William Clifton, who inherited what is now River Farm from a brother-in-law, was the first to build on it. In 1757, he constructed a brick house and named it Clifton’s Neck. Because of financial setbacks, he was forced to sell the property three years later in what was essentially a bankruptcy sale. Washington bought the 1,800 acres and changed the name to River Farm. It was the northernmost of Washington’s five farms.
Washington never lived on or worked the land at River Farm. He leased it to a tenant farmer before giving it as a wedding present to Martha Washington’s niece Fanny Bassett and her husband, Tobias Lear, who had been Washington’s secretary.
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Lear called it Walnut Tree Farm. A black walnut tree on the property is a nod to that name. It is not the only tree with roots that go back to Washington’s time. Washington brought back seeds of the Kentucky coffee tree after one of his surveying trips in the Ohio River valley and descendants of trees grown by Washington are at River Farm. The Ossage orange tree, the oldest tree at River Farm, was possibly a gift from Thomas Jefferson to the Washington family.
After Lear’s death, the farm was occupied by a nephew and a great-nephew of Washington. The property passed out of Washington’s family in 1859 when it was sold to three Quaker brothers. The estate had several owners before local businessman Malcolm Matheson bought it in 1919. Matheson undertook a massive renovation and expansion but preserved parts of the 1757 house. Many of his changes remain, including the foyer, the ballroom and the 18th-century-style paneling in rooms on the main level. After clearing acres of wild plants, he planted wisteria, boxwood and magnolia trees, creating a parklike grounds for his family. He renamed the estate Wellington.
In 1971, Matheson wanted to sell the estate and retire to Florida. He received several offers from the Soviet Embassy in Washington. The Soviets wanted to use the property for a retreat. Many Americans recoiled at the idea of George Washington’s farm falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. The outcry prompted Congress and the State Department to ask Matheson to withdraw the property from the market.
“I turned those Russians down four or five times,” Matheson told The Post in 1971. “I’m very glad the State Department took me off the hook.”
The American Horticultural Society purchased Wellington for $800,000 with the generous help of AHS board member Enid Annenberg Haupt. Haupt was the sister of Walter Annenberg who built their father’s publishing company into a media empire. In 1953, Walter named his sister editor in chief of Seventeen magazine, one of the family’s publications, and she ran it for 17 years.
Haupt was an avid gardener and a major philanthropist. She donated millions to support public gardens and horticultural institutions in New York, Washington and around the world. Besides assisting in the purchase of River Farm, she underwrote the Haupt Fountains on the Ellipse, between the White House and the Washington Monument, and she made a gift of the four-acre Victorian-style garden on the south side of the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle, now known as the Enid A. Haupt Garden.
For nearly 50 years, the American Horticultural Society has called River Farm home. But the society, which was founded in 1922, has fallen on hard times.
Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins recently described River Farm as “a landscape of unfulfilled promise, struggling to look decorative but ultimately failing.” He pointed out that the property was gifted to AHS by Haupt but didn’t come with an endowment to ensure its upkeep. As a result, the society has struggled to balance its support of programs for members against the heavy financial burden of maintaining an old estate. The pandemic hasn’t helped.
The sale of River Farm has sparked an uproar from the community. Neighbors view it as a public park. Local clubs use it for events. And couples have been married in its gardens. There is a concern that a developer will buy the land, subdivide it and build several houses.
For its part, the AHS board acknowledges that fear. In a statement, board members wrote that it is important to them that “the buyer would be one who respects the surrounding neighborhoods as well as the conservation and historical value of the property.”
The 11,086-square-foot stone manor has six bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. Besides the main house, the nearly 28-acre property on the Potomac River has a carriage house, a cottage and two garages.
Listing agent: Sue Goodhart, Compass
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