everyday homes.
Georgetown’s Old Stone House
We’re going to start out our tour of D.C.’s historic homes and gardens with the smallest of these houses. But small doesn’t mean boring. It’s the oldest, unchanged house in Washington, D.C. and the only pre-Revolutionary structure still standing in the city: the Old Stone House in Georgetown.
This small, stand-alone house is easy to spot among Georgetown’s historic town houses, especially since it’s on the main thoroughfare of M Street NW. In 1765, the original owners, Christopher and Rachel Layman, constructed their one-room home from locally quarried fieldstone and blue granite. Subsequent owners expanded the home, and the house as you see it was completed in 1790. As you know by now, that’s a significant date in District history: the year the capital was established by Congress.
Over the decades, the Old Stone House was occupied by a tailor’s shop, a locksmith’s shop, even a used car dealership. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the National Park Service took over the site and set about restoring both the house and its garden to its 1790s appearance.
A visit to the Old Stone House allows visitors to imagine how D.C.’s original citizens lived. On the first floor, you’ll find a kitchen and a truly enormous fireplace, which was used both for cooking and heating. In fact, this one hearth could heat the entire home. In this room, it’s also easy to tell how thick the walls are—two to three feet of stone supported by large oak beams. Here and in the rooms above, you’ll find examples of period furniture. Behind the house, the Park Service has installed a simple, rectilinear English garden with brick walkways and shaded benches. At midday in nice weather, you might find lots of locals here enjoying their brown-bag lunches in the sunshine.
Dumbarton Oaks—A Mansion of Art
In 1790, Georgetown was becoming a major port in the international tobacco trade, and more than a few of its residents were amassing great wealth. Soon they began using that wealth to build homes that rivaled the great country houses of Europe. One such home is the mansion at 32nd and R Streets: Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Research Library.
This large, brick mansion was constructed in 1801 and expanded in the 1840s. Among its residents in the early 19th century was Vice President John C. Calhoun. The property passed through many owners until 1920, when it was purchased by Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. Robert was a career diplomat, and Mildred was an heiress and philanthropist; in addition to Robert’s official work, the couple had helped set up a number of medical charities in France during World War I. During their time in France, they had begun collecting art, especially Pre-Colombian and Byzantine art. So when they purchased the property, they renovated and expanded the mansion to display their art collection and house their library. They also expanded the mansion grounds from 6 acres to 54 acres and created a series of elegant gardens.
In 1940, Robert and Mildred gifted the mansion, the art collection, the library, the gardens, and about half the estate grounds to Harvard University. It is now one of the world’s premiere research institutes for Byzantine and Pre-Colombian Art, as well as gardening and landscape architecture. It offers a small number of residential fellowships to graduate and post-graduate researchers every year as well as library and collections access for visiting researchers. The house, art collection, and gardens are also open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays. Some of the highlights of the art collection include jewelry from the Byzantine Empire in gold, silver, ivory, and gemstones; limestone relief carvings from Persepolis; ancient Turkish mosaics; Aztec ceremonial masks; and Inkan metalwork.
In the mansion’s Music Room, the art treasures on display include furniture and architectural elements from 16th-century France. But despite its antique furnishings, this room witnessed one of the most important events in modern history. In 1944, as World War II was coming to a close, this room hosted the Dumbarton Oaks Conference. That conference laid the groundwork for the creation of the United Nations.
The Blisses gifted the house and about half the estate to Harvard University. The other half, east of the house, they donated to the National Park Service. This little oasis of naturalistic landscape is dotted with woods, meadows, waterfalls, and pathways for all of us to enjoy. If you do plan to visit Dumbarton Oaks, make sure you check their events calendar. They host regular lectures on art, gardening, landscape architecture, and music, as well as a concert series from mid-autumn to early spring.
Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Estate
All of these houses are connected to D.C.’s early history, but some of its more modern homes are just as important and interesting. Take, for example, Hillwood Estate and Gardens in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Northwest D.C.
Hillwood was the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Post was the heiress to the Post Cereal/General Foods empire, and she lived a life worthy of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, full of glamour, excitement, and heartbreak. Intelligent, talented, driven, and astonishingly rich, she was known as a philanthropist, a savvy businesswoman, an art collector, and the grande dame of Washington society.
Think of Hillwood as three museums in one. Some rooms, like the Russian Icon Room or the French Porcelain Room, are arranged purely for the display of these wonderful collections. Other rooms offer a glimpse into everyday life at Hillwood. Rooms like the Post Bedroom Suite and the English Bedroom show us how the family lived with and among all those treasures, while the kitchen and staff rooms demonstrate what it looked like to run the household.
Finally, there are 25 acres of gardens and grounds to explore. In addition to the formal garden elements you might expect, like a rose garden and a Japanese-style garden, there are unexpected elements like a putting green and a reproduction Russian dacha, or summer cottage. One of the loveliest features of Hillwood’s landscape is how it was designed for beauty in all four seasons. From spring azaleas to summer roses to autumn maples to sculptures blanketed in the winter snow, there’s always something beautiful to see here.