Historic homes tell stories both about their inhabitants and their eras, and in D.C., those are often pretty significant tales. See the White House, where every president save George Washington has hung his stovepipe/bowler/cowboy hat (or golf clubs) and Alexandria, Virginia’s Mount Vernon, where the first prez retired. But those two 18th-century columned beauties aren’t the only abodes with a past open to the public. These lesser-known historic residence museums delve into the narratives and nuts-and-bolts of bygone eras.
Completed soon after Washington, D.C., became the capital, the circa-1801 Octagon House (or The Octagon) famously played host to President James Madison and wife Dolley for six weeks in 1814. (The Brits had torched the nearby White House during the War of 1812.) Today, the redbrick, six-sided structure acts as headquarters for the American Institute of Architects and hosts guided tours showing o its grand stairway, antique glass windows and changing exhibits on building arts.
“We are truly delighted with this retreat ... the drives and walks around here are delightful,” First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln wrote in 1862, referring to the circa-1843 Gothic Revival home in present-day Petworth where she and President Abraham Lincoln spent many days during the Civil War. Now open to the public and called President Lincoln’s Cottage, the peaceful retreat where Abe met with soldiers and published the Emancipation Proclamation holds an interactive exhibit that lets visitors explore Lincoln’s wartime decision-making process. Outside, a towering bronze statue of the 16th U.S. president and his horse invites historic selfies.
Georgetown has been a tony neighborhood to live in for over 200 years, especially if you consider Tudor Place. The 1816 manse, built for a granddaughter of Martha Washington, was designed by William Thornton, the architect of the U.S. Capitol. A domed temple portico dominates the exterior, while lush gardens burst with boxwood and flowers. The interior holds antique furniture and objects, including letters, that George and Martha Washington owned.
It’s easy to imagine former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass expounding on equal rights from the breezy porch at his former home in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site offers guided tours through the 1840s stucco residence on a hilltop, where he lived from 1877 through 1895. Don’t miss artifacts like the violin he used to entertain his grand kids and rooms furnished with Victorian antiques.
When early 20th-century Washingtonians needed a drink, they probably grabbed an Old Heurich beer. The buzzy empire created by the German immigrant, brewer and real estate mogul, Christian Heurich, funded construction of an 1892 red sandstone mansion in Dupont Circle, now open for tours as the Brewmaster’s Castle or Heurich House Museum. Peep the Heurichs’ plush Victorian digs (including a Versailles-worthy music room) and snug garden, then stay for one of the frequent evening programs on beer, history or music.
Though 20th-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright is known for projects like Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater and New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, he also designed a series of “Usonian” middle-class homes from the 1930s through his death in 1959. One of them, the 1940 Pope-Leighey House, has been relocated near Mount Vernon to a swath of land at Woodlawn Plantation (an 1805 manor owned by George Washington’s nephew, also open to the public). Guided tours Friday through Monday snoop inside the modest-sized gem, a squared-off wooden structure with intricately carved windows and mod built-in furniture.
When you’re visiting Arlington National Cemetery, consider heading up the hill to Robert E. Lee’s former digs, Arlington House. The columned, Greek Revival building was once home to the Confederate Army General, and it still holds family portraits (one oil painting of a young Lee suggests he was a hunk) and furnishings like a Victorian sofa set upholstered in blazing red. Toward the close of the Civil War, Union soldiers were buried on the lawn, and Lee never returned to his home. The cemetery continued to grow and eventually became the solemn national burial ground it is today.
The 31 period rooms at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum use antiques and costumed mannequins to re-create spaces from America’s varied past. Think a 1920s-style den with a rolltop desk and scarlet-red built-in bookcases or a 1770s tavern with a polished wooden table and Windsor chairs.