Georgetown – Washington DC

Unarguably, Georgetown is one of the most recognized places on the planet.

It’s the section of the city that draws Washingtonians who dine at Georgetown’s fine establishments, to students who kick back at M Street bars, from foreign tourists with guidebooks in hand, to Hollywood film crews with sound booms and rolling cameras. All experience and soak up the area’s charm. Most are surprised to discover that Georgetown was not officially part of Washington, D.C. until July 1, 1871, nearly three-quarters of a century after the founding of the City of Washington. It was this date that Congress revoked Georgetown’s charter and transferred power of governance to the District of Columbia. Prior to that, while Georgetown fell into the perimeters of the District, it functioned as its own independent city and boasted an address of “Georgetown, D.C.” This city-within-a-city has a past that is both rich and long.

The historical legacy of this neighborhood begins before the founding of the United States. In 1632, a fur trader named Henry Fleet, happened upon a Native American tribe (the Nacotchtank) living in their village called Tohoga, which was modern day Georgetown. He actively pursued his trade there and soon others joined him. The location, as the farthest point upstream to which oceangoing vessels could navigate the Potomac, assisted greatly in building a nascent port city. Soon, a small community formed with the construction of warehouses, wharves and other industrial buildings.

Men by the names of George Gordon and George Beall owned the land from which the Colony of Maryland petitioned 60 acres to establish Georgetown. After doing so, in 1751, the Maryland Assembly formally authorized the town to be built. It is not clear whether George Towne was named after George Gordon, George Beall or, alternatively, King George II, who was the ruler of England at the time. Regardless, the town was chartered and incorporated in 1789 and the following year Robert Peter, a tobacco businessman, was named the first Mayor. Within a short period of time, Georgetown became a bustling harbor.

George Washington frequented the area and it was here that the brokering of terms for land transfer, which would create the new capital city occurred. It is believed that the transfers were negotiated at the former Suter’s Tavern (31st and K Streets.) This establishment, a favorite of the First President, has been described as a small building, one and a half stories, with a large inn yard to accommodate horses and wagons. But, Washington is not the only notable to have been a fixture in Georgetown. Thomas Jefferson, while serving as Vice-President under John Adams, and Francis Scott Key both resided in the neighborhood too.

By 1800, with the establishment of Washington as the Federal City, Georgetown boomed. Colonel John Beatty established the first church, of Lutheran denomination, which was quickly followed in 1795 with the Trinity Catholic Church and attached schoolhouse. In 1789, Father John Carroll founded Georgetown University as a private Jesuit university. As money flowed into the area, banks, including the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, Bank of Washington, Patriotic Bank and the Bank of the Metropolis were constructed. Also, broadsheets circulated through the area such as The Republican Weekly Ledger, The Sentinel, the Georgetown Courier and the Federal Republican.

As a shipping center, Georgetown supplied Washington with not only domestic goods but those from foreign markets. Salt arrived from Europe as sugar and molasses made their way to shore from the West Indies. Flour became a staple as the C&O provided cheap power for the mills that began to permeate the area.

During this time, another industry flourished, which is one of the sole blights on the neighborhood’s character. Slave trading in Georgetown began in 1760, when John Beattie established his business on O Street and sold at locations around Wisconsin Avenue. Other slave markets were located in Georgetown, including one at McCandless’ Tavern near M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. (This continued until the mid-19th century, when it was banned by Congress on April 16, 1862.)

Grand houses started lining the streets and more residents moved into the area. Mansions of wealthy shipowners, merchants and land speculators were built on Prospect and N streets. Hotels, taverns and commercial buildings occupied the area of M Street to the waterfront. Georgetown, which had been actively developing for several decades, lay in sharp contrast to the new capital city. At the turn of the 19th century, the District had yet barely anything to offer and Georgetown became the center of business, culture and society.

