Tudor Place on a summer day in 2017
Perched on a ridge in Washington, D.C.'s historic and exclusive Georgetown neighborhood, Tudor Place is a grand estate with wide-open lawns, formal gardens, lush wooded areas, and a stunning main home of deep architectural and historic importance to the United States. This National Historic Landmark is significant for its Federal and Regency style architecture, as well as its close association with the political and military affairs of early 19th century America through its original owners, Thomas Peter and Martha Parke Custis Peter, and their relatives in the prominent Washington, Custis, and Lee families. Tudor Place and its residents witnessed a wide swath of American history, from the evil stain of slavery to the destruction of our capital city by a foreign power, and from George Washington to WWII, stories that make Tudor Place one of the most unique, interesting, and historically important homes in the country.
History of the Home
An 1836 map of Georgetown on display in the home. The digitally added X marks the location of Tudor Place. The Potomac River is also digitally labeled. The waterway on the right side of the map is Rock Creek, which divides the Georgetown neighborhood from the rest of DC.
Long before Georgetown was established, the area was home to a Native American village called Tohoga, inhabited by the Nacotchtank, an Algonquin-speaking people. English fur trader Henry Fleet was the first to report their presence and established trade with them. The tribe was later forcibly removed from the area or killed by disease, and their land became part of the English colony of Maryland, which had been founded in 1634 by Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore. Calvert partially created the colony as a haven for Roman Catholics, who had found themselves a distinct minority in Great Britain after the establishment of the Church of England a hundred years prior.
What is now Georgetown was originally part of the founding Calvert family's Manor of Calverton. In 1703, the Scottish Colonel Ninian Beall was granted 795 acres by Cecil's son Charles Calvert, an area encompassing most of modern-day Georgetown and the land on which Tudor Place stands. The area was named "Rock of Dumbarton" after a Scottish town and castle along the River Clyde.
When Ninian died, he passed the land, which he had apparently used mostly for grazing cattle and hogs, on to his son George Beall. In 1751, the Maryland state legislature purchased some land from George and another neighboring landowner also named George to establish the town of Georgetown. King George II ruled over Great Britain at the time as well, so it is unclear which George in particular the town was named for.
George Beall's son George Beall Jr. eventually donated two more parcels of land to be included in Georgetown. His second "addition" to the area came just before the city's incorporation on Christmas Day 1789 and included the land on which Tudor Place now stands. Some of the donated land remained owned by the Beall family, eventually passing to George Jr's son Thomas Beall, who in 1794 sold the lot now containing Tudor Place to the merchant Francis Lowndes of Bladensburg, Maryland. As the purchase was made, the land nearby was being surveyed for use as the new Federal District that would contain the Capitol and White House. Little did Lowndes know at the time, but his city of Bladensburg would later become the site of one of the worst military losses in U.S. history, the Battle of Bladensburg, a loss which allowed the British to invade the same Federal District in which he was now purchasing land and burn White House and Capitol that would be its most cherished treasures.
Lowndes built only the extreme wings of the home before selling it to Thomas Peter and Martha Parke Custis Peter. The couple lived here in the west wing of the house while the main portion was planned and constructed
It's unknown if Lowndes bought the land from Beall because he thought there would be advantages to living in the new national capital city, but he did try and make a home there, constructing both far wings of the present Tudor Place home during his 11 years of ownership. Eventually, however, the merchant decided to abandon the project and in 1805 sold the land and barely completed house to a couple that would become its most notable owners and residents: Thomas Peter and Martha Parke Custis Peter.
The Peters lived in the home's extreme west wing and used the extreme east wing as a stable while planning and constructing the center portion. The architect they selected for the project was Dr. William Thornton, an immigrant from Great Britain who had designed the United States Capitol Building as well as the Octagon House, a National Historic Landmark built in 1800 that was used as a backup White House by President James Madison after the burning of Washington in 1814. Thornton had also designed the Woodlawn Plantation house, a National Historic Landmark and National Trust for Historic Preservation Historic Site built on land that was originally part of George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation, for Martha Peter's sister Eleanor Custis Lewis.
