250 years of Georgetown history

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Before there was a Washington, D.C., there was Georgetown.

Located just up the Potomac from the Kennedy Center, it's nowadays known mostly as the capital's toniest neighborhood and the resident headquarters of the eastern establishment's political elite.

But Georgetown is the most historic section of the capital, and, happily for the visitor, also the best preserved.

The late Pamela Harriman had a mansion here, and longtime Washington Post Chairman Katherine Graham still does.

Thomas Jefferson and "Star Spangled Banner" songwriter Francis Scott Key lived here (the local Potomac River bridge is named for him). President Ulysses S. Grant had his summer White House here. Before he became president, Richard Nixon was a Georgetown resident, as were actress Elizabeth Taylor (when married to Sen. John Warner) and Henry Kissinger.

Georgetown is also home to the liveliest and hippest nightlife to be found in the capital, as Saturday nights along its main drag, M Street, noisily attest.

But long before Washington was even a gleam in its namesake's eye, Georgetown was a thriving, important eastern seaport in its own right -- with vessels bound for Baltimore, New York, Charleston and even European ports tying up regularly.

250 YEARS OLD

This spring and summer, Georgetown is celebrating its 250th anniversary, with an emphasis on the history that sometimes gets overlooked amidst all the trendiness and social hauteur.

It was founded on 60 acres of riverfront and adjoining bluffs in May of 1751 -- just three years after a young surveyor named George Washington laid out what became the rival Virginia seaport of Alexandria a few miles downstream.

Georgetown belonged to Maryland then, and was named not for the young surveyor but Britain's King George II. It quickly boomed after its founding, doing a brisk trade in tobacco shipping, among other commerce. By 1790, it was the biggest tobacco exporter in the country. Water-powered textile and flour mills, a foundry, a rope works and a paper factory also were erected along its riverbank.

In the early 19th Century, the community became the eastern terminus of the then-important Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a coal and freight-carrying waterway that ran from the Georgetown docks along the Potomac and up and across the Appalachian Mountains to Cumberland, Md., 181 miles away.

In disuse as a transportation artery since the 1920s, the canal is now a National Historical Park and draws more hikers, bikers and joggers to Georgetown than canal boats ever did.

Georgetown also did an unfortunately thriving business in the slave trade, largely from a major slave auction house at Wisconsin and O Streets. Later, after slave trading was outlawed in the District of Columbia, Georgetown became an important station on the Underground Railroad and after the Civil War acquired a large community of free African-Americans (though few can afford to live there now).

A CAPITAL IDEA

Incorporated in 1789, Georgetown was a prime mover in the effort to have the national capital built here on the Potomac, and the town became part of the District of Columbia in 1791. Regretting its error -- the town was allowed no representative in Congress -- it later tried to retrocede itself out of the District, but failed -- unlike rival Alexandria, which broke free of D.C. in 1847.

Separated from the rest of the District by Rock Creek and its steep-sided ravine, Georgetown still seems quite a distinct place.

Wander anywhere through the community and you'll encounter history and prime examples of Colonial, Federalist, Victorian and Modern architecture. The 1765 Old Stone House at 3051 M St., the oldest still-standing dwelling in Georgetown, handily survives amongst the glitter. The 1760 Dodge Warehouse can be found down by the canal at 1000 Wisconsin Ave. At 1066 Wisconsin Ave. is the Vigilant Firehouse, the oldest surviving in the District. A plaque on it memorializes "Bush, the Old Fire Dog, died of Poison, July 5th, 1869."

The Georgetown house built in 1807 by songwriter and lawyer Key was dismantled in 1947 to make way for the riverfront Whitehurst Freeway. Its stones were stored away for future reassembly, and many are now missing.

Threatened at one point by Confederate soldiers taking part in Gen. Jubal Early's unsuccessful raid on Washington in 1864, Georgetown was a very busy place during the Civil War. Louisa May Alcott worked as a nurse in the military hospital that was established in the old Union Hotel at 30th and M Streets, and Walt Whitman helped out there, too.

FIELD HOSPITAL RE-CREATION

During the war, the legendary 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black regiment made famous again in the movie "Glory," trained on Mason's Island, now called Roosevelt Island, which runs in front of the Georgetown docks.

In 1887, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell founded the Volta Bureau at 35th Street and Volta Place for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge" about deafness, using profits from his invention of the phonograph. Helen Keller helped break ground for the still-standing structure at age 13. Bell had a laboratory in the stable at the building's rear.

In the 19th Century, the Georgetown elite lived uphill and away from the waterfront, which was significantly malodorous. Though the water's cleaner (Washington's scullers mostly row out of Georgetown boathouses), the same is largely true today.

NOTABLE MANSIONS

The big mansions are up on the bluffs, including the 1805-1816 Tudor Place, at 1644 31st St. It was built by William Thornton, original architect of the U.S. Capitol, for Martha Custis Washington's granddaughter, Martha Custis Peters. The house and gardens are open for tours (202-965-0400; www.tudorplace.org).

A Federalist mansion built in 1800, Dumbarton Oaks at 1703 32nd St. became home to one of the world's finest collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, assembled by owners Robert and Mildred Bliss (she was heiress to the turn of the century Fletcher's Castoria laxative fortune). It is now a museum that, like the house's fabulous gardens, is open to the public (202-339-6401; www.doaks.org).

The hilltop Georgetown University, one of the capital's most prominent landmarks thanks to its towering twin spires, was opened in 1791 as George Town College, the first Catholic institution of higher learning in America. Located at 37th and O Streets, it has one of the prettiest urban campuses in the country, especially its historic Quadrangle, which served as a parade ground during the Civil War, and its beautiful Dahlgren Chapel, built in 1893 and among other things used for Kennedy family weddings.

Dining out is a principal recreation in Georgetown, and its many restaurants make it a frequent destination for Washingtonians throughout the metropolitan area. Among those popular with tourists and locals alike are: Nathans (3150 M St.; 202-338-2000); 1789 (1226 36th St.; 202-965-1789); Bistro Francais (3128 M St.; 202-338-3830); Clyde's of Georgetown (3236 M St.; 202-333-9180); the Old Glory BBQ (3139 M St.; 202-337-3406); Paolo's (1303 Wisconsin Ave.; 202-333-7353); and Seasons, in the Four Seasons Hotel (2800 Pennsylvania Ave.; 202-944-2000).

The Four Seasons Hotel is popular with celebrities (Siegfried and Roy stayed here with their tigers), as is the nearby Georgetown Monarch Hotel (2401 M St.; 202-429-2400), where actress Jill Hennessy of "Law and Order" fame recently stayed.

Others nearby are the Latham Hotel Georgetown (3000 M St.; 202-726-5000); Georgetown Suites (1111 30th St.; 202-298-7800); the Watergate Hotel (2650 Virginia Ave.; 202-965-2300); and the Holiday Inn Georgetown (2101 Wisconsin Ave.; 202-338-4600).

(All addresses are in Northwest Washington -- N.W.)


For more information, contact the Georgetown Business and Professional Association, 202-944-5295. Web site is www.georgetowndc.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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