Georgetown's genteel Tudor Place celebrates 200 years

Tudor Place, the ancestral home of the Peter family, sits proudly on the heights above Georgetown, at 31st Street, just north of Q Street. One of the city's oldest residences, it is currently celebrating its 200th anniversary, a fitting moment to look back over the history of this unique homestead. More than just a late Federal-style architectural gem, the house and its elegant gardens reflect one man's determination to preserve the legacy of his extraordinary family for future generations.

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).
The young couple had previously lived in a townhouse on K Street just east of Rock Creek, where they had hosted George Washington on the last night that he stayed in Washington before his death in 1799. (Sadly, the historic Peter townhouse was torn down in 1961 so that K Street could be widened into a highway.) Once Martha Peter had secured her substantial inheritance from George Washington, the couple purchased the Lowndes property and began planning a great estate house to compete with the likes of Mount Vernon and Arlington House. They asked their good friend, Dr. William Thornton (1759-1828), the original architect of the U.S. Capitol, to design a large structure to connect and unify the two small existing buildings.

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).
The resulting mansion, widely considered to be Thornton's masterpiece, is as stylish and eccentric as it is majestic and imposing. Embracing the fashionable Federal style of the early 1800s, Thornton eschewed the stodgy brick look of earlier Georgian mansions, opting for a stuccoed exterior that from a distance looks like limestone. He focused his energies on the house's sunlit south façade rather than the north side, which he left a rather blank-looking surface ("plain as a pikestaff," as one of Mr. Peter's descendants called it), despite the fact that the main entrance is on the north. In sharp contrast, the south façade's immense first-floor windows bathe the house's entertainment rooms in light. In the early 1800s they must have offered impressive views of Georgetown and the Potomac. An old family legend has it that Martha Peter and her dear friend Anna Thornton, the wife of the architect, watched from a window in the west hyphen (the section between the west wing and the central building) as Washington's most prominent buildings burned in August 1814 at the hands of British invaders. Though it is unlikely they could see much if they had watched from this window, Anna Thornton did seek refuge with Martha at Tudor Place during the British attack.

Photo of the saloon by Jack E. Boucher (Source: Library of Congress).
Once the house was finished, it offered an unparalleled setting for entertainment. The centerpiece was the stately temple portico, a circular columned pavilion set halfway into the south façade, adding neoclassical elegance and light as well as a geometric playfulness to the design. The portico opens out from a formal reception room, known as a saloon, with a drawing room and parlor adjoining on either side. One imagines many distinguished Federalist guests being entertained in these handsome rooms.

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).
As one might imagine, enslaved African Americans were a part of Tudor Place’s story from the beginning, performing much of the hard labor of cooking, cleaning, and tending the grounds that were critical to sustaining the grand estate. The current Tudor Place Foundation has been working to bring the stories of these previously forgotten individuals back to life. Research conducted by historian Mary Beth Corrigan identifies dozens of slaves inherited by Martha Peter in the early 19th century. Many were sold and likely ended up on plantations in the deep South. A number of those that remained served the Peter family faithfully for years and were referred to affectionately in family correspondence.

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 soldiered on, caring for her daughter, Martha "Markie" Custis Kennon, and for the grand Tudor Place estate she inherited in 1854. She was a first cousin of Mary Custis, of Arlington House, and had served as a bridesmaid for Mary Custis' wedding to a dashing young Army officer, Lt. Robert E. Lee, in 1831. Her family ties to the South portended trouble as the Civil War neared. Financial difficulties had led her in the late 1850s to briefly rent out Tudor Place to a Southern congressman. After the outbreak of hostilities, Britannia's tenant fled south, and Britannia feared that Tudor Place would be seized by the Union Army for use as a temporary hospital, as other large buildings had been. Tensions were high in Georgetown and Washington, two border towns with divided loyalties that retained deep ties to the South. Britannia responded by hurrying home to reclaim possession of her mansion. She maintained the peace and earned some needed income by offering lodging for several Union officers, with the stipulation that they didn't discuss the war in her presence.

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).
Despite continuing financial straits, which may have contributed to her decision to sell off some of her land at one point to fund house repairs, Britannia managed to preserve the grand house and its historic furnishings into the 20th century. She became a well-known fixture in Georgetown, graciously allowing a stream of curious visitors to inspect her unparalleled collection of George Washington memorabilia.

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).
But it was Armistead Peter's son, Armistead Peter 3rd (1896-1983), who was ultimately responsible for Tudor Place being preserved as a house museum. Armistead devoted much of his life to researching and preserving his beloved homestead, which had "seen the pageant of American history," as he put it. Eager to restore both the building and its grounds, in 1933 he re-planted the formal box knot garden on the north side of the mansion based on an early 1800s drawing he discovered that depicted its original geometric design laid out by Thomas and Martha Custis Peter. With his wife Caroline, Armistead established a foundation in 1962 to manage and preserve the estate in perpetuity, and he granted an historic easement to the federal government in 1966 to ensure it would never be redeveloped. In 1969, he wrote a definitive history of the house that details, room by room, all that he knew about its appearance and construction.

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).
As it celebrates its 200th anniversary, Tudor Place has planned several special events, including one upcoming on April 30 where visitors can tour a reproduction of George Washington's headquarters tent from the Revolutionary War. While its mission undoubtedly is broader now than what Armistead Peter 3rd envisioned, Tudor Place continues to offer visitors unique and powerful ways to connect with the rich history of the Peter family, Georgetown, and the nation.

* * * * *

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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