With a track record like that, Thornton's reputation for excellence could not be denied, and he did not disappoint the Peters, completing their stunning new home in 1816. Thanks to the couple's extensive social and political connections (more on that below), "many of the most prominent people of that era were received" at Tudor Place, according to the official National Historic Landmark nomination form, including the Marquis de Lafayette, President Andrew Jackson, Senators Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, and General Robert E. Lee.
The Peters had five daughters. One of them, Britannia Wellington Peter, married U.S. Navy Commodore Beverly Kennon in 1842. Just two years into their marriage, Kennon was killed in the infamous explosion of the "Peacemaker" cannon aboard the U.S.S. Princeton. The ship was taking an exhibition cruise along the Potomac and was packed with dignitaries, including President John Tyler, former First Lady Dolley Madison, Virginia Governor Thomas Gilmer, the Secretaries of State, War, and the Navy, Commodore Robert F. Stockton, wealthy New Yorker David Gardiner, and his 20-year-old daughter Julia, to whom the 54-year-old President Tyler had recently proposed, but whose offer had not yet been accepted. Kennon was likely aboard in his capacity as head of the Navy's Bureau of Construction and Repair.
An artist's depiction of the 'Peacemaker' explosion and a piece of Beverley Kennon's Naval uniform are on display in the home's parlor
Part of the reason for the cruise was to display the firepower of the ship's new canon, called the "Peacemaker". It had been fired twice during the trip, despite there being some lingering questions about its readiness and safety. A third cannon shot was fired when the ship passed Mount Vernon as a salute to George Washington, Britannia Peter Kennon's step-great grandfather. The cannon exploded, killing Commodore Kennon, Governor Gilmer, the Secretary of State, and David Gardiner. President Tyler was below deck and was not injured. Julia was distraught at her father's death, but President Tyler comforted her, and the two formed a close bond. They were married within a year, and Julia became First Lady of the United States.
A portrait of Britannia Peter, the longest-running owner of Tudor Place, in her old age is on display in the home's parlor
Britannia, left a widow by the accident, moved back to her childhood home at Tudor Place, where she lived until she died in 1911 at age 96. Her daughter Martha Custis Kennon married her first cousin once removed, Dr. Armistead Peter, son of her grandfather Thomas Peter's brother George Peter, in 1867. Their son Armistead Peter Jr. had spent lots of time at Tudor Place with his grandmother Brittania and bought full control of the home after her death. His son, Armistead Peter III, raised his daughter at Tudor Place and then deeded it to a foundation upon his death in 1983. Tudor Place opened to the public as the house museum it is today in 1988. More on Armistead Peter III and his efforts to preserve Tudor Place can be found near the end of the post.
Commodore Beverley Kennon and Britannia Peter Kennon are buried next to each other in Georgetown's Oak Hill Cemetery, just up the street from Tudor Place
Thomas and Martha Peter
The original owners and residents of Tudor Place, Thomas and Martha Peter were especially well-connected ancestrally, politically, and socially in their time. The strong connections of its early residents help give Tudor Place its historic significance.
This 1830s painting of Thomas Peter is believed to have been painted by his son-in-law Lt. William G. Williams, husband of his daughter America Pickney Peter. It is currently in the collection of Tudor Place and has been restored multiple times
Image Credit: Tudor Place Foundation Inc
If early Georgetown had been governed by a monarchy, a young Thomas Peter would've been the prince and heir apparent to the throne. He was the oldest son of Robert Peter, a 32-year member of the Board of Commissioners of Georgetown, and the city's very first Mayor.
Robert had emigrated to Maryland from Scottland in 1846, where he became an important cog in the British mercantilist economic machine, buying raw tobacco from Maryland farmers and paying them with credits to his store, which was filled with imported manufactured goods from Great Britain.
