The Antiques Addict: The Dirt on Early Garden Tools

May 4, 2016

In the largely agrarian society of colonial America, what we think of as common garden tools were extremely valuable in planting and cultivating the beds and fields that fed whole families. As opposed to modern, mass-produced garden tools, the garden tools of old were custom made and held dear by the families who owned them. People’s livelihoods directly depended on their garden tools.

Until the 16th century, those tools were simple, basic and heavy, having evolved from agricultural implements used for hundreds of years. Colonists built raised, rectangular gardens right outside their homes. These cottage gardens were intensely cultivated and narrow enough to be tended from either side. The beds were filled with plants focused on function — herbs, vegetables, and flowers for dyes and fragrance.

Early New England settlers believed that gardens should be austere and utilitarian, and that flowers with no use were frivolous and extravagant, so each plant was valued for its usefulness, not its beauty. Although a few gardens were larger and better furnished than the others, the typical version was that of a small garden plot planted with leeks, onions, garlic, melons, English gourds, radishes, carrots, and cabbages, next to the humble colonial dwelling.

Urged by a higher spiritual need to remind themselves of all they left behind, 17th-century gardeners began to transplant wildflowers into their gardens. As the colonies became more prosperous in the 18th century, they separated flowers out of the vegetable gardens and into flower beds.

By the 18th century, Williamsburg was the capital of the wealthiest and most populous of the colonies, and the center of cultural life in Virginia. Gentry and artisans alike designed the grounds surrounding their homes as their personal stages on which to present themselves to passersby. Gardens evolved from necessity to expressions of beauty through art and nature, and sometimes as a display of private status. Most houses had a large front garden composed purely of flowers and/or lawn running down a path to their front gate, with the vegetables tucked away out of sight. The garden layout began to resemble the American landscape seen today.

In colonial capitals like Williamsburg and Annapolis, garden plot demarcations were actually required by colonial law to be built around each lot. Gardeners used line reels to demarcate a space within a garden or to set the dimensions of the garden itself. The end of the reel was inserted in the ground, the string on the top portion was pulled until the gardener had unwound sufficient string to mark his or her line on the land.

By the 1850s, more efficient production and transportation made tools more widely available to the masses. With their earthy patinas, organic materials and sculptural shapes, many of the garden tools of yore are popular with today’s collectors. An old, wooden pitchfork leaning in a corner, or a rake repurposed for holding clothes or wine glasses make interesting conversation pieces.

In America, rakes were very expensive and became an important possession of many 18th century families. Early wooden rakes with their warm patina can cost upwards of $150, and those pitchforks with animal antler tines can be priced in the hundreds. Those wooden line reels used to set old fence lines are difficult to find and are priced accordingly, at upward of $400, though more wrought iron models survived and are less expensive. The handy shield-shaped digging spade with a hand hewn wooden handle is a sought-after collector’s item and can be priced in the $150 range.

Dibbers, pencil-shaped tools for making planting holes, were usually made by the gardener himself out of branches of various diameters, depending on the sizes of the holes he needed. Some dibbers were made from old pipes or the salvageable parts of other tools.

Gathering baskets are one of most ubiquitous old implements. Historically, basket makers crafted their products from a variety of dried reeds and with a specific use in mind. There were wide-open baskets for gathering and carrying flowers and vegetables and large sturdy bins for storing root vegetables. Today, old baskets, especially those with original painted surfaces, can carry a price tag that may run into the thousands of dollars. They are especially popular because they can be easily recycled to fill many modern uses and can add a warm decorative touch to a room.

Garden tools have co-evolved with human society and have served mankind well. When you look into the history of some of the most common garden tools we use today — their images and descriptions in advertisements and old catalogs — you find that not much has changed in hundreds of years. What has changed, though, is the value placed on those implements.

Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Virginia. Contact her at

Francis I: the Irony of a Jesuit Pope

July 29, 2015

“I announce to you a great joy,” said the church official. “Habeus papam . . .” We have a pope: the 266th, once known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he is now Pope Francis I.

Francis. A simple name. A holy and humble man, who enthusiastically ministers to the poor. A scientist. A surprising choice, the new pope represents several firsts: the first Francis, first pope from the Americas, first from South America, which has the most Roman Catholics of any continent, first non-European in more than 1,000 years and first Jesuit.

