The Stone House, Georgetown, Washington DC

Valeria and I recently had a chance to spend a weekend in Washington DC. No, we weren’t there to deal with politics or politicians, but rather to attend a wedding. We had an afternoon free between wedding-related events and chose to take the relatively short walk from our hotel to the Georgetown neighborhood. It was a beautiful spring day, perfect for a little sightseeing.

Our walk took us first to Washington Circle, where a famous statue of General George continues to keep watch on the city.

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If you are frustrated by how slowly things get done in Washington these days, it may make you feel better (or worse) to know the story behind this bronze statue. The Congress of the Confederation (the short-lived Congress formed under the Articles of Confederation that defined the first American government) voted to erect a statue in Washington’s honor in 1783, even before he became President (1789, when our current Constitution and form of government was put in place). However, the commission for the work was not given to the sculptor, Clark Mills, until 1853, over 50 years after Washington died. It was not finished and installed until 1860. Apparently government inefficiency is not a new concept.

Around the circle are some historic Washington row houses.

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Before about 1850, row houses were a dominant type of architecture in Washington, designed to be built side-by-side and no more than 40 feet tall, as defined by the regulations put forth by President Washington in 1791. While the regulations changed many times over the years, the elegant style has remained popular until today.

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Walking along Pennsylvania Avenue, toward the historic neighborhood of Georgetown and away from the political playgrounds of the White House and Congress, we passed the historic (“historic” is a word that gets repeated a lot when discussing landmarks in and around Washington DC) Saint Stephen Martyr Catholic Church. 

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This Catholic parish was founded in 1867 and the first building was being used for worship services by the end of 1868 (obviously not a government project!). The current structure was completed in 1961. President John F. Kennedy and his family liked to attend services here. I liked the way the bright spring sun was casting shadows through the bell tower.

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Similarly, the clock tower on the Sun Trust Bank building caught my eye just as Pennsylvania Avenue turned into M Street and we entered the Georgetown area (see map above).

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We were soon standing in front of The Old Stone house, an historic (I told you that word would come up a lot) site in Georgetown that I had somehow overlooked on previous visits.

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Built in 1766 (according to this sign; the Park Service page says 1765), The Old Stone House is the only pre-revolutionary house left in Washington DC. It is operated by the US Park Service and admission is free, so it’s definitely worth a quick look around if you are in the area. The building survived because people mistakenly thought George Washington had stayed in the building in 1791 with Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who designed the layout for Washington DC. John Suter owned Suter’s Tavern, an Inn on what is now K Street. His son, John Suter Jr., owned a clock shop in what is now called The Old Stone House on what is now M street, just a few blocks away. Over the years, the two buildings owned by the Suter family got a bit muddled up in local folklore, and what was then the clock shop was preserved because “Washington slept there.” 

There were several magnolias in the yard that were blooming beautifully.

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Inside, they have preserved period furniture and other furnishings for a glimpse at what middle-to-upper middle class life was like at around the time of the Revolutionary War (the late 1700s for those who failed, or have just forgotten, US history).

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Since I love to cook, I am always fascinated by the tools and techniques that were used back when the kitchen fireplace acted as the stove, oven, grill and microwave combined. I have done a fair amount of campfire cooking over the years, so I can see how you can manage almost any meal with this setup, but it sure makes me appreciate a modern, well-equipped kitchen.

Upstairs, there was one small room that appeared to be dedicated to spinning and sewing. Apparently H&M, Nordstrom’s and online shopping had not yet been invented in 1776. 😀

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The master bedroom also contained a spinning wheel in addition to what today would be a pretty small double bed and a fireplace.

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One of the things that always gets my attention—often wth a bang on my head—is the small size of rooms and short height of doors. I am 6′ 2′ (188 cm), which is not exceptionally tall by today’s standards, but I feel a bit like Gulliver in Lilliput in some of these old houses.

The house was decorated in what was called the Adam style, named after three Scottish brothers who developed and popularized it in the 18th century. I’m afraid my knowledge of this style is pretty weak (nonexistent until I read the sign below), but you can learn more about it here if it is of interest to you.

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The old newspapers in the bedroom are probably reproductions, but it occurred to me that people in that era depended on newspapers (and gossip) for all their news. Now we have too many news outlets to count on radio, TV, and the internet while print media struggle to survive. 

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Nor had I heard of the practice of sleeping twice in the same night.

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Don’t be frightened by the ghost in the image—it’s just my reflection. This is an interesting idea for a sleep cycle. It would be hard to follow today, given how our schedules have been adapted to the widespread use of artificial lights, at least in the Western world, but I wonder if it might be a more natural sleep cycle than staying up until 2 am glued to the computer? (Not that I ever do that, but I hear there are people who do. 😀)

The main room of the house served multiple functions. Obviously it was used for dining, but it was also the family room, game room and music room—pretty much anything except cooking and sleeping.