Business was good, and Robert used the profits to invest heavily in land. He owned tobacco plantations and other farms in Maryland, an entire block of prime waterfront commercial property in Georgetown, a fashionable townhouse there, and even some tracts of land in what would become Washington, D.C., enough of it that he was honored as one of the "Original Proprietors of the City of Washington."
When he died in 1806, Robert Peter owned some 20,000 acres of land. He left 1/5 (about 4,000 acres) to Thomas, who had followed his father into the mercantile and real estate businesses, as well as local politics, becoming one of the twelve members of the first City Council of Washington in 1802. He also served as a Justice of the Peace in the County of Washington (a now-defunct governmental unit inside Washington, D.C. that included Georgetown) from 1801 until his death.
Peter was also a director of the local Bank of Columbia and a vestryman (administrator) of his local Episcopal Church, St. John's. He enjoyed horse racing as a hobby, was an accomplished flutist, and was an avid reader and book collector.
Thomas Peter married Martha Parke Custis Peter in 1795. He died in 1834 after almost four decades by her side at the age of 65 and was buried on longstanding family property in rural Maryland. Martha took over and ran the family's large estate for the remaining 20 years of her life.
The same portrait of Thomas Peter is on display in the home's parlor
Martha Parke Custis Peter
A portrait of Martha in the collection at Mount Vernon
Image Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies Association
If Thomas Peter was royalty in Georgetown alone, Martha Parke Custis Peter was royalty in America at large, a member of America's first First Family. Born in a bedroom at Mount Vernon, George Washington's massive plantation and beautiful mansion on the banks of the Potomac, in 1777, a few years into the American Revolution, Martha was the daughter of Martha Washington's son John Parke Custis and named after her grandmother. Her bloodline relation to Martha Washington of course made George Washington her step-grandfather. President Washington, who could not have children of his own, famously embraced his new adopted family, the product of Martha's first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, who died in 1757, and the young Martha was a beneficiary of that kindness and enjoyed a close relationship with the President.
But Martha wasn't only a member of one of Virginia's most prominent families, she was also part of Maryland's founding Calvert family. Martha's mother was Eleanor Calvert Custis, the great-granddaughter of Maryland Founder Cecil Calvert and the granddaughter of Charles Calvert, who granted the land containing Georgetown to Ninian Beall. So, when Martha and Thomas bought Tudor Place, they were really re-purchasing a small part of the land that had once belonged to Martha's maternal ancestors.
Martha, known to friends and family as "Patty", grew up plantation-hopping, dividing her time between her father's plantation, Abingdon, now the site of Virginia's Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), and Mount Vernon, just down the river. As previously mentioned, Martha was born roughly 2 years into the American Revolution. Her father, as Washington's stepson, was serving as a civilian aide to his stepfather during the war's final act, the siege and eventual surrender of the British at Yorktown. John Parke Custis fell ill during the operation and died soon after the surrender, leaving Martha fatherless at the age of four.
Martha actually had two even younger siblings, both of whom were sent to Mount Vernon to live as the adopted children of George and Martha Washington. "Patty" and her one older sibling remained living with their mother, who eventually remarried. Patty's new stepfather was Dr. David Stuart, a gentleman farmer, doctor, Virginia politician, and close friend and business associate of George Washington's. Stuart served in the Virginia House of Delegates, was a Presidential Elector in the first Presidential Election (he voted for Washington), and was a member of the Virginia convention that ratified the Constitution. Stuart was also an appointee to the commission that selected the site of and designed the Federal District.
The new family first lived at Abingdon, then moved to the Hope Park Plantation in Fairfax County. "Patty" followed her mother and stepfather to their new home but continued to enjoy long stays at Mount Vernon and maintained a close relationship with her grandparents, taking music lessons with Martha Washington and attending the cornerstone laying ceremony of the U.S. Capitol Building with President Washington in 1783.