That last first on the list — “Jesuit,” the nickname for a member of the Society of Jesus, a religious order founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, is fraught with irony. Yes, the Jesuits usually are not in official church leadership roles, and, yes, the Jesuits vow onto death absolute obedience to the pope. They are renowned for their schools and missions. They were set up as a group to be soldiers of Christ and to lead the Catholic Counter-Reformation, fighting the spread of Protestantism.

They became very good at what they did — so much so that the pope dissolved the order in 1773, after other nations had already begun to kick them out, accusing them of excessive influence.

The suppression of the Jesuits is a complex tale of national jealousies, betrayal and greed along with confiscated property, banished missionaries and lost souls. The order was restored in 1814 by Pope Pius VII.

Indeed, the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States, Georgetown University, could not formally begin as a Jesuit college in the future Washington, D.C. — but ex-Jesuits, known as “the Christian Brothers of Maryland,” signed the deed. Georgetown University was founded in 1789 by Archbishop John Carroll, ordained in Europe as a Jesuit priest. The Society of Jesus was protected in Russia by Catherine the Great, who did not enforce the papal ban.

Today, the Georgetown campus is justly proud of the new pope, a Jesuit.

“Yesterday was a day of great joy for Georgetown as the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university,” said Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., Vice President for Mission and Ministry of Georgetown University. “In the election of Francis, the cardinals for the first time have given the Church a pope steeped in the Jesuit tradition and with Latin American roots. With this background, Francis will bring a different style or way of proceeding to the office. His name, ‘Francis,’ reminds the Church of a simplicity of life focused on the gospel and on service to the poor, as St. Francis of Assisi was devoted to. St. Francis was also committed to renewing spiritually the church of his time. Hopefully, our Francis will do the same for our Church today.”

“This is an historic moment for our Church and for our community that the first Jesuit and the first cardinal from the Americas has become pope, the leader of our global community of believers,” said John DeGioia, President of Georgetown University. “Our work at Georgetown is informed by the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. This very same tradition played an essential role in the formation of our new pope, and we have seen it expressed in his preference and care for the poor, his vow of poverty, and his ministry as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. We are grateful to share this spiritual affinity with our new pontiff.”

Amid the many commenters on television last night, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile — and teacher at the university — said on CNN that Georgetown students were excited about the selection.

Maybe during a future visit, this pope will stop by Georgetown, seen by some Catholics as too liberal.

The other Jesuit connection in Georgetown is Holy Trinity Church, a block from the university; it is a Jesuit parish. Nearby are the Jesuit prep schools: Gonzaga College High School on North Capitol Street and Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda.

While the new pope appears to have chosen “Francis” for Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and a special saint for Italy, Georgetown history professor, Rev. David Collins, S.J., would like to add two other Francises: St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary who traveled from India to Japan, and St. Francis de Sales, devout bishop of Genoa.

This pope — Jesuitical in his thinking, balancing the practical with the spiritual — has entered a wider world, something Jesuits do well. His cardinals toasted him during the first night of his papacy, according to the Vatican. Pope Francis I wryly responded: “May God forgive you for what you have done.”

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In Memoriam: Revisiting the Wall

July 16, 2015

These balmy days between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July are a good time to visit the war memorials on the National Mall. If you haven’t been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial lately, go back and take another look. At a time in our history when we can appreciate the ambiguity of military involvement, it is as expressive a war memorial as you will find anywhere.

Four years after the fall of Saigon, a group of Vietnam veterans started a drive to raise funds for a memorial. The plan was initiated by Jan Scruggs, an army corporal during the Vietnam war, who was inspired by the film “The Deer Hunter.” Scruggs wanted to honor his dead comrades in what he described as “the most ambiguous venture in America’s military history.” Though the fund drive started at a time when many Americans wanted to forget this chapter of our history, the group managed to raise $9 million and get Congressional approval to build the memorial.

In 1980, Scruggs and his group asked for design bids. More than 1,400 applications were submitted. The guidelines for the memorial were that it be reflective and contemplative and harmonize with its surroundings; contain the names of the 58,000 Americans who were killed or missing in action; and make no political statement about the war. The entries were given numbers so the judges would not be influenced by the names of the designers.

