Kennedy’s Space Vision

May 24, 2017

JFK made quite an impact on my life, even though he’s the only president of the last 50 years I never met.” So tweeted Buzz Aldrin, the second man to […]

JFK We Knew Him Here

When Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy became President of the United States — by the thinnest of margins — I was a few months removed from high school graduation and weeks […]

Historic D.C.

May 3, 2017

The street grid in the District seems so logical that you’d never guess the mess that ensues every day at rush hour. When Pierre L’Enfant made the city plan in […]

Madame President?

November 8, 2016

It took our nation 240 years to get here, but we finally got a woman candidate for president. In a country where women outnumber men in the adult population 51 […]

Featured Property: 1339 29th Street NW

September 13, 2016

**1339 29th Street NW** Built in 1802 and renovated in 1936, this six-bedroom residence, featuring oak-plank floors and multiple fireplaces with original mantels, was the home of the late Mrs. […]

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