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Friday, May 20, 2011

Historic Preservation v. Real Life- how do you balance them?

The other evening I took a lovely evening tour of Tudor Place in Georgetown thanks to a Wake Forest alumni group. Though I've walked by Tudor Place a zillion times (the entrance is on 31st St. between Q & R, though the property encompasses the entire block), I never really knew what was behind all that fence and foliage. It got me thinking quite a bit about how historic homes fit into the context of modern life. Some are preserved and enjoyed as a period home- as Tudor Place is- free of the cold marble bathrooms and flat screen TV's that would accompany a modern reservation. And others, as you will see below- remain lived in- but with limitations.

For 179 years, Tudor Place enjoyed the benefit of being owned and occupied by a single family. It was built by Thomas Peter (son of the first mayor of Georgetown), and his wife Martha Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington (incidentally, the original 8.5 acre lot was purchased with Martha's $8,000 legacy from George Washington). The house was completed in 1816, and for six generations, the home stayed in the family. It was updated with gas, then electricity, and some modern conveniences, but step into the house and the last thing you think is 21st century. The house is a nice reflection of the many generations that lived there, but at the same time, the main emphasis is on the mid 19th century. These pictures from the website don't do it justice (I couldn't take pictures inside).

Following the death of Armistad Peter 3rd, the home came under the stewardship of the Tudor Place Foundation and opened to the public in 1988. The home boasts a stunning array of antique furniture, silver, and china, much of which came directly from the estate of Martha Washington. I love how stepping into Tudor Place, I felt like I was stepping into a well-preserved, but real, family home.

My tour of Tudor Place reminded me of this interesting article I read in the Washington Post back in January about Fairfield, a historic 8,400 home on 38 acres for sale near Berryville, Virginia. You can see the listing here. The home, which was built by George Washington's cousin and at one point owned by Robert E. Lee's aunt, saw visitors such as George & Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee. It's currently on the market for $3.9 million, but is having trouble attarcting a buyer. Part of the complication is that it would come with restrictions on the deed, prohibiting the next owner from making changes to the home and the land. The current owners are seeking a "preservation minded buyer."

Like Tudor Place, Fairfield had also remained in the same family for many generations; since before the Civil War, in fact. But unlike Tudor Place, Fairfield is currently inhabited...and not the beneficiary of a huge preservation trust to keep things on the up and up. To be honest, the living looks a bit on the primitive side due to the astronomical cost of upkeep, and the owners' interest in preservation. The kitchen needs a complete overhaul.


Meanwhile, the bedrooms remind me of so many Bed & Breakfasts; a bit old fashioned, a bit shabby, and charmingly quaint; perfect for a quiet weekend away from the hustle and bustle of life, but not necessarily where you want to wake up every single day.


Granted, the living room is quite fantastic...and how many homes come with colonial graffiti? Very cool.

Reading this article back in January, and then seeing Tudor Place the other night, sharpened this preservation dilemma to me. How do homes so steeped in the lore of the American past exist as real homes in the American present? Certainly someone wanting to spend $3.8 million on a 38 acre estate doesn't want antiquated amenities and squeaky floorboards, and who can blame them? For that much money, I'd better be getting a marble bathroom and Wolf range! Yet as someone with ties to UVA and W&L, I have a special appreciation for the giants that have shaped American history, and it seems a shame to do anything that would diminish our links to this past.

Clearly I don't have the answer- not every home a Washington or a Lee slept in can come under the control of a historic preservation trust and operate as a museum. And simply because a home has history doesn't mean it shouldn't be lived in under modern standards. Historic homes have tremendous upkeep costs- that is the reason the current owners of Fairfield are selling. The average 19th century home doesn't have a foundation to support it like Tudor Place. And if someone is willing to foot the $80,000 repair bill for a leaky roof, shouldn't they darn well be able to add a few modern conveniences to the rest of their house?

It's a tough call, for sure- one that perhaps a historic preservationist could tell us more about. What do you think?

If you're still reading, thanks for bearing with this uncharacteristically long Friday post. And visit Tudor Place- it's open daily 10-4 and Sunday 12-4. In addition to the home itself, the gardens are simply breathtaking. 

5 comments:

kayce hughes said...

Love hearing your thoughts. It is a tough one.
ps my brother went to wake forest.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

oh fantastic post!!! As an architect, and we restore many historic homes in and around DC, we struggle with this daily. Just today I was in a cute 125 yr old house in cleveland park which we're renovating, luckily with 'preservationist' minded owners. Even though I work mere blocks away, I have never been to Tudor place; Maybe this weekend!

Kerry said...

Fascinating post. When I was searching for our new home in Virginia last year, I'd get bogged down and do a "fantasy" search. I came up with two historic homes that had been owned by my ancestors, the Rusts and the Burkes. They had some modern additions but I felt that it did not detract from their connection to Virginia history.

Danielle {freshquince} said...

Still reading??? Of course, that was one of my favorite thought provoking posts ever! I'm on the fence as well. I think there is a fine line between keeping one foot in history and another with modern day conveniences. It seems that there should be a guide to preserve historic homes, especially homes owned by as you say historical 'giants'. I'm saddened when I see an old home converted into a completely modern house. You can style your home with an eclectic modern feel, but please don't remove the crown molding or light fixture medallion molding that was hand carved. Why not keep that old claw foot tub too?
Great post!

Nicole said...

I grew up in a historic home in Mobile, Alabama, which like a lot of old Southern cities, is filled with truly beautiful historic homes. If your home qualified, you could apply to blong to the Mobile Historical Association (it had to have been a certain number of years old and not had its fundamental character ruined by renovations), and then you would have a pretty plaque on your house (probably my mom's motivation for joining) Subsequent renovations were allowed to update kitchens and bathroom and such, but they had to be improved by the commission if you were to keep your membership. I think this is why Mobile is filled with so many gorgeous, but liveable, historic homes.

I can understand preserving a true piece of history in its original historic state, but homes are not museums and are meant to be lived in and comfortable. I think how rare something is and its historical significance should be factors when keeping it pristine - for example, in Europe where every building is one we would consider historic, they gut and modernize the interiors regularly.

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