March 16, 2017

Curious Discoveries Behind The Walls At D.C.'s Dumbarton House

  • By: Meghan White
From the exterior of Dumbarton one can see the shiny new copper drain pipes

Dumbarton House, built in 1799, housed Dolley Madison when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812.

Note: This story originally ran in 2017, and Dumbarton House is now open to the public once more. Some of the information in the story has been updated to reflect these changes.

Dumbarton House, located on Q Street in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., has been closed to the public only three times. The first was in World War II, when the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America turned over their headquarters to the war effort. The second time was when the ballroom of Dumbarton was extended in 1991. The third time was between 2016 and 2017.

The $1.4 million project that necessitates Dumbarton’s closure for nearly six months—spanning the end of 2016 to April 2017—is a total overhaul of the site’s HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) system. It runs through the 1915 and 1991 portions of the site, where Dumbarton's collection of over 3,000 objects are stored. The system was last updated in 1991, but continuous problems with the chillers and a lack of adequate humidity controls led the staff at Dumbarton to consider a new system.

Recently, I was able to go behind the scenes with S. Scott Scholz, deputy director and curator, and Stephanie Boyle, education manager. They offered me the chance to take a look at new ductwork, new and old wiring, and parts of Dumbarton House that have been covered up for decades.

I learn from Scholz and Boyle that the installation of a new HVAC system, especially for a historic site, involves years of planning. In 2012, research funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed staff at Dumbarton to study different HVAC options. By 2016, they had decided on a geothermal system, a popular choice for historic sites due to its non-invasive nature. Pipes are installed underground that liquid is then pumped through to cool and heat a building.

But in September of 2016, Dr. Jerry Foust, collections and facilities manager, was disheartened to learn that their well-calculated budget for the installation had increased 300%. After going back to the drawing board, the team decided on a VRV/VRF (Variable Refrigerant Volume/Flow) system. In this system, air handlers are placed throughout a building and operate on the same loop. It can easily adjust to the climate, making it more efficient than some other systems.

The timing was fortunate. In addition to the NEH grant, Dumbarton House also received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Studies to upgrade their collection storage, while a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities allowed them to preserve the windows in the 1799 portion of the house. It was decided to pursue all three projects while the walls were open.

Though about 80% of Dumbarton's collection is displayed at a time, a sufficient collection storage is integral. The rooms now are empty save for construction equipment and plastic sheets, but I can envision how it will look with new LED lighting, cabinets, and a new compact storage system. Scholz points to a niche in a wall where a new polyethylene table will soon be: “We will have furniture comparable to what the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City] has.”

Removing the collections wasn’t a simple matter of packing them up in boxes and forwarding them to a temporary location. Dumbarton hired their Fall 2015 Collections Intern, Allison LaCroix, who measured and assessed all 3,400 objects, ensuring that each would fit perfectly inside their custom boxes. I'm not a collections specialist, but I know that fracturing a circa 1840 Staffordshire wash basin or misplacing a letter from Joseph Nourse (who moved to Dumbarton House in 1804) would be a significant loss. The obsessive amount of attention paid toward the collection is pretty clear that the staff take the renovations seriously.

They round a piece of a 1946 wine cask supporting the floors at Dumbarton

The cask held white Bordeaux from Château Carbonnieux in Léognan, France.

The mystery molding supporting the floors at Dumbarton

The mystery molding supporting the floors.

We move on to the 1915 portion of the house. This, I learn, was rebuilt after the house was physically moved 60 feet to make room for Q Street.

The ceilings in this section have been removed, exposing 100-year-old joists. Scholz motions for me to step forward into the Collections & Facilities Manager’s office, where he points to the ceiling. There, supporting the joist, is a fragment of a wine cask from 1946. The winery, Scholz tells me, still exists and is still known for their white wine. Dumbarton staff have no records explaining the odd decision to support the floor with a wine cask, or who did it. It's amazing to me that this unusual find has been covered up for so long. It's the kind of surprise that can come only from a historic structure.

We step into a bathroom and look up. Again, a small piece of mismatched wood is supporting the joist. Instead of a wine cask, however, is a piece of wide, flat molding. “We don’t know where this came from,” Scholz tells me. “There are no moldings here with that profile.”

We then proceed to the oldest part of the house to look at the museum space. Instead of artifacts, there are office furniture and books stacked on top of each other in the middle of one room. I notice the nine-over-nine windows, which were reinstalled a short time ago. Christian Kelleher from The Craftsman Group, Inc. removed the windows and brought them to his workspace in Maryland where he steamed them to remove the glazing and paint before carefully re-glazing them.

None of these windows date to 1799, although they are historic. In fact, the only window that was entirely original is the fanlight in the front gable of the house. When staff members removed it, they discovered it was being held together essentially by its paint. After stripping the fanlight, they discovered that the wood bore singe marks signaling that it may have been in a fire. They also found a similar effect on the attic rafters. Staff were aware that the roofline had been changed at some point, though the reason was unknown until this moment.

These discoveries echo Foust’s wry assertion at a public talk he gave at the Anderson House on the renovation: “What you think you know will probably change once you start opening the walls.”

Looking at Q Street from the newly preserved windows at Dumbarton

These historic windows look pristine, thanks to the careful efforts of The Craftsman Group.

Completing the HVAC overhaul, collection storage renovation, and preservation of the windows are significant tasks that require complete attention to detail. Undertaking all three of these projects simultaneously is an impressive undertaking for any house museum. With the help of people from The Craftsman Group, Corbett Construction, Quinn Evans Architects, and Gipe Associates, Dumbarton staff are confident that the collection and house will be preserved for decades to come. And in the process, staff learned more about their house, unearthed a few unsolved mysteries (and solved one), and were able to see a side to the house's history that few are lucky enough to witness.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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