Before D.C. was D.C., it was a collection of towns that included the riverfront settlement of Georgetown. Now a quiet, tree-lined residential area with a trendy shopping district, Georgetown was once a lively trading port for American exports. It was in this era, a decade after the Revolution gave birth to America, that a great Federal style mansion would be built in Georgetown’s north end. This house would be occupied by a succession of prominent Washingtonians and would go by several names throughout its 200 plus year history. It saw the transition of the city from a quiet agricultural area coming to terms with its federal powers, to a bustling national capital where the world’s fate is decided daily.

Dumbarton House, as it has been known for the last century, was constructed in 1799. It would quickly pass into the hands of the Nourse family, headed by civil servant and British immigrant Joseph Nourse. His 48-year long career as the first Register of the Treasury lasted through six presidential administrations. Joseph, who can be considered America’s first civil servant (and its first suburban commuter), travelled downtown every day from “Jackson’s house on Cedar Hill,” which then included a small farm.

The next owner would be the venerable Charles Carroll, who belonged to a powerful family that included signers of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll was friends with President James Madison and his wife, Dolley. In the run up to the 1814 burning of Washington by the British, Dumbarton, then known as Belle Vue, would serve as a refuge for Dolley as she fled the doomed White House.

Following Carroll’s departure from the home, it was occupied by several other wealthy residents, including a businessman, John L. Newbold, who saved the house from destruction in 1913. Dumbarton House stood in the way of a planned expansion of a bridge linking north Georgetown to the Sheridan Circle area (now home to D.C.’s Embassy Row). Newbold managed to get a court order holding off the construction and ambitiously commissioned the physical relocation of the building. Moving the house roughly 60 feet downhill took 200 jacks and three weeks, along with the demolition and reconstruction of the house’s wings.

The new location paved the way for the most recent and enduring chapter in the home’s life, which began in 1928 when The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America bought the property, named it Dumbarton House, and put it to use as their national headquarters. The Dames set about restoring the house to its Federal origins, which meant removing Victorian interventions and restoring original elements. The home, which the NSCDA opened as a museum in 1932, was filled with early American furniture and decoration, to bring it closer to the way it would have looked in the Nourse era. Today, a visit to Dumbarton House is an exploration into the Nourse household—the family, as well as the free and enslaved workers—and a look back at what Washington, D.C. was like in its earliest years as the nation’s capital.