-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Sunday, April 09, 2006

visiting old houses in Washington DC

Last week we spent a day just outside Washington DC. We arrived in Washington in the early evening from London, and left for Savannah the following evening, so decided to spend the day exploring old houses in the region in case we got some more inspiration for Amherst. Despite it pouring with rain the entire time, over the course of 7 hours we visited Mount Vernon, Woodside, Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey house, and Gunston Hall.

Mount Vernon

First up we went to Mount Vernon, George Washington's home.


The weather was dreadful, but worst were the crowds even though we got there on a Saturday at 8.30am! We queued for an hour to go on the house tour, where you're shuffled each room with hordes of people and guides going through an ever-repeating spiel. It wasn't possible to properly look at things as there was no room to move which was a pity as there were things I would have liked to see more and ask questions about.

The most interesting thing about it for me was that even though quite Georgian in style, everything was on a much smaller scale than I'm used to seeing in the UK. Not only the rooms, but even the windows were smaller, ceilings lower, staircases narrower, etc. You can do a virtual tour of it here.

My favourite parts included the colonnaded walkway between the main house and the kitchen; the flower garden which had beautiful spring bulbs; the kitchen garden with espaliered trees around the edges of each garden bed.


Woodside Plantation

Next stop was Woodside, about 10-15 minutes drive away.

Refreshingly, this was almost empty, and we had a tour of the main house entirely to ourselves. Even though the house itself wasn't of as much historical significance as Mount Vernon, I enjoyed it a lot more because you could proceed at your own pace and really get a feel for the place.

I didn't like the outside of the house particularly, but there were some interesting things inside. e.g., the bannisters of the stairs are shaped to make it appear like a perfect oval if you view it from the hall, even though this means that as you climb the stairs the handrail gets noticeable lower near the top. One of the bedrooms had two low steps to enter (because the ceiling in the dining room below was higher than other rooms), which created a wonderful feeling of transition. And I learned that Venetian blinds are far far older than I'd realised... even back in 1805 they had them!

Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope Leighey house

This is on the same grounds as Woodside, about 5 minutes walk away. What can I say, this was utterly stunning, took my breath away and so unexpectedly. So much so that it warrants a post of its own.

Gunston Hall

This was described as an "architectural masterpiece" with wonderfully ornate wood carvings by my Lonely Planet guide so I had high hopes. Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to them, but then perhaps my standards were unfairly high.

Outside, the house looked quite charming but very small. It was quite extraordinary considering that inside it had at least 6 bedrooms upstairs!


Inside was surprising too but not necessarily in a good way.

I was expecting extraordinary wood carved decorations akin to Grinling Gibbons work at Lyme Park. They were nothing like this. In the main hallway it had some simple but lovely carved molding but it was impossible to properly appreciate because of the hideous wallpaper they'd hung. Huge, bright coloured, busy pattern that kept pulling your eyes to the wallpaper rather than the delicate work. Our guide himself admitted he hated it, he'd much preferred it when the hall was painted a plain colour so you could see the carvings, but the curator had insisted on altering it to try and get closer to "historical accuracy".

There were two formal rooms downstairs. One had weird spike like wood carvings everywhere and was painted a bright yellow mustard colour, with bright chinoiserie style wallpaper. The other had bright blue grotto style cupboards and a giant rococo / palladian / georgian fireplace carving. In both rooms, the furniture was just haphazardly scattered around, supposedly to mirror the time when they had to rush away quickly to escape from robbers.

Weirdly, they both had these big ornate fireplaces with a big framed bit in the middle above the mantle... which was empty! I asked about it as it gave a sense of the rooms being incomplete, something was so obviously missing, and the guide said that yes something would have been there, but because the curator couldn't determine for certain what it was - whether a painting or mirror - for "historical accuracy" she insisted it was left bare! Very odd... although you might not know for certain what was there, you can sure as hell know that something was. It spoilt the experience of the rooms having it bare.

The rest of the house was less bizarre, although one was painted an extremely bright green all over of the likes I'd never seen before.

Overall, I don't quite know what to think about this house. I didn't like it, but it was still interesting even if just to have as a comparison to other places.

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