Georgetown celebrates rich history

Over the last two-and-a-half centuries Georgetown has grown from its humble beginnings to the home base and refuge of the Washington power elite. In the process, the neighborhood has experienced some impressive cultural and architectural achievements that are commensurate with its long journey.

Georgetown “starts out as a trading post, but fairly quickly transitions into being a tobacco port,” said David Silverman, an associate professor who teaches colonial American History at George Washington University.

“Maryland and Virginia are tobacco economies during the 18th century,” continued Silverman, and the sister cities of Georgetown and Alexandria served as a hub that connected them both to the Potomac River — a critical access point for trade routes at the time.

Elements of tobacco trade had already been in place prior to the formal establishment of Georgetown in 1751, when the Province of Maryland purchased the land from George Gordon and George Beall.

These two landowners, sharing the name George, are sometimes cited as the reason for calling it Georgetown, but the exact namesake is a matter of historic debate. “Given the pattern of naming English municipalities,” Silverman says, he believes it is more likely the town took its name from George II, the King of England.

That Georgetown predates Washington itself by almost 40 years largely explains why it was able to maintain a separate governing status — first under Maryland, and then as an independent municipality — until Congress brought it under the direct jurisdiction of the District of Columbia in 1871.

But political changes were not the only transition Georgetown had to undergo in the 1800s. “Generally speaking, what you find is that rail replaces water as the most efficient means of transporting goods during the second half of the 19th century,” Silverman said.

An expansion of the railroads and continuous navigational problems caused by silt deposits in the waterways had virtually eliminated shipping from Georgetown by the turn of the century; but by that time, Georgetown had much more to offer than simple commerce.

The prestigious Georgetown University, one of the neighborhood’s oldest and most familiar institutions, is perhaps the best example of the intellectual and cultural contribution Georgetown has made to the District of Columbia.

“Since its founding 220 years ago, Georgetown University has maintained a close relationship with the local community, providing services, opportunities, leadership and resources to District neighborhoods, businesses and government,” said Andy Pino, director of media relations at the university. “More than 35,000 alumni live in the D.C. area.”

Another legacy of Georgetown’s rich history is its colonial architecture. In fact, the oldest surviving building in Washington — the Old Stone House, which was originally built in 1765 — is located right in the heart of Georgetown at 3051 M Street.

Ironically enough, concerted efforts to preserve that architectural character of Georgetown are only about 60 years old. In 1950, Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act, which officially declared the area a historic district.

The Act also required that any permits to build, renovate or demolish buildings within Old Georgetown’s boundaries must first be approved by the National Commission of Fine Arts, but even that step left some Georgetown residents wanting more.

In 1965, J. Noel Macy formed the non-profit Foundation for the Preservation of Historic Georgetown. “There was a feeling at that time that there was lack of enforcement” of the existing laws, said Peter H. Jost, esq., president of the foundation. “It was felt that a private enforcement organization was needed to help backstop the local regulatory authorities.”

The foundation holds conservation easements on 109 different historic properties, and it takes its guardianship of the public trust very seriously.

“When you have a historic building, you should do what you can to make sure it stays around,” Jost said.