• Dante Mazza

Tudor Place


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.


Thomas Peter

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.


 

The Architecture

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


As previously mentioned, the architect of Tudor Place was Dr. William Thornton, who had also designed the U.S. Capitol Building, Octagon House, and plantation homes for some of the Peters' relatives. In Tudor Place, Thornton combined two of the prevailing architectural styles of the time: the American Federal style and the European Regency style, both of which draw on Ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. Structurally, the house is common of its era: a five-part plan with a main block, two hyphens, and two end wings. The main block and end wings are two stories each, while the hyphens are one and a half stories tall. The Peters lived in the plain end wings until they had enough money to construct the elaborate central portion. Martha Peter's brother George Washington Parke Custis did the same during the construction of his Arlington plantation, eventually passing the completed house down to his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee.

Tudor Place is built of brick stuccoed over and scoured to look like ashlar, which is a more natural-looking type of stone composition.

The North facade of the main block is exceptionally plain and in the Federal style. The ground floor windows are in a nine-over-six configuration while those on the second story are six-over-six. The windows are double-hung sash, meaning they can be lowered from the top, raised from the bottom, or both. The numbers six and nine refer to the number of individual glass boxes found in each window pane. Three of the four end chimneys that project from the home's roof are also visible in the above photo.

The building has a simple but noticeable cornice atop its structure just below the roofline. The roof itself has a pronounced overhang, and therefore a wide soffit, which is the underside of the roof overhang.

Before arriving at the home's main entrance, visitors to Tudor Place would proceed down a long path from the property's northern boundary, passing through the working and then ornamental gardens before hitching their horses to a tall locust tree out front and proceeding inside.

The home's north door is topped with a white transom, which itself is topped with a semicircular glass transom window.


Inside, the floorplan of Tudor Place's main block is similar to that of the Arlington Plantation house located across the Potomac River. The home runs seven rooms across and two rooms deep. The rooms on the first floor of the main block are the most architecturally elaborate and interesting, meant to be shown off to visitors. These main rooms are similar in feel but more elaborate than the rooms Thornton designed at Woodlawn. The rooms of the main block's second story and the end wings are plainer, intended only for the private use of the Peter family, or as utilitarian areas for use by the family's slaves and later paid staff.

One exception to this rule is the room on the first floor currently displayed as a dining room. The lower ceiling, less decorative cornice, and darker wall color are all indications that this room was not designed on par with the other formal entertaining spaces detailed below. Documents held in the Tudor Place archive have revealed that this was originally Thomas and Martha Peter's bedchamber.

The room now displayed as a Butler's Pantry was originally Martha Peter's dressing room. Instead of holding dishes, this room held her clothes.


According to the National Historic Landmark nomination form, the home "achieve[s] an architectonic level of excellence unsurpassed in either of the other houses" designed by Thornton. While Tudor Place isn't as spacially norm-shattering as the Octagon House, it's more elaborate and more "daring than the doctrinaire formalism of Woodlawn", particularly thanks to its more developed interior decoration, as detailed below.

The first room entered from the main door is the entrance vestibule, which is the central portion of a hall that runs across the main block of the house. This is the room where the portrait of Dr. Thornton shown above currently hangs. Prior to abolition, an enslaved man named Charlie would have greeted visitors here, taken their cloaks, and escorted them to the main reception hall, or saloon.

The key architectural details in this room according to the nomination form are the "finely molded linear plaster cornices and wall panels"

Along with the "handsome doorways framed by paneled pilasters carrying an entablature."

A left turn from the main entry through one of those handsome doorways takes one into the stair hall, of which the focal point is of course the staircase.

