September-October 2010 | Home & Garden

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.

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An elliptical staircase was the focal point of the reception area.They turned to his brother Walter, a noted D.C. architect. Walter and his partner, William Marsh, had designed an eclectic collection of buildings in and around Washington, including the Evening Sun newspaper headquarters in D.C., the main building at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the gold-domed Farmers and Mechanics Branch of Riggs Bank anchoring the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown. Marsh and Peter also designed the original building of the Georgetown Preparatory School on Rockville Pike in 1916.

For his brother, Walter created a broad-shouldered study of early American architecture, drawing freely from Colonial and Georgian styles. The new stone building was not unlike the ancestral home in Georgetown, with a large, central block flanked by two perpendicular wings and tripartite windows directly inspired by Tudor Place.

The eastern façade—dominated by four, two-story Corinthian columns supporting a blank frieze and a pediment with an oculus, or round window—was oriented toward Rockville Pike, providing passersby with an impressive view of the mansion on the hill. With its terraced lawns and stone retaining walls, the huge house was hardly the home of a humble man of the cloth. It was, rather, a reflection of the old-money status befitting the great-great-great-grandson of Martha Washington and a conspicuous display of wealth in the midst of the Great Depression.

Visitors entered the house through the western façade, a study in symmetry with its centered Georgian portico and richly carved entablature supported by two fluted columns. The door and two flanking windows aligned perfectly with three windows on the second floor, which in turn aligned with three pedimented attic dormers in the steeply sloped, slate-covered roof.

Inside the 17,500-square-foot house, a long, central reception hall extended the full width of the first floor, connecting to another wide hall that ran the length of the main house. A suspended, elliptical staircase with curvilinear railing and finely turned balusters served as the focal point of the reception area.

Spacious dining and drawing rooms opened on either side of the east-west corridor, their double wood-panel doors framed with intricately carved surrounds. Fireplace mantels and ceiling moldings were in the Colonial Revival style.

In the south wing, a living room running the entire width opened onto a large veranda whose flat roof was supported by 10 columns. It overlooked a formal garden with boxwood and holly, a fountain and curved stone wall.

The north wing held the kitchen, butler’s pantry, men’s lounge, office and a library. Upstairs were seven bedrooms, most with private baths, and servants’ quarters, all opening off a long, narrow hallway.

Completed in 1931, the new home was christened Winona, after the historic estate that once spread across the land. The country manor became a gracious setting for Washington’s social elite. Lulie led tours through the luscious gardens; Freeland entertained both lay and ecclesiastical leaders amid the mementos of George and Martha Washington, while the chauffeur polished the car in the nearby garage.

All was idyllic until the noisy neighbors arrived. In 1935, the adjoining property owners gave 45 acres of their estate, Tree Tops, to the federal government for use as a new campus for the NIH. The cornerstone for the first building was dedicated in 1938, and over the next 10 years the sound of construction and commuters intruded on the once pastoral Winona. Meanwhile, ground was broken in 1939 for the National Naval Medical Center across Rockville Pike, its 20-story tower eventually looming over the landscape.

By 1948, the NIH complex had expanded so rapidly that additional acreage was needed, and the federal government began condemnation proceedings on the next logical parcel, the Peter property. Unlike their neighbor, the Peters did not offer their land freely. A year later, the government paid them half a million dollars, and the Peters retired to the Virginia countryside, where the reverend died in 1953.

The Stone House, as Winona became known, was absorbed into NIH, its interior altered to accommodate offices, its once spacious rooms partitioned, its mantels and moldings disfigured. Rehabilitation work in the early 1960s removed many of the offensive alterations, restored finishes and returned rooms to their original configurations. Through much of the 1970s, the second-floor bedrooms were occupied by NIH’s Scholars-in-Residence Program, which provided living and working space for some of the world’s brightest scientific lights—from famed anthropologist Margaret Mead to Albert Sabin, developer of the oral polio vaccine.

The house is now the centerpiece of the John E. Fogarty International Center for Advanced Study in the Health Sciences, created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 to support global health research and build partnerships between institutions here and abroad. In 1989, it was renamed the Lawton Chiles International House, honoring the U.S. senator from Florida who helped guide NIH through a period of unprecedented growth in the 1970s and ’80s. That same year, the first floor of the house—still familiarly known as “the Stone House”—was fully restored and redecorated to reflect its elegant Colonial Revival beginnings. Today it serves as a venue for an array of events, from international conferences to receptions for visiting dignitaries, and stands as a reminder of the gracious manor days of old Bethesda.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.