National Geographic : 1953 Apr
Washington's Historic Georgetown 529 commercial losses , also proved a disappoint- ment (page 524). Beg un in 1828 to funnel more of the good s of a developin g hinterland through Georgetown , it was not completed a s far as Cumberland , Maryland, until 1850. Floods, financial woes, and reorganizations harried its progress. Meanwhile the railroad had emerged as an increasingly ominous rival. This threat did not prevent the canal from enjoying its best years during the 1870's and ' 80 's , although Georgetown 's stanch sympathy for the Confederate cause became a political liability after Appomattox, complicating the town 's fortunes. When the panic of 1873 came, it hit the old port hard. And all the while the city of Washington was steadily growing. In the closing decades of the last century families of wealth and prominence from many parts of the Nation began moving to the Capital to take part in its political and social life. They built mag- nificent homes on L 'Enfant's once-empty ave- nues and entertained lavishly. Families drifted away from Georgetown for what were becoming more fashionable surroundings. " Georgetown? Why nobody lives there!" It came to that. The community deteriorated into a cheap- rent neighborhood. Fine homes became second-class boardinghouses. Neglect and disrepair produced a dilapidated look. Prop- erty values hit bottom. For a mere $8 a month tenants had their choice of many snug brick houses of the Federal period, including the one now my own. Only a small Old Guard stubbornly held out, hoping against hope that Georgetown would have a rebirth. Americans Awake to a Heritage The Wilson administration brought Newton D. Baker to Washington and house-hunting troubles to Mrs. Baker. She almost despaired of finding a place with a yard for her children and thought of trying Fort Myer in Virginia. " Too bad," sympathized a friend, " you 'll have to go through Georgetown." Instead the Bakers went to Georgetown; the Secretary of War leased a fine old house at 3017 N Street (page 544). That may have been the town's turning point. After World War I Americans began awak- ening to the graceful heritage of the country's early architecture. Two influences helped to stir this interest-the opening of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the work of John D. Rocke- feller, Jr. , in restoring Williamsburg , Virginia. * This was Georgetown 's moment. The crafts- men who reared it had built the town to last. It was steeped in history and tradition. People started buying old houses and re- storing them, much to the amazement of real-e st ate men. By 19 30 the revival had picked up a momentum whi ch economic stress es and World War II failed to check. Property values did more than perk up. The $8-a-month houses, restored, brought $ 157.50 even with wartime rent control in effect. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the whole restoration movement is that it has been financed by private money, most of it on a family scale. No support came from large foundation s, nor a cent in Govern- ment subsidy. Old Town Spirit Survives This may explain the resurgence of the old community spirit. The Georgetown Citizens Association and the Progressive Citizens As- sociation led the fight to preserve the town 's character. When apartment builders threatened inva- sion during the revival 's early days, George- tonians marshaled such a persuasive case that the District Zoning Commission fi xed 40 feet as the maximum height for new structures in residential areas. Next they won their fight to have the town rezoned , so that commercial enterprises are now largely confined to Wiscon- sin Avenue and M Street, or the water-front district. The biggest feather went into the town 's cap with enactment of the " Old Geor ge- town " legislation restoring the town 's identity in 1950. Vi sitors are often surprised to discover the city of brick is a town of small houses. We have our big show places- Tudor Place (page 542), Sevier Place , Evermay (page 526) , Dumbarton Oaks (page 527 and opposite), and other large houses of grand tradition that are architectural gems. But many houses are small, some even tiny. The narrowest one I know is 2726 P Street. I measured its frontage not long ago. The tape said 8 feet 2 inches. There are others only 9, 10 , and 11 feet wide (page 521). Some are adorned with iron plaques which go back to the days of bucket brigades and amateur. firefighters. These fire seal s bear the emblems of the fir st local insurance firms. Volunteer fire companies controlled such underwriting ventures, and they did not forget the fact in answering alarms. If two houses in a neighborhood caught fire at the same time , the volunteers concentrated on the house bear- ing the insignia of their company. Any dam- age claims collected by their in sured would affect the firemen 's po cketbooks . A nonin- sured hou se could wait. * See, in the N ATIONAL G EOGRAPHIC M AGAZINE: " Genesis of the William sburg R estoration," by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and "R estoration of Colonial Wil- liamsburg, " by A. R . Goodwin, April, 193 7.