The nomination form notes the staircase's "open string, a simple oval handrail, and square balusters", which are each digitally labeled above

Heading south from the entrance vestibule, visitors arrive at the central reception hall, which has a wide bank of floor-to-ceiling windows facing out to the circular temple porch. The windows can be opened from the floor up to provide ventilation to the reception hall and egress outside to the porch. What's notable about the window bank is that it recesses into the house to allow the full circle of the temple portico to be completed. This is one of the most unique architectural features of Tudor Place

The walls in the room feature the same kind of decorative panels as the entrance vestibule. The landmark nomination form notes that the decoration of these spaces "is unusually crisp and creates an excellent contrast of light and shade", as can be appreciated in the completely unedited photo above

The doors between the vestibule and saloon are six-panel and made of curly maple. Armistead Peter III, the last private owner of the home, said he felt the doors were "beautifully related" to the saloon.


Flanking the central hall (saloon) are the two principal reception rooms.

To the east is the drawing room

To the west is the Parlor. According to the nomination form, there are three defining architectural features shared by these rooms

First are the "very high quality plaster cornices with floral swags and acanthus leaf motifs", as seen here in the drawing room

Next, the "ceiling centerpieces with Greek honeysuckle motifs", like this one in the parlor

And finally, the "fireplaces with rectangular openings, marble surrounds and marble mantels with colonettes, frieze paneled central tablets with bas-relief figures and mantel shelves with molded edges", like this one in the drawing room

And this one in the parlor, standing watch over George Washington's camp stool and Martha Washington's tea table

The South facade of the home is its focal point and is as elaborate as the North facade is plain. The official National Historic Landmark nomination form describes this facade as a "tour-de-force of Regency design".

On this side, the hyphens appear to be only one story tall and are topped with a classical wooden balustrade. The end wings of the house are two window bays wide and two stories tall, topped with a hipped roof. A simple belt course denotes the division between the first and second stories.

The main attraction of the south facade is the two-story domed temple. The circular top intersects with the house so that half of it projects off of the facade while the other half recesses into it, creating a large alcove space underneath. The portion that projects consists of a large semicircular dome supported by four columns designed in an approximation of the Roman Doric style.

The fully complete circle of the temple portico is one of Tudor Place's most unique architectural features because in most other instances the dome would be merely a semicircle projecting from the facade

On the left of the above photo is one of the ground floor windows that flank the portico on either side. Set into arched recessed bays, these windows feature a wide central portion and slimmer ones on either side. On the right in the photo is one of the engaged pilasters found on either side of the dome where it meets the house.

This plaque from the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail shares the story of Dr. and Mrs. Thornton fleeing their home for Tudor Place on the night the British burned Washington DC


Even after the home was finished, the Peters and the Thorntons remained good friends. Their relationship was so strong in fact, that Martha Peter and Dr. Thornton's wife, Anna Maria Thornton, got to witness an extraordinary moment of American history together. On August 24, 1814, word reached Washington that the British army had won the Battle of Bladensburg and was advancing toward the capital city.


As the British marched in, the Thorntons left their home in what is now downtown Washington, D.C., and headed for Tudor Place to stay with their friend Martha. Georgetown Mayor John Peter, a nephew of Thomas and Martha's, had promised the British they would face no resistance from his citizens if they were left in peace. As a result, the town was untouched by the invading troops and was a safe place to which to flee.

That night, Anna and Martha peered out the window seen above in the Peters' bedchamber (the room now displayed as a dining room) and watched the city burn. Dr. Thornton's most cherished architectural triumph, the U.S. Capitol Building, was among the structures set ablaze that night, and the burning of the White House would force President Madison into temporary residence at the Octagon House he had also designed. For Thornton, the night was likely a profound personal experience, as well as a historic one for the nation as a whole.


That incident was just one of the many in early American history to which Tudor Place and its inhabitants have a direct, deep, and personal connection.

 

Preserving Tudor Place

The plaque officially declaring Tudor Place a National Historic Landmark. The estate was one of the first properties in America to receive that distinction.


It was likely because of those direct personal connections to history that the Peter family felt obligated to maintain the home so well. It changed hands just four times from its 1816 completion to the 1980s, each time moving from one well-off and historically minded Peter family member to the next. It is fortunate for the home and for history that each owner was financially able and passionately willing to keep the property in good shape.


