Each spring, Georgetown greets the season by freshening up its homes and yards in anticipation of one of the neighborhood’s signature events: the Georgetown House Tour — this year on April 26.
“The house tour is a crown jewel” of Georgetown, says Trish Yan of TTR Sotheby’s International Realty, the tour’s main sponsor. “It is amazing to see more than 1,800 persons visiting neighborhood homes.”
It certainly gets people thinking about Georgetown houses, home design, history and boldface names — both the younger set like Robert Allbritton, Bill Dean, Mark Ein, Kevin Plank and Michael Saylor and the established types like Jack Evans, Valerie Jarrett, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Bob Woodward.
While some downtown neighborhoods have gotten new attention, Washington’s oldest neighborhood smoothly retains its premier status.
Indeed, with the house tour in mind, the Washington Post ran an article last week that asked: “As Washington development moves east, what does Georgetown represent today?” An alternate headline for the same piece tellingly read: “Georgetown’s quiet boom: As other parts of Washington get the hip restaurants and slick condos, this enclave prospers, too.”
Whatever your assessment of the neighborhood, Evans’s stump speech sums it up: “Today is Georgetown’s golden age.”
Over the past five years, Georgetown has experienced a youthful kick: its own baby boom. The place is more family-focused, sometimes to the puzzlement of the older crowd that recalls a livelier — perhaps wilder — nightlife along its commercial streets.
Meanwhile, younger residents are taking over and renewing many of Georgetown’s organizations and places.
The 2014 co-chairs, Colman Riddell, 45, and Barbara Wolf, 50, understand the pull of the house tour, which benefits social programs at St. John’s Church on O Street. “The house tour continues to interest residents as well as visitors because of the unexpected surprises behind every door,” Riddell says. “Whether it’s a secret garden, incredible architecture or design, the houses in Georgetown never disappoint. No matter how long you’ve lived here, there is always a house on the tour you’ve never seen.”
Riddell is a chemotherapy nurse turned designer, whose 33rd Street home was on last year’s tour. She lives with her husband, Richard, and her son and daughter in a converted carriage house and stable. The 1,700-square-foot home — with its expanded lighting, neutral colors and artifacts on display — and its designer were featured in the Washington Post last year. Riddell grew up in Georgetown and went to Madeira School and Georgetown School of Nursing. The 34th Street home of her parents, Charles and Betsy Rackley, has been on the tour.
As for Wolf, who lives in Falls Church, she and her husband, David, were married at St. John’s Georgetown. She loves her parish and says, “I feel very married to it.” Her two boys were christened there, and her parents are also parishioners.
Thanks to the influential and beloved Frida Burling, Wolf — for two decades a chief development officer and chief advocacy officer for several youth-focused nonprofits — got involved with the house tour. “St. John’s is the heart of the community for so many of its residents,” says Wolf. “We like to say, ‘We value open hearts, open minds, open arms, faith, staying rooted and staying current, and discussion that allows for mutual respect.’ The tour speaks to this and to our commitment to Georgetown and all its citizens.”
In the same spirit, Georgetowners answer the call to be on the tour. Many helping out with the tour have shown their homes. It is not always an easy decision to invite crowds to march through. Sometimes the houses are newly redone, and others might be about to go on sale. But most on the tour are occupied by longtime residents who are here to stay.
Architect Christian Zapatka showed his place two years ago. “The best thing about being on the tour was that it forced me to complete my own house renovation. Which is, of course, agony for an architect,” he says.
About 15 years ago, Burling — now chairwoman emerita and 98 years old — gave the tour a heightened energy and status. She started the Patrons’ Party, held at another home a few days before the tour. First up as hosts were such iconic Georgetowners as Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn and Kitty Kelley.
The party itself ranks high on the social calendar for what might be called its “house wow” factor. Last year, it was at the P Street home of Tom Anderson and Marc Schapell of Washington Fine Properties. This year’s venue is the Foxhall House on Dumbarton Street, owned by the Powell family.
Built by Henry Foxhall in 1819 for his daughter, Mary Ann, who married Samuel McKenney, the Foxhall House (also known as the McKenney House) is now the home of Elizabeth and Jeffrey Powell and their two children. Foxhall was a mayor of Georgetown and munitions manufacturer during the War of 1812. Foxhall Village and Foxhall Road are named for him. The original gardens were designed by Rose Greely, the first woman landscape architect licensed in D.C. Before moving to Dumbarton Street in August, the Powells had lived around the corner. Elizabeth had passed and admired the house for quite a while.
In addition to their own, all lovers of Georgetown have a favorite house (or several). Some are well known and others, not at all.
For Riddell, one is “a white-painted brick firehouse” on the east side of town on O Street. For Wolf, it is simple: “The rectory at St. John’s. It’s a lovely, large home with a warm front porch and open space on both sides. It has sentimental value for me.”
For Yan, her favorite is the Beall-Washington House at 30th and R Streets, once the home of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and now owned by Mark and Sally Ein. As a director of business development for TTR Sotheby’s International Realty, Yan attends 80 to 100 events for the company annually through its different offices. She wanted to get the Georgetown office more involved with the house tour, “especially as a number of agents live in Georgetown.” Yan formerly worked with Nancy Taylor Bubes of Washington Fine Properties, who put her 31st Street home on the tour last year. “I learned from her,” Yan says of Bubes.
Another good call on favorites comes from Zapatka, who says, “Without a doubt, the finest house in Georgetown is Tudor Place. Its setting and its classically composed garden elevation, complete with temple portico, make it a vision out of the English countryside.”
There is one house missing — because you cannot see it. Call it the most famous lost home of Georgetown. It is fitting to recall it this year, the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“When I think about Georgetown homes, the one that comes most readily to mind — and is my favorite — is a house that no longer exists: the Francis Scott Key House that stood at 3516-18 M Street,” says Jerry McCoy, who is special collections librarian at the Georgetown Public Library’s Peabody Room, which acts as Georgetown’s historical archives.
“Constructed in 1795 by Thomas Clark and occupied by Francis Scott Key and his family from 1808 to 1828, it was from this address that Key departed for Baltimore and into the pages of American history,” says McCoy. “The desire was there to save the structure, but it failed, and what remained of it was taken down in 1947. Had this home been preserved, visitors from all over the world would have made the pilgrimage to see where the man lived who penned ‘O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ ”
Finally, here’s a little secret about the Georgetown House Tour. It’s not about houses and design but about people: our neighbors past, present and future. Histories of these homes often have surprising connections to people one would never suspect walked the streets where we live. You see, Georgetown is still a village, after all.
Now in its 83rd year, the Georgetown House Tour is one of the oldest house tours in the nation. Nine properties will be shown Saturday, April 26. It benefits the social programs of St. John’s Church. The tour will run 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. — along with a Parish Tea in Blake Hall at the church on Saturday between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Ticket prices are $50 or $55. The Patrons’ Party is on April 23 at the Dumbarton Street home of Jeffrey and Elizabeth Powell. Visit GeorgetownHouseTour.com for details, or call 202-338-2287.