Hello! My name is Katie Willard, and I am a resident blogger here at 1100 Jefferson. I recently attended the first session of our “DC’s Historic Sites: Welcome to Georgetown” series, which featured the Old Stone House.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Old Stone House, you may have walked past it. The Old Stone House is on Georgetown’s famous M Street, where it can be easily missed amongst restaurants and shops. (Its specific location is right at the intersection of M Street and Thomas Jefferson Drive, a much-frequented side street because of the cupcake store Baked & Wired.) As you can imagine, the property is valuable real estate—it’s worth $5 million, to be exact. But you have no chance of buying the property so you can knock down the house and start another cat café: the Old Stone House is owned, protected, and maintained by the National Park Service, specifically the same people who run Rock Creek Park.
Nowadays, the Old Stone House’s claim to fame is that it’s the oldest house (on its original foundation) in the District of Columbia, let alone Georgetown. However, despite the National Park Service’s best efforts, there seem to be some lingering rumors about the Old Stone House involving George Washington. Perhaps George Washington slept at the Old Stone House—the man giving this lecture, Michael Zwelling, joked that “George seems to have slept everywhere in America,” judging by all the taverns that boast such an honor. Perhaps George Washington visited the Old Stone House. Perhaps he merely stuck his head inside and breathed in a bit of the air at the Old Stone House.
These rumors aren’t around for nothing. A lot of people thought that George Washington’s “Engineering Headquarters”—the place where he and Pierre L’Enfant met to plan the city of Washington, DC—was the Old Stone House. There was even a plaque that said so in the 1800’s! One takeaway from this lecture—don’t trust information just because it’s engraved on a plaque.
Let’s start from the very beginning. During the American Revolution, Rachel and Christopher Layman moved to Georgetown. They purchased a plot of land and built a one-room house on the property. For some context, if you visit the Old Stone House today, Rachel and Christopher’s original house consisted of only the Gift Shop area. That’s it. I felt crowded with just the salesperson in there with me; I can’t imagine living there with a husband and two children. And Christopher ran his cabinet-making business out of the house, but at least they had a roof over their heads!
Well, that’s a bit generous. The house was never quite finished while the Laymans lived there. When I was young, my parents put in new floors in the kitchen. I thought my life was hard because I occasionally got splinters on the temporary wood: Rachel and Christopher didn’t always have four walls or a completed roof. (Your troubles always pale in comparison to those who lived in the 18th century.)
However, they—or Rachel, rather—didn’t deal with the house’s perpetual incompleteness nonchalantly. When Christopher died, Rachel sold the house to Casandra Chew in 1767. Casandra wanted a better location and more land, and Rachel just wanted a finished house. So they basically traded residences, and after Casandra paid Rachel the difference in value, the Old Stone House officially became the Chew residence.
Casandra had more money than Rachel and Christopher, and over the years, she added a kitchen and a floor above the original room. Eventually, her daughter added a third floor, which you can easily distinguish from her mother’s additions because of the brick.
If you’re listening to this perfectly normal story, as I did when Zwelling told it, you have to wonder: Where does George Washington factor in?
While various families and businesses occupied the Old Stone House, George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant were frequenting the Fountain Inn, which was several streets away and closer to the water at 31st and K Street. (If you try to go there today, you’ll find an AMC movie theater.) The Fountain Inn is almost certainly the “headquarters” for the creation of DC. So what happened? Why the mix-up?
Well, the Fountain Inn was run by a man named John Suter. His son was a clockmaker, and he worked near his father—at the Old Stone House. The son’s name was also John Suter—he was John Suter, Jr.
The Fountain Inn was always referred to in newspapers as “John Suter’s place.” So if you’re looking for “John Suter’s place,” you might look at records of Georgetown businesses. And while John Suter, Sr., ran the Fountain Inn, he didn’t own the property. Meanwhile, John Suter, Jr., had his name clearly listed as a business-owner at the Old Stone House. The newspapers didn’t appear to realize that there were two John Suters, and so they thought that “John Suter’s place” was the Old Stone House.
I should point out that the Fountain Inn was a tavern and hosted many people. It would’ve served food and provided beds. I have no idea how you assume the Old Stone House could do the same, but I guess the presence of a bed and a dining room is enough to make a house a tavern.
In 1874, the first plaque showed up at the Old Stone House. It stated that it had been the site of “Washington’s Engineering Headquarters.” Historians at the time countered that there was no proof to make such a statement, but these protestations seem to have been ignored. Another plaque sprung up in 1899, further cementing the misconception. Even the government was duped: in December of 1929, it proposed spending $200,000 to refurbish the Old Stone House. It was a historic site, after all. Maybe it could even be an engineering museum—what better place to put one? However, these plans were crushed when the money didn’t come through. If you can recall, 1929 was a disastrous year for the stock market and the government.
By 1951, the Old Stone House was owned by a used car dealership, and it was quite proud of the house’s false history. In fact, the owners hosted a performance for the Washington, DC bicentennial. They hired a George Washington reenactor to tell the heartwarming tale of how his namesake city was designed and planned, all from the Old Stone House.
After such a public display, the government really needed to determine whether this story was true or not. The historians in 1951 agreed with the historians of the previous centuries: George Washington never visited the Old Stone House, let alone planned the creation of DC from it. The Old Stone House was nothing more than a very old house—the oldest house, in fact.
The used car dealership was crushed when it received this news. What good was the office if it was just an old room that George Washington had never even laid eyes on? The owners insisted on demolishing the house and building a fancy new office in its place. The government wasn’t a fan of this plan, since the Old Stone House was still an important piece of history. After much haggling, the government bought the Old Stone House from the car dealership for $90,000.
American citizens were not happy that the government just dropped $90,000 on a musty old house. Back in the 1950’s, Georgetown was not the fashionable place that it is today: it was the home of ugly factories. While $90,000 is definitely a good price for a property now worth $5 million, it was definitely a rip-off back then. The car dealership got the good end of the bargain, and now the government had this old house that it couldn’t do much with.
The government tried to make the most of the situation, and it pledged to maintain the historical integrity of the house. It tried many ways of doing this over the years, from turning the kitchen into a wood workshop to letting in Living History volunteers—most of whom were Girl Scouts. Finally, it was decided to display the house like a museum, and the National Park Service requested period pieces to furnish the house.
Even the National Park Service was surprised by the influx of items that it received. Residents donated a lot of stuff—so much stuff that the Park Service had to rent a warehouse. Only stuff that Casandra Chew wrote about in her will would be displayed in the house itself, with the exception of a George Washington needlepoint above the fireplace that Zwelling admits he has no idea how it got there.
So there you have it: the enduring Old Stone House, all the result of a mistake of history.
That’s all for today, folks! This lecture was the first of a six-part series, and the whole thing culminates in a bus tour. Upcoming lectures will discuss the Tudor Place and the Peabody Room at the Georgetown Library. If you wish to purchase tickets, click here.