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.

Those Were the Days

January 17, 2014

The party scene in Washington changes with different administrations, and each presidency has a subtle but important influence on its degree of fun or formality. Betty Beale’s memoir, “Power at Play,” leaves the reader with an overwhelming wave of nostalgia for the good old days, because that’s how she portrays the period of four decades surrounding the Truman through Reagan administrations, when she worked as a society columnist for the Washington Star. At the peak of her popularity, Beale’s columns were reprinted in omore than 90 newspapers across the U.S.

Beale’s era ended fewer than 20 years ago, but her stories of Washington society seem long ago and far away. It may have been that people had less money and fewer parties to attend during that time. It may also be that fewer wealthy women worked, and they considered that their job as a hostess was as important as their husband’s job in the upper echelons of the federal government. In any event, Beale chronicled her era with wit and intelligence. She was born into a prominent Washington family, which gave her entrée into society. During her 43-year tenure at the Star, she attended dozens of state dinners and thousands of parties with kings and congressmen, sometimes up to three or four in a single day.

Beale was gracious, but she was also ambitious and spent her party time looking for “newsmakers” to talk to. She also had a well-known “secret” affair with Adlai Stevenson, and the demure way in which she discusses their relationship lets you know just how different that era was. Nevertheless, she was playful and fun. She wrote a column about JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, trying to tell about toddler Caroline Kennedy’s new kitten. The reporters pressed him to know which door the cat used to enter and exit the White House, a not-so-subtle reference to the gossip about JFK’s girlfriends who made clandestine visits via the “back stairs.”

Beale’s favorite presidents were LBJ, Ford and Reagan, whom she said understood the importance of parties and social functions in the lives of power brokers and politicians. She criticized the Carters for not having any idea of how important these social events were to Washington politics and was aghast over the fact that they seated husbands and wives next to each other at state dinners.

She wrote about the women in society who became her friends, including Claire Booth Luce, Marjorie Merriweather Post and Alice Longworth Roosevelt. Her famous male friends ranged from Salvador Dali to Ronald Reagan. She described the latter as “the most likeable president of the nine I have known.”
Betty Beale painted a picture of a time when people appreciated and respected the importance of social camaraderie as a way to communicate and work together successfully and as a way to have fun. Her era spanned four decades and a world of change, but the one thing that she and the parade of politicians and socialites she met had in common was their apparent ability to “live in the moment,” a phrase that may best describe how to have a good time at a party.

Donna Evers,, is the president and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and -run real estate company in the Washington metropolitan area. She is the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va., and a devoted student of Washington-area history.
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Thanksgiving from the Very Beginning

December 6, 2013

The so-called first Thanksgiving occurred in Plymouth Colony, Mass., in 1621. It was a feast held one year after the Pilgrims landed to celebrate their first successful harvest, a three-day joint celebration by the colonists and the resident Native American tribe. They had plenty of reasons to celebrate, including being lucky enough to have survived the perilous Atlantic crossing a year before. Only about half of the people on board the Mayflower actually lived through the ordeal.

The accommodations might have been a large part of the problem. There were 102 passengers and 26 crewmen on board a ship that measured about 25 by 100 feet and was not meant to carry passengers but rather freight. They were on board for two months and hit many dangerous storms, finally landing in Plymouth, instead of their planned destination at the mouth of the Hudson River.

Some of the leaders who emerged from the group—including John Alden and Miles Standish—were crewmen who had been hired by the Pilgrim Separatists to help out on the trip and build houses when they went ashore. And some of the crew had actually crossed the ocean on previous trips exploring the New World. One of them, Stephen Hopkins, who had been shipwrecked on Bermuda during a prior trip, was a neighbor of William Shakespeare. His Bermuda shipwreck is said to have been the basis for “The Tempest.”

These hardy survivors started the tradition we celebrate today, but it took nearly 30 years of campaigning by Sarah Josepha Hale, the first woman to edit an American magazine (and incidentally the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb”), to make it official. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, who had other things to think about, declared the last Thursday in November to be the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

This last-Thursday designation lasted until Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up to the third Thursday in November. The idea was to extend the Christmas shopping period and give businesses and the economy a boost—something merchants can sympathize with this year, given the late Thanksgiving and a mere 26 shopping days until Christmas. But people didn’t like the earlier date and nicknamed it “Franksgiving.” In 1941, therefore, Roosevelt signed a bill declaring that the holiday would fall on the fourth Thursday in November.

