AT HISTORIC Tudor Place in Georgetown, children immediately notice the difference between the elegant dining room and the more austere servants' dining hall, says education coordinator Karen Stuhler. Young visitors point out the lower ceiling, dimmer lights and crisp maid's uniform on display in the servants' gathering place. "They are especially fascinated by the call box," she says, referring to the wall-mounted system of small lights that summoned the hired help to specific rooms in the mansion.
Who were these people being summoned? Who polished the silver and the gleaming floors, served the meals, tended the garden, baked the bread? At Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, modern-day children can learn the bygone domestic employees' names and imagine them at work through newly restored service areas, which opened last month.
"It's great to be able to tell the stories of the people who made life at Tudor Place possible," Stuhler says.
The servants' stories are interwoven with the history of the Peter family, owners for six generations (1805 to 1983) of the neoclassical mansion. To glean information, house museum staff spent several years combing through family records, correspondence, oral histories and recipes, and hunting for period photos. Thanks to this careful research, docent-led tours can focus not only on wealthy, well-known inhabitants -- the first owner was Martha Custis Peter, step-granddaughter of George Washington -- but on Maggie Carraher, an Irish immigrant and cook; John Luckett, a gardener; and Hannah Pope, a slave born at Tudor Place and sold upon her marriage at 17. Stuhler enjoys showing young visitors Carraher's grocery receipt from 1913. Three dozen eggs sold for 40 cents, lettuce was 10 cents and 109 quarts of milk cost $9.81.
Since this is Thanksgiving weekend, I was curious: What preparations would a large festive meal have required at Tudor Place? Stuhler ushered me into the formal dining room, which depicts the 1922 engagement dinner of the last owner, Armistead Peter III, to Caroline Ogden-Jones. The table is laid for six as exquisitely as if then-butler Jacob Taube had overseen the process himself. Four different crystal goblets sparkle at each setting, silver shines under the chandelier and starched napkins peak in "bishop's hat" folds.
The service areas (servants' hall, servants' dining hall and butler's pantry) offer a different perspective on the same dinner party. A staff of 10 would have been attending to the guests and preparing the roast chicken, molded "perfection salad" and stewed carrots on the menu. (Models of these dishes are displayed.) Cook Isabel Donaldson would have presided over the coal-and-gas range in the large kitchen, which is scheduled to open next fall.
Laminated period photos put faces to the servants' names, and docents add anecdotes to brief biographies. As a boy, the last owner loved helping Carraher in the kitchen and marveled at her bread-baking skill. Other servants carefully maintained their privacy and independence. Luckett, an escaped slave from Virginia, was hired as a gardener during the Civil War and stayed for 44 years. He refused on-site housing, though, and made the six-mile round trip daily by foot to his home on Capitol Hill.
Knowing how hard the servants worked can deepen one's appreciation of the house and six-acre garden, open to the public since 1988. The one-page activity guide available free to young visitors might ask them not only to find certain objects but to figure out how those objects were cared for. How were the sleigh bed and brass dolphin doorstops dusted and polished? In fact, who dusts and polishes at Tudor Place now?
Highly trained museum technicians, Stuhler says, praising Carmen Barillas and Maria Bustamante, who do the bulk of upkeep on Mondays, when the house is closed. "I wouldn't dare touch anything," Stuhler says, "but they know just how to handle these historic things."
Tudor Place will be decked out for an old-fashioned Christmas from Dec. 5 through Dec. 31. The Victorian decorations, including a giant tree, provide the perfect backdrop for the annual family holiday event on Dec. 10.
TUDOR PLACE HISTORIC HOUSE AND GARDEN -- 1644 31st St. NW. 202-965-0400. www.tudorplace.org. House open only by tour Tuesday through Friday 10 to 4 (tours at 10, 11:30, 1 and 2:30); Saturdays 10 to 4 (tours at 10, 11, noon, 1, 2 and 3), and Sunday (tours at noon, 1, 2 and 3). Closed Mondays and during January. $6 adults, $5 seniors, $3 for ages 6 and older, younger than 6 free.
Dec. 10 from 4 to 7 -- Costumed Washington Ballet dancers mingle with guests and do storytimes at a family "Nutcracker" event, which includes crafts, light refreshments and musical entertainment by madrigal singers. $10 adults, $5 ages 6 to 18, younger than 6 free. Tickets required; call 202-965-0400, Ext. 109, or register online at www.tudorplace.org.