Georgetown is one of the oldest sections of Washington, D.C. So old in fact that it predates the creation of the District of Columbia. It was officially authorized as a town in the colony of Maryland in 1751 named George Town, after King George II. With its location on the Potomac River, Georgetown was originally settled as a port that specialized in shipping tobacco to Europe and the West Indies. Congress officially incorporated Georgetown into Washington City in 1871 and, unlike most Washington neighborhoods, Georgetown has well defined borders. It stretches from the Potomac River in the south up to Dumbarton Oaks Park and from Foundry Branch Valley Park in the east to Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway in the west.
There are many historical locations to go along with the trendy shopping on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue and the sky high housing prices of this chic neighborhood. Past residents of Georgetown include Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Graham Bell, John F. Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor. If you want to visit Georgetown, however, you’ll have to do it without the Metro because there are no stations in the neighborhood. The closest Metro stations are Foggy Bottom (Orange, Blue, Silver) and Dupont Circle (Red), but they are each ½ mile from Georgetown’s eastern edge and almost 2 miles from Georgetown University on its west side.
As you stroll down toward the Potomac River, pass by the standalone brick townhouse at 3307 N St. This charming abode was once the residence of John F. Kennedy and it was from this house that the President-elect emerged on January 20, 1961 to be inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States. Continuing to the river, you will eventually find the Georgetown Waterfront Park, which stretches over 10 riverfront acres between 31st and 34th Streets. On the eastern end of Georgetown Waterfront Park is the Washington Harbour, a retail and dining space housed in a postmodern complex built on the edge of the Potomac.
One block north of the Washington Harbour on Thomas Jefferson St you will cross a small canal. This simple waterway holds a great deal of history for Georgetown. The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal was begun in Little Falls, Maryland on July 4, 1828 and upon its completion in 1850 ran 184.5 miles along the Potomac River. Walk west on the towpath – keeping the canal on your left – for one block to 31st St. (Be warned that the canal is not accessible from the street in many places in Georgetown, so if you walk further be prepared to walk back to your starting point.)
As you emerge onto 31st Street glance at the large, brick Canal Square building at 1054. This simple building holds some of the history of our nation’s computing power. Developed to more quickly process census data, Herman Hollerith created a punch card tabulating machine that used electric current to sense holes in punched cards and keep a running total. Hollerith built that technology into the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896 and organized it at this Canal Square building. The Tabulating Machine Company, through several mergers and buyouts, eventually became a building block in the company we came to know as IBM.
Turning right onto M Street, past stores like Brooks Brothers and Barneys New York, you will come upon a seemingly out of place simple stone house at 3051 M St – this is the Old Stone House. Heading back to 31st St and turning right, you will see the dignified Georgetown Post Office and former customhouse at 1215 31st St. This building, completed in 1858, was constructed when Georgetown was utilized as a port of entry to the country. It was established with the customhouse on its second floor and a post office on its first. The post office remains in operation today.
Continuing about ½ mile north on 31st St brings you to the grand Tudor Place at 1644 31st St. The large house was built in 1816 and remains today as it was when it was lived in and the 5 ½ acre garden still contains many trees and shrubs cultivated by the original owners. Further north, across R St, at 1703 32nd St sits the Dumbarton Oaks museum and gardens. The house was built in 1801, but after being purchased by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in 1920 it was expanded in order to house their art collection.
Returning to R St and heading east to the intersection of 30th St will find you standing if front of the impressive brick gatehouse of Oak Hill Cemetery, the historic 22 acre resting place of many Civil War-era government officials. From the gatehouse of the cemetery continue down 30th St, taking a left on Q St toward Dumbarton House at 2715 Q St. These few blocks are wonderful example of Georgetown’s elegant, historic, and pricey townhouses and tree-lined streets.