James DeLorbe, the dynamo behind the Made in America program, is now organizing a student showhouse for the benefit of Historic Woodlawn outside Alexandria, Virginia. Originally this property was a wedding gift of 2,000 acres from George Washington to his adopted daughter, on her marriage in 1799 to his nephew. As you can imagine, Woodlawn is a spectacular historic home with surrounding grounds going down to the Potomac River. It is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). Recently interior design students from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Maryland’s Montgomery College, and DC’s George Washington University all converged for a private tour, stage one in the planning and creation of the showhouse. Even in the property’s neglected state, it turned on my envy button, and I will really enjoy participating in this showhouse.
To give you yet more background, George and Martha Washington raised two young children, Eleanor Parke Custis and her brother George Washington Parke Custis, after their father died at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. These children, two year old Nellie and her infant brother Washie, were Martha’s actual grandchildren. As General Washington became President Washington, young Nellie and Washie stayed in the public eye. Fast forward to 1799 when Nellie married George’s nephew Lawrence Lewis, just a few months before the death of her adopted father. George Washington gave the young couple this 2,000 acre property carved out of his Mount Vernon estate. By 1805 the young couple, Nellie and Lawrence, had spared little expense in building their home at Woodlawn, a brick, Georgian style home with some of the most current Federal architectural flourishes. Fast forward again to today, when the house is being restored, only a quarter of the original furnishings remain, and portraits of more mature Lawrence and Nellie are on display.
The NTHP’s Deputy Director for Historic Woodlawn, Susan Hellman, is now working with Jim De Lorbe of Made in America to raise awareness of this national architectural treasure. This is the first time a National Trust property will be open to an interior design competition. The student showhouse will engage about 25 students in the business of creating a showhouse by installing rooms in Woodlawn with furnishings donated by companies which have won Made in America awards. All parties will win in this cooperative effort, and the house will once more be open to the public. Here’s the façade of the lesser front of their home, the side that faces the land.
Nellie and Lawrence build a standard English structure the reigns of Kings Georges I, II, and III, with five parts: a central block with enclosed hyphens attaching a smaller structure at either end. Large windows symmetrically placed let in lots of air and daylight. The oval window in the top center, however, gave a nod to American Federal fashions in architecture. Each of the blackened windows in this house today will soon be replaced with a completely restored window with 12 over 12 panes, just as in the house’s heyday. While the young family lived in the center block, Lawrence’s office took up the left, and the kitchen used the right wing.
Their formal, grander façade, however, faced the Potomac River. In the days before interstate highways, travel was easier via waterways, so guests to Woodlawn arrived at the dock and by carriage came up to the more imposing side of the mansion.
As I stood on the front porch, here’s the view all the way down to the river.
Of many original outbuildings, the smokehouse still stands, set back a ways from Lawrence’s office.
And the Flemish bond of the bricks is still as tight as ever.
The interior, however, presents a sadder story. Jim De Lorbe spoke to us all in one of the original hyphens, that had been all dolled up in the early 20th century to look like an 18th century interior.
Downstairs Nellie’s original harpsichord stool remains in her music room, the grandest room in the house with its 14½ foot high ceilings.
In her center hallway her grandfather clock grandly stands.
Going upstairs is an adventure in climbing her steep oval staircase but I bet she looked great sweeping up or down it in her wide skirts.
To give me a sense of balance on the stairs, I clutched the handrail painted in a faux wood grain to match some of the original faux wood grain still left in the music room. In Nellie’s time, faux graining might be far more luxurious than leaving the wood in its natural grain. I think, however, that this graining is a modern interpretation.
At the landing, built into the wall, is a copy of a mural painted by Nellie’s brother Washie. I have lightened my photo considerably to expose the nautical scene hidden underneath layers of grime. The original and very grimy painting stays in safe, off-site storage.
An upstairs bedroom holds an original bed, although the linen can charitably be dismissed as a nice gesture.
Looking up into the bed, I loved the oddly proportioned opening in the canopy.
In just a few more months, Susan Hellman and Jim DeLorbe can show off an interior furnished by these teams of student interior designers. The students will present the house – within their budgets and the lending policies of the Made in America awarded manufacturers – to attract a new affluent family to enjoy the magnificence of this property. Look for a blog in April of next year showing how the students did George Washington proud.
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