Next Time You're In Washington, Stop By the Old Stone House

A tour of the Old Stone House in Georgetown is almost like going back in time. NPS photo.

Editor's note: Stroll through the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., and you're practically walking back into history. You can venture into some of that history with a visit to the Old Stone House. Guest writer Rebecca Johnson let's you know what you'll find.

Nestled in along M Street, in the heart of Georgetown, you'll stumble upon The Old Stone House, one of the oldest homes remaining in Washington, D.C. Built in 1765, the house is maintained and operated by the National Park Service, and is part of the National Park System's Rock Creek Park.

Since its original construction, the house has traded hands many times and has been used as a shop for hats, tailors, locksmiths, clockmakers, house roofing, house painting, and even a used car dealership. Fortunately, the house was purchased by the federal government in 1953 for $90,000. At today's market prices, the house and its garden are thought to be worth close to $6-7 million.

Constructed from local quarry stones and ballast stones from the English sailing vessels that journeyed up the nearby Potomac River, the house is a prime example of a typical 18th-century dwelling that would have been inhabited by common Americans. Tours and lectures offered by park rangers in Colonial-period attire highlight the lives of these early Americans and DCers.

Upon entering the house, even if you're of average height, you'll immediately notice the low ceilings. It can feel a bit claustrophobic, but you'll adjust/stoop quickly. The front room offers an excellent NPS shop filled with wonderful books, photos and collectibles featuring D.C. history. It's definitely worth a perusal.

The next room is an 18th-century style kitchen with a massive kitchen hearth that was used to heat the entire house. What I found of particular interest in this room was a height chart located just through the door frame.  The chart marks not only the heights of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but also the average height of Colonial men and women and the average height of current U.S. men and women. 

While I was fist pumping the fact that Americans have grown about 2 inches on average since the 18th century, I was surprised to learn that this height differential is not the reason why Colonial ceilings infringe upon our head room.  Low ceilings were, in fact, actually built for the very rational and economical reason of keeping houses warm during the winter. Duh, heat rises, so lower ceilings mean a warmer room.

The second floor showcases a minimally decorated dining room, parlor, and bedroom. You won't find many accessories in the Old Stone House. In fact, an inventory of house goods by the house's first owner, woodwork Christopher Layman, listed only one table, beds, chests, one towel, no chairs, and two Pennsylvania Dutch Bibles.

The third floor, which is believed to have housed the children's bedrooms and storage, is partially unfinished and built from brick. The bedrooms are decorated as they would have been in the 18th century -- as with the rest of the house, the rooms are simple and basic. From roof to first floor, the house continues to showcase what the daily life of these ordinary people was like.

Once you've toured the house, which is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., stroll through the quaint and tranquil English garden. It's amazing that such a peaceful green space could be located 10 feet from the busy shopping streets of Georgetown.  In the garden you'll find wooden benches, a grassy lawn, and the typical shrubberies and perennials found in an English garden. It's a fantastic place to enjoy some coffee or lunch. The garden is open during daylight hours seven days a week and is accessible through the gate on M Street.

Should you want a more in-depth tour, on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. the Park Service offers guided tours of the house that highlight colonial life as lived by the various inhabitants of the Old Stone House and feature craft demonstrations.

Comments

We visited the Old Stone House in August of 2006, and it was certainly an interesting experience. We posted our photos here. If the house was used for so many other functions after the original owners sold it, do you happen to know how the Park Service got to re-furnish it with period items afterward? Are they reproductions or are some of them part of the original furnishings?

I walked right by this place on Wednesday. Thanks for the information. Next time, I'll stop in and take a peek.

A couple of corrections are in order.
Eastern National, the cooperating association for the National Capital Region, operates the store, and thanks to the EN presence the building is actually open to the public seven days a week.
Also, I think it's been quite a few years since anyone has done costumed interpretation.

@NPSfan

1) Eastern National does manage the shop. However, I am unsure that EN is the primary reason Old Stone House is in operation. Also, according to the Old Stone House posted hours, the house not the shop or the garden, is opened Wednesdays through Sunday noon to 5pm, not seven days a week. The garden is accessible seven days a week, and I'm unsure of the shop's hours. As I'm a DC resident, I will inquire at the unit and respond. I will also inquire for Raoul Pop as to the acquisition of the furnishings.

2) When I visited the Old Stone House a few weeks ago, there was indeed a costumed interpretation going on in the kitchen. The costumed woman specifically spoke about the lack of disinfection and sanitary conditions of the late 18th century.

I too lived in the DC area for quite a few years, and visited the Old Stone House often. On the rare occasions that ranger led tours were offered, they were never in costume. Pardon my assumption that is still the case.

As for the hours the house is open:
I think the sign you've gotten your information from is out of date.
A quick look at the NPS webpage for Rock Creek Park confirms that the house is open seven days a week. Perhaps the website is inaccurate?

I remember the store being in the house, which your article mentions.
If the shop is in the house, which it is, and the shop is open seven days a week, which I know it is, then that would also mean the house is open seven days a week. I believe much of the house is available for self-guided tours when only store personnel are present.

I don't mean to question you and your contribution to this website, I just want to make sure that the many folks who may be inspired to visit the Old Stone House know they can visit it every day of the week.

@Raoul Pop

I stopped by the Old Stone House today and inquired with the Eastern National shopkeeper about the furnishings. He did not know about the furnishings, but did mention the 85% of the house is the original construction and that the upstairs clock was an original item from house. It was made by the clockmaker who rented out the front portion of the house during the 19th century. A NPS ranger was not on duty, so I could not directly ask a park official about the furnishings. I will stop in again later in the week.

@NPSfan

The Old Stone House and shop are indeed open 7 days a week from 12-5pm. You will find an Eastern National shopkeeper on the premises, but not necessarily a NPS park ranger.

Thanks Rebecca!