But then trouble arrived to the shores of the Potomac, and the pendulum started its reverse swing. By the 1820’s, the river had silted up and was no longer navigable to Georgetown. Calm heads prevailed and soon a new project was embarked upon meant to effortlessly continue trade. In July of 1828, ground was broken on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which would link the harbor to Harper’s Ferry. By the time of the C&O’s completion on October 10, 1850, over $77M was spent on the canal. Unfortunately, the C&O did not perform as expected, although, Georgetown did receive a small economic boost.

By the late 19th century, flour milling and other industries fell into decline. An 1890 flood coupled with the expansion of the United States railroads all but closed the C&O canal. (The canal would permanently cease operations in 1924.) Shipping vanished. The waterfront took on a more industrialized flavor with warehouses and alley apartments, lacking in plumbing and electricity. Lumberyards, concrete works, meat processing plants and a power generating plant for the old capital streetcar system located at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue took center stage. (The power plant was demolished in October, 1968.) Georgetown began to lose its former appeal.

The neighborhood needed another boost. In 1915, the Buffalo Bridge was opened, which then connected Georgetown to the rest of the city east of Rock Creek. Soon, construction of new apartment buildings ensued. And houses. When Alexander Graham Bell opened his Volta Laboratory (3414 Volta Place) it was welcomed enthusiastically. Bell would continue work at this location through 1922 and Georgetown boasted of his work in the neighborhood.

A fresh, young couple moved into the neighborhood in the 1950’s that dramatically altered Georgetown’s appeal. When John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, took up residence at 3307 N Street, the landscape of the area changed. The pendulum started to swing back. The Kennedys showcased their neighborhood and threw lavish parties. Soon, the social elite of Washington knocked on the Kennedy’s door and Georgetown became the hottest neighborhood in DC once again.

Fortunately, as shipping disappeared, an inherent preservation of the neighborhood manifested. Many of today’s buildings were not touched or tinkered with after big firms removed themselves from the area. In 1950, Public Law 808 appeared on the books. This law established the historic district of “Old Georgetown” and required the United States Commission of Fine Arts to be consulted with for any alterations, demolitions or constructions in the historic district. These aspects have allowed Georgetown not only to retain its historical significance but promote its charm in a way that differs from the rest of the city. Lacking redevelopment and modernization, today’s neighborhood is not so different than that of its past.

The buildings are not the only non-mutable element of Georgetown. Its energy and character also remain the same. The neighborhood is still one of the most dynamic, popular and successful neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. All one has to do is walk down a quiet neighborhood street to find its appeal, or conversly, window-shop on Wisconsin to feel the frenetic energy of the area.

Top-notch restaurants are far too many in number to count as are the vast amount of shops and boutiques that envelope the area. Nearly everything can be found in Georgetown. Home furnishing, clothing, shoes, stationery, antique, bath and body products stores (both national and local) line the streets in a parade of commercial delights. Drugstores, markets, cafes, shoe repair shops, optometrists, hair salons and doctor’s offices crowd the sidewalk spaces. Restaurants, bars, pubs and fast-food outlets swell with their numerous patrons. Georgetown is one of Washington’s favorite neighborhoods and this fact is visibly noticed every day of the week by the sheer number who gather here.

But, it is not just the denizens of Washington that understand Georgetown’s appeal. A dozen Hollywood feature films have either featured the neighborhood or shot on location. The Exorcist (1973) and St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) are, perhaps, the best known films to have used Georgetown as their settings. But movies that also are included are No Way Out (1987), The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), Chances Are (1989), Timecop (1994), True Lies (1994), Enemy of the State (1998), Spy Games (2001), Minority Report (2002), The Recruit (2003) and Transformers (2007).

Pleasant walks along the C&O as a crisp autumn breeze rustles the gold, orange and red leaves bring about autumn delights. M Street and Wisconsin Avenue shops decorated for the holiday season is a Winter treat. Spring flowers that pop up in flowerboxes release a fresh awakening. And, relaxing on the harbor, watching the boats slowly glide by on the Potomac is a perennial Summer favorite. Georgetown, the former city-within-a-city is always adored.


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