The Old Stone House
In the midst of Washington, D.C., a city of grand memorials to national leaders and significant events, stands an unassuming building commemorating the daily lives of ordinary Americans who made this city, and this nation, unique. The Old Stone House, one of the oldest known structures remaining in the nation's capital, is a simple 18th century dwelling built and inhabited by common people.
Since 1765, the Old Stone House has withstood the forces of development and commercial growth that made Georgetown one of the nation's busiest ports by the mid-nineteenth century. Ironically, local folklore is responsible for saving this architectural landmark from destruction. In 1790, when President George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant arrived to carve out a federal district from the surrounding wilderness, a merchant by the name of John Suter, Jr. was renting the front room of the Old Stone House. His father ran Suter's Tavern two blocks southwest on Fishing Lane (now 31st Street, NW), where President Washington held negotiations with local landowners. The connection with the Suter family became intertwined with the history of the Old Stone House, and the legend was born that the house served as headquarters for both Washington and L'Enfant. In later years, this mythical association with America's first president and the man who helped design Washington, D.C. saved the house from the fate of other structures of its era.
Although few detailed records survive from the families who owned the
Old Stone House, we can learn much about their lives from the architecture
of the house and the personal possessions listed in wills and bills of
In 1764, Christopher and Rachel Layman traveled from Pennsylvania with their two sons to begin a new life in the growing port town of Georgetown along the Potomac River. For one pound, ten shillings, they bought Lot Three, a property facing Bridge Street (now M Street, NW), and financed the construction of this one-room house of blue fieldstone, quarried about two miles up river, and solid oak boards, hewn with a pit saw. Suter family became intertwined with the history of the Old Stone House, and the legend was born that the house served as headquarters for both Washington and L'Enfant. In later years, this mythical association with America's first president and the man who helped design Washington, D.C.
The backbreaking labor and skill of the builders is evident in the well-placed stones and evenly laid ceiling beams. The marks left by the massive saw, used to cut the ceiling beams can be seen in the room that housed the Layman family.
The Layman's lower-middle class house was simple and functional: stone walls two to three feet thick and packed dirt floors protected the family from harsh weather, while low ceilings conserved heat from the hearth fire.
The Laymans did not own more than the basic essentials, just Christopher's
toots, a stove, Bibles, and some furniture. These items were detailed
in Layman's will when he died unexpectedly in 1765. Two years later, Rachel
Layman remarried and sold the home to another widow, Mrs. Cassandra Chew.
A prominent Georgetown landowner and self-sufficient widow, Mrs. Chew was a member of the upper-middle class. Her wealth included other property in and around Georgetown, as well as enslaved Africans; tax records indicate that Mrs. Chew owned six slaves in 1800. Her wealth enabled her to make significant additions to the Old Stone House. She financed construction of the rear kitchen in 1767 and the addition of the second floor between 1767 and 1775. The colonial kitchen is regarded as the "heart" of the home, with a hearth large enough to provide heat and fond for the household.
As in the front room, skilled masonry work is evident throughout the kitchen. The irregular stones of the fireplace and the walls were meticulously stacked and affixed with a crude mortar of sand, lime, ash, and water. The solid oak mantle speaks of a time when stands of old-growth forests surrounded Georgetown. It was not uncommon for just one of these gigantic trees to supply enough lumber to build a home of this size.
Chew's upper-middle class status is more evident in the public rooms on
the second floor. During the colonial era, the dining room was considered
the traditional place for families and guests to gather. Here visitors
would eat their meals and socialize.
The recessed pine cabinetry once concealed a dumb-waiter that delivered hot meals from the kitchen below. The large clock by the mantle is the only original piece of furniture remaining in the Old Stone House. It is believed to have been built by John Suter, Jr., who at one time rented the front room on the first floor from Mrs. Chew.
The second floor architecture differs significantly from that of the original construction, revealing other aspects of the Chew family's lifestyle. High ceilings ventilated the hallway between the dining room and the two front rooms, and chair railings prevented unsightly markings and damage to the plastered and painted walls. The more formal front door provided access for the family and their guests, while the lower entrance was reserved for workmen or deliveries.
The two front rooms may have served multiple purposes, as a parlor, sitting room, or bedrooms, as needed. The smaller room could have been used as a sitting room for guests. Another clue to the varied uses of the rooms is the finely carved wooden mantle piece in the Master Bedroom/Parlor. Believed to be of French origin, the mantle was placed in the room in the 1790s, just as construction began in the new capital city of Washington, D.C.
The final form of the Old Stone House is the result of a property dispute during the 1790s. The original west wall had been constructed several feet beyond Mrs. Chew's property line and had to be moved. When the wall was dismantled, Mrs. Chew took the opportunity to add the third floor to the home. Considered private spaces, these three rooms are much plainer than those on the second floor. The unfinished paneling and unpainted walls suggest that only the family used these rooms, most likely as childrens' bedrooms or for storage.
The third floor bedroom is unique among the rooms in the home: it features the only closet in the house. Considered rooms and taxed as such by the British crown, closets were not often built during the colonial era. After the American Revolution, the "closet tax" was abolished, allowing homeowners to construct closets without additional taxation. Another significant difference in the third floor is its construction of brick rather than stone.
As Georgetown became more commercially successful and as builders moved to the area to take advantage of the many opportunities in nearby Washington, D.C., brickyards became more widespread. This revolution in building materials altered architectural styles and foreshadowed the extinction of homes like the Old Stone House.
Upon her death in 1807, Cassandra Chew bequeathed the Old Stone House to one of her daughters, Mary Smith Brumley. It is believed that Mary lived in the house from 1787, after the death of her first husband, until around 1802, when she remarried. She was the first in a succession of proprietors throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries who operated businesses out of the house or rented the property. Like her mother, Mary was financially comfortable. An 1826 inventory of her possessions indicates that she owned fifteen slaves; eventually she sold one slave freedom for $200 and infant child for $1.
In the late 19th century, Georgetown was home to a large slave and free
black population, perhaps as much as one-third of the city's total. Their
labor before emancipation contributed to the commercial development of
Throughout its long history, the Old Stone House has been the subject of much local folklore. In the early 20th century, legend had it that the house served as "George Washington's Headquarters," and for some time, a sign confirming the myth hung over the front door. Although later disproved, the myth preserved the Old Stone House for later generations.
The Old Stone House was privately owned until 1953, when the federal government purchased the property for $90,000 in response to a petition from local residents who had come to regard the house as one of historic significance. At that time, the house accommodated offices, and the Parkway Motor Company, a used car dealership whose paved lot sat in what is now the location of the beautiful English style garden.
The home and grounds were transferred to the National Park Service and opened to the public in 1960. Today, Rock Creek Park, a unit of the National Park Service, administers this historic site. We hope you have enjoyed your visit to this unique surviving remnant of the early republic.
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