Washington, D.C.’s oldest and best-known neighborhood, Georgetown was once a separate town with a long and colorful history dating back to colonial times. Today it boasts a large number of historic residences and other buildings from many eras of American history.
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Today an upscale shopping, restaurant, and entertainment district, Georgetown is also home to many historic buildings, and its narrow streets recall more than two centuries of colonial and American history and the people who lived it. Originally an independent town in Maryland, Georgetown is now a part of Washington, D.C., and its history has blended with that of the federal city since Washington’s inception at the end of the eighteenth century.
The entire neighborhood of Georgetown is included in the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites, the official list of properties recognized and protected as part of the heritage of the nation’s capital, made possible by the District of Columbia Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act of 1978.
Previously, however, the Old Georgetown Act of 1950 gave the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts the authority to review alterations to buildings in the district. The area became a District of Columbia landmark in 1964, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1967, and became a National Historic Landmark in the same year.
Georgetown includes residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial buildings from all periods of U.S. history, including many of Washington’s oldest buildings. There are houses of many types, from simple frame dwellings to richly built mansions and tightly spaced row houses. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Romanesque, and Classical Revival, and there are about four thousand buildings that date from 1765 to 1940.
The first recorded inhabitants of the area now known as Georgetown were Native Americans, whose settlement was called Tahoga Village. In 1622 Captain Henry Fleet sailed up the Potomac and encountered this village. He set up a trading post and stayed for a period of twelve years.
Formal settlement began in the next century. The owner of Maryland, Lord Baltimore, granted 795 acres of land to a Scottish man named Colonel Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall called the area the Rock of Dunbarton, after a place near his boyhood home in Scotland, and it included much of the area that was to become Georgetown. At his death in 1717, his son George inherited the land.
A man named George Gordon also owned land nearby, and in 1751 the General Assembly authorized a new township on the banks of the Potomac. Sixty acres of land were combined to form the town, originally called the Town of George.
Georgetown became a thriving colonial port, shipping Maryland farm products, especially tobacco, to Europe. There were several landing wharves on the Potomac, and commercial traffic was lively. In 1791, George Washington wrote that Georgetown ranked as the greatest tobacco market in Maryland if not the entire union.
After the Revolutionary War, the new nation needed a capital. After a great deal of controversy, it was decided to build a new federal city on the Potomac River, taking parts of the states of Virginia and Maryland. The area chosen was at the time made up of farms, forests, meadows, marshland, and two towns, both ports on the Potomac: Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown. It was in Georgetown that the plans for this new city were drawn up and the negotiations were made for purchasing the needed property.
George Washington and a new board of commissioners met in 1794 at Suter’s Tavern to work out the purchase of the property, signing agreements with the major landowners of the area to sell whatever land would be needed for the new city. The same location was later used as the meeting place for Washington and Pierre L’Enfant, who was hired to design the capital city.
Originally Georgetown was not part of the federal city, but many statesmen and politicians chose to live there, commuting to their work in what was then the raw, muddy town of Washington. Francis Scott Key also lived in Georgetown. His house was later used as a tourist attraction, but it has since been torn down to make way for the bridge that bears his name.
From the beginning Georgetown had, along with a slave population, a significant population of free African Americans who had their own businesses and churches and owned their own homes. Most of them lived in the section called Herring Hill, named for the most frequently caught fish in Rock Creek. The area was bounded by Rock Creek Park and 29th Street, north of P Street. During the Civil War, despite its proximity to the capital of the Union, Georgetown was a Confederate city. However, the strong presence of a black community made the city an important stop on the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses that allowed many slaves to escape north to freedom.
In 1871 the city of Georgetown was annexed to Washington, D.C., and in 1895 many of the streets were renamed. In many cases picturesque and descriptive names were replaced by the lettered and numbered streets now used throughout Washington, with the result that old documents refer to street names no longer in use today.
In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Dealers began buying Georgetown townhouses, many of which were by this time owned by African Americans. The idea was to live in smaller homes to avoid the appearance of conspicuous consumption. This, however, ironically meant that the wealthy were now taking over neighborhoods that had been home to more middle-class people. This had the effect of squeezing the black population out of the area, although their historic black churches remain active.
Most of Georgetown is made up of old, historic buildings, but only a few are open to the public. Many of the homes date back to very early in U.S. history, and at least one goes back to colonial times.
