Georgetown will be the place to be on Saturday, April 29.
The 86th annual Georgetown House Tour will take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition to the eight houses on the tour (see sidebar), this year’s guide also covers 10 homes and favorite Georgetown hangouts of Jackie and former President John F. Kennedy, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated this year.
Between 2 and 5 p.m., tour ticketholders can take tea at historic St John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown, 3240 O St. NW, headquarters for the event. And between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., Georgetown’s annual French Market sidewalk sale will be welcoming spring, in and around the Wisconsin Avenue shops sloping down from the library, high atop Book Hill.
All this takes place in a walkable quadrant from N Street to Reservoir Road and from 28th Street to 35th Street.
Thought to be the nation’s oldest such event, the Georgetown House Tour and Tea was founded in 1931. The histories of the properties on this year’s tour — extending back to the 19th century or earlier — are told in the guidebook that comes with the purchase of a tour ticket.
“We have on our staff of volunteers an avid historian who researches each home’s history, not only in Georgetown’s specialized collection at the library on R Street, but also in District archives and even the Library of Congress,” said Jill Altman, co-chair of this year’s house tour with her husband, astronaut Scott Altman.
But the houses on the tour are also lived-in homes that have evolved over their many decades of ownership and residency. Every one of the historic homes has been remodeled, restructured, retouched, redesigned and redecorated. Part of the fascination of visiting them is to see how they’ve been adapted to modern lives.
“Usually the restructuring is done to the back and garden sides of the homes, since ever-stricter building and preservation regulations prevent touching the front of any building that usually opens directly onto the sidewalk. The changes then are unseen until you get into the house. And then they can be astounding,” said Georgetown architect Christian Zapatka.
Zapatka is one of a growing core of longtime Georgetown residents who are creating new Georgetown legacies (as well as their professional fame and fortune) by modernizing Georgetown’s historic homes. “The favorite remake is to open up a back room with windows and glass doors and to be able to step out directly into the garden,” he said.
A typical renovation to be seen on the tour will be a large, top-of-the-line “sun-drenched” kitchen, like the one added in 2016 to House No. 5 by architect Outerbridge Horsey. Another home on the tour features a new two-story glass atrium by Davd Jones. In 2015, Zapatka actually removed an old structure at the back of one tour house to make room for a new two-story-plus-basement addition. The staircase in the original house was opened up with wood and glass railings, leading to three levels of new living space.
In another house, owned for more than 100 years by one family, outlines of an old sleeping porch and side porch led to the creation of a new powder room, entrance and game room. Architect Dale Overmyer redesigned one tour house with new flooring and garden retaining walls, “thrilling the current owners because now their children can finally have a dog,” he said.
It takes hundreds of volunteers to organize and run the annual house tour. The co-chairs usually serve for two years in a row. “It’s a lot easier the second time,” laughed Jill Altman as she sipped a cappuccino at the George Town Club. “The most challenging phase is to get the houses. Sometimes promised hosts have had to drop out. This year, however, when one house hostess suddenly withdrew, on that very day another called to volunteer her home.”
It’s then a matter of getting the sponsors, researching the histories of the homes and organizing the docents, the tea hostesses and the ticket distribution. And also finding a big enough house and willing hostess for the Patrons Party — a tradition invented by decades-long organizer Frida Burling, who died in 2016.
This year’s Patrons Party, on April 26, will be hosted at the former home of Ambassador David K.E. Bruce and Evangeline Bruce by current owner Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, who bought the 11,000-square-foot property near Georgetown University in 2016.
The Georgetown House Tour has grown over the years and is a significant fundraiser for St. John’s Church’s many charities. Those include the Georgetown Senior Center and Saturday Suppers, where parishioners cook for, serve and dine with needy District residents. Last year, $40,000 was given to its Bright Beginnings project.
“Over 50 percent of our church members are active, hands-on volunteers in our dozens of programs,” said the Rev. Gini Gerbasi, who has been rector for the past three years. “Our church not only gives money but we give to the community our building and our members.”