- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2001

Georgetown had been a thriving Potomac River port for a half-century when the federal government swept it into the new District of Columbia.

For the rest of this month, Georgetown is celebrating its 250th anniversary with its spirit and many of its original red-brick houses intact. But today it´s a prosperous city neighborhood, no longer an independent river village.

The French and Indian War was in the offing in May 1751 when Georgetown was chartered by the Maryland Legislature.

The town was at the highest point of navigation on the Potomac. It was the place where the river broadened after rushing through the rocks and rapids of Great Falls not far upstream. It was a tobacco-and-grain port and a portal to the vast wilderness of the American interior.

"Georgetown is where the men of the 18th century, if they ventured any further at all, changed into buckskin," naturalist Louis J. Halle Jr. wrote.

In 1711, a Swiss baron, Christophe von Graffenreid, founder of the New Bern colony in North Carolina, spotted the site´s potential, noting that the largest oceangoing vessel could anchor there.

"I believe there are scarcely any places in the world more beautiful and better situated," the baron wrote.

British Gen. Edward Braddock passed through in 1755 on his way to fight the French and found an outpost of civilization. "The men are very large and gallant and the women the most beautiful that my eyes have ever looked at," the enthusiastic general wrote.

The origins of the town´s name are still debated. One camp holds for King George II. Another favors two local landowners, Georges both.

Georgetown residents supported the American Revolution — and location and politics eventually brought the new federal capital to the Potomac.

Pierre L´Enfant, the French military engineer-turned-city-planner, laid out the slashing avenues of the new city in the early 1790s after establishing himself at a Georgetown inn.

Although work on the new capital went on for the rest of the decade, Georgetown was the nearest established community when John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in the fall of 1800.

The president´s wife was decidedly unimpressed with Georgetown, however.

"It is the very dirtyest hole I ever saw," she wrote a friend.

The new city slowly eclipsed the old. In the early 1870s, Georgetown officially was folded into the city of Washington and continued in a long decline.

It was rediscovered in the 1930s when the bright young men and women of Franklin D. Roosevelt´s administration poured into Washington and were smitten by the neighborhood´s leafy streets and period houses.

"Gabled roofs, tiny dormers and inviting doorways with brass knockers are reminders of the past," the writers of a 1942 guidebook noted.

The smaller homes, the guidebook said, "have been bought by artists, newspapermen, moderately well-to-do government employees and others who appreciated the charm that lay beneath dilapidation." Wealthier people bought the mansions, "and with them returned the brilliant social life for which Georgetown once was famous," the guidebook added.

Georgetown became known for "the Washington party," presided over by famous hostesses whose functions attracted senators, Cabinet members, ambassadors and the occasional president.

One future president and first lady, Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, lived in a red-brick Federal house on N Street before moving to the White House. As president-elect, Mr. Kennedy announced Cabinet appointments from its front steps.

The neighborhood´s most famous institution is Georgetown University, founded in 1789 on a bluff overlooking the river.

One of its most interesting houses is Tudor Place, completed in 1816. The original owners were Thomas Peters and his wife, Martha Custis, a granddaughter of Martha Washington´s. She made Tudor Place a repository of Washington family memorabilia. Generations of descendants lived in the house until it was opened to the public in 1988.

Francis Scott Key was a Georgetown resident when he wrote the words to "The Star Spangled Banner" in 1814.

Another songwriter is buried in Georgetown´s Oak Hill Cemetery at 30th and R streets NW: John Howard Payne, author of "Home Sweet Home." He died far from home while serving as U.S consul in Tunisia in North Africa. Thirty years after his death, he was reinterred in Georgetown as the U.S. Marine Band played "Home Sweet Home."


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