What Once Was
Georgetown Becomes Colonial — Reborn at 200: Georgetown’s 1951 Bicentenary Celebration
Published: March 14th, 2017
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
For three days in 1951, between April 12th and 14th, Georgetowners celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of their neighborhood as a town in colonial Maryland. Celebrating that anniversary was quite a turn of events, since Georgetown had officially not existed for over 50 years, only to take on a new legal existence just one year previously — in 1950 — becoming the District of Columbia’s only (at the time) historic district.
Georgetown, founded in 1751, had been incorporated into the District of Columbia when the federal capital moved to the Potomac in November of 1800. In 1871, Georgetown had lost nearly all of its separate legal existence with the creation of the District’s new territorial government. The very use of the name was contentious for years and the area was redubbed West Washington. A provision in the 1871 act allowed Georgetown’s ordinances to continue in effect, an anomalous situation legally rectified with the total abolition of Georgetown in 1895.
Georgetown’s position in the District diminished as extension of the Washington city street grid with the Permanent System of Highways opened up vast tracts of former Washington County to real estate development. Georgetowners worked to be a part of the expansion of Washington. A major objective was better connection to the rest of Washington across Rock Creek. In 1915, after years of indecision and debate over how to fix the problem posed by the industrial wasteland which was the lower Rock Creek valley, upper Georgetown was linked to Washington directly with the Q Street (Buffalo) Bridge.
With that additional physical connection came the opportunity — and threat — of real estate development in the underdeveloped far northeast corner of Georgetown. Legal controls over real estate development had come with the District having enacted zoning regulations in 1920.
Zoning had been done very quickly — in just six months. Requests for changes of zoning designation came immediately and frequently. Georgetowners were especially concerned since much of Georgetown was zoned for commercial or industrial use. The particular concern was maintaining current density and perpetuating the current housing stock and, along with other sections in the city, resisting any influx of apartments; already, a number of large apartment houses had been built along the newly opened stretch of Q Street leading to the bridge.
As early as 1926 Horace Peaslee encouraged the Georgetown Civic Association to develop building design guidelines; an architect and city planner, he would go on to design many Washington-area homes. His interest in colonial architecture was not limited to historic structures — he designed the 1931 Evening Star’s Silver Star home, —a demonstration house with a Connecticut aspect reflecting early American design.
Federal bureaucrat John Ihlder, who lived at 2811 P Street NW, led the fight to down-zone the eastern end of Georgetown.  In the 1920s and 1930s Georgetowners succeeded in getting a portion rezoned and down-zoned from commercial.
As Georgetowners fought to maintain their neighborhood ambiance, there was what amounted to a campaign to articulate for Georgetown a new — and historic — identity. Eve Barsoum describes a number of influences on the popular imagination encouraging the perception of Georgetown as “colonial.”  The Georgetown garden tour began as a modest event in 1928 and continued to grow in popularity (by 1930 the Washington Post called it a pilgrimage); and it continues to the present.
John Clagett Proctor, historian and columnist in the Evening Star promoted the colonial period of history of the neighborhood in his columns.
Publications like Alice Coyle Torbert’s Doorways and Dormers of Old Georgetown, a historic tour featured and promoted the early architecture of Georgetown in 1930. The 1932 celebration of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth encouraged a popular national focus on early American history and on that era of Georgetown history. Strenuous efforts were made to anchor George Washington more fully into Georgetown’s history. Old Stone House was touted as “George Washington’s Headquarters” for the survey of Washington city in a pamphlet by Bessie Wilmarth Gahn. It never was, but was preserved nonetheless and is the sole remaining colonial-era structure in Georgetown, dating back to the 1760s.
Numerous books, such as Deering and Davis’ Georgetown Houses of the Federal Period and Leary’s Backward Glances at Georgetown, continued to document and promote Georgetown’s colonial and early federal architecture.
