Matthew B. Gilmore
PUBLISHED: MARCH 14TH, 2017
By Matthew B. Gilmore*
For three days in 1951, between April 12th and 14th, Georgetowners celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of their neighborhood as a town in colonial Maryland. Celebrating that anniversary was quite a turn of events, since Georgetown had officially not existed for over 50 years, only to take on a new legal existence just one year previously — in 1950 — becoming the District of Columbia’s only (at the time) historic district.
Cover of The Washingtonian — “Georgetown Bi-Centenary Fair edition” — “Official herald of the Georgetown Bi-Centenary, Fair Days April 12, 13, 14, 1951.” image–Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch, DC Public Library.
Georgetown, founded in 1751, had been incorporated into the District of Columbia when the federal capital moved to the Potomac in November of 1800. In 1871, Georgetown had lost nearly all of its separate legal existence with the creation of the District’s new territorial government. The very use of the name was contentious for years and the area was redubbed West Washington. A provision in the 1871 act allowed Georgetown’s ordinances to continue in effect, an anomalous situation legally rectified with the total abolition of Georgetown in 1895.
Old Georgetown Act
In 1950 Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act, Public Law 808. New York Congressman and Georgetown resident James W. Wadsworth had introduced it. The full name was indicative of its purpose: “An Act to regulate height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in the Georgetown area of the National Capital.” It is a brief law and the scope is succinct — permits in Georgetown are referred for review to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) “for a report as to the exterior architectural features, height, appearance, color, and texture of the materials of exterior construction which is subject to public view from a public highway.” The stated reason includes a subtle nod toward colonial architecture: “. . . to promote the general welfare and to preserve and protect the places and areas of historic interest, exterior architectural features and examples of the type of architecture used in the National Capital in its initial years. . . .”
The Senate report on the bill puts it plainly, “to preserve the early architecture of Georgetown” and the House report states that “the people of Georgetown are desirous of protecting the district by an authority which will direct the type of structure suitable to the area.” An earlier version of the bill had limited the CFA review to buildings built before 1850; this was deemed unenforceable in Georgetown with such a mix of structures of varying age.
By April of 1951 the “colonial” cast to the celebration of Georgetown’s “bicentenary” (the term they preferred over “bicentennial”) was inevitable. Part of the Washington DC origin story would have been familiar to anyone who had attended the National Capital Sesquicentennial’s pageant “Faith of our Fathers” performance which portrayed the early history of Washington and the District of Columbia.