Happy 200th Birthday, Tudor Place

Tudor Place — at 1644 31st Street with its magnificent south lawn rolling down to Q Street — marks its time with artifacts of three American centuries. Here are paintings, clothing, furniture, house, gardens and trees. Yet here is more than a powerful presence of place. Here is a powerful presence of people, who lived lives intimate with American history.

Tied to America’s first first family, Tudor Place continues to attract Georgetowners. From Austin Kiplinger and Bucky Block to Ellen Charles and Marcia Mayo, supporters’ names reflect a who’s who of this town. They come for garden parties, teas, programs or workshops — and to let shine one of Georgetown’s constant stars. But, oh, they most definitely come.

Here, they are reminded of who we were and how we became who we are now. Yes, here is history. It’s personal, and it’s our story, too.

Why is it called Tudor Place? The official answer: “No one knows.”

The source of its name is a rare unknown in the 178-year, six-generation saga of the Georgetown estate, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and opened to the public in 1988.

The honorary matriarch of Tudor Place is a woman who needs no introduction, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, the original first lady (though that term was not yet in use). Upon her death in 1802, Martha Washington left many of her worldly goods — including 90 enslaved blacks — to her granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter, the wife of Thomas Peter, son of Georgetown’s Scottish-born first mayor, Robert Peter.

Having earlier received an $8,000 bequest from Martha Peter’s step-grandfather, George Washington, the Peters had the wherewithal to purchase an eight-and-a-half-acre property in Georgetown Heights, overlooking the Potomac River tobacco docks, in 1805 (Congress first met in the District of Columbia in 1800).

Completed in 1816 to the designs of Dr. William Thornton, first architect of the Capitol, Tudor Place is celebrating its bicentennial this year. One of the #TP200 highlights is a birthday party — with a giant cake from Dog Tag Bakery — from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 2. Admission is $5 (free for veterans and military families) and there will be games, crafts and tours.

The party is “an opportunity for the community to join us in celebrating not only the birthday of the United States but also Tudor Place’s birthday,” says Mark Hudson, who became executive director last October, succeeding Leslie Buhler.

Among the bicentennial events so far: a recreation of George Washington’s Revolutionary War tents at the end of April and a reunion, the first since 2005, of Peter family descendants earlier this month. About 65 showed up, from as far away as Georgia, Texas, California and Alaska.

A book about Tudor Place will be published in collaboration with the White House Historical Society in late September. Then, on Oct. 5, a celebratory dinner on the south lawn will give guests a taste of culinary history. (Perhaps some clues to the menu can be found in the Tudor Place Recipe Booklet, available in the gift shop, which describes how to make “Sausage No. 7, Very Unusual.”)

These bicentennial events are on top of the regular full schedule of activities, from Tudor Tots to Art in the Garden to the annual egg hunt, Mother’s Day tea and garden party, not to mention weddings and other rentals.

The site now occupies five-and-a-half acres, with the garden on the north side and Thornton’s domed “temple portico” facing the sloping south lawn. Southwest of the house stands a magnificent pecan tree, believed to be the tallest in the District, planted well over a century ago by an Irish American servant.

Though Tudor Place boasts the largest number of publicly accessible objects once owned by George and Martha Washington outside of Mount Vernon — notably the general’s camp stool (“actually very comfortable,” says Curator of Collections Grant Quertermous) and the first lady’s punch bowl — its docent-led tours offer an experience unlike those at traditional historic house museums.

“We’re not focusing on a single date or time period,” explains Quertermous, who came to Tudor Place last September from James Madison’s Montpelier, north of Charlottesville, Virginia (and another presidential estate, Monticello). Thanks to the site’s continuous family ownership from 1805 to 1983, “we can use the Peter family and Tudor Place as a lens to look at major events in American history.” Says Hudson: “Our knowledge not only of the objects and the rooms but of the lives of the people is extraordinary.”

At times, touring the house, one encounters two or three centuries at once. The room interpreted as the dining room, for example, with frequently changed tableware, was originally a first-floor bedroom where Martha Peter and Anna Maria Thornton (who kept a detailed diary) could see smoke from the burning of the Capitol in August 1814 during the War of 1812. Speaking of Thornton, Director of Education and Visitor Services Hillary Rothberg points out: “So she’s here in one of her husband’s masterpieces of architecture watching another of his masterpieces burn.”

Upstairs, the bedroom of Caroline Peter, wife of Tudor Place’s last private owner, Armistead Peter 3rd, has a closet filled with Lanvin and Hermes gowns and Dobbs hatboxes. But there are also Civil War objects on view, since it is believed to be the room where Robert E. Lee stayed on his last trip to the District of Columbia, visiting his cousin Brit.

Cousin Brit was Britannia Peter Kennon, the longest-lived owner of Tudor Place, who died in 1911 on the eve of her 96th birthday. A Southern sympathizer, during the Civil War she boarded Union officers at the house; no discussion of the war during meals was permitted. (Her sisters, incidentally, were named Columbia and America.)

Other than the replacement of the 1970s avocado-green kitchen appliances with a replica of a huge dual coal and gas range, the house is largely the way that Armistead Peter 3rd left it when he died in 1983. His memento-filled office, also used by his father, Armistead Peter, Jr., is intact. A veteran of both world wars, an artist and a collector of antiques and porcelain — a fraction of which is displayed in the butler’s pantry — he had long been preparing to convert Tudor Place into a museum.

Buhler, who served for 15 years as executive director of the nonprofit foundation created by Peter, greatly expanded Tudor Place’s public accessibility and programming (the house had only been open by appointment). A plan to preserve the site and collections, also involving some new construction, worked its way through the approval process slowly during her tenure.

The Master Preservation Plan — addressing the house, the collections, the visitor experience and the landscape — is now in the hands of Hudson, his staff and the board of trustees, headed by Thomas E. Crocker, an attorney with Alston & Bird and the author of “Braddock’s March.”

In addition to upgrading the systems — the heating and plumbing are state-of-the-art as of 1914 — and adding exterior lighting, the project comprises new classroom, exhibition and collections-storage space and a visitor center near the gatehouse on 31st Street NW, between Q and R Streets. The storage facility for the museum’s more than 15,000 objects will be underground, an extension to the basement of the garage, where a 1919 Pierce-Arrow 48-B5 Roadster is parked (next to a photo of a Gatsby-esque Armistead Peter 3rd in the driver’s seat). The architectural firm is Hartman-Cox.

Funds — including a supplement to the current endowment, which, at about $10 million, generates roughly a third of Tudor Place’s operating expenses — will be raised through a Third Century Capital Campaign, now in its quiet phase. The project is expected to take at least five years, according to Hudson.

A Midwesterner (born in Kansas, with degrees from the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri) who was previously executive director of the Vermont Historical Society and the Historical Society of Frederick County, Maryland, Hudson brought a tour group from Frederick to Tudor Place when it was “this new museum on the landscape.”

Tudor Place’s aspirations are what attracted him to the position, he says. “It really is an extension of the vision that Armistead Peter 3rd had.”


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