The unanimous choice was No. 1026, a design submitted by Maya Lin, the 20-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants and a student at Yale University.

Lin’s black wall was not well received. There was a public uproar about the memorial being disrespectful and inappropriate. Some of the most prominent people in favor of the memorial withdrew their support when they saw the design, including H. Ross Perot and James Webb. The opposition was so great that — as a supposed remedy — a bronze statue of three soldiers was proposed to stand where the two sections of wall come together. Lin was against this plan, and a compromise was reached in which the statue was placed off to one side, as if the soldiers were observing the wall and the visitors. Later, another statue was added nearby to honor the women who had served.

The controversy surrounding the unusual memorial diminished once people began visiting the three-acre plot of ground, where the shining wall reflects the trees and grass as well as the visitors themselves. When you walk along the wall, you see your reflection imposed over the seemingly unending rows of names; you feel that you are no longer on one side of the wall, but a part of it.

The effect is transformative. Empathy for the loss of the 58,000 soldiers is squarely and vividly brought home. Whether you were for or against the war — or any war — and whether or not there is a name of someone you knew there, the words of Hemingway’s famous novel, and John Donne’s poem, come to mind: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

When Lin originally submitted the design, in response to an assignment at Yale, she received the grade of B. Now the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is ranked 10th on the American Institute of Architects’ “List of America’s Famous Architecture.” It attracts more than three million visitors a year. When she won the award, the young artist explained that the design was a symbol of regeneration. “Take a knife and cut open the earth,” she said, “and with time the grass will heal it.”

Take another look at this very moving memorial the next time you have some free time on a summer afternoon.

Donna Evers is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest womanowned and woman-run real estate firm in the metropolitan area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted fan of Washington-area history. Reach her at

Swampoodle: When Irish Eyes Were Smiling

March 26, 2015

Early immigrants from Europe didn’t settle in Washington, D.C. They went to Northern cities where the jobs and pay were better. In 1850, less than 11 percent of the city was foreign-born, compared with 45 percent in New York.

This was because Washington was still a Southern city, and the availability of slave labor and cheap labor from freed blacks kept pay for laborers comparatively low. But around the time of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland – which resulted in waves of Irish emigration – laws were passed in Washington to keep free black people from settling here and getting jobs. One such law was the requirement of a certificate of freedom that cost $50, a hefty sum at the time, to prove that the free blacks were not runaway slaves. The result was a shortage of cheap labor that drew Irish immigrants fleeing the famine.

The other attraction for the Irish was the strong existing Catholic community, including the leaders of Georgetown University, who were happy to employ the Irish Catholic immigrants whenever they could.

Because the Irish were the subject of prejudice from the majority non-Catholic population, they were inclined to stick together. The area where these impoverished immigrants congregated was the least desirable real estate in town, namely the bleak area around what was then Tiber Creek, where Union Station now stands.

Swampy and full of perpetual puddles, the neighborhood soon earned the nickname “Swampoodle.” The first Irish immigrants to arrive lived in shacks and wood shanties without plumbing or running water. It was a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, and street crime, prostitution and drunkenness were rampant.

Critics of this Irish settlement said the only person who had any power over the population was the parish priest. It was true that the church – first, the original St. Patrick’s on F Street and then St. Aloysius, named after St. Aloysius Gonzaga – were the centers of the community. Gonzaga College High School was founded in 1821 to provide higher education (The Jesuit prep school remains in operation to this day with influential alumni). The parish church operated as the settlement’s civic center, and people banded together to provide food and help for the sick, the aged and the poorest members of the community. One local resident recalled, “If someone got into trouble, there was another potato in the pot and a place to sleep.”

This neighborhood solidarity was demonstrated when the government came to them during the Civil War, wanting to turn St. Aloysius Church into a hospital. Under the leadership of the parish priest, the citizens of Swampoodle mobilized, pitched in and built a 250-bed hospital in only eight days. This seemingly impossible task was accomplished because many of the men who lived there were carpenters and other laborers on construction projects. More importantly, they didn’t want to lose their church.

