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Tudor Place

An early 19th-century estate that had housed the Peter family for six generations, Tudor Place provides a window into the past two centuries of American history by sharing the stories of the house and its people.

I want to make alive to you the fact that this house has seen this pageant of American History.

Armistead Peter III

Born in 1769, Thomas Peter was the eldest son of Elizabeth Scott, daughter of the high sheriff of Prince George’s County, and Robert Peter, one of the first businessmen in Georgetown, who gained his wealth via the tobacco trade. Founded in 1751, Georgetown was then a young and flourishing town by virtue of its rich natural resources and convenient port, and it would later become the center of bustling social activities as more politicians came to the city of Washington. By the time of Robert Peter’s death in 1806, the Peter family had established itself as one of the most prominent families in Georgetown.Leslie Buhler, ed., Tudor Place: America's Story Lives Here (Washington, DC: The White House Historical Association, 2016), 5–11.

Life at Tudor Place

Thomas Peter continued his father’s tobacco business dealings, acting as a sales agent for George Washington. Thomas was a lover of books as well as an accomplished flutist. In 1795, he married Martha Parke Custis, a granddaughter of Martha Washington and step-granddaughter of George Washington. The two notable families made a union that would later inaugurate the 178-year tenure of the Peter family at Tudor Place.Buhler, Tudor Place, 12–13.

On June 5, 1805, Thomas Peter bought the estate from Francis Lowndes and named it Tudor Place. Construction did not begin until after the War of 1812, and was completed in 1816. Designed by family friend and amateur architect William Thornton, who in 1792 won the architectural competition for the US Capitol, the house was a fashionable neoclassical mansion housing the couple, their three daughters Columbia, America, and Britannia, and the family’s slaves. The house was the venue for numerous social events hosted by Martha Peter, attended by friends, family, and politicians, with visitors including the Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Robert E. Lee.Buhler, Tudor Place, 18–23.

Thomas and Martha Peter were the first of the four major owner-couples of Tudor Place. Britannia Wellington Peter, Martha and Thomas’s youngest child, was the next to take over Tudor Place after her mother’s death in 1854. Born in 1815, Britannia married Commodore Beverley Kennon of Virginia, but was tragically widowed at the age of 27. She dressed in black after her husband’s death, but, a determined woman, she managed her grief well and took care of her young daughter, Martha Custis Kennon. It was not surprising, then, that during the Civil War years, not long after her mother’s death, Britannia was a strong manager who stewarded the house through the war. Having previously moved to Virginia as a southern sympathizer, Britannia returned to Tudor Place in 1862 to keep the house from being converted to a Union Army hospital, though, she did open Tudor Place as a boardinghouse for Union officers.Buhler, Tudor Place, 31–37.

Britannia showed great care in preserving the family history. “The first curator of the house,”Grant Quertermous (Curator of Collections, Tudor Place) and Hillary Rothberg (Director of Education and Visitor Services), interview with author and Marlee Clayton, January 16, 2019. Britannia was the first to display objects of the Washingtons in the family instead of using them, and delivered a series of oral history narratives recorded by her grandson Armistead Peter Jr.Buhler, Tudor Place, 36.

Britannia died in 1911, after which her grandson Armistead became the host of Tudor Place. Armistead Jr. married his cousin Anna (Nannie) Wright Williams in 1894, and bride’s wealth would later support the renovation of Tudor Place driven by Armistead, who was a resolved and dedicated preservationist of the family house. Aside from implementing a physical renovation of the house, he recorded Britannia’s oral history and kept a detailed diary himself, which today serves as an invaluable source for shedding light on the daily activities of the family. A fervent gardener, hiker and hunter, Armistead Jr.’s collection includes a number of books on the subject of hunting and some fine shotguns.Buhler, Tudor Place, 38–40.

Armistead Peter III was the last member of the Peter family to own Tudor Place. An avid fan of wireless radio technology and Morse code, Armistead III served in the Naval Reserve as a radio electrician during the First World War, and later worked as a radio operator at a station in Arlington, Virginia; the old State, War, and Navy Building (now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building); and the Bureau of Steam Engineering. He married Caroline Ogden-Jones in 1921, and had a daughter, Anne Custis Peter. During World War II, Armistead, a lieutenant and later a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, served in the Pacific while Caroline served as a Red Cross nurse’s aide at Georgetown University Hospital. After the war, the family lived a transatlantic life and were active in the high society of Washington.Buhler, Tudor Place, 42–44.

