An old wooden door in the heart of Georgetown separates the 18th and 20th centuries, shutting out M Street's 24-hour parade of leather-clad shoppers, clunky-shoed students and meandering tourists. It's the entrance to the Old Stone House, Washington's oldest surviving structure. Inside, on a cold rainy day roars a warm, glowing cooking fire; on a hot summer afternoon fresh lemonade is ready in the cool, low-beamed kitchen. The Old Stone House is a Georgetown oasis.
Woodworker Christopher Layman built the small house from local bluestone in 1765 for his wife and their two small boys; he died later that same year. His widow, Rachael, traded it to Cassandra Chew companion of the bustling new tobacco port's first mayor, Robert Peters for a lot across the street and 100 pounds of tobacco. In the 1770s, Chew added what is now the main portion of the house, the kitchen and two floors above it, for her two daughters and five slaves.
As Georgetown grew more cosmopolitan free-running pigs and chickens were outlawed in 1790 the prominent Chew family lived here in relatively high style until the 1840s. Since then, the house has seen duty as a paint shop, a clock store and a haberdashery. A 1940s photograph shows it as the used-car lot Parkway Motors still a better fate than many of the capital's other pre-Revolution buildings, razed in the demolition-crazy 1930s.
In 1950, the National Park Service purchased the Old Stone House, restored it and opened it to the public. "I want to make people feel when they come through that door that they're in the 18th century," says NPS historian Darryl Baldwin as he splits wood with a medieval-looking reproduction ax in front of the fire where he makes "the best biscuits in town." He can't share what he cooks here apple pies, steaks, even Thanksgiving turkeys -- with visitors, but he does show folks the daily chores of colonial life.
For 32 years, Baldwin has shorn sheep on the premises, dyed wool in the yard, made candles out of turkey fat and told the house's story. The old structure, still 85 percent original, is thick with cast-iron Dutch ovens, grills, pans, candle molds, stoneware, period furniture, clothes and tricorn hats.
Visitors can wander through the ground floor's wood shop and kitchen or explore the fancier upper floors with their parlors, bedrooms and original grandfather clock. Or they can plop down outside, where the sweetest of white picket fences borders a long, narrow English-style garden ablaze in spring with old-garden roses, perennials and bulbs that might have held a colonial barn, a chicken coop and a pig pen. Today it's the perfect spot for a picnic, a shopping breather or a total respite from the 20th century.