Quakes! Hurricanes! Keeping Historic Treasures Safe

by Mandy Katz, Communications Officer

When it shakes, it pours?

Tudor Place damage from the earthquake was 
limited mainly to cracks in the plaster. But what 
does Hurricane Irene hold for us?

Tudor Place Executive Director Leslie Buhler must have nerves of steel. Barely had she and staff finished assessing the impact of yesterday’s earthquake, when she dashed off this email: Although the exact path and intensity of the storm when it reaches here is not known, I think we need to begin preparations.

Plans for Hurricane Irene, expected this weekend, include moving exterior potted plants away from windows and stowing lighter lawn furniture, according to Suzanne Bouchard, our director of gardens and grounds. In the historic house, shutters and blinds will be closed and objects removed from window areas.  Absorbent towels are going down in the basement, bomb shelter, and other areas possibly prone to water infiltration.

No such precautions were possible before the Spotsylvania fault suddenly shifted Tuesday, shocking the  region.  Tudor Place and its contents are fine, thank goodness. It apparently takes more than a little 5.8-Richter jostling to perturb what the Peter family and architect William Thornton erected in 1816. Our buildings, grounds and collections suffered no new cracks or damage, amazingly — from Martha Washington’s tea table, to Arts & Crafts vases, to the Pierce-Arrow’s hood ornament, everything’s intact.

Well, everything but this:

A few stone shards fell from the chimney of our administration building, a stately 1867 townhouse adjacent to Tudor Place’s north garden. (Note: This is why earthquake experts advise standing away from buildings if a temblor finds you outdoors.)

In a quake, avoid taking cover alongside buildings!


A somewhat random check of fellow house museums finds our Georgetown neighbors at Dumbarton House unscathed and open for business. Across the river, in Virginia, Alexandria’s Gadsby’s Tavern is closed for several days, its chimneys’ having shifted. At Carlyle House, “John Carlyle’s 40 prints decided to rearrange themselves on the walls,” but no further damage was found, Director Sarah Coster reports. In Maryland, Riversdale Historic House is fine, but elsewhere in the Prince George’s County Park system, Mt. Calvert will need a new chimney and Marietta’s original structure may have separated from its new wing. At Beall-Dawson House in Rockville and Bowie’s Belair Mansion, damage was minor, but the words “plaster repair” did cross a few lips.

No sooner had we recovered from all the shaking and quaking, than this inbox arrival caught our eye: PROTECTING COLLECTIONS: DISASTER PREVENTION, PLANNING & RESPONSE, a seminar for museum professionals, sponsored by the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts.

Time stamp on the email? About three hours before the quake.

Getting to Know the Trees at Tudor Place


By Kelly Whitson, Summer Intern, Garden & Grounds
My internship in collections management at Tudor Place this summer introduced me to a type of “artifact” I had never worked with before: trees. Tudor Place is rare among historic house museums in undertaking a complete inventory of its woody plant material – some 400 trees on 5.5 leafy acres – to officially accession them into its collection, the same as it does with interior items like dishes, beds and paintings. As a horticulture collections intern to Director of Gardens and Grounds Suzanne Bouchard, my main task was to help research and document about 100 of these trees and enter them into the collections database Suzanne created in the PastPerfect program, with codes and formatting developed to professional standards.
Histories and mysteries: This towering Scarlet Oak, planted in honor of George Washington,
left a hefty “paper trail.” Stories behind other specimens are harder to trace.

In evaluating my internship experience, I find the most unexpected result was a sense of knowing the trees personally. Some of their histories were easily discovered, like the Scarlet Oak, above, planted in 1932 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Others are mysterious in origin: historic photos, slides, family records, garden committee notes – nothing reveals their planting date or story.


The trees’ solidity is comforting, while their
changes are fascinating, even to a novice.
The trees’ structures and growing habits depend on their locations in the garden and provide interesting visual dynamics. From the towering Border Oak and famous Tulip Poplar (at left), which have reigned over the house and garden since the their inception, to the tiny seedlings just “joining” the collection, they all have personalities. Getting up close and personal with them, measuring them, evaluating their health and discussing their histories creates a feeling of intimacy.
I want to visit in the fall to see their changing leaves and return again in the winter to see their “bones.” I want to visit in the spring to see their flowery offerings and in the summer, to be enveloped by their lush green leaves. I encourage visitors, too, to return repeatedly to get to know the trees at Tudor Place:
Their solidity is comforting, while their slow changes and distinct characteristics are fascinating, even to a horticultural novice.

Kelly is an M.S. Candidate in Museum Studies at The George Washington University.


Civil War in Washington: Georgetown’s Hottest Summer?

by Director of Education Talia Mosconi

Cool River, Hot City: View of the DC-Georgetown Ferry
(rear left
, loaded with wagons), and Aqueduct Bridge.
1862 s
tereograph by George N. Barnard.
The region saw record temperatures for the just marked 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s first big battle, at Bull Run creek near Manassas. Our sagas and commemorations naturally focus on major battlefields. When we think of civilian travails, we tend to recall ravaged southern cities like like Richmond, Atlanta and Vicksburg. But with the surprise Union debacle at Bull Run, the conflict embroiled the District of Columbia before it reached these other homefronts. The hot summer of 1861 changed forever the city of Washington, the contiguous area north of Florida Avenue then known as “the country” and, of course, the village of Georgetown.
As demoralized Federal soldiers poured back from Bull Run, flooding Washington’s streets and public spaces, their return sparked panic about an impending Confederate onslaught. The Rebs never came, but President Lincoln’s call-up of 75,000 Union troops, all needing lodging, did lead to an “invasion” of sorts, as tent encampments sprang up, the government expanded into ever larger quarters, and a “beltway” of military forts was erected around the city. On residential city blocks and nearby farms, meanwhile, neighbor turned from neighbor, according to where their loyalties lay. 

