After 19 Presidents, a Change of Hands

NOW Little has changed in the house since the Swindells moved in in 1898.
NOW Little has changed in the house since the Swindells moved in in 1898. (By Dennis Brack -- The Washington Post)

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 15, 2006

In 1897, 10 years before the foundation stone was laid for the Washington National Cathedral, Samuel Arthur Swindells (1868-1959) and his wife Margaret (1868-1938) bought land at 3426 Macomb St. NW in Cleveland Park.

The Swindells chose the then-bucolic community because they wanted to get out to the country and away from "the hustle and bustle of Georgetown," said Peter Swindells, their grandson.

In 1898, the young couple moved in, just around the corner from the former summer home of President Grover Cleveland. Their house has been in the same family ever since, through 19 U.S. presidents. Now it's up for sale for the first time.

Samuel and Margaret transferred ownership of the home to their youngest son James (1908-1984) and his wife Mary (1915-2005). There they raised three sons, Peter, Sam and David. Both parents were active in the neighborhood. James organized the annual Fourth of July fireworks. Mary took around a petition to neighbors to gain support for the eventual Macomb Street playground, which sits directly across from the house.

James died in 1984 and Mary this past December, and the family ownership tradition is coming to an end. James and Mary's three sons, all now in their late fifties and early sixties, have put the three-bedroom house on the market for $1 million, a fortune from the vantage point of 1897 but a relatively modest price for today's Cleveland Park properties.

What's really for sale is "a piece of history," said the listing agent, Joseph Himali, of Best Address Real Estate LLC in Georgetown.

Living history, actually. Other than the addition of central air, gas heating, some kitchen remodeling in the 1950s and an upstairs bathroom renovation more recently, the house has changed little.

Plenty of Victorian details remain. Outside, the front porch features gingerbread fretwork. On the main level, there's a formal dining room with the original built-in china hutch, a spacious living room with the original fireplace and 10-foot ceiling height, and a formal foyer with wainscoting on the walls and staircase. Upstairs, the bedrooms have transoms, which are windows above the doors that enhanced cross ventilation from fans that were used long ago. Decorative grilles that helped distribute heat sit on the walls. The unfinished basement has a cellar entrance and a small window through which coal was once delivered for heating.

When looking at it, "a lot of people would say, 'Where's my granite and stainless?' and this house is not for them," said Himali, who specializes in historic properties. "But then there are the people who watch 'This Old House' and always dreamed of having a house like that -- this is your chance."

Peter Swindells still carries many fond memories of the home -- the daily family dinners around the circular table in the dining room, the many visitors at Christmastime, the summer birthday parties in the level, fenced back yard. He would like to see the house bought by someone who plans to stay for a while. "We hope it's a person who wants to live there and not just fix it up as an investment," he said.

And, he said, he hopes it's someone who will appreciate the views and sounds of the cathedral from the house, just as his family has for nearly a century.

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