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Because I enjoy cooking (and eating) so much, I look at the table setting and wonder how many times these plates and accessories were used in family meals. What holidays and special events were celebrated? Were they used by more than one generation or perhaps bought and sold by several families? What dishes were served? If only they could tell their stories!

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How many times was tea brewed in this pot? By whom? 

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All of the items in the room are genuine antiques from the colonial period, though most are not original to The Old Stone House. An important exception is the grandfather clock, which was build by John Suter, Jr. when the house was his clock shop. He sold the clock, but it made its way back as part of the permanent collection.

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On the music stand is (probably a reproduction of) the music to a song that was popular in colonial times, Good Advice.

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The lyrics are:

Leave off your foolish prating,
Talk no more of Whig and Tory,
But drink your glass,
Round let it pass,
The bottle stands before ye:
Fill it to the top,
Let the night with mirth be crown’d,
Drink about, fee it out,
Love and friendship still go round.

If claret be a blessing,
This night devote to pleasure;
Let worldly cares,
And state affairs
Be thought on more at leisure;
Fill it up to the top,
Let the night with joy be crown’d,
Drink about, fee it out,
Love and friendship still go round.

If any is so zealous
To be a party minion,
Let him drink like me,
We’ll soon agree,
And be of one opinion;
Fill your glass, name your lass,
See her health go sweely round,
Drink about, see it out,
Let the night with joy be crown’d.

The song appears to have been written by Richard Leverage (1670-1758) a bass singer, Baroque composer, and popular song writer in London. The colonists would have been more likely to pass around a bottle of hard apple cider or rum than claret (red wine from Bordeaux, France), but it was no doubt a popular party and drinking song on both sides of the Atlantic.

The detail around the pantry is beautiful. Note the 5-candle candle holder on the lower shelf.

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A typical Western family today has only one or two children and there is a good chance each will have his/her own room once they are out of the crib. Not so in colonial times, when four or more children would share the same small room and several would sleep together in the same bed.

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Nor was there any TV, digital games or phones for texting. Children were expected to spend all their time in school or (gasp!) working around the house and farm.

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It takes only a few minutes to wander through the Old Stone House (although, if you are a history buff, you may linger and examine the exhibits in more detail) and it is a few minutes well spent.

As we walked further along M street, a sign for Snap, self described as “Georgetown’s cutest cafe,” caught our eye with it’s fox logo.

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The cafe is less than a block off of M Street on Thomas Jefferson Street NW. 

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I think it can fairly be described as a cute cafe, but, since we didn’t see every cafe in Georgetown, I can’t vouch that it is “cutest.” It had only been an hour since our big brunch at Firefly with two pots of French Press coffee, so we didn’t go in.

A building at the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue is now branch of PNC Bank.

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The building was built in 1921-22 as the Farmers and Mechanics Branch of Riggs Bank. Riggs Bank dates back to 1836 when William Corcoran opened a brokerage house. Corcoran partnered with George Washington Riggs to form the Corcoran and Riggs Bank in 1840. The bank took off in 1844 when it was made the only Federal Depository in Washington DC.

The bank played an important role in financing many important people and events. Samuel Morris (invention of the telegraph) and Robert Peary (first successful expedition to the North Pole) are among those backed by the bank. The Federal government also borrowed money from them to fund the Mexican-American War and the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire (remember “Seward’s Folly?”) Numerous US Presidents, Senators, Generals and other historical figures banked there.

The bank continued to grow in the 20th century when it successfully started a program to become the bank of embassies and diplomats. Branches were opened in many embassies and foreign countries and diplomats joined their American counterparts in banking there.

Unfortunately, this also sewed the seeds of the bank’s eventual downfall. In the early 2000s, the bank was caught in a number of scandals involving Saudi Arabia, Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet, and Equatorial Guinea. Large fines were levied and various principles in the bank pled guilty to money laundering and other charges. PNC acquired Riggs bank in 2005, retired the Riggs name and phased out the embassy business.

Presumably the farmers and mechanics for whom this branch was build had nothing to do with the scandals, and the building is now a landmark in Georgetown.

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As we strolled down mostly residential N Street back toward our hotel, we passed a reproduction of a Cafe des Marguerites French country clock. 

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If you are clock aficionado, you may be familiar with these as they are a popular reproduction of an antique clock. If you are not into clocks, well, it’s just a clock.

Soon we were back in our hotel room dressing for what would be a wonderful wedding and reception, but I will leave it to the family to publish photos and accounts of that on their own social media and web sites.

We enjoyed our afternoon in Georgetown. There are plenty of restaurants and lots of shopping that we pretty much ignored in the time we had for this visit, but it is a lively and enjoyable place to see not only for its history but as a modern, hip place to be.

The author is a member of the Amazon Affiliate program but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the businesses or products described in this article.

All images were taken with a Sony Alpha a6500 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F/4 ZA OSS lens or Sony 35mm (52mm full frame equivalent) F/1.8 E-Mount Lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins. 

 

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