The Old Stone House (3051 M Street NW), built in 1765, is the oldest standing building in Georgetown. Cabinetmaker Christopher Layman built the house, which has been used through the years as a private residence, a boardinghouse, a tavern, a house of prostitution, a craft studio, and several shops. During the 1950’s it was saved from destruction because it was mistakenly thought to have been the site of Suter’s Tavern, where George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant’s meetings took place. In 1972 the house was designated a historic site and placed in the care of the National Park Service. One intriguing fact about this house is that ghosts have frequently been sighted there, especially by staff members and visiting children. The ghosts are dressed in clothing from the various eras of the house’s history, and are seen passing through the building.
The Halcyon House, now known as the Stoddert House for its original owners (3400 Prospect Street NW), was built in 1787 by Benjamin Stoddert, who became the first secretary of the navy in 1796 and the first secretary of war in 1800. A tunnel into the basement was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and this use has led to another case of ghost sightings. Although the escaping slaves were safe from slave hunters in the tunnel, several died in the dank basement from exposure and exhaustion after swimming across the Potomac River, and their ghosts have been seen on occasion in the years since. This house is not open to the public.
Georgetown University also includes some of the oldest buildings in the district. Founded by John Carroll in 1789 and administered by Jesuits, it was the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. Today it is Washington, D.C.’s oldest university and one of the top schools in the country, known especially for its School of Foreign Service. Some of the earliest buildings are still used, including the Old North Building, completed in 1792, which was the original main building.
Tudor Place (1644 31st Street NW), built in 1794, became a historic house museum in 1983. It was built for Thomas Peter and his wife, Martha Parke Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington.
Today at 3276 M Street NW is an old building that houses food stalls for people wanting a quick lunch. The building has been a market for a long time, having been built in 1860 of red brick on fieldstone foundations that had been used by an earlier market building since about 1795. Before the advent of the grocery store, merchants, farmers, butchers, and fishermen set up stalls in public markets like this building. The market was used for this purpose until 1945, when it became a warehouse, until it was declared a landmark in 1966; in the 1970’s it turned into a market again.
Dumbarton Oaks (1703 32d Street NW) is another famous mansion open to the public. Built in 1801, the house was bought in 1920 by Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred. They transformed the run-down mansion into a showplace of rare European and Byzantine art. The Blisses also created the gardens, which covered more than ten acres, and purposely left wild more acres at the back of the estate. In 1941, they gave the house and gardens to Harvard University, and in 1963 a modern gallery was attached with a collection of pre-Columbian art. The wild portion of the estate was given to the District of Columbia as a park.
The Bank of Columbia Building (3210 M Street NW) was built in 1796 and became the second-oldest bank in the District of Columbia. The bank moved its services in 1806 to another site, and the building was put to a series of other uses, including the Bureau of Indian Trade (1807-1822), Georgetown Town Hall and Mayor’s Office (1823-1863), Lang’s Hotel (1863-1870), District of Columbia government offices and storage (1871-1883), and a fire station (1883-1946). In 1981, it was remodeled into a Burger King restaurant.
Mount Zion Methodist Church (1334 29th Street NW) is the oldest known Washington church started by and for blacks, dating to 1816. Its cemetery is the oldest predominantly African American burial ground in Washington, and a vault there was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
In addition to these public buildings, Georgetown includes many other historic places, although most are not open to the public and can only be viewed from outside.
Bergheim, Laura. The Washington Historical Atlas. Rockville, Md.: Woodbine House, 1992. Although only a few pages deal directly with Georgetown, those pages are immensely helpful in understanding the history and layout of the district, and many of Georgetown’s important buildings. “DCGenWeb.” www.rootsweb.com/~dcgenweb/ This site offers not only genealogical tools, but also historical materials about Georgetown, including the old and new street names and the names of early Georgetown officials. Durkin, Joseph T. Georgetown University, First in the Nation’s Capital. 2 vols. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1964. Describes the history of Washington’s first university and the nation’s first Catholic university. Ecker, Grace Dunlop. A Portrait of Old George Town. Richmond, Va.: Dietz Press, 1951. Written in sentimental style by a woman born and raised there, this history of Georgetown includes a detailed history of the district as a whole and each neighborhood. Mitchell, Mary. Chronicles of Georgetown Life, 1865-1900. Cabin John, Md.: Seven Locks Press, 1986. Discusses one period of Georgetown life and the people involved in it. Whitehill, Walter Muir. Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800-1966. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967. Details the history of Georgetown’s perhaps most famous home.