Rory Veevers-Carter unlocks the front door to his new home on Olive Street, a door so battered that the idea of locking it in the first place seems beside the point. Inside, the house is a carcass of rotting wood and crumbling plaster; an enormous blue tarp covers a doozy of a hole in the back wall. There are no floors, just gangplanks. The general aesthetic is dirt and rubble.
There’s no staircase, either, so Veevers-Carter shimmies down a ladder to the basement and leads me to a small patch of wall that still retains a bit of leaf-green paint. Like Indiana Jones discovering the lost ark, he thinks he’s unearthed the last vestige of the old kitchen. Which wasn’t just any old kitchen. It was the kitchen of Julia Child, who owned this house with her husband, Paul, in the 1940s and ’50s. “It’s painted the same shade as her Cambridge kitchen,” Veevers-Carter tells me. He knows because, like countless tourists paying homage to the beloved chef and cookbook author, he has visited that reconstructed room at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The Julia connection, however, wasn’t the only reason the 59-year-old software entrepreneur ended up with Child’s “little jewel,” as she called it. “I was looking for a rundown piece of property in Georgetown,” Veevers-Carter says simply, and the yellow wood-frame house on Olive Street NW filled the bill. It was a dilapidated wreck when he bought it for $935,000 in 2015, after seeing a story about its availability in The Washington Post. For a while, he lived in it, but with the house currently floorless, bathroom-less and pretty much everything else-less, he’s splitting his time between his place on Cape Cod, visits to his wife in Papua New Guinea, where she works as a country manager for the World Bank, and, when in Washington, crashing at a friend’s.
It’s not entirely clear when he’ll be able to move back into the house, which began its life just after the Civil War, when an African American carpenter named Edgar Murphy built it and leased out rooms as a way to earn extra money. Paul and Julia Child bought the house in May 1948 after returning to Washington from their Office of Strategic Services jobs overseas. Back then, the listing on “Olive Avenue” described an “attractive 3-bedroom, 2-bath house facing park ... priced in the upper 40s.” There was no mention of the kitchen, but then, Julia wasn’t “Julia” yet.
That didn’t happen until the Childs went off to France — Paul to work for the U.S. Information Agency and Julia to discover her passion for French cooking. They returned to the house in 1956, and Julia went about renovating the kitchen, adding the luxury of a garbage disposal and buying her famous Garland stove. Most significant, it’s where she revised the manuscript for “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” released in 1961.
At the time of the book’s publication, the Childs were in Oslo, and the house on Olive had passed into the hands of a succession of owners. The last, Consuelo Echeverria, lived there in the 1960s, which was when architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen remodeled it. His updates included a spiral staircase and a two-story atrium. After Echeverria moved away, the home saw a stream of renters for 25 years. Mark Magazu lived there from 2005 until 2011, paying $3,600 a month. “I’m 38, so looking back, [the house] was a total disaster,” says Magazu, who knew about its history while he was living there. “But at 25, it was a palace.” A palace that, thanks in part to his epic parties (“blowdowns,” he clarifies), fell into serious disrepair.
But why, I wondered, was that allowed to happen? After all, the house is practically the birthplace of an American food icon, where she taught the women of Georgetown how to prepare such meals as oeufs pochés duxelles and poulet saute portugaise. I mean, Meryl Streep played her in a movie, for goodness’ sake.
Apparently that’s not enough reason to preserve one of her old abodes. “It is not a significant part of Julia’s story,” says Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. The foundation, he explains, awards grants to further her mission of educating and encouraging others to discover the joys of cooking. “It is not our mission to make a museum out of Julia by trying to preserve every place she cooked or slept.”
Still, there’s no denying the little house’s celebrity allure, which Veevers-Carter has nodded to by creating a Facebook page (facebook.com/jewelonolive) and an Instagram account (@jewelonolive) where you can watch the restoration as it happens.
Well, when it happens. “To remodel a historic Georgetown house in anything less than two years,” says architect Dale Overmyer, who’s doing the restoration, “that’s fantasy.” Indeed, Veevers-Carter spent three years just waiting for the District’s various municipal regulatory bodies to grant him the necessary permits.
One big challenge for Overmyer was to create a modern open space for cooking and entertaining as requested by Veevers-Carter, a fine — though not particularly Julia-like — cook himself. The architect’s plans call for 22 feet of uninterrupted counter space on the first floor along the back wall, enough room for 12 people to dine in, and a 5-by-7-foot kitchen island. “He wanted me to know that the island had to be strong enough for a 200-pound pig to be rendered, prepared and served on,” Overmyer says. “This is for extreme cooking.”
The second-floor atrium space will be closed in, and a staircase more suited to the house’s Federal style will be restored. One thing Julia could never have foreseen: On the lower level, where she once cooked and taught, Veevers-Carter envisions a hammam, or Turkish bath. “A whole room,” he says, sinking a work boot into what’s still a muddy pit.
It definitely won’t be the house Julia knew. But one remnant of her will remain. When guests come calling, they’ll announce their arrival using her original door knocker: a metal kitchen trivet. Actually, maybe it will be her door knocker. In anticipation of souvenir hunters trying to abscond with it, Veevers-Carter’s brother, an artist with his own foundry, is preparing duplicates.
Cathy Alter is a writer in Washington.