Washington’s Historic Homes and Gardens

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 17 Guide

History has been made in many of Washington, D.C.’s homes—both its grand mansions and its humble houses. These include stone houses that have been restored to their 18th-century appearance, labyrinthian estates, and acres upon acres of splendid gardens.

Let’s tour some of those structures, including:
• Houses in Georgetown
• Octagon House
• Decatur House
• Hillwood Estate and Gardens
• The Woodlawn Plantation

Houses in Georgetown

The Old Stone House is a standalone structure. It is easy to spot among Georgetown’s historic townhouses, especially since it is 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.

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Subsequent owners expanded the home, and the house as visitors see it now was completed in 1790—the year the capital was established by Congress.

In the 1960s, 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.

In that same period, 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.

Old Stone House in Georgetown
The original owners of the Old Stone House constructed their one-room home from locally quarried fieldstone and blue granite.

In 1702, Charles Calvert granted about 800 acres of land between the Potomac River and Rock Creek to a Scottish immigrant and former indentured servant named Ninian Beall. Beall named the plantation the Rock of Dumbarton, saying that the views from his new estate reminded him of the view of the Clyde River from Dumbarton Castle in Scotland.

The Bealls prospered, and Beall’s son, George, added to the estate, bringing it to more than 2,000 acres. In 1751, however, the colonial government decided to incorporate the village of Georgetown, and Beall was forced to sell most of his land on the riverfront to create it.

After George Beall’s death, his descendants sold off pieces of the remaining estate. On three of those pieces, all near Q Street and R Street NW, you will find three of the oldest and most storied homes in all of Washington.

The first is a mansion at 32nd Street and R Street: Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Research Library. This large, brick mansion was constructed in 1801 and expanded in the 1840s. The site’s house, art collection, and gardens are open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays. Some of the highlights of the art collection include jewelry from the Byzantine Empire, limestone relief carvings from Persepolis, and ancient Turkish mosaics.

A short walk south down 31st Street from Dumbarton Oaks, you will find the second estate carved out of Beall’s Rock of Dumbarton. It is called Tudor Place, and it has multiple connections to George Washington and the creation of Washington, D.C. At the heart of this site’s collection are almost 100 objects that belonged to George and Martha Washington. Tudor Place is open Tuesday through Sunday throughout the year. The house is only accessible by guided tour; the garden tour is self-guided.

A few blocks east on Q Street is the third of the former Beall estates: Dumbarton House. A number of important figures in Washington, D.C.’s history have called Dumbarton House their home over the years, but the most famous guest to stay at the estate was undoubtedly Dolley Madison. This is the home she fled to when the British burned the White House in 1814.

Like the other Georgetown mansions, the Dumbarton House offers public lectures about the history of the house and of Georgetown. It also holds some more unusual programs, like film festivals, yoga classes, and ice cream tastings. Be sure to check the website’s events calendar if you plan to visit.

Octagon House

Octagon House in Washington D.C.
The Octagon House in Washington, D.C. is actually… a hexagon.

In the neighborhood of Foggy Bottom is the unusual townhouse known as the Octagon House. This home is one of architect William Thornton’s masterpieces. Located on New York Avenue NW just a block from the White House, it was constructed between 1798 and 1801 for John Tayloe III, a wealthy Virginia politician and businessman.

The Octagon House is actually a hexagon. It survived the 1814 British burning of Washington because the Tayloes wisely invited the French consul to take up residence there during the war. In 1814, the British had just stopped receiving trouble from Napoleon, at least temporarily, and they did not need any more conflict with the French.

After the war, when the Madisons returned to find their residence destroyed, the Tayloes offered them the use of Octagon House. For six months, Octagon House was the president’s mansion. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was signed here in February 1815.

Today, the house is owned by the American Institute of Architects. Once the Institute’s headquarters, it is now a museum dedicated to the relationship between architecture and history. The museum is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons for self-guided tours, or you can schedule a guided tour for other days and times.

Decatur House

Decatur House in Washington D.C.
The Decatur House passed through many stages of public and private ownership before finally being turned over to the National Trust in 1956.

On the opposite side of the White House from the Octagon House, you will find the Decatur House. This three-story, square brick mansion might look unremarkable to a casual passerby, but it has an impressive history.

It was built by Commodore Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan in 1818. After Stephen’s death, Susan rented it to a number of important Washington figures. Most notably, it was the home of three secretaries of state: Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and Edward Livingston.

It passed through many stages of public and private ownership before finally being turned over to the National Trust in 1956.

Today, it is the home of the White House Historical Association. The association offers three tours of the house every Monday, which highlights the history of the home and particularly its slave quarters.

Hillwood Estate and Gardens

Hillwood Estate Garden in Washington D.C. with flowers
Hillwood was the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post—the heiress to the Post Cereal/General Foods empire.

Some of D.C.’s more modern homes are just as important and interesting as its historic ones. 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. She was known as a philanthropist, a savvy businesswoman, and an art collector.

During her time at Hillwood, Post became one of the most important figures in D.C. society. Invitations to her garden parties and formal dinners were the most sought after in the city. Hillwood was a place where Washington’s power brokers could meet, foster friendships, and make deals outside the confines of their offices.

In her will, Post left the Hillwood Estate and its art treasures to the Smithsonian Institution. Post wanted to see her home turned into a museum in order to preserve it as a slice of American history as well as an exhibit space for her art collection.

After several years of developing the concept, however, the Smithsonian realized that the estate would be better managed by the Post family charitable foundation, and they returned the property to them. The two institutions occasionally collaborate on events, exhibitions, and programs.

Today, Hillwood can be thought of 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 how the family lived with and among all these treasures, while the kitchen and staff rooms demonstrate what it took 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 summer cottage.

Check the museum’s website for information about special exhibitions. Hillwood’s website also keeps visitors up to date on what is currently in bloom on the grounds.

The Woodlawn Plantation

Woodlawn Plantation Entrance Gate in Alexandria Virginia
The Woodlawn Plantation entrance gate in Alexandria, Virginia

The Woodlawn plantation, located in Alexandria, Virginia, makes for an interesting detour when visiting Mount Vernon or Old Town Alexandria. It is about four miles east of the Mount Vernon estate. For a time, it was the home of Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Nelly Parke Custis, and her husband, Lawrence Lewis.

In 1846, Nelly Custis Lewis sold the plantation to a group of Quaker timber merchants. Many, if not all, of those who followed the Quaker faith were staunch abolitionists, and these merchants were no exception. Their timber operation ran entirely by employing free African American workers—many of whom had been freed by the Washington, Custis, and Lewis families. Exhibits at Woodlawn today are dedicated, therefore, to two themes: the lives of the Custis family and the lives of the free African American community.

Woodlawn has chosen to highlight its agricultural history by hosting the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Architecture buffs will find a rare treat at Woodlawn: the Pope-Leighey House, an original Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonian home.

Although Wright is remembered today for public buildings, he was also interested in creating practical, affordable, efficient housing for the masses. He eventually designed 60 homes based on these Usonian principles. They were typically single-story homes with two or three bedrooms and minimal storage space. They were made of natural local materials, and—in typical Wright fashion—incorporated elements of the surrounding landscape.

Wright’s Usonian idea has been a huge influence on American residential architecture down to the present day. It inspired the L-shaped ranch homes found in suburbs all over America, and its principle of minimalist living in harmony with the landscape is at the roots of the tiny-house movement today. If you are interested in the history of architecture, it is not to be missed.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Tudor Place Guided Tours
Dumbarton House
Octagon House
White House Historical Association
Hillwood Estate and Gardens