The National Historic Landmarks Program began as a supplement to the early historic preservation efforts of the National Parks Service. While several National Historical Parks, Monuments, and Memorials preserve important historic places, the federal government could not practically add every place of historic significance to the National Parks System, so it launched the National Historic Landmarks Program to ensure the important historic sites it could not directly control would be recognized and protected.


To identify these places, the Service embarked on several theme studies, during which sites significant for different time periods were examined and determined eligible for Landmark status. One such study was titled "Political and Military Affairs, 1783-I830". This study was conducted sometime around 1960 and determined that Tudor Place possessed "exceptional value as commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States."


With that in mind, on December 19, 1960, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Fred A. Seaton, serving in the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, announced in a press release that Tudor Place was eligible to join just the second group of National Historic Landmarks ever designated. The description of the home in the press release explains its significance:


"This structure of great architectural significance, had important historical associations with the families of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Privately owned."


Of course, Tudor Place is historically significant for many more reasons than that, but at the time those connections were enough to secure Landmark status, a feat that was easier then than it is now.


One reason for the increased difficulty is that as the decades have progressed, the federal government has done fewer and fewer theme studies to identify potential National Historic Landmarks. Property owners now usually complete lengthy nomination forms, often with the help of their state's historic preservation officer, and petition the government for Landmark status. At the beginning of the program, however, it was the other way around. The government conducted the studies and asked the property owners if they wanted their properties to be designated. That's why on February 3, 1961, a letter arrived at Tudor Place for Armistead Peter Jr. from the acting Director of the National Parks Service informing him that the property had been "studied by the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings; evaluated by the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments; and approved by the Secretary of the Interior" to become a National Historic Landmark. The letter went on to say that Tudor Place could become an NHL after a simple form was completed committing "to adhere to simple preservation practices."


Unfortunately, Armistead Peter Jr. had died in 1960 at the age of 90. Fortunately, his son Armistead Peter III was equally interested in preserving Tudor Place, but rather than accepting the Landmark designation, he decided to take things a step further.


By 1966, documents show that the National Parks Service was in negotiations with Armistead Peter III to accept a scenic easement over the property that would be a legally binding way to ensure its preservation while still allowing the Peter family to reside there in the future. These conversations took almost the entire year and included exchanges between lawyers representing Mr. Peter, Parks Service employees, and the Solicitor of the Department of Interior, which on November 23, 1966, determined that such an easement was permissible under the Historic Sites Act of 1935 and that the law's "public use" provision did not equate to "public access" since the property could still be appreciated from public streets.


In order to ensure that the easement was legally binding, Tudor Place had to officially be certified as a nationally significant historic place. Since Armistead Peter Jr. had died so close to the announcement that Tudor Place was eligible for Landmark status, it appears the distinction was never made formal beyond the press release and letter sent to him. On November 11, 1966, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall, serving under President Lyndon B. Johnson, formally declared Tudor Place “of national historical significance within the meaning of the Historic Sites Act of 1935."


The scenic easement was announced in another Interior Department press release on December 8, 1966. Mr. Peter visited Secretary Udall in his office at the Interior Department headquarters to formally grant the easement to the U.S. government. Among its key provisions:


—No reconstruction of the home can be undertaken which alters its present appearance.

--Construction of new buildings on the land is forbidden, except for

structures necessary for the maintenance of the estate, and the property cannot be subdivided.

--No tree which is more than 8 inches in diameter and 30 feet high can be

removed without the consent of the Secretary of the Interior.

—The main house cannot be used for any purposes other than as a residence or museum.


In the release, Udall called Tudor Place “one of the most historic

structures in the Nation's Capital remaining in private ownership” and celebrated this “first occasion on which a scenic easement has been donated to the United States under this Historic Sites Act of 1935” as a way to “assure that its dignity and beauty will be preserved unimpaired for future generations.”


