Tag Archives: Georgetown

Tudor Place: America’s History in One Home

south side of Tudor Place facing Potomac River

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.

north side, main entrance to house

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.

restored pigeon fly with smokehouse building

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.

new wood for arbor and arbor gate

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.

restored gazebo or Japanese tea house

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.

close up of pigeon fly, smokehouse on right, window on side of smokehouse to let pigeons out into caged area on left

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.

Lady Banks rose draped over the restored arbor

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

Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program Features Three Private Gardens in Washington DC, October 16

gc_web_logoOn Sunday, October 16th, visit three private gardens in Washington, DC, open to the public through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission to each garden is $7; children 12 and under are free. Open Days are rain or shine, and no reservations are required. Visit www.opendaysprogram.org  or call 888-842-2442 for more information. Gardens featured include:

Sessums + Biles Garden, 5081 Lowell Street, NW (near American University)

The Sessums + Biles Garden is a horticultural treasure where sustainability and design embrace. The client, a passionate gardener bored with traditional “green on green” landscapes, commissioned a garden with careful consideration to all seasons and where plant form, texture, and color are of equal importance. The result is a dynamic, ever-changing tapestry of predominantly native trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers. Sweeping paths, walls, terraces, and a water feature form the backbone of this unique garden. No herbicides or fertilizers are used, and pesticide use is strictly limited to the aging stand of hemlocks. The site is not irrigated, site water is reclaimed, and all garden material is composted on site. The garden is also a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation and the client is physically involved in all aspects of the garden’s maintenance.

Sessum + Biles garden, photo courtesy of H. Paul Davis

Sessum + Biles garden, photo by H. Paul Davis


The Barbara Downs Garden, 3321 P Street, NW

Located in Georgetown, this town garden exudes the spirit of Japan, a favorite travel spot of its owner. A dry streambed of randomly placed stones descends from the elevated rear of the garden and meanders to the house, terminating in a circular arrangement of stones that mimic a pool. The centerpiece of the garden, a sculptured millstone-shaped pink granite fountain surrounded by lavender plantain lily (Hosta x ‘Honeybells’) bubbles with life. Framed by crepe myrtle ‘Natchez’ (Lagerstroemia indica ‘Natchez’), the terrace of Stoneyhurst flagstone provides a reflective escape in this hidden urban garden.

The Nancy Gray Pyne Garden (street address will be given at other locations)

A journey through this secret garden in the heart of Georgetown takes the visitor up a series of formal terraced gardens and past a number of outbuildings that include a library, two greenhouses, and a freestanding theater. It culminates in a decorative walled vegetable garden designed and planted by Washington Post garden writer, Adrian Higgins. The garden had been assembled over the course of a century or more, but it was given its character in the 1930s as one of the major Washington projects of a pioneering landscape architect named Rose Greely. The main terrace is a walled garden perched above the house. Its most animated feature, a geometric fountain, is aligned with both the rear entrance of the house and, at right angles to it, a rectangular lawn framed by a path and boxwood plantings. The upper garden functions as its own formal garden of shrubs and small trees, as well as an entrance for the theater, known as the playhouse, and the larger greenhouse (and potting shed). The upper garden is also a place of paths. One leads to a parking lot at the end of an alley. Another passes a long boxwood walk that leads past a fenced swimming pool, which was once an ornamental garden and, later, a tennis court. The vegetable garden is bounded by more brick walls and by the back of the garage and a cedar fence. The space, sixty feet by thirty feet, also contains the second greenhouse built by Nancy Gray’s husband, Gordon Gray, who was a passionate orchid grower.

Nancy Gray Pyne garden, photo courtesy of The Garden Conservancy

Nancy Gray Pyne garden, photo courtesy of The Garden Conservancy

In addition, at the garden of Nancy Gray Pyne, bring your questions throughout the day for Andrea Filippone and Eric T. Fleisher of the New York-based firm, F2 Environmental Design. Andrea Filippone is a boxwood expert who has advised Mrs. Pyne on boxwood selections in her garden, and Eric T. Fleisher is the organic guru in the firm, who believes that the basis of all successful gardening is an understanding and nurturing of the soil biosphere.

The Garden Conservancy created the Open Days program in 1995 as a means of introducing the public to gardening, providing easy access to outstanding examples of design and horticultural practice, and proving that exceptional American gardens are still being created. Its mission to share American gardens with the public is achieved each season, through the work of hundreds of private garden hosts and volunteers nationwide. Digging Deeper, a new series of Open Days programming, is designed to offer a deeper look into the gardening world through immersive experiences with artists, designers, gardeners, authors and other creative professionals. The Open Days program is America’s only national private garden-visiting program. For information and a complete schedule of Open Days visit the Garden Conservancy online at www.opendaysprogram.org.