This old Irish neighborhood began to disappear in 1907, when Union Station was built. It was the biggest train station in the world at that time, and the gigantic site bisected the neighborhood. Tiber Creek was filled in, and more than 300 houses were demolished. The residential area became commercial and all but disappeared. The remnants of the heart of the old community are still there in two beautiful churches, St. Patrick’s at 619 10th St. NW and St. Aloysius at 19 Eye St. NW.

Ironically, much of the train station was built by the same laborers who once called Swampoodle home. To add to the irony, the formerly dissolute area is now the crossroads of several fashionable urban neighborhoods and a very hot real estate market.

Donna Evers is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and -run real estate firm in the Washington metro area, the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va., and a devoted student of Washington-area history. Reach her at [gallery ids="102007,135136,135140,135141,135138" nav="thumbs"]

Mr. Lincoln and the Winter of Our Discontent

January 29, 2015

Abraham Lincoln is such an iconic figure that the present-day public does not see him as his contemporaries did. We see him as a grave, contemplative figure, like Daniel Chester French’s elegant statue, just out of sight past the columns of the Lincoln Memorial.

But the Abraham Lincoln who ran for president in 1860 was around 6-foot-4 at a time when the average American adult male was around 5-foot-8, and his badly tailored suits and tall hats made him look like a scarecrow. On top of that, he had a high raspy voice.

He added the stovetop hat in his debates with the 5-foot-4 Stephen A. Douglas (so he could really tower over him), but the effect was not always in his favor. Although the Lincoln-Douglas debates made Lincoln a prominent figure in Illinois politics, he lost the 1858 U.S. Senate race in Illinois to Douglas. The big argument of the day was if the territories should decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery.

In the fall of 1859, the whole country was up in arms about the question of slavery – specifically, slavery in the territories. In October, John Brown had stormed the armory in Harpers Ferry, Va. (now W. Va.), and the national debate about states’ rights and slavery just got hotter. Invited to speak at Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, Lincoln got the opening he needed to plead his case against the spread of slavery in a national forum when he was invited to speak at Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Then, even better, the venue was changed to the Cooper Union in Manhattan.

Lincoln overcame his ungainly appearance with a brilliant and carefully researched speech, in which he showed how the majority of the founding fathers had voted to prohibit the spread of slavery in the territories. So, he argued, the country, and especially the South, should accept this position.

He became the Republican candidate for president and won the election with only 40 percent of the votes, the three other candidates splitting the rest of the votes among them. He didn’t even have a clear popular majority. But it is hard to imagine what would have happened if one of the other candidates –Breckinridge, Bell or Douglas – had won.

Many in the South believed that England and France could not get by without their cotton, and that one or both of those countries would support the Southern cause. It was a bad bet, because neither country wanted to wage war against the stronger Northern coalition. On the other hand, many in the North thought a war would end quickly, due to the region’s economic superiority. That didn’t happen either; Southerners were fighting to keep a system that they felt they couldn’t survive without.

Lincoln was so sure his Cooper Union speech would get a lot of press that he visited Matthew Brady’s photographic studio beforehand. Brady, a master, was able to retouch (what we would call “Photoshop out”) some of Lincoln’s more unflattering facial features. Lincoln knew that this would make or break his chances for the Republican presidential nomination, especially since he clearly stated his belief that slavery was immoral. He ended the speech on Feb. 27, 1860, his longest ever, with: “Let us have faith that right makes might.”

The speech by the previously little-known politician from Illinois was a daring gamble. He won – and by April the United States was embroiled in a war that would claim more American lives than any other in our history.

Donna Evers is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and -run real estate company in the metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.; and a devoted student of Washington-area history. Reach her at

Through Fire, the U.S. Emerged

August 22, 2014

We are always tourists in our own cities. Everywhere we walk, bike, run, stop and go, every park bench we sit on a summer’s noontime, history beckons us. Often, we’ve stopped and peered through the black fence, watched and stared at the pristine white of the White House. Turn around and you see in Lafayette Square Andrew Jackson waving astride his horse, and around the corner, the U.S. Treasury building, stolid Alexander Hamilton in a starring sculpture role.

