Georgetown Historic District-Washington DC


Georgetown Historic District
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

Georgetown was formally established in 1751 when the Maryland Assembly authorized a town on the Potomac River on 60 acres of land belonging to George Beall and George Gordon. George Town was named in honor of King George II and soon flourished as a shipping center. Tobacco was the lifeblood of the community, and Georgetown soon prospered as a shipping center with a profitable European and West Indian trade. Commerce and industry developed along the waterfront, where wharves and flourmills were constructed. During the Revolution, Georgetown served as a great depot for the collection and shipment of military supplies. When the town was finally incorporated in 1789, a textile mill, paper factory and more flourmills were established. Georgetown’s character was profoundly affected by the establishment of the nation’s capital to the east in 1791. Although it was included in the new Federal District, it retained its own character.

Georgetown rapidly gained a reputation as the fashionable quarter of the capital and drew eminent visitors from this country and others. Congress incorporated Georgetown as part of Washington City in 1871. After the Civil War, large numbers of freed slaves migrated to Georgetown. The African American community flourished, becoming increasingly self-reliant. In the 1880s the waterfront prospered. But in the 1890s the C & O Canal was severely damaged by a Potomac River flood, and the Canal Company was bankrupted. The area went into an economic decline and in the period after World War I, Georgetown gained a reputation as one of Washington’s worst slums; its homes were neglected and the area deteriorated badly. This trend began to reverse itself in the 1930s with the New Deal and reached a high point when Senator John F. Kennedy resided in the neighborhood in the 1950s.

Although there are some pre-Revolutionary buildings in the district, most of the housing stock dates from the period after 1800. The Old Stone House NR at 3051 M Street is the oldest intact house. It was built in 1765 for Christopher Lehman. It is owned by the National Park Service and is open to the public. Most of Georgetown is occupied by residential areas whose regular streets and rowhouses set the tone for the entire neighborhood. A variety of styles illustrate the national trend of architectural development from Georgian mansions and town houses through early Federal and Classical Revival houses to the ornate structures of the ante and post-bellum periods. The majority of the building stock was constructed after 1870 and is characterized by rowhouse construction popular in the late Victorian era. The commercial corridors of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street as well as the waterfront areas are characterized by development from every era. The City Tavern NR at 3206 M Street was built in 1796.

The Forrest-Marbury House NR at 3350 M Street is a large Federal townhouse built by Col. Uriah Forrest c. 1788-90. Here Forrest hosted the dinner closing the deal for the purchase of the land for the Federal City. The Thomas Sim Lee Corner at 3001-3009 M Street, 1789-1810, consists of early Federal shops with dwellings above. The Dodge Warehouses at 1000-1008 Wisconsin Avenue and 3205 K Street are Federal-era warehouses on the waterfront and date from 1813-1824.

In the Federal period, brick replaced stone in construction of both residential and commercial buildings. The mansions of wealthy shipowners, merchants and land speculators were built above the harbor on Prospect and N Streets. Hotels, taverns, banks and other commercial buildings were constructed along M Street and in the waterfront area. Speculative housing appeared, including the notable Federal row at 3337-3339 N Street built c.1815 by John Cox and the row at 3255-3267 N Street built c.1812 by Walter and Clement Smith. St. John’s Church at 3420 O Street designed by William Thorton was completed in 1809.

Georgetown Historic District
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

On the heights above the town, the squares remained intact and undivided. Bellevue NR was renamed Dumbarton House when it was acquired by the Colonial Dames of America. It was built c.1800 and located at 2715 Q Street. Evermay NR 1623 28th Street was built by Samuel Davidson c.1801. William Hammond Dorsey built the house at 3101 R Street now known as Dumbarton Oaks c.1801. The house and gardens are open to the public at special hours. Tudor Place NR at 1644 31st Street built between 1805-1816, was designed by William Thorton, original architect of the US Capitol. It is maintained as a house museum and is open to the public by appointment.

In 1848, Oak Hill Cemetery was laid out by George de la Roche in the fashionable picturesque manner. The Chapel and probably the gates were designed by James Renwick in 1850. The Van Ness Mausoleum NR was built in 1833 by George Hadfield and moved to the cemetery in 1872. The Mount Zion Cemetery (Female Union Band Society) NR is located at 27th and O Streets. The graveyard was established in 1842 by the Female Union Band Society, a benevolent association which provided burial for free blacks. The Mount Zion United Methodist Church NR at 1334 29th Street is the home of one of the oldest African American congregations in the city.

The Custom House and Post Office NR was built in 1857-8 at 1221 31st Street to handle increased shipping from the canal. It was designed by Ammi B. Young. The Georgetown Market NR at 3276 M Street is a public market on a site used as a market since 1795. The present market was built in 1865. It still serves as a food store and is open to the public. The Vigilant Fire House NR is the city’s oldest extant firehouse and was built for the Vigilant Fire Company established in 1817 and in operation till 1883. The present building was built in 1844. There are approximately 58 houses listed in the DC Inventory as individual Georgetown landmarks that are of Federal City/Pre-Civil War importance. Listed below are the names of those that are also listed in the National Register: the Walker House at 2806 N St.; the Haw House at 2808 N St.; Beall House at 3017 N St.; Halcyon House at 3400 Prospect St; Quality Hill at 3425 Prospect St; Prospect House at 3508 Prospect St.

After the Civil War, the brick rowhouse made its appearance in Georgetown. The brick rowhouses of the 1870s and 1880s exhibited elaborate bracketed cornices and then corbelled cornices in the 1880s and 1890s. It is the Queen Anne rowhouse that found the greatest favor with Washington builders and was also used frequently in commercial architecture. Residential architecture of the 1890s took the form of a rowhouse in a minimalist late Victorian, late Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles and various combinations. Overall, Georgetown’s population continued to climb, as reflected in its construction of public schools. The Phillips School built in 1890 at 27th and N Streets was one of several schools constructed to serve the African American community.

The Volta Laboratory and Bureau (Alexander Bell Laboratory) at 3414 Volta Place was a brick carriage house adapted by Alexander Graham Bell in 1885 and used until 1922 as his laboratory. The Volta Bureau NHL, built in 1893 by Peabody and Sterns, is at 3417 Volta Place.

Several examples of Renaissance Revival and Colonial Revival can be found from the early decades of the 20th century in Georgetown commercial architecture. Rowhouse development continued to flourish with the Colonial Revival a popular form. Although the waterfront remained primarily commercial, the Potomac Boat Club at 3530 K Street and built in 1870 and is a charming example of the Shingle Style. The Washington Canoe Club NR built in 1890 also afforded recreational uses.

The Georgetown Historic District is roughly bounded by Reservoir Rd., NW, and Dumbarton Oaks Park on the north; Rock Creek Park on the east; the Potomac River on the south; and Glover-Archbold Parkway on the west. Unless otherwise noted, the buildings described above are private and not open to the public. Metro Stop: Foggy Bottom