The buildings of Georgetown can be followed in a time line from the oldest along the shores of the Potomac River to later development on the steep heights as far north as Dumbarton Oaks, Montrose Park, and Oak Hill Cemetery. Founded in 1751, forty years before Washington, Georgetown was linked to the new capital by a bridge over the crevice of Rock Creek at Pennsylvania Avenue that connected to Georgetown's M Street, a major east-west commercial thoroughfare. From the waterfront, Wisconsin Avenue carried commercial development northward. The prosperous merchants of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries built large freestanding Federal style houses on high ground along Prospect and N streets. Farther north, substantial estates were established. As Georgetown became urbanized, detached and attached houses filled the empty lots and surrounded the large estates. Constructed from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century, these houses were in picturesque Italian Villa and Romanesque Revival styles.
Many of the row houses of the Romanesque Revival period resembled those on Capitol Hill and in Dupont Circle. The basic house form consisted of a side entrance and bay window ornamented with corbeled brick and terracotta and cast-iron stairs and railings. At the beginning of the twentieth century, simple red brick row houses with porches, a form found throughout much of the city, made their way into Georgetown.
Georgetown had flourished as a port city from the Revolutionary War to the end of the eighteenth century. Its location at the head of the tidewater secured its strength as an international trade center. Its prosperity, along with that of its sister city, Alexandria, on the Virginia side of the river, contributed to George Washington's selection of this part of the Potomac River for the capital.
The L'Enfant Plan, however, left “George Town” just outside the boundary of the new city, and it thus developed and retained its own street system. During the capital city's early years, Georgetown provided fully developed commercial and social services for its residents, and it continued to operate as a separate entity until it merged with Washington in 1871.
As a port, Georgetown declined by the 1820s, as the tobacco trade in that area became exhausted and as Baltimore became the center of the flour trade. Construction of a bridge over the Potomac River at 14th Street added to siltation, also diminishing its suitability as a port. Although completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1850 spurred the local economy, it did not compensate for the eclipse of the port facilities. In the 1880s, a far superior harbor was created in Southwest Washington, and by the early twentieth century, the Georgetown waterfront was devoted to industrial uses, such as a power plant, meat-processing plant, and the warehousing of construction materials. Working-class white and black residents occupied much of the housing, particularly on low ground close to the river.
In the 1920s, at the urging of resident activists, a zoning amendment limited the size of new construction in Georgetown. In the following decade, with an influx of affluent new residents attracted to the area's historic buildings, many houses were remodeled dramatically, while others were restored to an earlier period by the removal of latter-day accretions. Inspired by efforts to preserve the old sections of Charleston and New Orleans, Georgetown civic leaders sought protective legislation. In 1950, Congress designated the area a historic district.
Today, Georgetown is a major center of employment as well as a fashionable residential neighborhood. Its shops and dining establishments attract large crowds during the after-work hours. The major commercial routes of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue are lined with restored and recent but compatible construction. The most recent infill buildings provide examples of Postmodern and contextual architecture. Away from these well-trodden streets, residential Georgetown reveals itself in its variety of housing. Around the periphery are large institutions and public facilities. Georgetown University is to the west. To the north are the old reservoir site now occupied by the Georgetown Public Library, Dumbarton Oaks, Montrose Park, and Oak Hill Cemetery. Completing the eastern boundary of an area that has retained a distinctive cultural identity for more than two centuries, Rock Creek Park serves as a natural green link to the rest of the city.
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