Two hundred years ago on a dark night of a hot August 24, the White House, then known as the President’s House, was on fire, as were pretty much all of the federal buildings of Washington. What was then an uncompleted, but nonetheless sumptuous U.S. Capitol housing the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court was torched by a relatively small force of around 800 troops and sailors of His Majesty’s armed forces. Americans who had stayed behind were weeping. The residents of Tudor Place and Dumbarton House in upper Georgetown could see the flames clearly throughout the night and then the smoke the following morning. The U.S. Navy Yard, with ships, war materiel, ammunitions and canisters were also set to flame, this time by Americans trying to prevent the invading British from gaining control of weaponry.

President James Madison had already left the city, lest he be captured, but his wife Dolley, the indomitable hostess with the mostest of her day, was, according to the stories, busy saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from the rapa- cious British. This was without question the lowest point for the fledgling U.S. republic during the course of the War of 1812. The very survival of the nation appeared to be at stake. United States negotiators in the Belgian city of Ghent, who were looking for a peaceful settlement, appeared about to receive onerous terms from their British counterparts.

Yet only a few months later, the climax to the whole war brought different results than one might expect. In the end, the war was a draw, not a victory, although it gave off the flavor of triumph. For the United States, still united, the Treaty of Ghent ended a war that had begun as an outraged and almost foolish declaration against the Mother Country over impressments of American sailors and commerce and trade. But the ending felt triumphant. In the aftermath of the burning of Washington, which we commemorate if not celebrate this month, came the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. It was resisted bravely and witnessed by an American named Francis Scott Key, who was inspired to write a poem which would eventually become our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” It was followed by an American victory at Plattsburgh and the prospect of better hopes. Even as the ink was drying on the treaty, U.S. General Andrew Jackson pulled off a scorching, impressive and devastat- ing victory over British regulars at the Battle of New Orleans, which gave us another hugely popular song by Johnny Horton but also restored American pride and confidence.

In terms of popular culture and national memory, the War of 1812 remains a peculiar, selective historic event, remembered differently by its participants: Canada, Great Britain, the United States, as well as various Native American tribes. For Canadians, who fought off (with the English and Indian tribes) what can only be called an inept and foolhardy invasion by the Americans, it is a rare and celebrated point of military pride. For the British, the war was something of a sideshow compared to the long and difficult war with Napoleon’s France, and was fought in the manner of teaching the breakaway cousins a lesson. For the United States, it became a transforming experience, full of drama and trauma. It was a war bitterly fought in the political arena, with a congress and country, equally divided for and against—westerners and southerners were for it, northerners, especially New Englanders, were against it.

You can practically smell the smoke and brimstone fire and hear the cannonades if you read the recent “Through the Perilous Fight” by Steve Vogel, a veteran Washington journalist on military matters. (He was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Washington Post reporters writing on Afghanistan). The book is a dramatic and evocative telling of six critical weeks of the War of 1812, beginning with events leading up to and surrounding the British invasion and burning of the capitol. There is also “The Burning of Washington, The British Invasion of 1814” (The Naval Institute Press, 1998) by Anthony Pitch, a veteran historian who has also given Smithsonian tours and walks on the subject.

Vogel’s book reminds us of two things: that war and history are always about people, and that however confusing, the issues of this war, which sprawled into Canada, the Great Lakes area, and was fought along and on familiar native rivers, villages, country sides, hills and forests and cities, proved to have far-reaching consequences. Vogel paints graphic pictures of the fighting and destruction, as well as portraits of the characters of its principal protagonists. On the English side are the three commanders, Admiral Alexander Cochran, who harbored an intense hatred against America, the flamboyant and mercurial rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn and the beloved and stoutly brave Irish-born Major General Robert Ross. Among the Americans, we see the Madisons, Mr. and Mrs. in action or inaction; James Monroe, then Secretary of State, in the middle of various military actions; Commander Joshua Barney, arguably the ablest and bravest of American military leaders on the scene; Brigadier General William Winder, who seems often clueless; and Paul Jennings, the young Madison family’s slave and retainer who helped rescue the Washington portrait and witnessed the burning of the White House.

