Our local area is renowned for many things, including its diverse population, its listing in U.S. News’ Best Places to Retire 2006, and Best Places to Live 2007, and for its Revolutionary Era legacy. Among our historic roots, perhaps our deepest ties are to George Washington and to his nearby Mount Vernon plantation and estate.
Part of that historic 4,200 acre tract of land, which extended from the Potomac River on the east to beyond Route One on the west, was Woodland Plantation, a 2,000 acre farm that at its peak producing years counted with 100 workers, mostly slaves. Construction of the plantation’s house, now known simply as Woodlawn, was completed in 1805. The home was designed by the architect of the U.S. Capitol, Dr. William Thornton, a friend of Washington.
The Woodlawn farm was a 1799 wedding gift provided by our first president to a young couple, Washington’s nephew Major Lawrence Lewis and his bride, Eleanor “Nelly” Custis Lewis. Nelly was Martha Washington’s granddaughter and had been raised on the Mount Vernon estate as a part of the extended First Family. When the estate was to be designed, Nelly insisted that her family home at Mount Vernon be clearly visible from her new home, and to this day, despite intervening flora and modern construction, one can easily see one estate from the other.
Nelly was a vivacious, attractive, and talented woman who routinely accompanied her grandparents on social occasion. She was a co-hostess on many state ceremonies at the first three presidential mansions (two in New York and one in Philadelphia) before the White House was completed. Nelly was known to throw a great party at Woodlawn and to be the life of any other gathering she attended. She identified so with her ancestral home and the First Family that her last wish was to be buried at Mount Vernon next to her grandparents. That wish was granted.
Woodlawn would change hands several times after Nelly’s death, and it was not until 1952 that the estate became the first historic site owned by The National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In the interim, the large estate has dwindled to just over 126 acres as much of the land was developed to build the homes we now inhabit and the businesses we frequent.
Since it became a nationally recognized historic entity, the estate has begun a second life as a living museum, visited often by tourist to our area. On display inside the house are period pieces that populate the parlors and bedrooms and or a regular schedule docents help provide a short trip back into the times when Nelly would be your hostess.
Today, following in the spirit in which it was first bestowed, and also in that of its original owners, the house and grounds are often rented out as a gathering place for weddings, birthdays, and graduations, and for other large, celebratory parties and special occasion dinners. Woodlawn is located at 9000 Richmond Highway. You may contact the estate operations office at (703) 780-4000, or get further information at www.woodlawn1805.org, or arrange a Nelly-like event by calling 703-823-5500.