CRM Journal

Exhibit Review

1816 Georgetown: Building the Modern House

Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, Washington, DC. Curators: Melinda Linderer and Chris Wilson

April 9, 2003–December 31, 2004


1816 Georgetown: Building the Modern House both commemorates the 200th anniversary of Tudor Place, a historic house in Georgetown, and explores why Martha Custis Peter and Thomas Peter chose the location and style of their early 19th-century home in the new federal district. The clever title nicely encapsulates the notion that even the antique was once contemporary. In 1816, the architecture style now known as neoclassicism was "just considered modern." This idea serves to remove the patina of nostalgia from the historic house to reveal a more engaging cultural dimension.

The marriage of Martha Custis and Thomas Peter in 1795 merged two prominent families. Martha was the granddaughter of Martha Washington and step-granddaughter of George Washington, and Thomas was the son of Robert Peter, the first mayor of Georgetown and one of the original landowners who ceded land for the creation of the federal city in the 1790s. In 1799, the couple purchased land in Georgetown Heights and hired preeminent architect William Thornton to design their home. Through a series of designs executed between 1808 and 1813, Thornton engaged the Peters in a dialogue before deciding on the neoclassical design, marked by geometric forms and "austere, unadorned surfaces." Design elements from the ancient republics of Greece and Rome were considered appropriate for the new republic.

The attractive exhibit, incorporating decorative arts, manuscript materials, household goods, prints, engravings, and photographs culled from the extensive Tudor Place collections and on loan from other institutions evokes the Peters' elite social status and their life at Tudor Place. We learn that the Peters purchased 8½ acres in the most desirable suburban area of Georgetown Heights, just north of the port and commercial center, upon receiving an $8,000 inheritance from George Washington's estate. One of the exhibit's richest primary sources is an 1848 guide to Washington, which describes Georgetown Heights as "lofty eminences" along which "gentlemen of wealth have built their dwellings, and cultivated beautiful and extensive gardens." Tudor Place's gardens remain a central element of a visit to the site.

The Peters' wealth and prominence is evident everywhere in the exhibit's material culture, from the French tureen and sauceboat given by Washington to his step-granddaughter to a blue glass fingerbowl that belonged to Martha Washington. As executor of Martha Washington's estate upon her death in 1802, Peter arranged a private sale for friends and family before the public auction. Included in the exhibit is a list in Peter's hand of the items that he and his wife purchased at the sale.

As the exhibit explains, the Peters' inherited wealth and status made a stylish home a necessity. Built with entertaining in mind, Tudor Place centers around public spaces: a saloon flanked by a formal drawing room and the parlor/dining room. Maintaining the large home and entertaining required help; the "help" that ran this and many other houses in the capital was the enslaved labor of African Americans. By 1820, as the exhibit notes, the Peters owned 14 enslaved persons—6 adults and 8 children—some bequeathed by Martha Washington in her will.

In its emphasis on social and cultural history, 1816 Georgetown is a welcome complement to the interpretation provided on the house tour, which concentrates largely, although not exclusively, on genealogy and decorative arts. The exhibit serves as a basic introduction to the meaning of architectural style. However, in attempting to present sizeable ideas (according to a press release, "the social, economic, and political climate of the early 19th century") in a small installation (the gallery is 400 square feet), the exhibit is necessarily limited in scope. Given that the visitor stands in Tudor Place, the curator might have skirted space limitations by directing visitors to labeled architectural elements in the house.

For those interested in Washington, DC, history or fine arts of the era, several artifacts are noteworthy: a rarely exhibited 1795 portrait miniature of George Washington by Walter Robertson of Philadelphia, Thomas Peter's flute, and a Charles Bird King portrait of William Thornton (circa 1810-1820). My favorite object in the exhibit is an edition of the 1792 Andrew Ellicott map of the plan for Washington, published in Philadelphia by Thackara and Vallance and based on L'Enfant's design. Printed in sections and pasted on sheets of linen, this map was easily portable and able to stand up to multiple foldings—ideal for its use in real estate sales. Like the notion of the "modern" 1816 home, this map reminds visitors of the early decades of the developing national capital city and the prevailing aspirations for the new republic.

Laura Burd Schiavo
The City Museum of Washington, DC