Finally, and most full bodied, there is Georgetowner Francis Scott Key, whose presence touches on so many of the young country’s concerns but who became entirely unforgettable with his penning of a poem that became our national song. He was a father of 11 children, a devoted church goer, (at St. John’s in Georgetown, where he resided on M Street), a husband, a slave owner sympathetic to the plight of slaves, but a legalistic defender of the institution. His brother-in-law and great friend was Chief Justice Roger Taney who authored the Dred Scott Case. He is buried with his wife at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Md., where you can see the Confederate flag flying over the graves of Confederate soldiers. Key was asked to act as a negotiator for the release of an American prisoner and ended up having dinner with the two British admirals and General Ross, who was, a short while later, killed in a battle leading up to the siege of Fort McHenry. Key watched the bombardment, a hellish, non-stop affair, and “by dawn’s early light,” saw our flag was still there.

The poem became a song, became an anthem, became history, the song we sing at each and every sporting event. Can you imagine Francis Scott Key at Woodstock in 1969? But his song was there, played in singular fashion by revolutionary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Washington in flames inflames us still. In some way it’s part of the dust of sidewalks and guided tours and the way we see history. After the war, America changed. It stopped being the creation of the founding fathers with Virginia presidents, and became something else and more, the Republic going westward democratically, making itself large and permanent. Ahead loomed the last challenge to its local validity, the Civil War, the last war to be fought on American soil. All that was burned was rebuilt and the country and city rose out of the ashes to become itself.

Dumbarton House: A History

August 20, 2014

Dumbarton House, located at 2715 Q St., NW, gets its name from landowner Ninian Beall. He named the surrounding land after “Rock of Dumbarton,” a prominent geological feature near Glasgow in his native Scotland in 1703, 48 years before the town of Georgetown was chartered by the Maryland Legislature.

Since Beall was granted the property, it was bought and sold by various owners until a Philadelphia merchant named Samuel Jackson built a large two-story brick home on the property in 1799. Just before the nation’s capital moved from Philadelphia to D.C., Jackson mortgaged the estate.

Five years later, the U.S. acquired the mortgage and sold the land with the brick home at public auction. It was purchased by Joseph Nourse, the first Register of the U.S. Treasury, for $8,581.67 as a home for his family. In 1813, Nourse sold the property to Charles Carroll, cousin of the signer of the Declaration of Independence, who renamed it Bellevue after his former plantation near Hagerstown, Md. On Aug. 24, 1814, after living on the estate for just a year, Carroll was asked by President James Madison to escort first lady Dolley Madison out of the White House to safety as British troops advanced on Washington. Carroll fled with the first lady, along with the wife of the Secretary of the Navy, Eleanor Jones, to Bellevue before meeting the president in Virginia.

In 1815, Carroll vacated his Georgetown home and left it to be occupied by a succession of tenants for decades. Thirteen years before the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America bought the property in 1928, the historic home was moved 100 feet north. It was originally located in the middle of today’s Q Street, but with the construction of the Dumbarton Bridge, continuing Q Street from downtown to Georgetown, it was moved out of the way in 1915 to its present site in order to avoid demolition.

Alterations were made to the property during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by various owners. In order to return the home to the simplicity and style of its original design, the NSCDA spent several years executing restoration projects, beginning in 1931, under the direction of architect Horace Peaslee and renowned architectural historian and museum director Fiske Kimball. Restorations included removing the Georgian quoins and balustrades and expanding the window openings to their original size and altering the roofline. The mantels in the home were not originals and were subsequently replaced by ones reflecting the popular style of the Federal period. Historical and architectural research continues to this day to ensure the highest degree of accuracy in restoring Dumbarton House back to its original Federal character.

In 1932, the property was renamed back to the familiar Dumbarton House and was declared a Federal-period historic house and museum by the NSCDA, which then opened it to the public.

When Dolley Fled to Georgetown… and Beyond

August 7, 2014

The British were coming. Again. On the night of Aug. 24, 1814 — 200 years ago — the Battle of Bladensburg was a rout by British invaders against American soldiers and local militia. First lady Dolley Madison had overseen a victory dinner preparation at the President’s Mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue, expecting about 40 guests, and all was ready for the table. No one arrived but the British.

