Spring is a great time to visit Tudor Place, so many native plants are blooming as well as old fashioned shrubs, azaleas, and roses. With every visit, I see something new or something restored. This month, staff completed restoration of the gazebo and arbors with new wood, plantings, and lighting and recreated a pigeon fly.
Tudor Place Historic House and Garden is a National Historic Landmark, open to the public. The land sits high on a hill in Georgetown Heights. The property was originally purchased by tobacco merchant Francis Loundes in 1795. He was able to build two separate structures. In 1802, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Custis Peter, and husband Thomas Peter rented the property. In 1805, they purchased the 8 1/2 acres with money Martha inherited from George Washington. Martha and Peter commissioned Dr. William Thornton (first architect of the U.S. Capitol building) to design a home that would connect the two structures. In 1816, Tudor Place was completed. The design took full advantage of the hill so the family could look down the south lawn towards the Potomac River. Although trees now block the view of the river, there is a grand sense of height and expansive land on this prime Georgetown real estate.
The original entrance to the property was on the north side (what is now R Street). Carriages and horses would have come up on crushed oyster shells flanked by formal gardens to arrive at a still existing oval of boxwoods installed by Martha and Thomas Peter. Although the current gated entrance is on the east, off of 31st Street, the formal gardens remain in the same place. There is a formal boxwood knot garden, several small secluded seating areas, fountains, statues, a bowling green, and a sundial. On the east there is an expanse of lawn that was once used as a tennis court and on the west there are native trees, perennials, and shrubs.
While at Tudor Place, Martha inherited many of her grandmother’s artifacts plus she purchased items at a public sale of Mount Vernon’s contents. The Peter family had three daughters and the youngest, Britannia, inherited the property in 1854. Britannia had one daughter and her husband died very early in the marriage so she basically lived at Tudor Place with her daughter most of her life. During the Civil War, she was able to keep the building from being damaged although the boxwood did get razed for Christmas wreaths. She was forced to sell some land reducing Tudor Place to 5 ½ acres.
When Britannia died in 1911, her grandson, Armistead Peter Jr., purchased his siblings’ shares of the property. Armistead and his wife Anna modernized the home. Armistead was an avid gardener who kept extensive diaries of the plants in the gardens. In 1927, he converted the smokehouse, which dated back to 1794, to a pigeon fly by inserting a window on one side of the smokehouse so pigeons could fly out into an open cage. At the time, culinary pigeons, called squab, were raised to eat.
In the 1930s, he and his son, Armistead Peter III, built the arbor. Armistead Peter III designed an arbor gate to connect the arbor to the pigeon fly. When Armistead Peter Jr. died in 1960, his son inherited the property as the fourth and last owner. Armistead Peter III married Caroline, and had one daughter. During World War II, he was stationed in the South Pacific and afterwards visited Japan with Caroline. These travels inspired him to create a Japanese style tea house to entertain guests. In the 1960s, he built the tea house (also called a gazebo) and later he re-purposed the smokehouse/pigeon fly to serve as a kennel for their dogs.
In the 1960s, Armistead Peter III established a foundation to preserve the property knowing there would be no surviving descendants. When he died in 1983, the property was turned over to the Tudor Place Foundation. The Foundation could have literally picked any time period in American history to show the residence to the public but decided to keep the artifacts, furniture, and rooms as they were when Armistead died. Because so much had been collected over the six generations, visitors can see Martha Washington’s punch bowl, George Washington’s camp stool from the Revolutionary War, and Caroline’s Lanvin and Hermes gowns and Dobbs hatboxes.
Tudor Place serves as a pictorial history of our country. Additionally, Tudor Place provides a sense of change as staff illustrate how spaces were re-purposed by each generation and how some practices (such as smoking meat) were discontinued. When I visited in April, the smokehouse was restored as an outdoor pigeon fly, which is a unique phase in America’s history (most people no longer raise squab in the Washington DC area). Before the arbors and gazebo were restored, staff contacted a company to conduct an archaeological exploration of the area. The exploration revealed artifacts confirming that the place was used as a domestic service yard many years before the gazebo was built. Fortunately, Lady Banks Rose (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’), descendant of an original planting, was blooming while I was visiting as if she was waiting for the Peter families to come and enjoy their cocktails.
Tudor Place Historic House and Garden is at 1644 31st Street, NW, Washington DC 20007. There are guided tours, a full calendar of events, and innovative educational programs for school-aged children, supported by docents and volunteers. For more information call (202) 965-0400 or visit http://www.tudorplace.org
It is fortunate that it was possible to preserve it. Such preservation is getting more difficult to accomplish. There are not as many historic sites in the West as there are in the East, and many of them have been poorly renovated. Even the Winchester House in San Jose, which is not nearly as old as homes in the East, was renovated very inaccurately.