By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007
Frederick Douglass rarely lacked for visitors at his estate in Anacostia. All sorts of people, including many of his 21 grandchildren, were often about, and the abolitionist writer saw to it that his home was equal to his hospitality.
For the past three years, preservationists have been working to keep it that way. And now the first major restoration project in more than three decades is complete, nearly 130 years after Douglass paid $6,700 for the hilltop mansion and the surrounding nine acres, which he would come to call Cedar Hill.
The National Park Service began showing off the finished product in mid-February with the reopening of the mansion for public tours that are booked into next month, the Park Service said.
Featured last year on the PBS program "This Old House," the $2 million, three-year project used everything from old photographs to new technology to bring the house back to the years before Douglass died in 1895 in his late 70s.
Vivian L. Smith, vice president of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, said the restoration ensures the home will remain a relevant piece of America's history -- and Anacostia's.
"It gives you something to be proud of. It gives you something to aspire to. It gives you something to tell generations yet unborn," she said. "He was a member of this community. He lived in this community. That's important."
For devoted students of the design and decor of that era, the mansion is a trove of delights, from the original Sears, Roebuck icebox to the Limoges porcelain china that graces the Douglass dining table.
In a house that he would expand to 21 rooms, there are glimpses into the man, the period and the place he called home.
The separate bedrooms -- men on the east side of the house, women on the west side -- were of the Victorian era. The library was a testament to Douglass's intellectual breadth, the custom-crafted bookcases filled with hundreds of books. The coal-burning stove in the kitchen, like the one Douglass had installed, was a mark of his determination to modernize home life and move away from the open-hearth cooking fires that were the standard of the day.
The photographs suggest the special place Douglass would occupy in U.S. history. A gifted writer and stirring speaker, he crusaded against the system that had enslaved him, and his work as an abolitionist made him a friend to presidents.
A portrait of Lincoln adorns a wall in the west parlor. A photograph of President Benjamin Harrison's inaugural committee members, Douglass among them, looks out on the dining room. His bust sits on a pedestal in his bedroom, a period indulgence for those of wealth and influence.
When he bought the house in 1877, after being named U.S. marshal for the District, Douglass was the first African American to settle in Old Anacostia, where blacks had been banned from buying property, according to "The Guide to Black Washington" by Sandra Fitzpatrick and Maria R. Goodwin.
It was in the house that Douglass wrote the final volume of his autobiography, "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass," and it was where he died on Feb. 20, 1895.
Located at 1411 W St. SE, the house was owned by the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association until 1962, when it was turned over to the National Park Service.
For 10 years, the Park Service worked at restoring the house, and it reopened in 1972. Three decades later, though, it was clear more needed to be done, using technology such as microscopic paint analysis, to return the house to its original appearance.
Some 300 paint samples were examined to determine colors used during Douglass's final years, said Eola Dance, a Park Service ranger at the Douglass mansion for six years. Many rooms were transformed as a result, she said. The previously white pantry, for example, was redone in mauve.
The heating, ventilation and cooling system was upgraded to deal with a massive mold problem that had festered behind the wallpaper. Lead paint around the windows and on the exterior of the house was removed. And the house, white before the renovation, was repainted a grayish brown that had begun appearing on the exterior about 1892.
"It was quite busy," she said.
Now the Park Service will replace the succession of contractors with a steady stream of visitors.