Art Works Blog

Blue Star Museums Spotlight on Tudor Place Historic House and Garden

For six generations and nearly two centuries, the Peter family called Tudor Place home. Thomas Peter was the son of Georgetown’s first mayor, Robert Peter, and his wife, Martha Parke Custis, was a granddaughter of Martha Washington. In 1805, the couple purchased eight-and-a-half acres in the hills of Georgetown and in 1816 their elegant Federal style urban mansion was completed. 

The estate’s tagline is “America’s Story Lives Here.” (It’s also the title of an upcoming book on the property.) Indeed, Tudor Place has seen it all. Its architect was Dr. William Thornton, a friend of the Peters’ and the first Architect of the United States Capitol. The house has hosted congressmen, statesmen, and generals, among them the Marquis de Lafayette and a Custis cousin, General Robert E. Lee. The home was maintained by slave labor until the Civil War; later, new waves of European immigrants made up much of the servant staff. Its technology reflects history too: gaslight fixtures; electric lights; 1920s stoves; and 1970s telephones, each state-of-the-art in its time. In the story of Tudor Place emerges a rich, honest slice of American history.

In 1988, the estate was opened to the public as a museum with a mission of public historical education in accordance with the wishes of the home’s last owner, Armistead Peter III. This year, Tudor Place celebrates its 200th birthday.

We spoke to Executive Director Mark Hudson and Director of Education Hillary Rothberg about Tudor Place’s year of celebration, their plans for the future, and why the story of this home matters.

NEA: Why did Tudor Place decide to participate in the Blue Star Museums program?

MARK HUDSON: I think that it's just a very easy way to give back to those who serve. I think it's important not only for the service members and veterans but for their families as well to have meaningful cultural experiences. So if we can encourage them to do that by offering free admission, we certainly are happy to do that.

NEA:  What makes Tudor Place unique?

HUDSON: I think there are a number of things that make it unique. One of them is that you have six generations of the same family who resided here from the early 1800s up into the 1980s, so four private owners before it became a publicly accessible museum. But I think even more important than that is the curatorial sense that the family had over the years. They were very proud of their Washington heritage--being descendants of Martha Washington--and cared for not only the Mount Vernon collections but really all of the family's important possessions over the years. We’re not recreating something here--we're actually presenting something that's quite real and is intact as it was when the family lived here. You really feel as if you're visiting someone's home and we try to present it in a way that you feel as though the family just got up and stepped away. I think that intimacy is something that sets Tudor Place apart.

HILLARY ROTHBERG: I think one of the most unique things about Tudor Place is how well preserved everything was. Through the years, the family really had a dedication to that and not only was the stuff preserved, but the stories. I love how Tudor Place can tell really fantastic stories, and we don't just tell one story, but we tell many from many different perspectives beginning with the purchase of the land in 1805 all the way up until 1983. We're just as at home dancing the Charleston [a talking about smoking meats in the 1800s, which is a fantastic opportunity as an educator.

NEA: What does it mean to say about Tudor Place that “America’s Story Lives Here”?

HUDSON: One of the things that we've recognized in studying the history of Tudor Place and learning more about the lives of the people who were here [is that] their lives and the events in their lives touch on so many of the major events in our nation's history. For example, Martha Peter and her friend Mrs. Thornton stood at the window of what is now the dining room--which was her bedroom at the time--and watched the burning of Washington in 1814. During the Civil War, there were Union soldiers who were lodging here and it was a site of great activity. Many of the technological changes that you see, particularly in the 20th century, are reflected in Tudor Place as well, so it really is a great place to learn not simply about the history of this family or even about the community we're in, but really the whole country. It's a great way to touch on many important events in American history.

NEA: Do you have a favorite item in the Tudor Place collection?

HUDSON: I tend to gravitate toward the Martha Washington letter, not only because it is extremely rare but because I think the message within that letter that George Washington wrote to Martha upon his appointment as the commander of the Colonial Army speaks a lot about him as a leader. It speaks a lot about their relationship as well, and it's something we're immensely proud to have in our collection here at Tudor Place.

NEA: What can you tell us about Tudor Place’s education program? 

ROTHBERG: It's very important to us at Tudor Place to connect to our collection. We do that with our programming for school as well. We use Tudor Place as a lens to talk about the Civil War, a very complex time for Tudor Place and we have those deep, meaningful conversations with fifth graders, which is really important to us.

We have two [teacher programs] that are my favorites, so I'll talk about both of them. One of them is an object-based exploration: we put on the tables objects of the Civil War-era and then we ask the students to use a worksheet to explore them. Who might've used this? Was this easy to travel with? Was this heavy? Would it be a soldier who used this? Would it be a woman who used it? What does it smell like? My other favorite teacher training is an activity called "Would You Run?" and we use real-life scenarios of actual slaves. [A scenario might be that] you're a 12-year-old girl, your mother is free, your father is a slave, and you've been given a chance to escape on the Underground Railroad. Would you run?... You have these deep, meaningful conversations about a very difficult topic. It stimulates some wonderful debate. Using real scenarios is very much a teachable moment for the students because… after they debate if they would run, I then tell them the real scenario and the person's name and what did happen to them--were they successful or were they not?

NEA: How can a family visiting prepare for a visit to Tudor Place?

HUDSON: One of the things they can do in advance is visit our website and get some of the background information on the family and the history of Tudor Place. Then [they should] take one of the guided tours…. We have a really great corps of people who not only are good as tour guides, but are good historians as well. Check out our calendar of events as well. We have activities going on all the time, special events and public programs and things like that that people can avail themselves of.

Love visiting museums? Select Blue Star Museums in the Category pull-down menu for ideas to help you plan your next museum visit!

Add new comment