Martha Washington also took a keen interest in her granddaughter, expressing her desire for the girl to "marry well" and hoping to one day find her "settled with a prospect of being happy" because she was "a very deserving girl." In 1795, the First Lady's wishes came true when Martha and Thomas Peter were married at Hope Park, uniting her aristocratic bloodline and political connections with his wealth, business acumen, and esteemed role in the still-developing Washington, D.C. community.
A copy of the miniature portrait of George Washington that Martha Peter requested from him as a wedding gift is on display in the parlor at Tudor Place. According to family legend, Martha wrote that "the wish nearest her heart was, to possess his likeness". Washington replied to her that he was happy to sit for the portrait but that "he could never believe the wish nearest a young lady’s heart –on the eve of her marriage, was to possess an old man’s picture"
A high-resolution version of the portrait can be found here
The newlywed Peters moved to Georgetown, where Thomas' father provided them with a beautiful townhouse near Rock Creek, the eastern boundary of the neighborhood. Even so, they kept up their connection to the Washingtons. Family lore recalls that their eldest daughter, who they named Martha, learned to walk on the back piazza of the Mount Vernon mansion, overlooking the Potomac.
After leaving office, President Washington continued to take trips to the Federal District from Mount Vernon to get updates on its construction. He often stayed at the Peters' home when he did so, spending his last-ever night in the city with them in November of 1799, before dying the next month. Yet Washington's death did not end the Peters' connection to him and Martha. In fact, quite the opposite.
The same portrait of Martha Peter is on display in the home's parlor
George and Martha Washington
When George Washington died, he left the bulk of his estate to his wife Martha but made specific allowances to other people and organizations, including Martha Peter. She received one of 23 equal parts of the proceeds of the sale of George Washington's land that was not otherwise distributed in his will.
Martha Washington did not remain a widow for very long. On May 22, 1802, less than three years after her husband's death, the former First Lady passed away at Mount Vernon. In her will, she bequeathed Martha Peter her personal writing table and chair, a print of George Washington, a share of the remaining wine in Mount Vernon's cellar, and ten guineas with which to buy a ring. Martha Washington's death also meant that Martha Peter inherited a portion of the Custis family slaves (which presumably would've passed to her father, had he lived longer). More on the Peters and slavery can be found in the next section below.
While Martha Peter was provided for in the will, Thomas Peter was named an executor of Martha Washington's estate. This meant the Peter family was in charge of carrying out Martha's last wishes, which included the sale of much of her property. But, it also meant they also got the first opportunity to purchase any of her belongings they wished to keep. The Peters took full advantage of this opportunity, spending over $750 (roughly equivalent to $20,000 in today's money) at the 1802 sale of Martha's estate. As a result, Tudor Place is today home to the largest collection of items once owned by George and Martha Washington outside of Mount Vernon itself. Many of these objects are on display in the home today, including:
This camp stool, one of just two remaining from an original order of 18 placed by George Washington for use on the road during the Revolutionary War. The stools were made for General Washington by Philadelphia upholsterer Plunkett Fleeson in 1776. The Peters purchased six of them during the estate sale. See a high-resolution image of this object here
On the left above is the last survivor of a pair of tabouret stools President Washington had built for his use in Philadelphia in 1793, while Philadelphia was serving as the capital city of the United States. Washington had the stools made to complete a collection of Parisian-style furniture he has purchased in New York, when that city was the capital, from the French Ambassador to the United States, Elénor-François-Elie, Comte de Moustier. The stool is crafted from the wood of ash, beech, and sweet gum trees. See a high-resolution image of this object here
On the right above is an English tea table crafted from mahogany wood in the 1700s and owned by the Washingtons. See a high-resolution image of this object here
The glass decanter with stopper on this table was owned by the Washingtons and probably made in England in the late 1700s. The label says "Mount Vernon" and was added by later generations of the Peter family to indicate that the item once belonged to George and Martha. The decanter is delicately cut with sunbursts, swags, and floral bouquets, which can be seen in the high-resolution image of this object found here
On this table in the drawing room is a hard-paste porcelain punch bowl from Jingdezhen, China, crafted in the 1760s or 70s. The bowl features beautiful over-glaze enamel decoration which can be fully appreciated in the high-resolution image of this object found here. The exterior of the bowl features a scene of Chinese farmers picking rice while the inside depicts Europeans on a fox hunt. At the bottom of the bowl is the image of the fox, revealed to revelers once they had relieved the bowl of its contents. Martha Peter used the bowl to serve punch and apple toddy to the guests she hosted in at events in this room. The presence of an object from China in the Washingtons' possession as far back as the late 1700s is a testament not only to their great wealth but also the already significantly globalized nature of trade at the time.