Mr. Peter's gift is, in fact, a gift to the nation." Udall proclaimed


An article about the easement ran on page B4 of the next day’s Washington Post. In the article, Mr. Peter says he granted the easement “'principally for safeguard from the machinations’ of the real estate industry” since “One can never tell what will happen in future generations.” Mr. Peter also added that “As far as this family is concerned, no figure can be put on [Tudor Place]. It’s priceless.” And noted that the temple portico is the only one of its kind in America.

A talented and formally trained artist, Armistead Peter III painted this portrait of his wife Caroline which now hangs in the home's dining room. Peter formed the Carostead Foundation to care for Tudor Place. The name is a combination of his and her first names


It was around this same time that Mr. Peter formed the Carostead Foundation to care for the house after his death. The name came from combining his wife’s first name, Caroline, with his own, Armistead. It was also a way to remember her memory, as Caroline had passed away in 1965. Mr. Peter also began writing a book about his time at Tudor Place, which was published in 1969. The Carostead Foundation is now known as the Tudor Place Foundation and still owns and operates the property today.


There was a brief attempt in 1967 from the International Association of Rebekah Assemblies, a group created in 1851 by future U.S. Vice President Schuyler Colfax as an all-female auxiliary to the International Order of Odd Fellows, to take over Tudor Place as a headquarters, museum, and “friendship house”. The organization requested information about the home from the NPS according to documents but were referred to Mr. Peter and nothing came of their effort.


In 1971, Mr. Peter received a letter from the National Parks Service asking for permission to use a photo of the home’s south façade in a report and informing him that Tudor Place had come up in a theme study on 19th-century architecture and would also be recognized for its significance “as an outstanding example of the work of Dr. William Thornton.”


In his reply letter granting permission to use the photograph, Mr. Peter took the time to inquire about translations of Italian and French historic preservation laws he had given to the NPS at the time of the easement, writing that “It would be of the greatest importance if some of those characteristics could be incorporated into the laws of this country.” Peter was quite familiar with Europe generally and France specifically, as he and Caroline had lived in Paris in the 1920s when he studied art there. Caroline’s mother continued to live in Paris after they left, and the couple visited her on several occasions. The Parks Service confirmed in a reply letter that they did have the translations on hand, calling them a “valuable resource”.


Mr. Peter again replied to the Parks Service and strongly urged it to play a part in changing the historic preservation laws in America. He wrote:

“…the French have avoided the necessity of putting caretakers in many of these houses which are taken care of more understandingly and with greater affection by their owners. This is something to which our government seems to be completely blind. The transfer of homes into the public domain has seemed almost a way of life in this country recently, whereas, as you can probably see, such transfer, in the end, undermines the idea of a home as a permanent factor in the life of a family…Anything that can be done to enlighten our government to the permanent damage which is being done to this country through their tax policies would be a contribution of major importance.”


Six years later, in 1977, when another National Parks Service official visited Tudor Place to check that it was being properly maintained, she echoed the arguments Mr. Peter had made in that letter in her visit report, likely after having a conversation with him. She wrote:


Though the foresighted actions of Mr. Peter are praiseworthy, the situation which necessitated his actions is objectionable. Because of rapidly inflating property taxes and high inheritance taxes, Mr. Peter’s family could not afford to preserve their home by residing there themselves. While Mr. Peter has found a specific solution for Tudor Place, there are many other property owners who are not as successful in their preservation efforts. Basic attitudes and resultant legislation regarding our environment stand major improvement; until these changes are made, property owners can only be informed and counseled as to their alternatives.”


In other words, changing financial and legal conditions had forced Mr. Peter to will the home away to a foundation after his death, instead of his daughter, to save it from sale and possible destruction or irreversible modification. While some may not find Mr. Peter, a scion of a generationally wealthy family denied the opportunity to pass down his mansion to his heirs, a particularly sympathetic character, it is notable that a place which a single family had called home for so long had to finally pass out of their hands to be saved.