View of the C&O Canal running past Georgetown,
which retained an independent (sometimes divided) 
government until after the Civil War.


In Georgetown, the reality of war quieted most pro-Southern voices. Residents often wondered which neighbors they could trust. The village and its port had been absorbed into the newly formed District of Columbia in 1790, but retained an independent government until after the war. Georgetown’s mayor and town dignitaries officially pledged fealty to the Union at the Recorder of Deeds or the Department of Justice. But perhaps as many as a quarter of local residents– including the mistress of Tudor Place — registered their loyalties another way, packing their bags and moving south. Others fled to Baltimore or Philadelphia to escape harm’s way. And Georgetown College—now University—was almost literally divided: Half its students returned to the South and the remainder went North, giving rise to the school’s lasting color scheme of blue (for Union) and gray (for the Confederacy). 

Young people visit the Gap store there, now, but
once thronged Forrest Hall to enlist for the Union.
Those who left expected to return in just a few weeks, after hostilities ended. The minister at Christ Episcopal Church (31st and O Streets), a slave owner from North Carolina, headed south, leaving his cat with ten days’ food. Its skeleton was later found by neighbors. Sons of loyalist families clamored to sign up for the Union at Forrest Hall (where the Gap store is, now) for three-month tours, the war’s expected duration. Other young men crossed the river to enlist in the Confederacy.

Some senior federal employees left Georgetown to offer their skills to the newly forming Confederate government. Leaders of long-standing militias left town quietly to join their troops, while other prominent families, despite owning slaves, stayed loyal to the Union.  Still other local families found themselves, like many around the country, divided in their loyalties.  

There was even a small “civil war” within Georgetown itself.   The town’s governance consisted of four wards. One of these “seceded” from the rest, declaring independence with a manifesto consisting of just one word: “Dixie.” Pro-south arsonists repeatedly incited trouble, unsuccessfully attacking the mayor’s office, the Union Hotel, lumber yards, and part of the Rock Creek Bridge that connected Georgetown to the City of Washington. A 9:30 p.m. curfew was imposed, saloons were shut down, and Georgetown’s lone, horse-drawn, fire engine was put on 24-hour alert.  

Re-enactors may have sweltered through the Bull Run commemorations last month, but the “heat” was even more intense 150 years ago, when the Capital City and Georgetown village emerged as hotbed and homefront for a searing national cataclysm.

Join us to learn about the Georgetown homefront on our exciting Civil War House & Walking Tours: Offered monthly through November 2011 on second Saturdays, the program includes guided walks through our mansion and surrounding streets. (Choose one or both.) Learn how Tudor Place reluctantly served as a boarding house for Union officers. Standing on other sites where history happened, hear about hospitals, spies, slaves and freedmen, and heartbreakingly divided families. The next tour, last of the summer, is August 13, so sign up soon!

Watering in the Heat: Hands, Hoses and History

I think the greatest measure of a gardener’s ability 
is the ability to water and feed plants correctly. 
A plant can be as easily killed by overwatering as by underwatering; in fact, possibly more easily. However, 
when a plant shows the need for water, don’t hesitate.


These are the words of Armistead Peter 3rd, Tudor Place’s last private owner.  Given the weather of recent days, we take to heart his remark, “Don’t hesitate.”
July’s heat wave, the mid-Atlantic’s worst since 1995, imposes excessive environmental stresses on designed landscapes like the historic garden at Tudor Place. Whether in containers or beds of various types, in conditions like these, all our plants need watering. While our aims are historic, maintaining plantings installed by the Peter family over two centuries, we turn to the most modern methods we can to conserve water and water only when necessary.


For a public garden, also hosting beautiful weddings
and other events, green lawns are a priority.
Our lawns are seeded with tall fescue, which needs watering all summer to prevent dormancy: As a public garden which hosts events, we do keep our lawns green as best we can. We are lucky to have automatic irrigation on the South Lawn, reaching almost an acre of turf, with runoff benefiting the  perimeter plantings and islands. But the formal garden rooms on the house’s north side are less fortunate. The North Garden must be watered by hand, sprinkler and, to minimize water loss through evaporation, soaker hose. We water in the early morning, to give foliage time to dry and thus reduce the spread of powdery mildew. With an older pipe system, only a few sprinklers can run at a time, so water pressure must be monitored.
Morning watering in the Bowling Green.

We water the garden in sections, as our diverse plantings each have their own requirements. Mature plants are watered less often than newly planted material, and established trees require less water than herbaceous beds. We concentrate on the container plants, which can dry out quickly, and new trees.

The latter we water weekly, except when rainfall has measured at least an inch. (As Armistead Peter 3rd noted, overwatering can be as harmful as underwatering.) Watering during extreme conditions

Herbaceous beds, like this one on our center walk, are
laid with an eye to plants’ native needs.
helps minimize heat stress, but we won’t know the full extent of any heat damage for another month or two, when stress symptoms might typically begin to appear.
Every generation has added improvements and applied new learning. Today, our emphasis is on finding suitable environments for our plantings, which reduces the need for human intervention later. As new arrivals are put in, we assess soil conditions in the design phase and embed each according to its “cultural” (soil, water and light) requirements. This helps them thrive.
As you walk through our gardens, you will see evidence of similar care and thoughtfulness, dating back 200 years.

More on the Garden

Garden Programs

Visit the Garden

To visit our gardens: Tudor Place grounds are open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 to 4, and Sundays, noon to 4. Self-guided visits to the Garden are free; illustrated garden maps and smartphone audio garden tour information are available in the Visitor Center.


Originally posted July 2011; links updated March 2015.