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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » House Tours » Halcyon House Video Tour in Historic Washington, D.C.

Halcyon House Video Tour in Historic Washington, D.C.

Old-House Journal editor Demetra Aposporos tours Halcyon House, a historic Washington, D.C., Federal-style home built in 1787 by Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy.

    Video Transcript

    [Demetra Aposporos, narrating] Most people have heard of Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood—it’s the place Jackie O. called home after she left the White House.

    Hi, I’m Demetra Aposporos. Welcome to Old-House Live.

    Georgetown is one of the nicest addresses in Washington, and it’s also one of the oldest. It actually existed before the city itself.

    Today we’re going to tour the Halcyon House, one of Georgetown’s finest examples of architecture.

    History of Halcyon House

    Halcyon House is one of the oldest and grandest homes in Georgetown. Located in an area where many wealthy ship owners constructed mansions, the house was built by Benjamin Stoddert, a tobacco exporter who became the first Secretary of the Navy.

    It started off as a great example of Federal architecture, with details like a richly detailed entrance topped by a pediment supported on pilasters, and a dentilated cornice. The front door opened to an unobstructed view of the Potomac River when the house was built, and boasted an original parterre garden designed by Pierre L’Enfant.

    But around 1900, Halcyon House took a turn in a different direction, literally. It was purchased by Albert Clemens, a nephew of Mark Twain, who put an enormous addition onto the house in the Georgian style, more than doubling its size, and also added wings of apartments on both sides. The new façade, tacked onto the back of the original house, faced away from the river and onto Prospect Street.

    The Restoration

    By the time the family of sculptor John Dreyfuss purchased the house in the late 1960s, it had been deteriorating for years. John, who studied architecture, set about trying to bring back the original details while respecting many of the Clemens additions, which are now historic in their own right. The result is a cohesive, impressive building that’s an homage to classical architecture.

    [Demetra to John Dreyfuss] So John, how did this room come together? It’s so fantastic.

    [John Dreyfuss to Demetra] Well, the most extraordinary thing about living and working in the Washington, D.C. area and the Tidewater area is that if you can stay up, keep the project going for long enough, you tend to be a magnet for extraordinary craftsmen, and this house was no different.

    [John continues] This was a brick room that was leaking and had all of the problems that you have with a home that’s 200 years old. Everything that you see here was here originally in the bones. They really paid special attention to the way that this room connects to the 18th-century house, and it’s just a lovely place to be and we hope that we got it right.

    [Demetra, narrating] Inside the music room, a high-set row of bull’s-eye windows brings plenty of light into the grand space with soaring, 15 foot high ceilings.

    The living room’s fireplace is punctuated by a towering overmantel with a swan’s neck broken pediment.

    And the library, a Clemens addition, has an enormous pediment along one wall, and pilasters and a triglyph-and-metope frieze encircling the room.

    While Dreyfuss focused on the past to attend to the house, his career as a successful sculptor places him squarely in the present. As the light plays off his statues, you’re reminded that this grand house is no museum, it’s a home—one that’s lived in, worked in, and enjoyed by the man who gave it new life.

    I’ve seen a lot of old houses, but this one is truly memorable, not only in the way it’s been meticulously restored, but also in the way it’s lived in and enjoyed every day. I’m Demetra Aposporos; see you next time on Old-House Live.


    Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld December 16, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Wow! Great tour, photos, videography and narration! Demetra seemed completely natural and comfortable doing the tour of this amazing historical home–thanks for sharing this! Cindy

    Carolyn June 13, 2011 at 11:16 am

    What a great house, and I appreciate the chance to see it. I was wondering if all the apartments are still there that Clemens built. Also, the correct pronunciation of metope
    is met’·o·pe with a long E at the end.

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