On Site: Washington, D.C.’s Old Stone House

Posted in on site by Editor on July 30, 2011

I’ve no doubt that with many of HECAA’s members scattered across the globe, lots of you have made terrific discoveries over the summer. Some of these will lead to new areas of research, publications, and teaching ideas. Others, however, might simply stand out as interesting. There are plenty of venues for the big finds, but it seems to me the more modest — often just personally satisfying — discoveries usually just fade quietly into the background of memory. As a means of countering the tendency, I would encourage HECAA members to share some of the curious gems you’ve stumbled across recently — perhaps an exhibition, an unfamiliar collection, a less than famous country house, or a small museum, maybe a site that came as a total surprise or maybe something you’ve been meaning to visit for a long time.

As proof of just how unassuming such ‘discoveries’ might be, I’m contributing the first installment in the series. So don’t be bashful, send in your own contribution as well. I’m happy to help with logistics of the posting. Best, -CH

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Last week I was in Washington, D.C. for a couple of meetings, and though I didn’t have lots of time for research and museum visits, I spent a balmy evening walking from the White House to Georgetown. At 3051 M. Street, just across from a Barnes & Noble bookstore, stands the Old Stone House. Built in 1765, it is the oldest surviving building in the Washington metropolitan area. At least according to my guidebook, it is, in fact, the city’s only colonial building still standing. Administered by the National Park Services, the house, with its six rooms and garden, is open to the public for free tours (I was unfortunately too late to see inside).

Built by Christopher Layman, a joiner from Pennsylvania, who lived there briefly with his wife Rachael and their two sons, the house was expanded after being purchased by Cassandra Chew in 1767; it remained in the family until the nineteenth century. Paneling was added in 1775 along with an Adams style mantel in the 1790s. Inventories of the Chew family’s possessions also list slaves.

In this city that so depends upon giving visual form to eighteenth-century ideals — from L’Enfant’s 1791 plan to the towering sculpture of a standing Jefferson peering out across the Tidal Basin — it is remarkable to me that this small house built by a carpenter is the only tangible bit of architecture connecting us to the pre-revolutionary period.

-Craig Hanson

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