While Mr. Peter was unable to follow the family tradition of passing down Tudor Place to the next generation, he was able to keep up another great Peter Family tradition and bear witness to American history.


Not only did Mr. Peter study art in Paris in the 1920s, in the aftermath of WWI and the midst of the “Lost Generation” left behind in Europe and chronicled by American writers like Hemmingway, he also served his country in the U.S. Naval Reserve. That assignment put him in front of some dramatic episodes. During WWI, he was assigned to the Naval Communications Facility located in what is now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex. When WWII broke out, he was assigned to the Map Room of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington before requesting a transfer to a combat theater. Mr. Peter was sent to the Pacific where he witnessed the attacks on Leyte and Lingayen Gulf as part of the campaign to liberate the Philippines from the deck of the U.S.S. Mount Olympus. He was aboard that ship when it arrived in Tokyo harbor the day after Japan formally surrendered. He was also on the ground in Japan in the early days of its occupation by the United States after the war, witnessing his country at its most powerful and most compassionate as it began the effort to rebuild its vanquished foe. Several items he purchased in Japan during this period remain in the home.


When Armistead Peter III died on December 9th, 1983, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the property which had belonged to the Peters since the days of Thomas Jefferson passed out of their hands. The Carostead Foundation stepped in to enact Mr. Peter’s wish that the home “be considered not as a period museum but as a house lived in and loved by generations of our family and in which they found great happiness


On October 15, 1988, the Foundation, which had Helen Tucker Peter, the second wife of Armistead Peter III on its governing board, opened Tudor Place to the public for the first time. A $5 donation was asked of visitors, the same amount as today (as of 2021). The Foundation’s director at the time, Osborne Mackie, gushed to The Washington Post about what he had discovered in the home after Mr. Peter’s death:


I found a bit of brown something carefully labeled as George and Martha Washington’s soap. And in this box is the last paper taper twisted by Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon, who inherited the house from Martha Peter. And the andirons in the family parlor were used in the grandparents’ bedroom at Mount Vernon. We have two chairs from Mount Vernon and two from a great friend of the family’s, Charles Thompson, secretary of the Continental Congress.”


While the 1977 NPS visit report noted that there was a National Historic Landmark plaque affixed to the home’s exterior wall next to the front door, it appears to have gone missing or been removed in the ensuing years. In 1992, Osborne Mackie wrote the Director of the National Parks Service, noting the absence of the plaque, asking for a replacement, and requesting his presence at a ceremony in the home’s saloon to in essence re-dedicate Tudor Place as a National Historic Landmark.


Parks Service Director James M. Ridenour apparently accepted the invitation, for a thank you letter from Mackie dated a few months later states that “Your talk made this very special occasion particularly memorable and everyone there must have carried away a vivid impression of your remarks on the Park Service and its vital role in historic preservation.”


An additional thank you letter from Mackie reveals that National Park Service Chief Historian Edward Bearss was in attendance and spoke as well. The plaque, pictured at the top of this section, now sits on a brick pillar at the home's front gate.


The motto of the Tudor Place Foundation today is “America’s Story Lives Here”, and indeed, it certainly seems to. Though this beautiful property was home to just a single family, its members witnessed some of the most dramatic and important moments in the history of the United States, from the burning of Washington to the explosion of the USS Princeton’s cannon and the darkest days of slavery to the Victory in Japan. They knew George and Martha Washington personally, as family, and rubbed shoulders with the Marquis de Lafayette, Robert E. Lee, and Dr. William Thornton.


A stunning work of architecture, a treasure trove of history, and one of the first National Historic Landmarks ever declared, Tudor Place preserves not only the story of the Peters but the story of our country as well. And thanks to the tender care of its longtime owners, and the enduring commitment of its foundation, it’s now open for all Americans to enjoy.

 

For Further Information:


Tudor Place Official Website


The Peter Family


Download the Tudor Place National Historic Landmark File from the National Archives


Back to Top


93 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All