Georgetown Time Machine: Pre-Move Dumbarton House

This week for Georgetown Time Machine, GM is exploring a photo of Dumbarton House from 1913. It comes from the Willard R. Ross postcard collection in the DCPL archives.

While this photo might seem not so different from how the building appears today, there are some rather huge differences!

But first, the small differences. For one, the building was not called Dumbarton House yet. It was called Bellevue and it was owned at the time by John L. Newbold. Newbold had purchased the home just the year before from Howard Hinckley.

Although the home was built in the federal period, and had many distinctive features of that style, such as the Palladian windows and the bowed rear wall, Newbold added some Georgian features. You can see these in the picture above, particularly the quoins (the blocky white parts attached along the corners) and the parapet across the top of the roofline. Since the Society of the Colonial Dames, who currently own the building, want to highlight the original federal features of the house, these additions were removed.

The house was also known as the Rittenhouse home (as mentioned in the photo). In fact Hinckley bought the house from Sarah Louise Rittenhouse, who grew up there. Rittenhouse was a prominent Georgetown leader who was instrumental in the creation of Montrose Park (the sculpture in the rose garden is dedicated to her). Rittenhouse also was instrumental in another significant act that came from the same legislation that created Montrose Park: the construction Dumbarton Bridge.

Dumbarton Bridge was constructed in 1915. It was built to connect Georgetown with the new, and desirable neighborhood of Sheridan-Kalaroma. But connecting the two neighborhoods via Q St. had a couple significant problems. The first was that Q St. east of Rock Creek was slightly north of Q St. in Georgetown. That problem was addressed with the bridge’s most appealing trait: its gentle curve.

But the bigger problem was that there was a big house in the way between Q St. in Georgetown and the bridge: Bellevue.

The city gave Newbold two options: move the house or demolish it. He chose the former.

So in 1915 (two years after the photo) workers laboriously removed the home from the foundation and rolled it up the hill, as described in this great John DiFerrari piece on the house:

The move of the main house was undertaken by Caleb L. Saers, a Civil War veteran who had run a business of raising and moving houses in the Washington area since at least the 1880s. He found the Newbold mansion particularly challenging. It took three weeks and 200 jacks to raise the old house a half-inch off the ground and probably several months after that to drag it into its new resting place, a spot that had been dug out of the hillside some 60 feet to the north. 

The Society of Colonial Dames purchased the home in 1928 to serve as its national headquarters. They renamed it Dumbarton House, to reflect the fact it sits on land that was part of the original Rock of Dumbarton of Ninian Beall.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Georgetown Time Machine: Pre-Move Dumbarton House

  1. georgetowncitizen

    I know this comment is “inside baseball,” but I deeply appreciate Sarah Rittenhouse because she made possible Montrose Park across the street from where I live. So I was most interested in this GM posting, and even more by the article by Mr. DiFerrari to which the GM posting provided a link. But there is one problem with that article. It suggests that the Dumbarton House property was sold out of Rittenhouse’s estate in 1900 after her death. But Sarah lived until 1943 and the park for which she lobbied Congress was created in 1910-11. Still, the DiFerrari article for which GM provided a link was fascinating in connecting Sarah to Dumbarton House, another fixture (besides Montrose Park) of East Georgetown.
    But here is a question and a challenge to any amateur historians (including GM himself!): why, given her prominence in Georgetown and her wealth, at least as the owner of Dumbarton House, does Sarah have such a humble grave at Oak Hill Cemetery (just a small square marker flat to the ground with her name and dates inscribed)? Was that what she wanted, or did she fall on hard economic times later in life?

  2. Topher

    Not sure! I’d guess it was just a personal preference.

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