Old Georgetown Act
In 1950 Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act, Public Law 808. New York Congressman and Georgetown resident James W. Wadsworth had introduced it. The full name was indicative of its purpose: “An Act to regulate height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in the Georgetown area of the National Capital.” It is a brief law and the scope is succinct — permits in Georgetown are referred for review to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) “for a report as to the exterior architectural features, height, appearance, color, and texture of the materials of exterior construction which is subject to public view from a public highway.” The stated reason includes a subtle nod toward colonial architecture: “. . . to promote the general welfare and to preserve and protect the places and areas of historic interest, exterior architectural features and examples of the type of architecture used in the National Capital in its initial years. . . .”
The Senate report on the bill puts it plainly, “to preserve the early architecture of Georgetown” and the House report states that “the people of Georgetown are desirous of protecting the district by an authority which will direct the type of structure suitable to the area.” An earlier version of the bill had limited the CFA review to buildings built before 1850; this was deemed unenforceable in Georgetown with such a mix of structures of varying age.
Public testimony dwelt on two issues at either end of the development spectrum: razing old buildings and construction of new ones. Both were problematic. Destruction of existing buildings went against the very idea of the bill, but limiting it could be seen as an illegal “taking” of property. Covering new construction implied creation of a coherent set of design rules or guidelines.
The Act’s title and some of the text are modelled on the 1930 Shipstead-Luce Act which had given the CFA review jurisdiction over design of buildings adjacent to major federal properties. A suggestion mooted before passage of the Old Georgetown Act was to simply expand Shipstead-Luce jurisdiction to include Georgetown. A prime mover in the passage of the Act was architect Horace Peaslee. For him, it was the culmination of more than 25 years of advocacy, which not only had been local but beyond; he’d testified supporting Charleston, South Carolina’s historic status.
The District Commissioners had initially opposed the passage of the Act, and to allay their concerns the final clause regarding non-interference with condemnation procedures was inserted.
“Old Georgetown” was one of the first “historic districts” in the country. Preceding it were Charleston; New Orleans’ “Vieux Carre”; Alexandria, Virginia; and Old Salem in North Carolina. While preservation of single historic houses might be seen to begin with the rescue of Mount Vernon in the 1850s, it was not until the 1930s that entire urban neighborhoods would receive similar protections, starting with Charleston.
The Old Georgetown Act established a three-member architectural advisory board (now known as the Old Georgetown Board) to review cases and advise the CFA. Project reviews began soon after the passage of the law, with the first submitted by the District government to CFA on October 11, 1950. The permit for alterations to the home of Mrs. and Mrs. George Potter at 1504 33rd Street NW became Old Georgetown Board case #1. The revisions requested seem to have been minor and the approved scheme was off-white painted bricks with black woodwork for the front façade. Approval was given on November 3.
Cases proliferated and the Board quickly had the opportunity to make its impression felt in Georgetown; by February of 1952 it had heard 300 cases. 281 of these had been approved on first presentation, while 19 were disapproved. Of the 19 disapproved all were ultimately approved, except for five never resubmitted. Residential building and yard improvements, particularly fences, made up the vast majority of cases (188). Commercial cases were mostly permits for signs (30).
Senator Herbert O’Conor of Maryland linked the Old Georgetown Act and the hard work of its citizens: “Georgetown appeared to most of us to be a symbol, close at hand, of the ability of the finest things in American life to survive all vicissitudes.”
By April of 1951 the “colonial” cast to the celebration of Georgetown’s “bicentenary” (the term they preferred over “bicentennial”) was inevitable. Part of the Washington DC origin story would have been familiar to anyone who had attended the National Capital Sesquicentennial’s pageant “Faith of our Fathers” performance which portrayed the early history of Washington and the District of Columbia.
