Under Your Nose: Dumbarton House Offers Historical Surprises

Posted August 3, 2010 at 4:22pm

Less than a 10-minute walk from Dupont Circle’s hustle and bustle sits a historic landmark that many have forgotten. Compared with the glamour of Dorothy’s ruby slippers and dinosaur bones displayed at Smithsonian museums, the quaint two-story Georgian Colonial-style brick house might seem lackluster.

But America’s founders and first influential leaders thought otherwise.

For Dolley Madison the house was a safe haven from the invading British during the War of 1812. For many American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, it was a place where a dear friend lived and a parlor that was always welcoming. For the first register of the Treasury Department, Joseph Nourse, it was home for more than a decade.

Built in 1800, when the U.S. was just a fledgling republic, Dumbarton House, now a museum open to the public, was one of the first estates built in Georgetown just after Washington became the capital. The two-acre property — once eight acres — is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, pebble and brick walkways, and gardens.

Unlike Robert E. Lee’s memorial, Arlington House, which is essentially void of colonial decorations, Dumbarton is restored with adornments from the federal period so visitors can imagine life in the early 19th century. The house has portraits, carpets, cooking utensils, draperies and furnishings that reflect popular ornamentation of the period and bring the house to life.

The dining room table crystal, for example, is set as if guests might sweep through the door at any moment. Visitors can envision women in lacy hoop dresses and fancy bonnets taking tea in the parlor.

In the breakfast room, where Executive Director Karen Daly said the family would eat most of its meals, visitors can imagine the cook, a slave named Dinah, serving piping hot johnny cakes or homemade ice cream.

Fireplaces in every room heated the house during cold winters, and the beds are draped in colorful cloth for privacy, warmth and the fashion of the time.

Many of the artifacts on display were owned by Nourse, who served the Treasury Department for six administrations and more than 40 years and lived in Dumbarton House from 1804 to 1813. His mantel clock, yellow moiré couch, family portraits from England, porcelain, wardrobes and mirrors decorate the space. The cold, squeaky floorboards are the same as he trudged upon 200 years ago.

“We focus on Nourse’s family in this house because they played a big part in the new republic,” Daly said. “They’re a perfect example of what a typical political family was like during the founding of our country.”

But Dumbarton House is not only a great example of colonial-period family living, it’s a historical treasure of federal history as well. Charles Carroll, who bought the house from Nourse in 1814, personally rescued Dolley Madison from the White House on Aug. 24, when the British invaded Washington, and brought her to Dumbarton. Before the British burned down the White House, Carroll persuaded Madison to flee in his carriage — but not before she salvaged George Washington’s famous portrait.

Nourse’s stories also are historical treasures since he “was no ordinary civil servant,” Daly said. He befriended Washington during their childhoods, and his signature “shows up on more documents and currency than any other treasurer’s during that time,” she said. He invested his own money in the first national bank, which collapsed and left him financially hurting. Several letters between James Madison and Nourse show that the president dined there on at least one occasion.

“We have a casual handwritten note to Nourse from President Jefferson, asking him to dine in celebration of the Louisiana Purchase just after the transaction,” Daly said.

The house also has one of 10 first-edition prints of the Articles of Confederation. Nourse’s father, who served in the Virginia House of Delegates, sent the copy around to be edited and critiqued by various representatives. In total, the house has more than 1,000 of Nourse’s and his family’s memos and handwritten letters on file. Visitors and historians may access them upon request.

Although Dumbarton House sits at 2715 Q St. NW, it was originally built on the edge of Rock Creek near the current Q Street bridge. In 1915, the family living in the house saved it from demolition when D.C. officials decided to build the bridge and the house sat in the way. At the family’s request, authorities picked up the house, put it on large trees and rolled it 100 feet uphill with a pulley system.

Today the house is part of a larger picture: It’s one of 70 historic houses around the country restored by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. With more than 15,500 members in 44 states and D.C., the self-described “women’s patriotic society” bought the property in the 1920s. Daly said three members worked together to purchase the property and renovated it into a historical house for visitors. They made the building their headquarters and renamed the house Dumbarton.

Since then, Dumbarton has been open to the public, though it’s seen few visitors compared with other museums.

“We’ve been here for so long, but nobody knows we’re here because there’s certainly less foot traffic around these parts,” said Missy Groppel, marketing and events manager, who has worked or volunteered at Dumbarton House for 20 years. “This is such a unique place, a hidden gem, but it’s like we’re behind a brick wall.”

In order to promote awareness and bring more people to the house, the women schedule events, including monthly jazz concerts, programs for children and speakers such as historian Anthony Pitch, who will lecture on the War of 1812 on Aug. 28. Rotating exhibitions are also on display in one of the upstairs rooms, including one that featured the elaborate dresses worn by women of the time.

Because of these efforts, Dumbarton has seen visitor numbers jump from 6,500 in 2008 to 10,300 last year. This year, Daly projects, 11,200 will visit or tour.

Dumbarton House is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $5, and tours are offered at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m.