DC’s Oldest House, and the Gossip That Saved Her

Old Stone House, circa 1890; courtesy of the National Park Service.

Old Stone House, circa 1890; courtesy of the National Park Service.

While the city around us grows taller and denser, there are still lots of residences that have gone mostly unchanged for a very, very, very long time. On Capitol Hill, The Maples was built in 1795; a farmhouse in Cleveland Park—Roseland Farmhouse—was built in 1793; the Petersen House (where Lincoln died) in Penn Quarter was built in 1849. This is a fraction of our architectural relics. But the oldest DC structure still standing on its original foundation is located smack in the middle of Georgetown’s shopping district.

It’s called Old Stone House and it was built in 1765 on M Street NW (then Bridge Street). You may have noticed it because it’s a really old stone house, with a big yard, neighbored by very new stuff, like Diesel, Nike and American Apparel.

Have you ever read the children’s story The Little House? A strong little house is built out in the country where she is happy (Little House is a she). As time passes, things start to change and, year after year, a city is erected around her, until she’s squished between two skyscrapers and becomes very sad and lonely.

Well, Old Stone House may not be sad or lonely (she gets lots of visitors) but the rest of the story fits.

Old Stone House was built the same year British Parliament enacted the Stamp Act, when Great Britain still ruled the colony of Maryland—and when Georgetown was still part of Maryland. Georgetown was growing, but didn’t hit its stride as a port until around 40 years after Old Stone House was built.

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Old Stone House was built by Christopher and Rachael Layman, a Pennsylvanian couple who (with their two sons) traveled to the port of Georgetown to start a new life. They paid one pound and ten shillings for the lot, then financed the construction of a one-room house. With the painstaking placement of hundreds of locally sourced blue fieldstones and solid oak boards, their little house was completed—and strong as hell.

This was a modest house, and it was functional. Two-to three-foot walls, packed dirt floors and low ceilings were designed for efficiency and protected the Laymans during cruel winters.

Then, when Christopher Layman died suddenly just a few years after the couple’s big move, his wife remarried and the house began to change hands. A wealthy widow named Cassandra Chew bought it in 1767 and made additions (the rear kitchen and second and third floors) by 1775. When Chew died, her daughter took over and leased out the front room for business—to whom, I’m not sure.

Now, for the gossip that saved Old Stone House.

Back when President Washington and Pierre Charles L’Enfant were defining federal district lines, the two men both spent time and negotiated with local landowners at the Fountain Inn, also known as Sutter’s Tavern, owned by John Sutter. And so the entanglement begins.

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Years after those meetings, that same Sutter operated a clock shop out of Old Stone House. And years after that, people began connecting Sutter’s name with all things Washington/L’Enfant, and therefore connected Old Stone House with Washington/L’Enfant. Erroneously draped in the warm cloak of those haloed names, the house became a protected landmark and escaped the fate of so many old (old) homes in the Georgetown area.

Old Stone House was privately owned until the 1950s. In ’53, the federal government purchased it for $90,000. The house and gardens—which are a beautiful and flower-covered—were restored and look pretty much the way they did in the 1700s (tiny door frames and all). Georgetown residents even donated colonial furnishings to the house so that the interiors would look historically accurate. And finally, John Sutter Jr.’s grandfather clock (built two centuries ago) was returned to the house. It’s lives in the upstairs dining room.

The house is now managed by the National Park Service and houses a small bookstore. You can visit the house for free any day of the week.

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