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On May 17, 1795, President Washington sent a note rebuking a city Commissioner for preferring a house in Georgetown to one nearer his duties in the Federal City. At the time the Federal City consisted of boarding houses (one of them Jefferson's), an oyster market, open fields and swamps. Georgetown, on the other hand, had been an elegant, independent village for 150 years, which explains why everybody in America wanted to live there, and still does. It is, after all, quite a place: one square mile of clay-rich earth sloping up from the Potomac, packed with shoe shops, hair stylists, ice cream parlors, French food stores, a used car lot for Rolls-Royces and Cords, bars for several sexes, antique street lamps, cobblestone, brass, brick, cairns and most precious of all, houses; red, yellow, white and grey ones; Federal, Victorian, and Classic Revival.
For all the life and history of the area, nothing is mentioned more often in Georgetown (or anywhere else in Washington) than the market value of those precious houses, which as it rises more regularly and faster than the sun, accounts for the prestige of local real estate agents. Georgetown realtors are nice people with occultist gifts; they cannot tell you why the two-bedroom, one and a half bath carriage house on Volta Place that cost $85,000 in 1975, is now worth $175,000; but since a White House aide just bought the house for that price (and lucky to get it) can prove that is worth $175,000, and going up. Georgetown real estate agents also have a language of their own, which they use in newspapers.
Ads with the headlines, “Georgetown/Palisades” or “Georgetown/Burleith” mean that the house advertised is not in Georgetown but in a near-by neighborhood, a short bus ride from Georgetown, and that the ad is an outright lie, but what did you expect for $114,500? No one is fooled by such ads, and Burleith and Palisades residents may be comforted, if confused, by them. “Georgetown Area” may mean Dupont Cirlce or Rosslyn, Virginia. “The Feeling of Georgetown” means West Virginia.
“Highly desirable Georgetown location” usually means Georgetown east of Wisconsin Avenue. Neighborhood folklore has it that, as in Manhattan, the East side is better bred. This is the side where the great Federal houses sit—the Linthicum House on P Street (1826), the Bodisco House on O Street (c. 1820), the Berry House on Dumbarton Avenue (1810), and the dangerously named John Stoddert Haw House on N Street (c. 1812). Realtors rarely spell out the difference between the sides (thus “highly desirable location”) because of the fury this evokes in the West. (Westerners, while technically less desirable, like to think of their territory as the more artistic, but this is yet to be proved.)
“Charming and convenient” means that no room is more than 10 feet long, “Dining area” refers to a portion of that length. “A doll house” means just that. Fireplaces are often mentioned in ads to compensate for the lack of space. Houses may have two or three fireplaces per room, and this, while it has no practical purpose, is considered an advantage. So are “random hard wood floors,” “molded ceilings,” “pressed brick construction,” “architectural detail throughout,” “gourmet kitchen,” and “landscaped garden,” though no one is sure what these look like. “Totally remodeled” means that electricity has been installed. “First offering” means that the agency has not been able to sell the house privately.
All Georgetown houses are filled with “warmth”; some are “stately”; a few have “magnificently proportioned rooms”; many have “formal rooms” and “entertainment space.” Most are equipped for “gracious living.” Few ads list prices nowadays, “Ready for your redecorating hand,” “needs tender loving care,” and “reduced to $125,000” means that the house has been gutted. The designation “under $200,000” is used to lure the mob, and “a rare opportunity” means that the house costs close to half a million.
By far the most fearsome phrase is “upper brackets.” You scan the listings noting a few houses for “under $200,0000,” fewer “rare opportunities,” then your eyes fall to this:
On the highest point of and in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., built approximately 1854, restored and redecorated in excellent condition. A grand and stately residence of magnificent proportion, design in detail; pressed brick construction, random hardwood floor, 10 fireplaces with beautiful marble mantels, 12 ft. ceilings and formal rooms with tall French windows opening to the South terrace and garden shaded by huge sycamores, magnolias and other trees. Upper brackets
The brain dizzies, the mouth goes dry. You hear the fat man exclaim to Sam Spade, “who knows what it’s worth?”
Real estate people who set the prices, often seem mildly surprised by them themselves. Many are former foreign service officers or mothers, so are trained to be unflappable in preposterous situations. They're at their best in open house inspections, where they announce the price, in milky tones, asan“asking price,” established, it is inferred, not by the reasonable, benign real estate agent, but by the anonymous millionaire maniac owner, who can hold out forever, and may, for the hell of it. As this occurs the excited owner is probably chewing sawdust in the attic, watching through the floor boards as pilgrims tour his shrine, and muttering something about there being one born every minute.
Rising prices should be a source of gratification to those who own property in Georgetown and gasp over coffee: “Jesus, do you know what we could get for this place today?” But nobody says that seriously intending to sell, because whatever a house will bring—$100,000 more than one originally paid for it, $150,000—will not be enough to buy a similar, much less a better house, at least not in Georgetown (or in Cleveland Park, Spring Valley, Wesley Heights and parts of Chevy Chase, Kalorama, and Capitol Hill, for that matter). Happy or not, middle class families wishing to remain in Georgetown must stay put, and must wonder as they open the water bill, if they're so smart why aren’t they rich?
Meanwhile those two bedroom, $175,000 homes are snatched up by GS-15s who, unlike President Washington's Commissioner, are free and able to buy where they choose; and the four bedroom, $300,000 houses are snatched up as avidly by families who are rich and getting richer. So the old town goes up a notch, economically, while excluding entrance by slightly-over-average income blacks and whites who could buy in Georgetown today, providing that they wanted to, if prices were at 1975 levels.
But being ahead of the game is how Georgetown got where it is, and why its residents were able to maintain their vantage point high above the Federal City as they watched the fires in 1814.
This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine