Oh, To Own a Slice of History

From the Wall Street Journal's OWN Magazine

If the first president didn't sleep in every grand house in the Washington area in 1801 he certainly visited. Jefferson too.  "It was a very small town," says Jeanne Livingston, a realtor with Long and Foster's Georgetown office. "Everyone knew everyone."

One place they most certainly visited was the magnificent Evermay.  Built over a ten year period at the turn of the 19th century, the 12,000 square foot mansion in the cricket chirping quiet of upper Georgetown is one of the largest homes in town, and having recently sold for $25.9 million, one of the largest real estate transactions in the city in years. Livingston had the listing.   

On the National Register of Historic Places and set on three and a half secluded acres, the property includes a carriage house, a smoke house, formal gardens, and tennis courts. The orangery with its 17-foot ceilings has Palladian windows opening onto a patio used for parties-- parties that in recent decades required sufficient parking for 100 cars.  

"The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were frequent guests, and both President George Bush and President George W. Bush as well as President Clinton enjoyed private tete a tetes," says Livingston.

So celebrated has been the cast of visitors, that Evermay became known as "America's Living Room."

"We have lots of historic properties on the eastern seaboard but Evermay is special in its own right." says Livingston. "The same bricks were used in the construction of the White House...and the main house has floors harvested from the estate's own walnut trees."

That Evermay was snapped up is not surprising, despite its sensational price tag and the general real estate malaise. "The historic market hasn't suffered the same slump as the general real estate market," says Gary Gestson, a realtor affiliated with Long & Foster's Gaithersburg, Maryland office. "People are buying for a different reason. They respect the opportunity to be part of a home's history, becoming stewards of time. "

Historic home buyers also tend to stay in their homes longer than most-- fifteen to twenty years as opposed to the average three to five year home ownership, frequently devoting a portion of that time to preserving, maintaining or resurrecting the dwelling. When it comes time to part ways, "it's not unusual for the seller to interview the buyer to find a suitable steward."  says Gestson.

Avondale, Easton MD
A former art dealer, teacher, and currently a certified historic properties specialist, Gestson has always loved antique homes. It was, he says, "a natural segue from art to homes and estates, these homes are like works of art." And he presents them as such, providing buyers with a detailed history of the property and any modifications.

Since history and Washington are nearly synonymous, whether your preference is town or country, Virginia, Maryland, or within the District of Columbia itself, buying a historic home is not only relatively easy, with the addition of a little elbow grease it can be an investment as good as gold.  

And while you may have missed out on Evermay, there's  a historic home waiting for every would-be steward of time.     

Ann Arundel County

The Eastern Shore of Maryland is particularly awash in history, with more squiggles and jags to its coastline than the state of Florida and grand houses kowtowing to the watery views or nestled in country setting.

Founded in 1649 by a group of Puritans fleeing religious persecution, Maryland's Ann Arundel County was a tobacco growing region in its early years, with crops supported by fine ports along the Severn River.  The most prominent of these ports, Ann Arundell Towne, became the state's capital in 1695; rechristened as Annapolis.
Today Annapolis is also known as the Sailing Capital of America and is home to both the U.S. Naval Academy and St. John's College, one of the country's oldest colleges.  It also has one of the finest collections of 17th and 18th century buildings in the country.
Langdon Farm, Sherwood MD
A meander south of the city, by road or boat, is Norman's Retreat, on Ford's Creek in Galesville, Maryland.  Once the home of Paleo Indians, nomadic people whose artifacts can still be found along the shoreline, the property was also the site of the only Revolutionary War battle between British navel forces and the area's local militia.

The three-bedroom manor house, built in 1811, occupies a former shipyard burned by the British in 1781. The home, with its full-width veranda overlooking rolling lawns leading down to the water's edge,  is surrounded by 25 acres of pasture and woodlands.  The original portion of the home was carefully restored in the last century and a new wing was attached to provide a contemporary kitchen. The property includes a 30-foot pier, a tobacco barn, a bath house, a vintage out-house, and a 3-bedroom tenant house.  

Norman's Retreat, says Gestson, who's handling this listing, "has a long private lane that winds back through farm fields, great oaks, and through time to one of the finest early 19th century manor homes on the Chesapeake Bay. The setting is peaceful, and the home is steeped in history and full of charm.”

Traveling further south from Annapolis, is St. Mary's County, which was settled in 1634 by the British. The settlers purchased the land that became St. Mary's City from the indians, it is said, with a collection of trinkets and tools. Now a bustling archeological dig across the road from St. Mary's College, the state's public honor's college, the city was the fourth oldest permanent British settlement in North America, and served as the original capital of Maryland until 1695.

In those days, you didn't need to travel far to reach the frontier. While city homes might be grand-scaled and ornate, in the countryside, "craftsmen and materials were in short supply, you did with what you had," says Gestson.

Even the most prominent homes, like Monticello, Mt. Vernon, and Stratford Hall, were rather modestly sized by today's standards, with fewer bedrooms than one might expect for a time when families were large, servants lived in, and guests might arrive for a month's stay.  

Over the years, as surroundings became more civilized and owners prospered, building styles and materials changed and the homes grew grander. "Telescope homes," they're called, says Gestson.

Maintaining a home's historic integrity and value while adding the bedrooms and baths and modern conveniences that make such places livable for today can be a creative challenge. 

The current owner's of Bachelor's Hope, another of Gestson's listings and one of the oldest homes in the county, added an entirely new wing to the circa 1668 home that includes a master suite, family room, kitchen, and two baths. This completely preserved the original  configuration of the Georgian-style, Flemish brick mansion, which was then restored, from the beautiful woodwork, to the Federal-style mantels on the six fireplaces, to the Wedgewood blue of the parlor woodwork.

Set on 303 acres, the property once owned by Lord Baltimore, is surrounded by woodlands and gardens, includes a horse barn, three tobacco barns, and a pond teaming with catfish, bass and bluegill.
Lord Fairfax House


Clifford Meredith, an associate broker with Lacaze Meredith Real Estate in Easton, Maryland, also specializes in historic properties, many of them in Talbot County, across the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis. The area, which was settled in the 1660s, includes the delightful small towns of Easton, St. Michael's, Oxford, and Tilghman Island.

Located halfway between Washington, DC and the Atlantic coast beaches, the area is popular for tubing, crabbing, fishing and particularly sailing, Meredith quipped: "It's hard to sail on the ocean."

"This is not just a  house, it's a place to enjoy life," says John Whitmore of Langdon Farm, his 157 acre retreat on the Chesapeake Bay, that is now listed by Meredith. 

The original portion of the home was built in the early 18th century, on the site of a frame house that had been there since the 1670s. "You're opening a door that existed when Jefferson was president," Meredith marvels.  

The home was considerably enlarged in 1930, "so it would look like a proper country house in 1803, if they had the money," he said with a laugh. Two "hyphens" were added, providing on one side a guest wing and on the other the dining room and kitchen.

Large enough to shoot geese and ducks in safety, the property also has a kinder gentler aspect with a rose garden (if you ignore the thorns), a perennial garden, a cutting garden and a greenhouse. The spread was recently featured by the Garden Club of America. "My wife's a good gardener," Whitmore boasts.

Among the amenities and outbuildings are the deep water dock, a swimming pool and a hot tub, barns (should you want horses), and an "executive chicken coop--with a pool table," Whitmore says, adding that a friend once remarked, "You have your own state park!"

Also listed by Meredith, is Avondale, a splendid sprawling home set on more than twenty acres on the Tred Avon River. Built in 1770, there was little of the original detail remaining when it was remodeled and expanded in the early part of the 20th century, allowing the new owners considerable freedom to reinvent history. Though the gracious federal-era facade has been maintained, the home now offers more than 10,000 square feet of living space, indoor and outdoor pools, a large guest house, and a deep water dock.   

Owners, Andrea and Joe Willenpart, said in an email from their new home in Austria that they were attracted to the house for its "old English country architecture and atmosphere. Also, the grand feeling on the long private waterfront under large old trees, including a Beech tree over 200 years old!  It is fascinating and a little spooky to live in a home with such a well documented history."

The builder, Jeremiah Banning, was a wealthy landowner whose fortune, they added, "was rumored to have been earned by trading with pirates. Our kids still look in every conceivable spot for a buried treasure chest.  We most enjoyed the beautiful wildlife every day:  Canada geese and blue herons in the adjacent lagoon, and osprey, deer, and fox."

Lakewood Farm qualifies as future history, it was built in 1995, "but it's so well done it looks like it's 200 years old," says Meredith. Set on 190 bucolic acres outside of Easton, is a breathtaking 6,000 square foot home on Leeds Creek and the Miles River with a sensational view of St. Michael's harbor.  On the property is a deep water dock with a boat lift, a crab shack, stables with three bedroom caretaker's apartment, a five acre lake, a pond, riding trails and two swimming pools.


The first county to be named for the first president, Washington County has the largest collection of historic homes in the state.  Bordering Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the county is home to the Antietam National Battlefield and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. 

In 1776, this was considered the young country's western frontier, and the town of Williamsport was being considered for the capital city. Yes, Washington slept here.

Specifically, while searching for that capital location, he slept at Springfield Farm, another Gary Geston's listings.

Built in 1750 by George Ross, a supplier for troops during the French and Indian War, the home was purchased by Revolutionary War general Otho Holland Williams, founder of the town. The property made history again during the Civil War, as General Lee's troops camped here during their retreat from Gettysburg.

