Visit D.C.’s Best Off-the-Beaten-Path Historic Homes and Gardens

History, nature and culture combine at these fascinating estates and gardens in our nation’s capital

Dumbarton Oaks Garden
Image courtesy of Flickr user DC Gardens

Washington, D.C. is a hot spot for museums, with no shortage of indoor places to visit and explore. But it's summer, which means it's time to get outside. Luckily for those who enjoy a cultural fix along with their sunshine, there are plenty of interesting historic homes that include beautiful estates and gardens in our nation's capital, too.

For many of these locations, fighting crowds isn’t a problem. These houses and gardens aren’t the typical tourist haunts. And while museums have their own charms, visiting a home where someone once lived can provide a uniquely intimate experience.

Here are six of the best historic estates to visit this summer in Washington, D.C.:

Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens

In 1955, Marjorie Merriweather Post, the owner of General Foods and one of the richest women in the United States, bought this Georgian-style mansion and estate in Northwest Washington, D.C. After extensive remodeling, Hillwood became one of the beautiful homes and grounds in the area. Today, the entire estate is open to the public.

The house itself is a museum highlighting Post’s admiration for French and Russian culture, especially Russian imperial art. (The prizes of her collection are two stunning Fabergé Imperial eggs.) But Post also wanted visitors to enjoy a sampling of the world’s cultures while strolling the grounds. The 25-acre estate includes a Japanese-style garden, a French parterre (a type of formal garden with low plantings) and a Russian dacha, or country house. There’s also a putting green, evidence of Post’s passion for golf, as well as a pet cemetery located down a wooded path, which shows her love for animals—especially her pet dogs.

Dumbarton Oaks

Hidden away in historic Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks may have the most serene, beautiful and colorful gardens in all of Washington, D.C. Designed by the accomplished landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, the gardens were crafted to offer the “illusion of country life,” complete with wildflowers, centuries-old trees and pools of deep blue water. However, they are only one piece of what makes this 53-acre property so special.

In 1920, Robert and Mildred Bliss acquired the property and immediately turned the estate into their own private museum for their impressive collection of Byzantine artifacts. In 1940, they donated both the estate and collection to Harvard University. Today, Dumbarton Oaks is a Harvard-run research institute and widely considered one of the best institutions for Byzantine studies in the world. 

Heurich House

More famously known as the “Brewmaster’s Castle,” this mansion near Dupont Circle was the home of Christian Heurich, D.C.’s greatest beer brewer. The German immigrant arrived in the nation’s capital in the 1870s and put his impressive brewery skills to work. His brewery (located where the Kennedy Center is today) quickly grew to the point where it was the second-largest employer in the District, behind only the federal government. Heurich was still working as a brewer when he died in 1945 at the age of 102.

The Brewmaster’s Castle and its gardens are also notable for being the best-preserved Gilded Age mansion left in the District. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and much of the house and furniture are still original. Tours and events, usually centered around beer, are held frequently.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

In the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast D.C. sits the home and estate of the famed 19th-century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. He bought the hilltop estate in 1878 after being appointed the marshal of the District of Columbia by President Rutherford B. Hayes. After moving in, Douglass became known throughout the community as the "Lion of Anacostia," because his hair, and his courage, were said to resemble that of a lion. He lived out his remaining years on "Cedar Hill," as the estate was known, until his death in 1895.

The National Parks Service took over the property in 1962 and have since worked to restore the estate to what it looked like when Douglass lived there. Cedar trees still shade the house, and the view of the city in front of the building is one of the best in all of D.C.

The Anderson House

In 1905, the Washington, D.C., mansion of Larz and Isabel Anderson was completed near Dupont Circle. Larz was an American diplomat, but it was his wife who had the money. At a young age, Isabel had inherited nearly $17 million from her grandfather’s shipping fortune, making her one of the wealthiest women in the country.

The Florentine villa built for her and her husband, known as the Anderson House, soon became one of the premiere destinations in the city for galas, society gatherings and concerts, with guest lists that included presidents, generals and Vanderbilts. 

When Mr. Anderson died in 1937, Mrs. Anderson donated the house and estate to the Society of Cincinnatithe country’s oldest patriotic organization. Lars Anderson was a devoted member of the society, which promotes public interest and appreciation for those who fought in the American Revolution. Today, the house is its headquarters, and the museum inside includes an extensive collection of historical manuscripts, documents and maps relating to the war. 

Tudor Place

When George Washington died in 1799, he left considerable sums of money to all of his step-grandchildren. Martha Parke Custis Peter (one of George Washington's step-granddaughters) and her husband, Thomas Peter, used her sizable inheritance to build what came to be called Tudor Place in today’s Georgetown.

They hired the architect of the Capitol building, William Thornton, to design the house. Completed in 1816, the building remained in the Peter family for six generations until it was deeded to a foundation in 1983.  

The house is one of America's last intact urban estates from the Federal Era. Highlights include the tennis lawn, the tea house and the newly-restored Box Knot Garden. The estate was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House

In 1939, America’s foremost architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, turned 72. At an age when most are considering retirement, he was having perhaps his most prolific period, being regularly commissioned to design elaborate houses such as Wingspread and Fallingwater for the rich and famous. So, when a middle-class newspaper reporter named Lauren Pope from Falls Church, Virginia, wrote Wright in 1939 asking him to design a new house and estate for Pope and his family, it wasn’t a typical request from a typical client. But Wright took the job, saying that he wanted to build houses for “people who deserved them.”

Located just outside D.C. in Alexandria, Virginiathe Pope-Leighey House remains an example of one of Wright’s first Usonian houses. Built to accommodate the budget and space of urban middle-class American families, some have called it Wright’s “greatest legacy to the nation.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation now owns the estate, and offers regular tours of the grounds.

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