Though we think of the fearless Pilgrims as the creators of the first Thanksgiving, theirs was but a one-time celebration. The more important fact is that 53 persons survived such a tough journey across the ocean to start the great adventure in the New World, a circumstance for which we will always be thankful.

Donna Evers,, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and -run real estate company in the Washington Metro area.

The National Cathedral: Echoes of the Middle Ages

November 7, 2013

When Pierre l’Enfant drew his plan for the City of Washington, it included a “national church,” which he thought should be built on the site where the National Portrait Gallery now sits. It wasn’t until 100 years later that Congress approved a plan for the Episcopal Cathedral Foundation to proceed with fundraising and then construction, which began in 1907, to the national church that was formally named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. They chose a high point in the city, Mount St. Albans, and even though the cathedral is the third highest structure in Washington at 301 feet, its position on a hill 400 feet above sea level makes it tower over all other structures in the city.

The National Cathedral is reputed to be the sixth largest cathedral in the world. In the U.S., it is second only in size to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Like the great cathedrals of Europe, it took a long time to build: in this case, some 83 years. And, like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, flaws were purposely built into the construction, some say as an admission on the part of the builders that only God could be perfect, a kind of mea culpa for the vanity of such a creation. Yet these intentional flaws actually served to make up for visual distortions, a device that even the builders of the great pyramids of Egypt employed. For example, the main aisle of the cathedral where it meets the cross section is tilted slightly off its axis to make up for the visual distortion that would occur if when one were to stand in the middle of the aisle and look down the long expanse. In further reference to the great medieval builders, the architects of the National Cathedral included crypt chapels in the Norman, Romanesque and Transitional style, a mixture that also occurred in the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe where construction took so long that many changing style elements were blended in the same cathedral.

When we think of these mixed styles, is natural to think of the two very different towers on the great cathedral of Chartres in France. However, that particular cathedral that we see on the site was built quickly, as medieval cathedrals go. The reason for the two different towers is because one of the original matching 12th century towers was struck by lightening some four centuries after it was built. When it was replaced, the ornate Flamboyant gothic style was all the rage, and so the new tower was very different from the other simpler Romanesque tower. Like Chartres, the great permanence that the National Cathedral represents was tried in a similar way, when the 5.8-magnitude earthquake of 2011 shook the building and caused damage that will take many years and some 26 million dollars to repair.

Medieval cathedrals were compendiums of the civilization they represented, and much like Chartres, the National Cathedral is full of symbolism, both religious and artistic. Its decorations, architecture and its 200 stained glass windows can be “read” like a book. Students of Western culture will do well to add the National Cathedral to their list of art museums, as one more great place in our city to visit and learn.

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

50 Years On: Jack & Jackie In Our Lives

October 10, 2013

Those of us who were alive on that day all remember where we were and how we felt when we got the news that day. Oh, G od. We may not remember exactly all of the details, who was with us, and exactly what we were doing or what we said, or even remember entirely the person who we were.

It was, after all, 50 years ago on November 22, 1963, in Dallas that President John F. Kennedy was shot by a lone assassin named Lee Harvey Oswald, while riding in a motorcade with his wife and John Connolly, the Governor of Texas, and his wife. That was half a century ago, the better part of a life ago, if you remember then and when. Time stopped for Americans that day, and, headed one way into history, diverged on another road. We lost a 46-year-old president who was admired probably beyond reason by millions, because, like another leader whose soaring rhetoric on the National Mall that summer roared all the way to the White House, he had the ability to inspire us to dream. He too, died at an assassin’s hand.

Beyond all that and anything else, the great loss that this country—beyond the whole Kennedy saga, the historical facts of the matter—the greatest loss we suffered as Americans was the source of inspiration, that voice and source of energy, action and vision. What we were left with was an ongoing drama, a legend, the remnants of a family that would continue to engage us and fascinate us even now and especially now.

A 50th anniversary of an event, even one as shocking and tragic as the assassination of a president, amounts to a resurrection, the old story told anew, and remembered by those who can remember it and we tell these stories, these days, through personal memory, through photographs, through musty old newspaper headlines, books and words, videos and flickering images from that day and the mournful afterward days, as well as through mediums and methods that did not exist when John F. Kennedy lived and died.

We prepare to remember that day—which resonates in especially poignant fashion in Georgetown—here, as we always do with speeches, talks, symposiums, the marketing of the cottage industry that is Kennedy books, Kennedy stories, Kennedy histories, Kennedy memorabilia. Fifty years is a long time, but our fascination with the life and death of JFK at this time is not a matter grief or of not getting over it. I suspect the need to remember is spurred not by grief and sorrow, but by history—our own, and that of the day it happened.