A fine example of a telescope house, a splendid Victorian wing was added in 1879 with 11-foot ceilings, ornate crown moldings, beautiful carved wood and marble mantels, a grand foyer and staircase, and a ballroom that could seat 100 guests. "It was huge for the day," says Geston.  Contemporary additions, including kitchens and baths, honor the past.

On three partly wooded acres, the property includes a one-bedroom cottage, the home's original gatehouse.

Dupont Circle, one of the District of Columbia's most vibrant neighborhoods, is a relative newcomer. The circle itself was constructed in 1871 and was originally called Pacific Circle. In 1882, Congress recognized the Civil War contributions of Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont, and erected a statue which was later replaced with the double-tiered white marble fountain that stands there today.
The mix of mansions and row houses that radiate in all directions from the circle, many of them Queen Anne and Richardson Romanesque in style, were built between the last quarter of the 19th century and the early 20th.
Leslie Wilder, who along with her mother and sister are a team of realtors associated with McEnearney Associates, says of the neighborhood, "Anything you need is right at your front door: Capital Bikeshare has plenty of stations, you can walk to Whole Foods, to the White House, downtown, retail, and restaurants. And the people are of every age, and every way of life, with lots of families and people pushing strollers."

The beautifully restored Victorian the trio have currently listed at 1704 P Street, NW is in the heart of the historic district. The 3,669 square foot home is "true to its roots," she says. Built in 1890, on four levels -- three above grade -- these are grand rooms filled with ornate details, high ceilings, stately mantels, and hardwood floors. Even baths are period, with claw foot tubs and pedestal sinks.

A huge kitchen on the "terrace level" has been modernized -- but in keeping with the age of the home, with "gorgeous, warm wood and glass-fronted cabinets and a walk-in pantry," she says. The dumb-waiter ferries meals to the formal dining room on the main floor.  Also on this level is an awning-shaded patio with a fish pond.

The owner, with her daughters now grown, is now looking for a smaller place. Wilder says she loved the friendliness of the block and will particularly miss Friday night "Stoop nights," as they've come to be called. That when the "neighbors gather on the steps of one of the houses for an end of the work week get together. They really look out for each other."


Two hundred and fifty years ago, Old Town Alexandria was a bustling seaport with horses and buggies clattering down narrow cobblestone streets lined with a mix of houses grand and humble, the homes of merchants and sea captains, laborers and servants.  Thanks to an architectural review board that closely monitors modifications to the buildings, the city has retained its charm and character, preserving its delightful ambiance for future generations to enjoy.

Unlike houses in the hinterland, the great houses here were built that way -- and over the years have only increased in size and grandeur.

The elegant red-brick home at 518 Duke Street, that dominates the corner it shares with St. Asaph, was built in 1800, but has none of the heaviness associated with the period. Listed by Carol Cleary of McEnearney Associates, this remarkably light and airy Italianate-style residence, features four fireplaces, twelve-foot ceilings, splendid period floors, exceptionally high windows, and an enclosed garden with a brick patio surrounded by camellias, boxwood, and an array of spring and summer blooms. 

Of Old Town's grand homes, The Lord Fairfax House, another Cleary listing, is one of the finest. This 18th century home was constructed as a winter residence for Thomas Lord Fairfax, 9th Baron Cameron, who lived the life of a country squire, owning at various times three Virginia plantations and 40,000 acres in the countryside.

The Baron lived elegantly when in town as well, his home at 607 Cameron Street is said to have the most ornate interior of any Federal period home in the Washington area. 

"It's absolutely the prettiest house in town," says Leslie Airail of her attraction to the rare five-bay beauty that has been her family's home since 1994.

"It could be a museum, but it's a family house," says Airail, in her delightfully huskey growl, adding: "Museum houses are highly overrated. "

"I love the entrance with its bifurcated stair and the composition work inside," she says. Restoring that ornamentation was, perhaps, her biggest challenge. The fabulous florets and acanthus leaves modeled from a traditional mixture of fine sawdust, whiting, and glue were originally covered with whitewash, but had been "painted over so many times you didn't know what you  had unless you knew what you were looking for. The painted birds looked like spitballs."

It's an enormous home and a magnificent restoration. There are five or six bedrooms, five and a half baths, and a formal salon on the second floor. A smaller parlor (with a pool table) is downstairs along with a dining room with Palladian windows and elegant arched niches flanking the fireplace. "My favorite room," she says.

Heading toward the kitchen and sun room in the rear of the house is the library, where the family congregates at night to read or watch a move.

The garden room, with near floor to ceiling windows and French doors, bridges the front and rear of the home. Ariail herself  restored the fabulous garden, which occupies five city lots.  Here they built a summerhouse, warmed by a gas fireplace for dining in early spring and late fall.

They've been, you might say, excellent stewards of time.

No comments:

Post a Comment