A Beauty Named ‘Winona’
She was stately and grand-as befitted the great-great-great-grandson of Martha Washington-and she had a heart of stone.
He was the father of his country, but could father no children of his own. Some believe smallpox at age 19 had left him sterile. But with his marriage in 1759 to the diminutive widow Martha Dandridge Custis (she was 5 feet tall, he was 6 feet 2 inches), George Washington gained a ready-made family: a stepson, John Parke Custis, and a stepdaughter, Martha Parke Custis. His stately home along the Potomac, Mount Vernon, now reverberated with the sounds of children—and, in time, grandchildren.
In December 1777, as Washington’s Continental Army hunkered into dismal winter quarters at Valley Forge, stepson John’s wife, Eleanor, gave birth to a baby girl in the Blue Room of Mount Vernon. They named the child Martha, after her grandmother.
Seventeen years later, young Martha would marry Thomas Peter, son of Robert Peter, the mayor of Georgetown and perhaps the wealthiest man in all of Montgomery County. (At that time Georgetown was part of the county.) From the mid-18th century onward, the elder Peter amassed thousands of acres of fertile countryside stretching across the southern county, including a sprawling tract straddling today’s Rockville Pike, north of Bethesda’s Woodmont Avenue. Peter was one of the area’s first tobacco brokers and made a fortune off the “noxious weed,” as King James I of England called it.
Thomas and Martha led a life of exquisite luxury in Georgetown. Their home, Tudor Place, was a stunning, block-long neoclassical mansion designed by William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol—and paid for in part by Martha’s inheritance from her step-grandfather, George, who died in 1799. Meanwhile, the family lands in Bethesda would pass through generations of the Peter family: The elder Robert Peter bequeathed them to his daughter, Margaret Dick, who in turn left them to her son, Robert. Being heirless, Robert deeded the property in 1873 to his cousins Armistead, James and George.
Armistead Peter, a well-known Georgetown physician, bought out his brother James’ share of the Bethesda property, eventually reassembling about 200 acres of the original estate. Armistead had married his second cousin, Martha Custis Kennon, great-great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and the couple—and eventually their five children—resided at Tudor Place, with the doctor’s medical practice set up in one wing of the home. (A privately funded museum, Tudor Place today contains one of the largest collections of Washington family artifacts outside of Mount Vernon.)
Washington, D.C., summers were brutal in the pre-air-conditioned age, the humidity suffocating, the air ripe from rotting refuse and open sewers. Desiring a retreat from the stench and heat, the Peters headed out to their newly acquired farm property and built a summer home west of Rockville Pike, a tall, substantial brick dwelling topped with a mansard roof in the Second Empire style, which was in vogue in the latter part of the 19th century. The Peters christened their estate Winona, a Sioux Indian name meaning “first-born daughter,” though why remains a mystery.
After the doctor’s death from a stroke in 1902, the Bethesda estate was divided again. His son George Freeland Peter, who went by the name Freeland, inherited a 50-acre tract just north of the old manor house. Another son, Beverley, received the old manor house and a parcel of land surrounding it. (In 1921, the house and acreage would be purchased by the Town and Country Club, which remodeled the dwelling into a clubhouse. Later known as Woodmont Country Club, the house sat on the site of today’s National Library of Medicine, south of the National Institutes of Health campus.)
An assistant pastor at St. Mark’s Church in Washington, and later at the Church of the Epiphany in D.C., Freeland was a passionate advocate for the city’s youth. From the pulpit he preached about girls under 16 “drinking highballs, cocktails, absinthe, Benedictine and other intoxicating liquors” and “frequenting questionable resorts,” according to the Ogdensburg Journal. He fought against the District’s burlesque theaters, “one of the chief sources of immorality among the young boys of this city,” according to The Washington Post. Moving picture theaters became a subject of his moral scrutiny, as well.
In 1928, Freeland became a canon of the Washington National Cathedral, and he and his wife, Lulie, began making plans for a home on his 50-acre estate.