House Move in 1915

The front facade of Dumbarton House in 1915, pre-move. Note the difference in appearance (the covered way to the West Wing is only one story and some of the basement windows are fully above the ground unlike today). Photograph is from the Dumbarton House Collections.

Article written by: Jessica Davis, Visitor Engagement Specialist at Dumbarton House

The house we currently interpret and operate as a museum once stood about 60 feet to the south, in the middle of Q Street. Back in July of 1915, alongside news of the Great War, the news about this house being moved was published as well. On July 4 and July 10, two articles were published that discussed the process of the house moving and its historical significance. One of the articles published in The Washington Herald states that George Washington was entertained here, although you may remember that our house was not occupied by Joseph Nourse until after Washington had passed away—making it factually impossible for Nourse to have entertained Washington. The article also briefly mentions Joseph as a notable resident, as well as the occupants after him ending with John Newbold—the man who would be responsible for keeping the property in one piece and ensuring the house would be moved and not torn down. 

John Newbold was a prominent man within society in 1912, being the current president of the Merchants Transfer and Storage Company. Newbold had purchased the house in 1912, apparently with knowledge of the impending Q Street construction. However in 1914, he submitted proceedings in equity against the District to try and stop the construction and keep the house where it was according to a Washington Post article published in June of that year. Nothing came of this, but it does tell us that he cared enough to try and take legal action against the whole city to stop the demolition of the house. When that was no longer an option and he had secured the purchase of the property, Newbold contracted T.J.D. Fuller architects and Davis Construction Company to figure out how to safely move such a historic house.

The Washington Herald article published on July 10 goes into more detail about how long it took to move the house and how exactly it was moved. C.L. Saers and Son was the name of the firm contracted to actually move the house. The movement of the house was particularly stressful, as the goal was to move it 60 feet backwards and set it on a new foundation six feet lower than it had previously sat—without damaging any bricks, windows, or chandeliers. This was a delicate task, and would have to be followed by expensive renovations to the property and surrounding land. Mr. Newbold proposed to rebuild the wings—one as a sunroom, and the other as a breakfast room—as well as add the retaining wall and gate. These renovations were estimated to cost between $25,000 and $30,000 in 1915. An estimation of what that would be in 2020 terms brings the price up to $680,000-730,000.

According to the articles, the process of moving the house in July of 1915 had already taken  three weeks and nearly 200 jacks to lift the center block half an inch above the ground—and was projected to take another two to three months! While this feat is amazing, it is interesting that it took so long to move the house. The cartoon that we often reference makes it appear the operation could have been accomplished in a much shorter time span. What is also of interest from these newspaper articles is the fact that while the company was moving the home, they reportedly discovered a 150-year-old well constructed of stone and filled with ashes. This well was reportedly used by the Nourses, although it has most likely been covered by the new road or other construction that occurred on the property after 1915.

This comic was published in 1997 and is a depiction of how the house was moved once it was lifted up from its original foundation. This scan comes from the Dumbarton House Collections.

Some of what we know about the house being moved comes from our tour documentation: namely the fact that despite its move in 1915 the house remained “one of the very finest and most beautiful houses in the United States” in the words of Fiske Kimball. Aside from this Kimball quote, what we know of the house move is varied. From images taken pre-move in 1915 and post-restoration in 1932, we can surmise some of what was changed and what survived the move. For instance, we know that the windows were boarded up to help salvage the glass, although it is difficult to find conclusive evidence discussing how well the windows and glass did survive. While we do not know much about the aftermath of the move, it still makes for an interesting story to peruse the local news stories that remain. If you have any information about the house move or its aftermath, please let us know!

Front facade, post-1915 move but pre-1930 restorations. Photograph from Dumbarton House Collections.