Imagine for a moment that you have stepped back into 18th-century colonial times. The sounds of traffic outside might be the clattering hooves of four-horse teams, pulling wagons of produce to market; the rumble could be heavy hogsheads of tobacco rolling by on the way to Gordon's tobacco inspection warehouse just west of Water Street (Wisconsin Avenue). In those days, sailing ships moored close to the new wharf at the Potomac River and waited for cargo from the busy Maryland port of Georgetown.
The Old Stone House has witnessed countless changes and a host of historic events and persons since those days. It is believed to be the oldest surviving building on its original lot in the federal city, predating the creation of the District of Columbia. When President Washington chose the permanent location for the nation's capital, Georgetown became the stage where plans for the federal city took shape. Pierre L'Enfant, the city's designer, worked from an office near the waterfront.
In the years that followed, the Old Stone House passed through many hands. The building has served as a residence, a paint shop, a clock store, a haberdashery, and the office for a used-car lot. When, in 1950, Congress authorized the house as a historic site and showcase of the earliest days in the nation's capital, the legislators cited the "great pre-Revolutionary architectural merit" of the structure. Sandwiched between shops at the commercial heart of Georgetown, the house remains a remarkable heritage from colonial days.
The town began as a small settlement clustered around the tobacco warehouse. In 1751 landowners petitioned the Maryland Assembly to recognize them as "George Town," named after the reigning king of England. In due course the new town commissioners set aside 60 acres, divided it into 80 parcels, and required purchasers of lots to improve the land by building thereon "one good and substantial House." Newcomer Christopher Layman, whose name had not appeared on official rosters or tax rolls before 1764, put down one pound, ten shillings, for Lot No. 3, a deep, narrow piece of land that sloped upward toward the rear from Bridge Street (now M Street). Using local bluestone, he built his house in the manner of Pennsylvania dwellings he had known. Details of the roofline, the stonework, and the brick east gable and chimney resemble the style brought to the colonies by his European forebears.
Little is known about Layman, his wife Rachael, and their two boys. They came from Pennsylvania, joining artisans and trained workmen heading south to make a living in the town. Georgetown, at the head of navigation on the Potomac and where the ferry between Maryland and Virginia crossed the river, was fast becoming one of the most important tobacco ports along the Atlantic seaboard.
From the inventory of Layman's possessions, he was a woodworker and joiner. The value of his goods added up to 52 English pounds, placing the family in the lower middle class. Like a number of houses of the time, the first floor of his home contained a shop and kitchen; the family lived upstairs. The front room of the Old Stone House is furnished to represent Layman's workshop where he had been fitting together a blanket chest of local walnut. His supply of pine planks is stacked; his tools -- chisels, planes, clamps -- are at hand. The cast-iron stove, listed as the most valuable object in the household, is ready to warm the shop.
In the kitchen, the woman of the house cooked at the hearth and stored supplies of food, salt, flour, perhaps tea. She hung bunches of herbs to cure overhead. In spare moments she might dip candles or spin wool to make cloth. Although none of the objects in the house today is original to the Layman family, the furnishings are based on an inventory at the time of Layman's death and fragments of pottery and glassware found during restoration, as well as a study of how people of slender means lived during the period. Even though the inventory counted every button, only one table is listed along with bedsteads and chests, one towel, no chairs, but two Pennsylvania Dutch Bibles.
New Life for a LandmarkThe family's hopes for a share in Georgetown's prosperity ended when Christopher Layman died soon after the house was finished in 1765. His widow sold the house in 1767 to Cassandra Chew, companion to Georgetown's leading businessman, Robert Peter. Peter had come from Scotland as agent or factor of Glassford & Co., which commanded a large share of the tobacco trade. He acquired land, became a commissioner of Georgetown, and in 1789, its first mayor. Mrs. Chew eventually moved to larger quarters, but her two daughters and her family owned and either lived in or rented out the premises well into the 19th century. The Chew family's arrival ushered in an era of relative ease in the Old Stone House. They listed slaves among their possessions. The extra hands could help with household chores or be hired out to add to the family income.
Georgetown meanwhile was growing rapidly. From rustic beginnings the town had become a lively place with horse races, concerts, fairs, even the new Jesuit college (now Georgetown University). Wartime had slowed commerce, but after the Revolution a surge of trade brought prosperity as never before. Cargoes of flour were added to exports of tobacco. The town was a magnet for travelers who found lodging and entertainment at inns and taverns. In 1790 the town fathers banned free-running pigs and chickens from the streets. By then, citizens were caught up in the ferment of speculation over the choice of land for the nation's capital.
Some of Georgetown's new affluence is reflected in the living quarters of the Old Stone House. The winding staircase at the back of the house leads to a graceful room that offers a place to receive guests, to dine, or have tea. Architects for the restoration believe Mrs. Chew added the space and its attractive paneling in about 1775. Built-in cupboards display platters and utensils. The east front chamber, where visitors also came to call, exhibits a delicately carved mantel of 1790s Adams style. The third room contains a small bed and chest. The door in the hall opens to the outside staircase so that the family and guests need not pass through the shop below.
Upstairs one more flight, children shared quarters under the eaves. Mary Chew Smith, who probably lived in the house in the 1790s, had six children. At bedtime quilts warmed them as they slept, several to a bed.
Leaving behind the narrow passageways of the 18th century, step outside to the grounds in the back of the house. Today, long borders edge the boundaries of Lot No. 3 in an English-style garden quite different from the kitchen plot, fruit trees, and sow with piglets that sustained the Layman's larder. The air is sweet with seasonal flowers, from spring bulbs to roses and phlox. Bees buzz around the blooms while the breeze ruffles dogwoods and crabapples, and makes the tall lilies nod. The garden offers a happy escape from city streets.
How to Get ThereOld Stone House is located at 3051 M Street, NW, in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and is administered by the Superintendent, Rock Creek Park, National Park Service. Nearest Metro stop: Foggy Bottom. Commercial parking available next door.
InformationOpen 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday; closed Monday, Tuesday and major holidays. Admission is free, but numbers are limited to 25 people in the house at a time. Group and school tours by appointment. For further information call 202.426.6851 V/TDD, or write: