Georgetown's genteel Tudor Place celebrates 200 years
|Photo by the author.|
Around the beginning of the 19th century, developers and wealthy landowners began building several "great houses" on the high ridge above the port of Georgetown. The ridge was a perfect spot, removed as it was from the busy waterfront and offering commanding views of the river and the new capital city emerging just to the east. The land had originally been part of a 795-acre patent given to Col. Ninian Beall (1625-1717) in 1703. Among the great country estates that would be built on this ridge, four remain, including the elegant Dumbarton House (c. 1799), which we previously profiled; the unrelated Dumbarton Oaks (c. 1800), now a sprawling research and museum complex owned by Harvard University; Evermay (1801), the estate of an eccentric merchant named Samuel Davidson (1747-1810); and Tudor Place, which wasn't finished until 1816.
Georgetown shipping merchant Francis Lowndes had started work on a house on the Tudor Place site in about 1795, but by the time he sold the property in 1805 he had built only two small structures, which were likely intended to be the final building's east and west wings. The new owners, Thomas Peter (1769-1834) and his wife Martha Custis Peter (1777-1854), had strong ties to Georgetown and George Washington. Thomas Peter was the son of Robert Peter, Georgetown's first mayor and a prosperous landholder. Martha was one of Martha Washington's granddaughters.
|Martha Custis is portrayed at age seven in this portrait by English painter Robert Edge Pine (photo courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon).|
|A preliminary design for Tudor Place by William Thornton (source: Library of Congress).|
|The temple portico on the south side of Tudor Place (photo by the author).|
|The house's north façade and main entrance (photo by the author).|
|Photo of the saloon by Jack E. Boucher (Source: Library of Congress).|
One of the high points in Tudor Place's early history was the visit by the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) as part of the Revolutionary War hero's celebrated tour of the United States in 1824. The elderly Lafayette was welcomed as an old family friend; he recalled seeing Martha Peter as a child at Mount Vernon decades earlier. Meanwhile, Captain William G. Williams (1801-1846), a U.S. Army officer accompanying Lafayette, was smitten with one of the Peters' daughters, America. The two would later marry.
|Hannah Pope was born enslaved at Tudor Place in 1828 and sold in 1845 so she could marry Alfred Pope, who was owned by another Georgetown businessmen. The couple were freed in the early 1850s (photo courtesy of Tudor Place).|
The Peters had three daughters, Columbia (1797-1820), America (1803-1842), and Britannia (1815-1911). It was the remarkable Britannia Wellington Peter who inherited Tudor Place upon the death of her mother and who saw the mansion through the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th. Like her sister America, who had just passed away, Britannia in December 1842 married a distinguished Navy officer, Commodore Beverley Kennon. Kennon was 22 years her senior and had recently lost his first wife. Sadly, Britannia would have less than two years to spend with him. As chief of the Navy's Bureau of Construction and Equipment, Kennon was on board the formidable warship U.S.S. Princeton in June 1844 when it was showing off its massive new "Peacemaker" cannon for dignitaries on the Potomac River. The poorly designed gun exploded on its second firing, killing Kennon and at least five others and leaving the 29-year-old Britannia a widow with a limited income and a small child to raise.
|Drawing of the 1844 explosion aboard the Princeton (source: Library of Congress).|
|Britannia and Markie Kennon (photo courtesy of Tudor Place).|
One day In 1862 Britannia was standing at the gate of her property when a young African American man happened along and asked if she needed help. Reportedly, she liked his looks and hired him on the spot, gaining a faithful gardener who would work at Tudor Place for the next 44 years. The man was John Luckett (1841-1906), and he had been born a slave in Virginia. The Union Army had taken him and other former slaves from their previous owners and conscripted them into service, but Luckett escaped and found his way to Georgetown. He eventually settled on Capitol Hill and walked to work at Tudor Place every day.
|John Luckett (photo courtesy of Tudor Place).|
In 1867, Britannia's daughter, Markie, married a cousin, Dr. Armistead Peter (1840-1902), thus bringing the Peter family name back to the estate. In 1914, their son, Armistead Peter, Jr. (1870-1960), undertook a thorough renovation and modernization of the mansion, improving plumbing, electricity, and telephone service but keeping the essential character of the estate unchanged. Elements of the 1914 restoration can still be seen in the fixtures of the house's kitchen and bathrooms.
|Armistead Peter 3rd and wife Caroline on their wedding day in 1919 (photo courtesy of Tudor Place).|
In a 1980 interview with The Washington Star, Armistead regretted that it would not be economically feasible for his daughter to maintain the estate as her residence. Tudor Place was the only Federal-era "great house" in Washington that had survived to that point under the ownership of a single family, and Armistead wanted above all that it remain a home—a commemoration of the the family that lived in it—rather than a conventional museum of styles and artifacts from the past. To that end, he carefully specified how the grounds and each room should appear, retaining as much as possible the distinctive imprint of the Peter family.
In 1988, Tudor Place opened to the public as a museum, having undergone five years of conservation after Armistead's death. Since that time, a number of intensive restoration and research projects have been undertaken. Recent examples include re-stuccoing of the house's exterior in 2007, restoration of the exquisite curly maple pocket doors adjoining the saloon in 2010, and replacement of the temple portico's roof by Wagner Roofing in 2012.
|Replacement of the Temple Portico roof in 2012 (photo courtesy of Tudor Place).|
|Restoration of pocket doors adjacent to the Saloon in 2010 (photo courtesy of Tudor Place).|
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I am indebted to Leslie Buhler, former Director of Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, for showing me the house and answering my many questions. I also received invaluable assistance from Mandy Katz, Communications Director, and Frances White. Additional sources included James Goode, Capital Houses: Historic Residences of Washington D.C. and Its Environs, 1735-1965 (2015); Jan Cigliano, Private Washington: Residences in the Nation's Capital (1998); Mary Beth Corrigan, "Enslaved and Free African-Americans in Early Nineteenth Century Georgetown" (2013); Deering Davis, Stephen Dorsey, and Ralph Hall, Georgetown Houses of the Federal Period (1944); Harold Eberlein and Cortlandt Hubbard, Historic Houses of George-town & Washington City (1958); Grace Dunlop Ecker, A Portrait of Old George Town (1951); Cordelia Jackson, "Tudor Place" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 25 (1923); Hope Ridings Miller, Great Houses of Washington, D.C. (1969); G. Martin Moeller, Jr., AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. (2012); Derry Moore and Henry Mitchell, Washington: Houses of the Capital (1982); Mary Mitchell, Divided Town (1968); Canden Schwantes, Wicked Georgetown: Scoundrels, Sinners and Spies (2013); Pamela Scott & Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); Armistead Peter III, Tudor Place (1969); George Alfred Townsend, Washington, Outside and Inside (1874); Tudor Place Foundation, Tudor Place Historic House and Garden (2005); Chuck Wagner and Sheila Wagner, Preserving Washington History: 100 Years of Wagner Artistry (2014); Kerry Walters, Explosion on the Potomac (2013); The National Register of Historic Places nomination (1971) and Historic American Buildings Survey documentation (1999) for Tudor Place; as well as numerous newspaper articles.
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