Washington Weekend. House Tours. Our nation’s capital has two house museums that are significant to our history, and relatively little known on the Washington tourist circuit and especially with the out of town tourists. But gems; real gems, and not to be missed if you can help it.
The oldest is Tudor Place, located at 1644 31st Street in Georgetown. Occupying most of a city block, you could easily pass the fenced in property on foot or in car and think it was just another house of a wealthy family. Behind its gates, however, sits a document not only of the city and nation’s history but also a microcosm of American life of the last 200 years because it was owned and occupied by six generations of one family, the Peters.
The property in what was then known as George Town was first acquired by Frances Loundes, a tobacco and shipping merchant. The area at the time was part of Virginia. The entire area because of its proximity to the newly building city of Washington was a land developer’s dream.
Loundes built the original buildings in 1802 — a stable and carriage house which was also used as an office, and a small residence, located on eight acres. In that year he leased it out to Thomas and Martha Custis Peter. Mrs. Peter was the granddaughter of Martha Washington and was an heiress of George Washington. In 1805, using the proceeds of her inheritance, she and her husband bought Tudor Place for $8000. At the time, the property, sitting halfway up a hill looked down on the Potomac and Arlington across the river.
The Peters hired William Thornton, the architect who built the first Capitol Building, to enlarge the house. Using the two outer buildings, Thornton connected them with a larger structure creating a Palladian style layout. The house was finished by 1814. That same year, Anna Marie Thornton, the architect’s wife was visiting the house when the British invaded the city. She and the Peters watched the burning of the Capitol from the dining room of the house.
When Martha Custis Washington died in 1804, her possessions were put up for auction. The Peters purchased more than 800 items and so, to this day, there are many pieces and objets that belonged to George and Martha.
Because of the family’s connection to the Founding President of the United States, they were prominent in the society. Tudor Place was a destination for dignitaries and prominent people visiting Washington. In 1824, the family was visited by General Washington’s friend and ally, the Marquis de Lafayette in his return (and final) visit to the United States. Later another generation entertained William Makepeace Thackeray.
One characteristic of the the house’s heirs is that they lived very long lives, into their nineties. In 1848, the Peters’ daughter Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon inherited Tudor Place, taking possession in 1854. At the outbreak of the Civil War (with Georgetown still part of Virginia), Mrs. Kennon, then very much a Southerner (as were most local residents), fled to Richmond where she was given protection of her uncle’s son-in-law General Robert E. Lee.
Visitors staying in the southeast bedroom of the house could see across the Potomac to the Lee mansion, Arlington House, which had been built by Martha Peter’s brother George Washington Parke Custis, now dominates the site of Arlington National Cemetery.
During the War, the house was turned into a boarding house for Union soldiers, a move that saved the house from possible destruction. In 1867, The Kennon daughter married her second cousin Dr. Armistead Peter, who moved into the house and set up his practice in the east wing.
Britannia Kennon died in 1911, having lived in the house for 92 or her 96 years. In her will she skipped a generation and left the house to her grandson Armistead Peter Jr. In 1914, he had electricity and central heating installed. Mr. Peter was still in residence when he died in 1983. In 1988 the house became a National Landmark.
In the 180 years that the family owned and occupied Tudor Place, they never seemed to have thrown anything away. Many of their valuable antiques are more valuable today.
Nevertheless, everything was kept that had been acquired by previous generations — from clothing to books, to furniture, household equipment, china, pots, pans, and a beautifully restored 1919 maroon Pierce-Arrow roadster.
It was in a desk drawer inherited from George Washington that the last Armistead Peter happened to find, more than a century later, a letter from George to Martha Washington. Martha Washington had directed in her will that all of her saved letters should be destroyed, so this single letter is unique.
After our tour, Ellen Charles, who is on the Board of Tudor Place, drove us several miles over to Hillwood, the Washington estate of her grandmother Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton Davies May – known at the end of her life as simply Marjorie Merriweather Post. Hillwood is now a museum open to the public.
Mrs. Post was famous in the world as the Post Toasties or the Postum heiress and lived large and lavishly. Besides Hillwood, she had the great fantasy villa, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, a 54-room triplex on 1107 Fifth Avenue; Top Ridge, her “camp” in the Adirondacks, an estate on Long Island (now C.W.Post College) as well as her gigantic 356-foot sailing yacht, Sea Cloud.
She bought Hillwood in 1957, lived there every Spring and Autumn until her death in 1972. She made specific plans during her lifetime to leave the house as a museum.
When she was married to her third husband Joseph Davies, he was appointed US Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1936. She traveled to Russia on the Sea Cloud. During her time in there, she became a major collector of Russian icons, objets, china and art. Hillwood eventually became the repository for that collection which expanded in the years following.
Like Tudor Place, one of the great pleasures of visiting Hillwood is that is a museum of priceless pieces but still has the feeling of an individual’s private residence. There are copious family photographs and oil portraits displayed throughout as if its chatelaine were still living there. Among the photographs are several of her famous daughter (she had three), Dina Merrill, and her niece Barbara Hutton.
Mrs. Post was well versed in construction and planning of houses. When she bought Hillwood she made some changes and installed many of her own things, including paneling for entire rooms. Early on she decided to prepare the house to be a museum in its future. As a result, movement through the mansion from entrance to exit is very well organized and flows smoothly.
There is a gallery of several rooms of the Russian Collection which includes many pieces by Faberge which belonged to Nicholas and Alexandra as well as Nicholas’ mother Maria Feodorovna. In her day, the various sets of china were used. She entertained frequently with Square Dances (in a ballroom which doubled as a screening room), dinner parties for 24, and an annual garden party.
From the rear of the house overlooking the gardens and the lawn one can see the top of the Washington monument several miles away. When she was alive Mrs. Post used to influence with the National Parks Department to have the city trees trimmed back enough so that her view of the monument allowed her to see most of it at all times.
The art runs from family and personal (she commissioned several full length and almost full length portraits of herself and her children at different stages of her life). Her earliest images of a sophisticated and independent woman was the Gibson Girl, fresh-faced, pretty, long upswept hair and properly pearled.
Although Mrs. Post was a very famous American in her day because of her fabled wealth, much has been written about her, there has never been a thorough biography. She had a strong, forceful personality, yet she was physically a very feminine woman and loved being surrounded by beauty, antiquity, baubles, bangles, beads. There was a flamboyance to her presentation – bold colors, lots of gold, lots of silver, highly polished dark wood furniture.
She had thirty gardeners to keep the extensive gardens growing beautifully.
The house was always full of flowers grown in her extensive greenhouses on the property. In her will she directed that the flowers continue to be displayed in the house, and not sold.
You can feel her formidable presence at all times and there is ample inspiration, be it in some of her costumes that are displayed including two different dresses she wore when she was presented at Court, as well as her shoes (from Madame Bob –you read that correctly), as well as some of her important diamond necklaces, rings and bracelets.
The creation of Hillwood as a museum was her idea as were many of the choices of exhibition. She had decided after the Russian collection had become so extensive, to preserve it as a whole for others to enjoy.
Although it has many differences, and another generation, Hillwood has some of the allure of The Frick in New York. It is a grand residence, a house of a rich person. And it is filled with the acquisitions of a collector.
The interior of the house is palatial and even royal with its enormous portraits including those of Catherine the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra and other members of the Russian Royal Family. It is maintained and decorated exactly as it was when Mrs. Post lived there. All of its private rooms are open to the public. It is a private peek into the way of life of an unusual woman who lived as she wished and who managed her life with an executive’s talent. As a result, Hillwood, the museum is unique, full of personality, beauty, and a way of life that no longer exists even among our wealthiest.