Georgetown’s celebration was a three-day affair, April 12-14, modest in comparison with the year-long National Capital Sesquicentennial (“Sesqui”) in 1950. It was organized and controlled by prominent members of the community, avoiding the infighting which plagued the Sesqui. Some other organizations provided supporting events later in the year. In September, the Library of Congress put on an exhibit commemorating the Georgetown bicentennial, immediately following the closing of its National Capital Sesquicentennial exhibition. (Georgetowners suggested holding over two dozen items from that preceding exhibit.) The National Gallery of Art did its part in November to commemorate colonial Georgetown by mounting an exhibit of watercolors depicting the furniture, pottery, quilts, and other material culture representative of earliest Georgetown.
Prominent Georgetown resident and New York Times Washington Bureau reporter Harold Hinton reached out by letter to the Phillips Collection to inquire if they might host an exhibit. His letter nicely summarized the goals of the celebration overall:
“We don’t want to represent it as a poor man’s Williamsburg. On the contrary, we want to call attention to the remarkable way in which it has managed to conserve so many delightful links with our Colonial past, and yet has remained, to this day, a modern, living and growing little city.” 
As part of the celebration’s opening at the Old Stone House, ceremonial keys to the city were presented by Frank Meenehan (in Colonial garb) to the appropriate politicos — District Commissioner John Russell Young, Maryland Governor Theodore McKeldin, and Senator Matthew Neely (“mayor of Washington” as chairman of the Senate District Committee). Vice President Alben Barkley was invited but could not attend. Other events included an auction and an interdenominational evensong.
The Miriam Crocker Lamp Shades store at 1415 Wisconsin Avenue NW won the prize for best window decorations.
The newspapers reported that 40,000 people watched the hour-long parade as it wended its way through Georgetown, from 31st and M Streets along M to Wisconsin, up Wisconsin to Reservoir Road, west on Reservoir to 35th Street, south on 35th to N Street, east on N to 34th Street, back south to M and concluding at M and 29th Streets.
The day concluded with a costume ball held at 3227-29 M Street NW attended by 500 celebrants dressed in Colonial costume, some of whom had been seen in the parade earlier in the day.
Edith Porter Lapish compiled and edited the official bicentenary booklet. The booklet included contributions from influential Georgetowners such as Stephen Dorsey (on architecture), Mrs. Harold B. Hinton (on preservation), and Georgetown Branch Library Peabody Room curator Mathilde Williams (bibliography). Duncan Emrich’s contribution, titled “Georgetown Now,” gave a dose of atmosphere:
“Georgetown is a carriage lamp, a door knocker, brick sidewalks, and ivy. It is the great estates of Evermay and Tudor Place, and little houses eight, nine, and ten feet wide. It is the yellow, red, and pink doors fronting the cobblestones along the Canal, and Prospect House above the Potomac for the Shah of Iran and the President of Chile. It is the churches and their bells, and the sound — on quiet evenings — of the bugle from Fort Myer.”
In 1937 the WPA guide to the District of Columbia had described Georgetown as “drowsy, quaint” but detailed several extensive tours to appreciate the architecture of the residential part of Georgetown. Yet, despite promising early beginnings it had settled into memories “archaic and quaint. . . . Georgetown knew a transient glory, and now seems content to remain within, yet apart from, the great National City that has absorbed it.” 
While the popular press perceived and promoted Georgetown as colonial, those in charge of maintaining Georgetown’s unique “atmosphere” struggled with the architectural dilemma. On August 17, 1952 two of the three members of the Old Georgetown Board — Walter Macomber and William Dewey Foster — met with the advisory members of the CFA seeking advice on how to develop and apply standards and policies.
The minutes of the August 17th CFA meeting included the following notations: “The pitfalls of the make-everything-Colonial formula are many. . . . Overemphasis on the word Colonial, also causes an undervaluing of Georgetown’s many post-colonial structures. . . . When they have intrinsic merit they should be preserved in their original style — not destroyed or remodeled under the influence of the Colonial slogan.” 
Nothing much seems to have come from the discussion; no guidelines have been developed or published by the Old Georgetown Board.