Perhaps the most important property of the Washingtons held at Tudor Place is not on display in the home. Besides the furniture and objects purchased by the Peters, Tudor Place also holds a collection of the first First Couple's correspondence. This is especially meaningful as Martha Washington burned most of her letters to and from her husband after his death. The most important of the letters held at Tudor Place is a 1775 letter from George to Martha informing her that he had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, which would, of course, go on under his leadership to defeat the world's then-mightiest military superpower Great Britain and win the Revolutionary War. An image of that letter can be found here.
Also in the collection are a letter from George Washington to Thomas Peter about their business relationship regarding the sale of Mount Vernon's tobacco crop, which can be seen here, and correspondence between Martha Washington and then-President John Adams regarding the later-discarded plan to bury George Washington in the U.S. Capitol Building, which can be seen here.
Slavery at Tudor Place
Tudor Place, where enslaved Black people lived and worked, was designated a Georgetown African American Historic Landmark in 2020 during the national conversation about race that took place in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis
The Peters and their famous relatives were white, wealthy, and owned a lot of land south of the Mason-Dixon line before the Civil War. That meant, almost by default, that they owned slaves.
In 1786, halfway between the resignation of his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and his inauguration as the first President of the United States, George Washington reported that 216 enslaved people lived on his Mount Vernon estate. A majority of those slaves, 113, actually did not belong to Washington. They belonged to his wife.
Martha Washington had inherited a group of slaves known as the "Custis Dower" group from her late husband, Daniel Parke Custis, who died without a will. A dower is a widow's share of her late husband's property. This group of slaves that Martha brought into her marriage with George ended up being shared, divided, and passed down among the Washington, Peter, and Custis families and lineages. The group was added to over time by natural births among its female enslaved members. Laws at the time ensured that any person born of a slave woman became a slave as well.
Martha Parke Custis Peter received two shares of the Custis Dower slaves. The first came as part of her marriage to Thomas Peter. At that time, the couple received a staggering 61 enslaved people. At the time of Martha Washington's death, they received another 30 or 40 of the Dower slaves. Thomas Peter also inherited slaves from his own father, meaning that the couple owned over 100 people during their marriage. Some of the slaves were sold, likely separating them from family and friends, probably forever. Others were brought to work at the Peters' Georgetown townhouse, and eventually, Tudor Place. Some of those slaves were hired out to work for neighbors of the Peters, while the third group of Peter slaves worked the couple's farms in D.C. and Maryland. More on those farms below.
The Peters did not purchase Tudor Place until 1805, three years after Martha Washington's death and just one year before Robert Peter's death. This suggests that the couple used their significant inheritances to fund the construction and subsequent upkeep of the home. Some of that inheritance of course came in the form of enslaved people. In fact, by
1820, just five years after the home was completed, the recorded slaves at the Tudor Place estate included three adult men, four adult women, and three boys and five girls under the age of 14. Thomas Peter was also involved in the slave trade for business reasons, buying and selling human beings individually in Georgetown or including them in the land deals he made out in the country.
While little is known about the Tudor Place slaves, extensive research has revealed a few facts about some of the people that lived or worked on the property.
