Hello! Intern Katie Willard blogging once again about our “DC’s Historic Sites: Welcome to Georgetown” series. This week featured a lecture about Tudor Place given by Grant Quertermous, curator of Tudor Place and wearer of bowties.
I came into this lecture slightly embarrassed because it turns out that I’ve walked past Tudor Place many times and never realized what it was. So why has this five-and-a-half-acre plot of land been preserved over the years, beyond being prime real estate in the city?
Well, it wasn’t an accident of history, like the Old Stone House. Unlike the site mentioned in our first lecture, Tudor Place actually has strong Washington connections (although George Washington never slept there either): the family that owned Tudor Place for almost 200 years, the Peters, were descended from George Washington’s stepson. Since dear old George had no children of his own, his stepson was as close to a son as Washington ever had.
Martha Washington, First Lady
Before Martha became Washington’s wife and future first First Lady, she was Martha Dandridge. She married Daniel Parke Custis and had four children with him, although only two survived to young adulthood. These children, John “Jacky” Parke Custis and Martha “Patsy” (I don’t know how you get “Patsy” from “Martha,” but oh well) Parke Custis, were raised by George Washington when he married their mother in 1759. Patsy later died as a teenager, and Jacky became the sole Custis heir.
Jacky married a woman named Eleanor Calvert, and they had four children together. For this story, we only care about Jacky’s second-oldest, Martha Parke Custis, who would go on to marry Thomas Peter and begin the Tudor Place legacy. (Side note: Jacky died shortly after the Battle of Yorktown, and his widow Eleanor Calvert remarried and went on to have 16 MORE CHILDREN. Even then, that’s very impressive and deserves a shout-out.)
Martha Parke Custis Peter as a young girl
Martha Parke Custis’ story was already entwined with George Washington’s from her first moments in 1777, as she was born in the Blue Room at Mount Vernon. Her husband, Thomas Peter, was the son of Robert Peter, Mayor of Georgetown. Their first home was a K Street Townhouse (demolished in the 1960s), but when your father-in-law was Mayor of Georgetown and your step-grandfather is the Father of Our Nation, I guess you’re destined to own a mansion. Tudor Place was bought with Martha’s inheritance money from George Washington, and it originally consisted of eight and a half acres of land and what looked like two bookends of a house. Martha and Thomas commissioned Dr. William Thornton—who also designed the U.S. Capitol—to design their mansion.
When looking at the house, the portico is the most prominent feature. Tudor Place actually has a temple structure on the south façade (the fancy side), which serves as a natural transition from inside to outside. And while the Peters were wealthy, they did cut some corners: their house is made entirely of brick. So why does it look much fancier than most brick houses? Well, they covered the brick in stucco and drew in block lines to make it look fancier, as if the house were made of expensive stone blocks. (It seems like this paint-over-inexpensive-items-to-make-them-look-expensive thing was all the rage back then. Thomas Jefferson employed a similar technique with his “mahogany” door at his octagonal home, Poplar Forest. This practice also reminds me of the stories my grandmother told me about rationing during WWII, when women would draw lines up their legs to make it seem like they were wearing pantyhose.)
The inside of the house was quite nice as well. Tudor Place wasn’t meant to be the private sanctuary of the Peters: it was meant for entertaining! The parties at Tudor Place were very exclusive—so exclusive that First Lady Dolley Madison probably wasn’t even allowed to attend. The Peters were staunch Federalists, despite the fact that after John Adams, the Federalist Party would never occupy the presidency again. However, Martha Peter was very hopeful that the Federalists would return to power one day—she insisted upon this until she died in 1854. She and her husband were such Anglophiles that some of their children’s names include Columbia Lafayette Peter, George Washington Parke Custis Peter, America Pinckney Peter, and Britannia Wellington Peter.
Yes, America’s middle name comes from Thomas Pinckney, a Federalist presidential hopeful (at least, if Alexander Hamilton had his way). And yes, the Peters named their last daughter “Britannia” only months after Washington, DC, had been razed and the White House had been burned—all thanks to the British! Martha and Thomas were true believers in the Federalist cause.
The most famous visitor of Tudor Place was definitely the Marquis de Lafayette. He came to the mansion during his victory tour in 1824. He told Martha that he remembered her as the young girl he had seen running around the grounds of Mount Vernon. He also gave the family a present: an engraving of himself. To me, this doesn’t seem like much of a gift, but it was acceptable back then. George Washington also gave Martha Peter a miniature portrait of himself inside a locket, but she had asked for one as a wedding present, so…
Martha Parke Custis Peter holding her GW locket
Speaking of the miniature, the last portrait of Martha Parke Custis Peter features her holding the George Washington locket—a sign that Martha was proud to be part of the George Washington legacy.
Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon and her daughter
After Martha died, Tudor Place was passed onto her youngest daughter, Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon. When Britannia inherited Tudor Place, she had already been widowed. Her husband, Commodore Beverley Kennon, was killed by exploding shrapnel from a gun ironically called “Peacemaker.” (Britannia was present for that demonstration, as well as then-president John Tyler.) While her husband died relatively early into their marriage, Britannia never remarried and thus collected a widow’s pension for the rest of her life. She also lived much longer than her ill-fated husband—until the eve of her 96th birthday, to be precise. That means she lived from 1815 to 1911, from the War of 1812 to just before the beginning of World War I.
In 1858, Britannia decided to take a vacation from Tudor Place, but if you can recall your US history, this was a very bad time to take off from your large home—the Civil War was on the horizon. Britannia hurried home and reoccupied her house, afraid that if she didn’t, the government would turn it into a hospital. Britannia wasn’t very sympathetic to the Union cause, as she had family ties to another prominent general: Robert E. Lee. Years earlier, she had been a bridesmaid at the wedding of her cousin Mary Anna Randolph Custis (daughter of George Washington Parke Custis) and General Robert E. Lee. Britannia was very fond of Lee and insisted on calling him “Cousin Robert.” He returned the favor and referred to her as “Cousin Brit.”
Since she was very chummy with the Lees, it’s no surprise that she was a Southern sympathizer. The surprise, however, was that when Tudor Place became a boarding house during the Civil War, it mostly housed Union soldiers and officers. Even though everyone knew that she favored the Confederates, she appeared to be a kind hostess to the soldiers, only insisting that they never talk about the war over dinner. This request may have been less about good manners and more about avoiding treason, however: many boarding house owners—like Mary Surratt—were accused of spying for the Confederates, since they were privy to talk between Union officers. So no war talk meant no spy charges for Britannia.
However, Britannia’s family members weren’t so lucky. Britannia’s nephews, who were Confederate soldiers, snuck into a Union camp with forged papers. Unfortunately, the two were caught, and while they maintained that it was a prank, the Union generals disagreed: they were hanged. There’s no evidence pointing to whether it was actually a prank gone awry or they were spies for the Confederacy, but regardless, Britannia’s future son-in-law Armistead Peter had their bodies reinterred at Oak Hill Cemetery (another site from our “Welcome to Georgetown” series).
Why yes, Britannia’s son-in-law is descended from the same Peters: Armistead and Britannia were cousins. And yes, that means that Armistead married his first cousin once removed, Martha Custis Kennon. (The repetition of names is not helping my brain keep track of this family tree.) Armistead and Martha had five kids (who all survived into adulthood!), so Britannia had lots of company in the form of grandchildren running around Tudor Place. In 1890, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine did a feature about her, since she was the oldest living descendant of Martha Washington and her home contained lots of Washington family relics.
When Britannia died in 1911, her grandchildren divided up the estate, placing stickers on all the things. However, Armistead Peter, Jr., wanted the house, so he purchased his siblings’ shares of the estate. Armistead Peter, Jr., married Anna Wright Williams, and in an unprecedented move, had only one child, Armistead Peter III. Armistead Peter III would be the last private owner of Tudor Place.
When World War I began, Armistead Peter III joined the Navy. Grant Quertermous showed some great photos of Armistead III in his Navy uniform. Armistead took up photography as a hobby, so there are a lot of photos from this time, and not just of the family—Armistead photographed anyone, including the servants. Armistead also was interested in radio, so he had his own radio room in the house. Outside of the house, his great love was his 1919 Pierce Arrow Roadster. Armistead loved this car so much that he kept it for the rest of his life. This is the biggest piece at Tudor Place today: it weighs tons (literally) and cannot run anymore, in case anyone of you are thinking of driving it.
Armistead Peter III chilling in his 1919 Pierce Arrow Roadster
Armistead Peter III and Caroline Ogden Jones on their wedding day
In 1920, Armistead settled down and married Caroline Ogden Jones. After they got married, they lived in Paris for a while. When World War II came around, Armistead rejoined the Navy and requested to be transferred to an active combat zone. While in the South Pacific, he painted landscapes and collected stuff from Japanese soldiers, like swords. Some of his WWII things are still at Tudor Place today.
Armistead Peter III looking dapper in the Tudor Place garden
Before Armistead died in 1983, he set began the process of turning Tudor Place into a museum, a place to be enjoyed by everyone. Five years later, Tudor Place opened to the public, and the foundation that Armistead and Caroline started has since become the Tudor Place Foundation. Because Tudor Place was a home to the Peters for almost two centuries, its rooms aren’t set up to reflect just one period of history. Of course, the George Washington artifacts are quite the draw, but the all of the heads of household had an important impact on Tudor Place. I’m very excited to visit on November 5th as part of the bus tour! I can’t believe that this series is coming to a close. Look for one more post about the Peabody Room at Georgetown Library, and get your tickets for the bus tour here.