Development of the Collection

The Tudor Place collection began with the household objects Thomas and Martha Peter had in their newly built neoclassical home, a blend of heirlooms and gifts they received from their prominent families and items they acquired according to their tastes and contemporary trends.Buhler, Tudor Place, 126. For instance, a beloved granddaughter of Martha Washington, Martha Peter not only inherited “the wines in the bottles in the vaults” and “guineas to buy a ring,” shared equally among Martha Washington’s grandchildren, but was particularly bequeathed her grandmother’s “writing table and the seat to it [. . .] also the print of Genl. Washington that hangs in the passage.”Buhler, Tudor Place, 17. Throughout the years, the family grew their Washington collection both by purchase and sometimes by surprise discoveries in their house, making Tudor Place home to various furniture and housewares used in the first president’s house and some of the rarest family papers of the Washington family. The descent from George and Martha Washington would later become a defining characteristic that shaped the Peter family’s keen awareness of the historic value of and continual efforts in preserving the house.Quertermous and Rothberg, interview with author and Clayton.

Members of the upper echelons of Washington society, the family acquired housewares reflective of their social class. An esteemed tea hostess, Martha Peter’s tea table included a teapot and waste bowl that were wedding gifts from George Washington, a set of famille rose Chinese export porcelain, fine silverware, and other goods made in Georgetown. The family also had Thomas’s elegant four-part flute, and generations later Armistead Jr. added to the instrument collection a rare six-octave Broadwood square piano originally purchased by Thomas’s brother.Buhler, Tudor Place, 138. The Peters were also literary lovers; avid readers, they amassed a large collection of books on a variety of subjects.Buhler, Tudor Place, 24.

The later generations, while conscious of preserving the historic collection, each added their own touches to an ever-enriching family collection. Britannia, a Victorian eclecticism enthusiast, acquired a vast collection of rich rugs, wallpapers, silver, and exotic wares. Curious about the latest trends, Britannia was also interested in japonisme, and purchased delicate Japanese porcelain.Buhler, Tudor Place, 148–53.

Armistead Jr. and his wife Nannie, who came from one of America’s wealthiest families, enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle at Tudor Place, adding housewares made by leading English, French, and American porcelain, silver, and glass producers. Their son Armistead III’s most notable contribution to the family collection, on the other hand, was more than 1,500 of his own works of art, having had a great passion for drawing from an early age and later studied at art schools in Paris.Buhler, Tudor Place, 165–90. Armistead III was also an ardent preservationist. He and his family returned to Tudor Place from Paris in 1924, when he and his wife Caroline began to purchase items that complemented the core collection of family objects, taking great care in making sure the additions matched the historical aesthetics of the house.Quertermous and Rothberg, interview with author and Clayton.

The Tudor Place estate was well preserved, with each owner making necessary changes: 8.5 acres at the original purchase, the estate was reduced to 5.5 acres after Britannia sold 1.5 acres following her mother’s wishes in 1855, the year after her mother’s death, and after the war when she had to sell another 1.5 acres to fiscally support the maintenance of the house. The exterior look of the house stayed unchanged throughout the six generations. While the interior look was largely preserved,Buhler, Tudor Place, 93. a renovation was completed in 1914 under Armistead Jr., when the latest innovations such as electricity and central heating were added.Buhler, Tudor Place, 38. The landscape of Tudor Place was transformed from a rural land with agrarian and ornamental use under the ownership of Thomas and Martha Peter, to a cultivated garden, culminating during the years of Armistead Jr. and Armistead III, a father-son duo enthusiastic about gardening.Buhler, Tudor Place, 112–15.

A Home to Be Made Public

Throughout his lifetime, Armistead III was keenly aware of the historic value of Tudor Place and was proactive in securing the future preservation of the house, one of his successes being that in 1960 Tudor Place was among the first properties in the District of Columbia to be listed as a National Historic Landmark.Buhler, Tudor Place, 45. In 1965, the year before Caroline died, she and Armistead III established the Tudor Place Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization to have Tudor Place open as a public historic museum upon their deaths, a decision believed to be prompted by the expense of maintaining the house.Sarah Booth Conroy, “Where Time Stood Still,” Washington Post, October 16, 1988. After Caroline’s death in 1965, Armistead started to construct a folio, Tudor Place, which details the history of the house. In the preface, he wrote, “I want to make alive to you the fact that this house has seen this pageant of American History.”Buhler, Tudor Place, 45. In 1988, five years after his death, Tudor Place opened to the public.Buhler, Tudor Place, 1.

Tudor Place Today

Tudor place today is governed by Tudor Place Foundation, Inc. Through guided tours, visitors can see Tudor Place as it was when its last owner lived in it, preserved with family objects throughout the ages. Upon making his house a public museum, Armistead III not only left little constraint on the mission of the foundation but also left the foundation with copious family objects which the staff today can work with. With its ever-enriching educational, historical, and family programs catered to a wide segment of the population, Tudor Place has embraced a flexible and multifaceted approach to engaging and educating the public.Quertermous and Rothberg, interview with author and Clayton.

Profile by Yiting Yang, 2019 Wintersession student.