News came to the popular and politically savvy first lady of the catastrophe for the Americans: their capital city was in direct peril from Gen. Robert Ross and his troops. A carriage arrived at the White House from the owner of Bellevue in Georgetown — later known as Dumbarton House. Charles Carroll was the cousin of signer of the Declaration of Independence Charles Carroll of Carrollton and a close friend of President James Madison and James Monroe. He was also a cousin of Archbishop John Carroll, founder of Georgetown College, the only higher school of learning in the capital in 1814. He convinced Dolley to leave.

You see, as in our time to a lesser extent, everyone knows everyone in Washington — and many were related by family and marriage. With protestors nearby cursing “Mr. Madison’s War,” the carriage pulled away from the White House toward the west and up to the hillside home in Georgetown. Dolley had saved items from the James Hoban-designed building — including the famous portrait of President George Washington.

The White House would soon be set alight by disciplined troops — veterans of the Napoleonic Wars and a few of whom disagreed with what they would do. Still amazing to consider: British soldiers walked through the empty White House, enjoyed the wine and prepared food before setting the fire. They gathered furniture in center spots, broke the windows and threw oil-soaked, rag-wrapped poles through them — and let it roar. Take nothing but leave it a smoldering heap.

Scorch marks remain on the restored building, now so magnificent and such a symbol of power. During a 2012 visit, President Barack Obama said to British Prime Minister David Cameron of foreign troops at the White House in 1814: “They made quite an impression . . . They really lit up the place.” In the fear and confusion of that night 200 years ago, nothing so jocular assured America’s future greatness. Dolley with other families arrived at Dumbarton House, which had been owned by Register of the Treasury Joseph Nourse, whose son married the daughter of Anthony Morris, a lifelong friend of Dolley.

Living in Philadelphia and widowed, Dolley had been intro- duced to the bachelor James Madison by Morris and Aaron Burr. Later, Dolley would attempt to match her son Payne Todd with the delightful Phoebe Morris — who also knew the family at Tudor Place — to no avail. That hot and stormy August night, Dolley did not know where her husband, the President of the uncertain United States, was.

Carroll and other Georgetowners met with British troops to beseech them not to advance past Rock Creek. The troops’ instructions were always only to damage the small amount of gov- ernment buildings the young republic had — because Americans had vandalized the capital of Canada. Georgetown was safe, as it looked at the flames in Washington City. Looking too were Major George Peter of Tudor Place, head of the Georgetown Artillery, and another under his command, Francis Scott Key, whose family house was on Bridge (M) Street. Already the Key children had been taken to Frederick, Md., and wife Polly stayed behind for her beloved Frank, who would still have another mission to perform in this war. All Washingtonians — and soon enough of all America — were ashamed. Shaken but resolute, Dolley, the Carrolls and oth- ers pushed on to Virginia. She stayed two nights around McLean at Rokeby Farm and Salona near what would become — yes, that’s right — Dolley Madison Boulevard. She saw her husband at Wiley’s Tavern near Great Falls and also stopped at Minor Hill in Arlington. Finally, she and the president were back in Washington after four days and later made the Octagon House at 18th Street and New York Avenue, NW, their temporary home.

It was there that Carroll’s eldest son, Henry Carroll, who served as Henry Clay’s private secretary during peace treaty discussions at Ghent, Belgium, arrived to tell the Madisons and their guests that the War of 1812 was over. Applause erupted, and a nightlong celebration began for all. And quite a few had already met one night or another — as many of us do today — at one of Georgetown’s crown jewels, Dumbarton House. The country and city rose out of the ashes to become itself.

Who Are The Colonial Dames?

August 6, 2014

The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America is an association of 44 corporate societies across the United States. Since its inception in 1891, the society has grown to well over 15,000 members who work to ensure the proper restoration and preservation of historic homes and museums. Currently, the soci- ety headquarters is located at Dumbarton House in Georgetown.

The first project the society undertook was the preservation of the Van Cortlandt House Museum, the oldest home in the Bronx in 1896 by the New York chapter. Since then, the NSCDA has acquired 41 unique properties, including Gunston Hall Plantation in Lorton, Va., as well as 13 museum collections in 38 states and the District. The society also works with 30 other historic proper- ties that continue to receive significant financial and volunteer support from the Colonial Dames.

