Collingwood, a lush, 8.7-acre riverfront property that is home to the Collingwood Library and Museum on Americanism, is up for sale through TTR Sotheby’s International Realty for $5.9 million. The 8301 East Boulevard Drive property comes with a deep slice of American history.
The lush, park-like grounds were once part of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate. Collingwood’s white-columned hilltop mansion, with striking views of the Potomac River, now serves both as a museum and library, and as headquarters of the National Sojourners, an organization of Masons who are also retired military officers devoted to preserving American history. Paul A. Frank, executive director of the charitable Foundation For the Collingwood Library and Museum on Americanism that owns Collingwood, said the decision to sell the property because of budgetary concerns was “heart-wrenching.”
“Sojourner supporters love this place... they have been here 35 years-plus, and have a very strong emotional attachment to it,” Frank noted. “We are on a piece of property where the founding fathers’ footprints are…. George Washington walked here.”
According to the Collingwood Library and Museum on Americanism (“the Collingwood Library”), the land was part of an 1,800-acre tract bought by George Washington in 1760, after his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. It reportedly was purchased to accommodate the farm slaves that Custis brought to the marriage, and it is believed that around 1785, a small house was built there, purportedly to serve as a residence for Washington’s overseer.
The property became infamous as a site for Colonial dueling. According to the Collingwood Library, since Maryland disapproved of duels, many Marylanders crossed the Potomac River to settle their differences on Virginia land. One fight that arose from a slur made against Thomas Jefferson led to a fatal duel on the property, spurring Virginia to eventually also outlaw duels.
Washington later deeded the property, then called River Farm, to the family of his secretary, Tobias Lear. Although it’s not certain why the estate was later called Collingwood, a former curator of the Collingwood Library maintains that Lear named it in honor of his friend, Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, who was second in command under British Admiral Horatio Nelson.
The property has been sub-divided and sold to a variety of owners, and the original small structure was rebuilt and expanded many times before becoming the stately mansion that is now home to the Collingwood Library and Museum. Most of the current building was built during a major renovation in the early 1920s. The mansion’s original front columns, added in 1922, were later replaced by the fiberglass columns now on the mansion’s front entrance.
The land served as a dairy farm until the 1930s, when a street car line running from Alexandria to Mt. Vernon, along what is now the George Washington Parkway, was built through the property. Part of the land was developed for residences, but another portion, including the Collingwood mansion, became the site of a restaurant and tea room called Collingwood on the Potomac.
During World War II, the building was expanded and used for housing airline crews; in 1944, it became a school for military intelligence. The Collingwood Library states that much of the propaganda developed to fight the Japanese was produced while the Army occupied the property.
In the 1970s, the property was purchased by what is now called The Foundation for the Collingwood Library and Museum on Americanism. “The Foundation’s mission is to promote public education on American heritage, and foster research into significant aspects of U.S. history,” Frank said.
The mansion was renovated and, in 1976, opened as a museum and library. In addition to displaying historical artifacts, the museum has offered educational programs, including the student-focused “Visit with George Washington,” featuring an historical reenactor, and general public programs such as “Arms of the Pilgrims: John Adam’s Mayflower Gun” and “Civil War Sharp Shooter.” Frank said the museum hopes in the future to offer a model train exhibit showing how trains have impacted the growth of our nation.
“This is a mansion with bones that date back to the founders of our nation,” Frank pointed out. “It is a bit of our past, and now it is being used to celebrate the patriotic spirit of our American heritage.” Frank noted that the mansion’s basement still has the original footprint of the small structure built in the 1700s.
Frank said although the foundation realizes a developer may buy the property, he understands it likely would take 18-24 months before any construction could begin, and hopes the foundation could remain at Collingwood during that time. Frank noted it’s also possible a developer could build around the mansion, letting it continue to be used as a museum and library, or that the mansion and grounds will be bought as a private residence. “If we could save the property and keep it as is, that would be our goal,” Frank noted.
Frank said that if the foundation must leave Collingwood, it will remain in the Washington area and continue its programs. “Our goal is to continue the mission of the library and museum and, if possible, to provide a rental space for the Sojourners if they want it.… We would love to see them be able to accomplish their vision to recognize and celebrate the patriotic spirit of the U.S. Founding Fathers and those who promote that spirit.”
Although the foundation has considered the many possible scenarios for Collingwood’s future, the best outcome would be finding a way for the foundation to afford to keep the historic property.
“If we got a major donor, we would withdraw the property from sale,” Frank said.