Georgetown’s bicentennial celebration was the culmination of decades of writing, lobbying and politicking by its residents. It began early in the 20th century as the neighborhood forged a new identity. The changing dynamics of the District of Columbia changed as its “suburban” sections north of Florida Avenue developed.
Georgetown had inherent advantages compared with the oldest remaining urban fabric in the District — it had a different atmosphere with narrow streets and brick sidewalks. Its residential section was perched on the hills above (and upwind of) the industrial waterfront.
Interest in the colonial era in America, evidenced by the contemporary popularity of Williamsburg had been spurred or deepened by the 1932 George Washington bicentennial. Despite the slight remaining physical evidence of the colonial era in Georgetown, it was a history it could appreciate, market, and celebrate.
 Eve L. Barsoum, “Colonial Georgetown: The Power of Myth” in Recreating the American Past: essays on the Colonial Revival; edited by Richard Guy Wilson, Shaun Eyring, and Kenny Marotta. (University of Virginia Press, 2006)
 Cameron Logan, “Value: Property, History and Homeliness in forthcoming Georgetown” in Historic Capital: Preservation, Race and Real Estate in Washington, DC. (Forthcoming, University of Minnesota Press).
 Harold Hinton to Duncan Phillips, March 6, 1951. Vertical Files, Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch, DC Public Library.
 Works Progress Administration Writer’s Project, Washington, City and Capital, page 781.(U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937).
 Commission of Fine Arts meeting. minutes, August 17, 1952, Attachment E (in David E. Finley Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Box 9).
Thanks to Kay Fanning, Commission of Fine Arts historian; Eve Barsoum, Commission of Fine Arts/Old Georgetown Board; and other CFA staff. And to Cameron Logan, Jerry McCoy, Karen Needles, and staff at National Archives I and II.
References & Resources
“Old Georgetown,” Civic Art: A centennial history of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (pp. 194-204), Thomas E. Luebke, ed. (Commission of Fine Arts, 2013).
Eve L. Barsoum, “Colonial Georgetown: The Power of Myth” in Recreating the American Past: essays on the Colonial Revival; edited by Richard Guy Wilson, Shaun Eyring, and Kenny Marotta. (University of Virginia Press, 2006).
Sue A. Kohler, The Commission of Fine Arts: a brief History, 1910-1995. (Commission of Fine Arts, 1995).
Edith Porter Lapish, Georgetown’s Bicentenary. (St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown Parish, 1951).
The Washingtonian — “Georgetown Bi-Centenary Fair edition” — “Official herald of the Georgetown Bi-Centenary, Fair Days April 12, 13, 14, 1951.”
Alice Coyle Torbert, “Doorways and Dormers of Old Georgetown, a historic tour.” (Washington, DC, self-publsished, 1930).
John DeFerrari, Lost Washington. (Charleston, SC, History Press, 2011).
Bessie Wilmarth Gahn, “George Washington’s Headquarters” in Georgetown: And Colonial Days, Rock Creek to the Falls. (Silver Spring, Md., Press of Westland, 1940).
National Register of Historic Places, registration form, Georgetown Historic District (amended 2003).
Deering Davis, A.I.D., Stephen P. Dorsey & Ralph Cole Hall, Georgetown Houses of the Federal Period, Washington, D.C., 1780-1830. [New York, Architectural Book Publishing Co., inc., 1944).
Josephine Davis Leary, Backward glances at Georgetown, with anecdotes of famous Washingtonians and their Georgetown homes. (Richmond, Va., Dietz Press, 1947).
David E. Finley papers, Library of Congress Manuscripts Division.
“An Act to regulate height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in the Georgetown area of the National Capital.” Public Law 808.
“Regulating the height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in the Georgetown area of the National Capital.” Report 2468, House of Representatives, June 30, 1950.
“Regulating the height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in the Georgetown area of the National Capital.” Report 2115, Senate Calendar 2118, July 21, 1950.
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.
© 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.