In November 2000, the society received the prestigious Trustee Emeritus Award for Excellence in its stewardship of his- toric sites from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In addition to preserving and restoring historic homes and museums, the NSCDA sponsors several scholarship programs and essay contests for high school and college students interested in patriotic service or pursuing a degree in Native American and American history, political science or education.

For more information on the Colonial Dames click here.

Lafayette, We Are Here!

July 2, 2014

When the U.S. sent its army to defend France in the First World War, General John J. Pershing presided over a Fourth of July ceremony in a private cemetery in Paris at the grave of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette. To honor the memory of the remarkable Frenchman who, 140 years earlier, helped us win the Revolutionary War, Pershing’s spokesman ended his speech by saying, “Lafayette, we are here!”

Lafayette was born into an aristocratic family. When both his parents died, he became the richest orphan in France. As was the custom then, he married when he was only 16. His bride, Adrienne de Noailles, whose family was related to King Louis XVI, was 14. If history hadn’t intervened, the beautiful young couple might simply have stayed on their estate in Auvergne and lived happily ever after. But two revolutions were to change everything, and both suffering and glory lay ahead.

In 1776, Lafayette was at a dinner party when he heard about the Declaration of Independence recently issued by the American colonies. Like many young men of his time, he was much taken with the ideas of “liberty” and the “rights of man.” He described how he felt when he heard of the American uprising: “At the first news of this quarrel, my heart was enlisted.” Even though the king forbade him to go, Lafayette bought a ship and, with Baron de Kalb and a handful of soldiers, sailed for America.

Armed with a letter from the American agent in Paris, Lafayette went to General Washington, expecting to be put in charge of an army. Washington didn’t know quite what to do with the brash 19-year-old who spoke only a few words of English. But when the young man promised to work with no pay and outfit his army, Washington made him a major general. He fought bravely in many battles and spent the hard winter at Valley Forge with Washington.

When the colonials ran out of money, Lafayette sailed back to France and, dressed in an American uniform, begged King Louis to intervene in the war on the side of America. The king found the young nobleman’s argument hard to resist. Since he wanted to see the British lose, he finally agreed. The foreign minister at court declared that it was a good thing Lafayette didn’t ask for the furniture in Versailles, as “His Majesty would be unable to refuse it.” Some historians see this episode as pivotal in the downfall of Louis XVI, the move that led inexorably to the guillotine. In any case, the huge influx of soldiers and money turned the tide and helped the Americans win the revolution.

Lafayette was at the forefront of the French Revolution in 1789, offering his own version of the “rights of man.” However, as the revolution wore on and extremists took over, every aristocrat in the country was being hunted down and sent to the guillotine. Fighting for the French in Austria, Lafayette found out he was about to be arrested and fled. He was captured in Germany and spent the next five years in prison. Meanwhile, Adrienne and her relatives were sent to prison and condemned to death. The American envoy in Paris managed to save Adrienne’s life, but her mother, sister and grandmother were killed.

Adrienne sent their son, George Washington Lafayette, to America to live with his godparents at Mount Vernon. She then took their two daughters and persuaded the authorities to allow the family to live in prison with Lafayette. When Napoleon came to power and Lafayette was finally released, the family returned to France to find that much of their wealth had been confiscated. They managed to get most of it back over the years, but the hardships Adrienne had endured were too much for her and she died at the age of 47.

In 1824, Lafayette made a triumphal return trip to America. He visited each of the then 24 states and was met everywhere with wild enthusiasm and adulation. Congress voted to pay back the $200,000 they owed him for the arms and equipment he had paid for, also giving him land in Louisiana and Florida. In a grand gesture of appreciation, they named the park that stands in front of the White House “Lafayette Park.”

Lafayette returned to France with a plot of soil from Bunker Hill. When he died at the age of 77, his son made sure his father was buried in that soil. Even though Lafayette himself designed the modern French tricolor flag, it is an American flag that flies daily over his grave in a small cemetery in Paris’s 12th arrondissement. It was here, on July 4, 1917, that Pershing’s aide announced that America had arrived to pay a debt. He said, “What we have of blood and treasure are yours,” and ended his speech with a resounding “Nous voila, Lafayette!” French schoolchildren learn that phrase to this day.

Donna Evers,, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned, woman-run real estate firm in the Washington metropolitan area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.; and a devoted student of Washington-area history.