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Georgetown

 
     Though, in my opinion, every Washington DC neighborhood is worthy of admiration, as a history buff Georgetown holds unique appeal for me. So much of DC was built in the 1920s when industrial advances finally allowed an easier crossing of Rock Creek Gorge. Most structures of the original Capitol City, which spread across the accessible flatter lands next to the river, are crumbled to dust under government buildings and, these days, brand new condominiums. It appears to me that the 18th and early 19th centuries leave so oddly few marks in our country’s most important historic city and most are in Georgetown. In fact, M Street east and west of Wisconsin Avenue, where storefront sidewalks are generally as packed as any in Manhattan, is still occupied by many, perhaps most, of DC’s oldest buildings. Remove cars and other modern icons and you find yourself in the year 1900 and without too much dissimilarity to 1800.  
     
     Georgetown prospered as a great tobacco depot 40 years before the 1791 establishment of the Nation’s Capitol. In 1789, textile, paper and flour mills were constructed along the river, flourishing until 1890 when the Potomac flooded and silted over, bankrupting the Canal Company and throwing Georgetown into a period of decline. 200 years later the mills contribute nothing but names to the stark red brick expanse that makes up the once chic but now somewhat dated Flour Mill and Paper Mill condominiums.
With completion of the epic Georgetown Waterfront Park will these minimalist residential behemoths who’s views must cross the ugly, noisy Whitehurst Freeway right next door to get to the Potomac, these condos that originally might have cost more than a million dollars when one million was a lot of money, become chic again or be transformed? Investors take note.  


Planned Waterfront Park

 


South end of Wisconsin Avenue
     

Georgetown Park's indoor garden

       At the northern, more traditional end of this construction, the corner of Wisconsin and M Streets, is the location of my first Georgetown sale about 15 years ago to a former European soccer star turned Chicago real estate investor. Sale or no sale, I’ve always found the building, Georgetown Park, particularly enticing .

     One climbs the wide, elegantly brass-railed staircase to the lobby, above the mall of the same name. The mall was built as an ornate, lushly greeneried, multilevel Victorian folly with 100 high-end boutiques. The condo, once one of DC’s chicest, has had fickle bouts of cache since being built in 1981. The cache is, so sadly and inexplicably I must say, thoroughly lost to the mall, which has instead faded not to mention cheapened thanks to time and crass commercial ownership. Still, the mall’s frosted, domed skylights poke pointed tops into the charming indoor gardens that wind through the condominium’s middle creating a soft nighttime glow that prettily contrasts with tiny white lights twinkling in the trees. The soccer star bought a two bedroom looking out over interior treetops for his three beautiful children, all of whom, he believed with remarkable prescience, would attend Georgetown University. Despite a horribly difficult garage shared with the mall, I consider the condo still very worthy of consideration.

 

     The first houses in Georgetown were stone. The oldest of the few that still exist was built in 1765 and is a short walk from Georgetown Park. “The Old Stone House” sits in front of its small, splendid and very quiet public garden at 3051 M Street, almost invisible amid the street’s commercial chaos. I invariably feel just a little intrusive every time Richard and I take refuge on one of the low stone walls to drink our Starbucks – like crass traitors to History’s grandeur.

     Even the cobblestones now scatter sparsely through the Historic District around 30th and M Streets and down to the small frame houses along the C and O Canal and even smaller, indeed tiny houses clustered near the Potomac’s edge. These “alley” brick houses, which are not much more than ten feet wide and often have half sized kitchens creatively hidden in corners and under staircases, now cost somewhere in the $700,000s depending on the degree of renovation. Originally they were the only option available to working families, hidden behind larger homes or beside stables, mills or factories throughout DC. Even when side by side, alleys could be rigorously segregated. Cecil Place, which rises due north from the Potomac, was white while Cherry Hill Lane, an alley pointing to the east from Cecil’s middle, was black. By 1955, spurred by the Congressional Alley Dwelling Elimination Act of 1934, most had been systematically torn down. I’d guess that more remain in Georgetown than anywhere else in DC … and they’re prettier, with meticulously painted fronts and flower pots. A list of books and articles on the alley communities of “Hidden Washington” can be found in a Library of Congress brochure.

     My second Georgetown sale was a perfect little unrenovated semi-detached early Victorian rowhouse with original, though water-damaged, cabbage rose wallpaper, five fireplaces, an arcane basement kitchen and a tiny garden. It was built during the housing boom that began around 1870 and resulted in most of Georgetown’s brick rowhouses.

Cherry Hill Lane - the present

Cherry Hill Lane? Perhaps.

 

 

 

 

 

     Personally, my favorite Georgetown is up the hill, the part that wraps around, in my opinion, the most beautiful American cemetery. Oak Hill was established in 1849 on 15 “L” shaped acres at the north and east edges of a piece of property called the “Rock of Dumbarton” by W.W. Corcoran, the founder of The Riggs National Bank and Corcoran Gallery. I never fail to be thrilled by the 150 year old gravestones that climb the steep hill as I carefully wind my way through the narrow and sometimes treacherous greenery of Rock Creek Parkway. The cemetery, with its fabulous “Romantic” period structures, provides an idyllic not to mention ideal garden border to the rest of the property, now the neighborhood between R and Q – or Que - Streets.

 

Fall and Spring on Oak Hill

     This Georgetown neighborhood houses a wealth of historic structures. The most majestic, Dumbarton Oaks, Tudor Place, and “Cedar Hill”, more recently christened Dumbarton House predate the cemetery by 50 years. Dumbarton Oaks is, believe it or not, a Harvard University research institute. Tudor Place was built in 1805 by Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Custis Peter and her husband Thomas on a city lot costing $8000.

     Dumbarton House was moved 100 feet in 1915 when the Dumbarton, “Que Street” or “Buffalo” Bridge (because of the buffalo statue at its end) was built over Rock Creek facilitating a fashionable migration into Kalorama and the temporary decline of Georgetown. Ah, to have bought Georgetown property at that time! Now on or near the old “Rock” property, I can find you a lovely detached Victorian on a little under one acre for $10 million, a detached home on a smaller lot for perhaps $5 million, a rowhouse on 1,111 square foot lot (yes, you read right) for just under $2 million or a two bedroom one bath condo in very beautiful Montrose Walk for $600,000. Actually, (again my opinion) Montrose Walk is one of the most beautiful locations in Georgetown. One looks out over Montrose Park and Oak Hill from the front window and over mansion rooftops southward across DC from the back.

     I often wonder why Georgetown seems so much greener than the rest of DC. Thick remnants of forest still grace the hill on the grounds of 100 year old mansions standing tightly shoulder to shoulder and then drop down between the gravestones into the Gorge. This, too, is probably because of the town’s age. Georgetown trees have had a hundred and fifty extra years to mature.

 

Dumbarton House before the 1931 restoration
 

Montrose Walk