We mourn the passing of the president, to be sure, and the flickering of that flame in Arlington Cemetery, which we cannot today visit because of this miasma of the government shutdown, but we also with resignation recognized all that has happened since, the change train that’s rushed through and altered us all as persons and citizens.

John F. Kennedy is, of course, remembered vividly here in Georgeotown by surviving Georgetowners,, he lived and breathed, rented and courted and fathered and familied among us, sometimes looking impossibly young and dashing, like a vision of a long (and then lost) future. He lived in an apartment at 1528 31st Street as a bachelor congressman from Massachusetts, then lived for a time with his sister Eunice a few blocks down the street. After winning his senate seat in 1952, he moved into an apartment at 3260 N St., NW, for two years. He was living at 3271 P St., NW, when he proposed to Jackie, whom he had met at a friend’s house in Georgetown. The couple’s first house was at 3321 Dent Place, NW, where they lived in 1954. They moved to 2808 P St., NW, in 1957 and then to 3307 N St., NW, the couple’s last residence in Georgetown. He was still a Georgetowner when he ran for president, and his son John Jr. was born at Georgetown University Hospital.

Looked at through the prism of his residential moves in Georgetown, it’s fair to say that Kennedy lived his manly youth here, in the kind of perpetual tree-shaded sunlight so characteristic of Georgetown. He lived among his peers, his family, within sight and sound of the spires—buildings and academic intellect—of Georgetown University, of Holy Trinty Church, as part of a high-powered community full of men and women of achievement, wealth and style. The Georgetowner was here too, chronicling much of the comings and goings under founder and owner Ami Stewart.

Georgetown was different then, we are generations removed from the Kennedys in Georgetown, and most of those high-profile leaders are long gone, along with many members—the brothers, daughters and sons, grandparent, Robert and Ted, John John and Rose and Joe—of the Kennedy family.

We wrote often about the Kennedys, and in the aftermath of the assassination we tried to capture the changing, and elusive legend, watched it change over time. It became something of a tradition and part of our November journalistic life.

But now, because half a century is 50 years and a large part of a life, it is time to reflect in more detail. We have a wealth of tools to look back with—books and histories too numerous to count from those rushed and labored over in the immediate aftermath— Arthur Schlesinger’s “A Thousand Days,” and William Manchester’s still readable account of “The Death of a President” spring immediately to mind—and books of photographs and exhibitions, and films—“Parkland” a new film that recounts the assassination day is out now, but there’s always the rabbit hole of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” a conspiracy movie to end all conspiracy movies—and memories and life and times. We had our friend Pierre Salinger, JFK’s much put-upon press secretary writing for us in the late 1990s until 2002.

For now, though here in Washington, D.C., where JFK’s funeral and memorialization and institutionalization of Camelot are vivid memories, we can remember at the Newseum, which will be holding a JFK Remembrance Day Nov. 22. The Newseum is showing numerous films, and holding numerous activities, including two ongoing exhibitions. There’s “Three Shots Were Fired,” a rich and detailed exhibition full of artifacts—including among many the Bell & Howell 8 mm movie camera, used by Abraham Zapruder which captured the killing.

“Creating Camelot” is an exhibition of “The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe,” with photographs of images of the Kennedys and their children, Caroline and John. Lowe was the family’s personal photographer.

You can find a more wide-ranging view in “Capturing Camelot,” a book of photographs by the late Look Magazine photographer Stanley Tretick, with moving text by Georgetowner and best-selling author Kitty Kelley and photographs by Tetrick of the Kennedys that appear as startling and fresh as the sounds you might have heard at a Kennedy family breakfast or touch football game.

No doubt there will be an onslaught of memories, of pictures and musings about that day. I remember myself then, sort of, a young private first class in the United States Army in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, sitting in a group of chairs around a black-and-white television set that day, and later on a Sunday, watching Lee Harvey Oswald murdered by Jack Ruby. We had never seen or felt or experienced anything remotely like that and we wept, and then were stunned into silence and later, the salute, the widow, the old Frenchman, President Charles de Gaulle, the thunder and drums and the coffin and the horse.

He still inspires us today, I think, and seems in pictures, still very alive. But it was 50 years ago. The history—the kind that tortures us madly today in our daily lives amid a government shutdown and the kind that happened then—lives on and perhaps it will echo stronger in times notable for the absence of reasonable, pragmatic and inspiring men. [gallery ids="101486,152003" nav="thumbs"]