Last weekend I had two encounters with the past.
The first was right in my own neighborhood: a walking tour organized by Historic Chevy Chase DC (that would be my neighborhood). Some 15 or 20 of us spent an hour traversing familiar streets under the tutelage of a local real-estate-agent-cum-guide, learning sometimes unfamiliar history.
Chevy Chase, by the way, does not derive its name from the comedian (years ago, when I was in Canada and attempting to pay for a purchase with a credit card issued by Chevy Chase Bank, the sales clerk thought it was a joke: “The comedian has a BANK?”). The origins of the name are somewhat obscure, but it appears to derive from the Cheviot Hills along the border between England and Scotland. “Chase” is an old word for “hunt.”
Anyway … I learned that much of what is now Chevy Chase (a neighborhood that straddles the DC/MD line) was once a plantation belonging to a Colonel Joseph Belt, whose name lives on only in a quiet, lane-like street called Belt Road, which meanders haphazardly through the upper Northwest section of DC. Eventually, shortly after 1900, the land was purchased by the Chevy Chase Land Company, led by a few inside-the-Beltway types—before, of course, there was a Beltway. Their dream was to build an exclusive streetcar suburb (they even paid for the streetcar—Chevy Chase was then way out of town). But an economic downturn slightly derailed the plan, making the place somewhat less exclusive than originally envisioned.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if they went down our street?” I whispered to my husband on the tour. And then lo and behold, our guide not only led us down our street but actually brought the group to a halt in front of our very own house! Did our house have some historical significance that had escaped us, I wondered? Built in 1918, it was a relative latecomer to the area. But maybe someone of note had once inhabited our very rooms? (The astrologer Jeane Dixon did own the house briefly at one point, but I wasn’t sure she’d rate a stop on a walking tour.)
But no, it turns out our house only provided a good vantage point to admire the various architectural styles on display across the street. On the other hand, our BLOCK has some historical significance: one of the structures down the street has the distinction of being the oldest house in Chevy Chase. And the one next door to it sits on the site of Colonel Belt’s original plantation house and incorporates some of the brick from that house in its foundation and chimney. Who knew? To me they were just my neighbors’ houses.
A few years ago there was a drive, led by Historic Chevy Chase DC, to have the whole neighborhood declared a historic district. At first I thought it sounded like a fine idea. After all, I’m a historian! But then, like many others in the neighborhood, I realized that it would mean I’d have to jump through all sorts of hoops just to replace the windows in my house, or redo the paving in my front walk. There was a groundswell of opposition, and the idea died. So now, theoretically, someone could come along and tear down the oldest house in Chevy Chase. On the other hand, it’s a perfectly nice, well-maintained house, so I can only hope that no one will.
The next day—Sunday—found me in Baltimore, the town where I grew up, and which provides the setting for my historical novel-in-very-slow-progress. I’d gone there for brunch with a friend, but as I was driving to Fells Point—one of the older parts of town, and the background for sections of my novel—I passed a sign that said “Carroll Mansion.”
I knew that the Carroll Mansion had been the home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and—more important from my perspective—the grandfather of four young women who were contemporaries of my main characters. The house, I learned through Google, was open on Saturdays and Sundays until four. It seemed that Fate was calling me to tour it.
But Fate apparently hadn’t notified anyone else: when I showed up, breathless, just in time for the 3 o’clock tour—the last tour of the day, the website warned—I discovered I was the only one there. I was greeted by a young man who took my five dollars and proceeded to show me around.
I don’t know who usually shows up on a Sunday, but they probably don’t have quite the command of Carroll-related factoids that I do. Nor can they generally correct the guide who places the Baltimore Burr riot in 1808 (it actually took place in late 1807). My guide seemed a little taken aback, and then—not realizing that my familiarity with Baltimore history basically begins in mid-1806 and ends in early 1808—assumed that I knew far more than I did. I was actually pretty impressed with the extent of his acquaintance with local lore, especially after he told me that his graduate work had been in Yugoslavian history (apparently when the house re-opened to the public after a hiatus they needed a guide right away, and he was the closest they could come in terms of expertise).
The house itself evoked mixed feelings. On the one hand, there it still stood, a fairly grand early 19th-century structure surrounded by multiple lanes of traffic, and within shouting distance of the urban revival brouhaha of the Inner Harbor. Over the years the building has been used as a saloon, a tenement, a vocational school, and a recreation center, but at least it hasn’t been razed.
On the other hand, the high-ceilinged rooms are pretty bare, adorned by photos showing what they apparently used to look like with period furniture in them. What happened to the furniture, I asked? Turns out it’s at the Maryland Historical Society. Given the less than optimal conditions at the Carroll Mansion—no air conditioning, limited heat in winter, and no humidity control—it’s not the best place to house expensive antiques.
It’s a shame, but understandable: if the Sunday I visited was at all representative, they’re not exactly raking in money from tourists. Charles Carroll may have been the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and perhaps the wealthiest man in the country, but he’s far from a household name these days, even in Maryland.
Would it make more sense to adapt the Carroll Mansion to some other purpose, I wonder—something that would preserve its historic character but, not to put too fine a point on it, bring in more money? Right next door there’s a luxury bed-and-breakfast that bills itself as the “Carrollton Inn,” and charges up to $350 a night. Why shouldn’t the Carroll Mansion itself get a piece of that action? And use the profits to repair the peeling wallpaper?
History is all around us—as was brought home to me Saturday on the walking tour of my neighborhood—but much of the time we’re not aware of it. Sometimes we ignore it because it’s right under our noses, as with my neighbor’s house. And sometimes we ignore it because its historical associations have become obscure, at least to most people, and it’s been nearly buried by modern accretions (I drove right by the Carroll Mansion without noticing it was there and then had to backtrack).
They seem to do this rather better in Europe, as Margaret Dumont said to Groucho Marx of his courting technique. There, history gets woven into the fabric of daily life in a more graceful way—neither obtrusive nor neglected. Give us a few hundred more years, and maybe we’ll get the hang of it.