For example, one of the Peters' slaves was Barbara Twine Cole, who took care of the couple's children. Barbara was the daughter of Sal Twine, a slave on George Washington's Dogue Run Farm in Virginia. When Britannia Peter grew up, Barbara served as her lady's maid, and also nursed her daughter Martha. Sadly, Barbara was in all likelihood raped by a white male member of the Peter family and conceived a daughter, Hannah, who became part of the dowry to Commodore Beverly Kennon when he married Britannia Peter. After Kennon's death on the USS Princeton, Hannah returned to Tudor Place with Britannia until she was sold to Colonel John Carter, who bought her so that she could marry one of his slaves, Alfred Pope. The couple was freed by Carter's will upon his death.
One Tudor Place slave who lived away from the property was Peter family cook Patty Allen. Her husband was a free man and she was allowed to live with him at his home. Britannia remembered her in her diary as a hardworking and excellent cook. Another slave named Will Twine worked at Tudor Place as a gardener and also lived off the property with his free wife.
The smokehouse, built in 1794, is the oldest building on the Tudor Place property and was the domain of slave Will Johnson during his lifetime
Among the other slaves at Tudor Place was Will Johnson, who was the family's coachman and also in charge of the smokehouse on the property, Stacia, a maid and nanny to the children whom Brittana supported with small financial payments after emancipation, and Annie Gray, the seamstress who lived with her children in a small wooden building located in the northeast corner of the property that a 2013 archeological dig uncovered traces of.
As previously mentioned, the Peters owned two farms in addition to Tudor Place, which was not large enough to grow all of the food needed to support the family. Those farms were called Oakland and Effingham. Oakland was in Montgomery County, Maryland in the town of Seneca, while Effingham was in Northwest DC, and could be visited and returned from in a single day. Oakland sat near the Potomac River on land that Thomas Peter had inherited from his father.
Slaves worked both farms for the Peters. In 1803, Thomas provided the Montgomery County clerk with a list of 17 of the slaves he had acquired from his marriage to Martha that were living at Oakland. Peter purchased cattle to roam the farm and provide the family with meat and milk. He also kept his beloved racehorses in the pastures at Oakland, as well as a group of hunting hounds, and the Peter family used the property as a summer retreat, though its main house was far more humble than the Tudor Place mansion.
Wood inside the smokehouse blackened by creosote, a chemical created during the meat smoking process
Britannia remembers in her writings groups of hogs being brought down to Tudor Place annually from Oakland, where they were cut up and smoked by Will Johnson in the smokehouse, where he kept the fire "smoking but never hot" and their fat was used to fry the family's foods. Britannia also reported, "There were the negroes to be fed." and that "Pork and cornmeal were the principal articles of food for them."
Effingham was a more utilitarian working farm of 136 acres, which the Peters often rode out to and from for pleasure and from which supplemental provisions could be brought in. Tudor Place wasn't completely dependent on the farm imports, however, as Britannia recorded that the property "raised our own beef, mutton, hogs, poultry", had its own dairy and smokehouse, a vegetable garden, fruit orchard, and herb garden as well.
Archeological digs have uncovered evidence of old buildings here on the property's East Lawn where slaves likely lived. Decades after abolition, in the 1880s, Britannia leveled the area for use as a tennis lawn by her grandchildren. They formed the Tudor Place Lawn Tennis Club in 1888
In recent years, the Tudor Place Foundation has made an extra special effort to uncover and tell the story of slavery on the property and the slaves who maintained this National Historic Landmark in its heyday. While there is no mention of slaves or slavery in the official NHL designation documentation, it's a story that is equally important to the home and the nation's history, and one that cannot and should not be glossed over or forgotten.
In non-architectural terms, the design of Tudor Place can be understood simply as "business in the front, party in the back."
The front facade of the Tudor Place home is far more plain than the rear one
A portrait of the home's architect, Dr. William Thornton, today hangs in the entrance vestibule