In D.C., There’s No Place Like a Historic Home

Posted November 12, 2010 at 9:00am

It’s hard for any historic house in D.C. to garner the title of “most famous house in Washington” when their neighbors are the White House and the Capitol.

But for some of these landmarks — which are only a stone’s throw away from Capitol Hill — the title isn’t necessary. Their intricate histories and preserved artifacts are enough to attract visitors from all over the country, securing them a well-earned spot on a newcomer’s to-do list.

The Other White House

“Lincoln’s Cottage is the most significant site of his presidency, other than the White House. Some people even refer to it as his ‘other White House,’” President Lincoln’s Cottage Director Erin Mast said. “You can’t visit the White House without going through your Representative months in advance, but any casual visitor can come here.”

President Lincoln’s Cottage, which didn’t open to the public until the winter of 2008, lies on the quiet grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington, at the intersection of Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street Northwest.

The president and his family used the gothic-style cottage as a summer escape from the White House’s political pressures and stifling heat for three seasons in 1862, 1863 and 1864 — exactly one-quarter of his presidency.

During that period, Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint where he drafted the order, some do think the president was working on the historic legislation during his stay at the cottage. As a result, the home was later crowned as both a national monument and historic landmark.

But don’t expect to find the furniture that Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, used; although the cottage carries his name, the home was also used as an escape before his presidency by President James Buchanan and was later used by Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur. What visitors can expect is an interactive tour that tells Lincoln’s story through reconstructed scenes and multimedia videos.

“When people come here, they are going to get an experience unlike any they’ve ever had before,” Mast said. “We have minimal furnishing because we want people to experience the fullness of the space and really get in touch with Lincoln’s ideas in a different part of the city.”

The adjacent visitors’ center, which is free, features a “Being Lincoln” exhibit that allows visitors to experience what elements it took to fill the president’s shoes, and it even allows guests to put their face into a photo booth and digitally add in some of Lincoln’s famous garb.

Guided tours of the cottage are $12 for adults and $5 for children, and are available Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Remember the Ladies

Nestled among the museums and government buildings on Capitol Hill is the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum (144 Constitution Ave. NE), which has been home to the National Woman’s Party since 1929.

The red brick house originally belonged to Robert Sewall, a general for the U.S. Army in the War of 1812. It is said that the first shots of the war were fired in the house’s backyard, and it survived a fire.

When wealthy suffragist Alva Belmont later purchased the house — which has a prime location near the Capitol — it became the fifth and final headquarters for the NWP.

“Belmont was married to a Vanderbilt and used her estate to support the NWP,” said Elisabeth Crum, public program and outreach manager for the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum. “The headquarters was used for thought and activity to keep an eye on Congress and to lobby for legislation and impact.”

The museum is home to more than 500 suffrage banners that were used in pickets and parades, more than 5,000 prints and photographs of the suffrage movement and equal rights movement and a scrapbook that chronicles the NWP’s struggle in newspaper headlines. It also features a jailhouse door pin with a heart-shaped paddle lock, which the NWP awarded to 100 suffragists who were arrested after picketing the White House from 1917 to 1919.

The Sewall-Belmont House is closed for construction until March. But Crum promises a “fabulous celebration” for the grand reopening, which happens to coincide with Women’s History Month.

Georgetown’s Treasure

Across town is the colonial-style Dumbarton House (2715 Q St. NW), tucked away in the classic Georgetown neighborhood. Although the area is often associated with college students, the historic landmark is anything but modern.

Dumbarton — which was constructed during the federal period — pays homage to 19th-century living, complete with English portraits, crystal dishes, colonial furniture and regal draperies. The house boasts a slew of famous inhabitants, including Dolley Madison and Joseph Nourse, the first register of the Treasury Department. You can almost envision them sipping tea in the parlor or discussing war and politics over the breakfast table.

In addition to monthly jazz performances and speaking programs, visitors can check out the house itself, which is open Tuesday through Friday from
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Adult admission is $5, and children and students are free.

Wilson Slept Here

The unique Woodrow Wilson House  (2340 South St. NW) on Embassy Row is an intimate portrayal of the 28th president.

Wilson and his second wife, Edith, moved to the Kalorama neighborhood the day of President Warren Harding’s inauguration in 1921. Although Wilson died three years later, his wife had the foresight to remain in the house and consult with preservationists before her death in 1961.

“The amazing thing about this house is that it did not change hands and remained in the Wilson name all those years,” said Barbara Troutner, a guide for the Woodrow Wilson House. “Mrs. Wilson gave the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Even while she was still alive, they were helping her maintain the house.”

As a result, the house remains completely furnished with the Wilsons’ original furniture — even the ancient kitchen stove was never replaced while Wilson’s wife lived there. Other areas of the home feature wedding gifts, state gifts and paintings from Wilson’s first wife, Ellen.

“It really is a walk back in history,” Troutner said. “We make a concerted effort to present who Wilson was, flaws and all. He was a near-genius and quite a visionary.”

Guided tours are $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors and $3 for students, while children younger than 7 are free. The Wilson house is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with the exception of major holidays.

And don’t forget to check back in early December, when the Woodrow Wilson House gets ready for Christmas. Wilson’s wife made sure to preserve all their decorations, from table settings and greenery to stringed lights and ornaments, giving even the White House Christmas tree a run for its money.