Ellen Charles has been an extremely successful board director of Hillwood, the estate of her formidable Grandmother, Marjorie Merriweather Post. Ellen Charles’ s vision and leadership has taken a family home and professionalized it into a well respected museum that is a Washington treasure.
Betsy Cooley and Cathy Farrell engaged Mrs. Charles in a lively interview shortly after she stepped down as Chair of the Board of Hillwood., a position she maintained for 25 years. Ellen says she left at the top of her game. Hillwood operates in the black and welcomed over 70,000 visitors last year. Mrs. Charles talks freely about the conditions she confronted in making Hillwood a successful museum. She talks about how to make Tudor Place a successful, historical point of interest in Georgetown and she compares and contrasts its management with her experiences at Hillwood.
Her decision to relocate to Georgetown from her home in Maryland is an interesting recollection as is the story about the remodeling of her house on 31rd Street. Mrs Charles is very proud that her walled garden looks which looks like is has always been there, including the lovely moss growing on it. This interesting and very personal story is a wonderful reflection of the character of its subject as well as a very complimentary expose of happy life in the Georgetown community.
Cathy: Interview with Ellen Charles on December 10, 2014 in her home on 31st Street, Georgetown.
All right, thank you Miss Charles for agreeing to be interviewed. We’d love to know about your involvement with Hillwood and with Tudor Place and any aspects of your life in Georgetown that you’d be willing to share.
Ellen: I moved here in 1997. This was a huge renovation. I had a wonderful 18th century house out in Chevy Chase, which was the same family. The family that owned that house for many, many years was the Dunlops. The Peters and the Dunlops had intermarried several times. They were cousins.
I always felt that I could look at Tudor Place and think that at least it was in the family of the house I had left. This house was a wonderful house but it needed a lot of work. It was almost two years. In November of ’97 I moved in here.
I lived up at where Betsy Kleeblatt lives. I can’t think of the name of it.
Betsy: You mean when you got the house you completely redid it?
Ellen: Completely redid it.
Betsy: What was the original house like? Did it date back?
Ellen: I have never gone and looked up the history of it. There was somebody who was supposed to do it. But it never happened. I think it was built at the turn of the century and then added on to.
It needed to be taken down to the bare walls and started over, which is what we did. I lived in what my grandson called “the halfway house.”
Cathy: We won’t tell the residents.
Ellen: Sam is autistic. He’s the sweetest. But he can’t filter anything. We were out to lunch one day and he said, “Grandma, how are you liking the halfway house?” I don’t remember the rest. Then I moved here and have loved it.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Bucky Block got me involved in Tudor Place. I was President of that board for three years and thoroughly enjoyed that. But when I moved in here I was already President of the board at Hillwood. I have done that for 25 years.
We had our annual meeting on Monday. I am now President Emerita, which means they haven’t let me go. And that’s all right.
Cathy: I can understand. They’re reluctant to let you go.
Ellen: That’s been a very interesting ride. I’m really not about to let it go. I don’t really want to spend quite as much time there as I have. But I’m not sure that that’s really going to change. Not that everybody isn’t very good at what they do, and we have a wonderful new President, but I guess I have the institutional history. Not only that, I’m family. So I feel it’s the part that’s hard to fill.
Betsy: I would assume so. But you transformed Hillwood into a very progressive museum.
Ellen: Yes. When I became President of the board of Hillwood it was not a museum. It was grandmother’s, mother’s house. It was run that way. I knew that that was not in the best interest nor was it fulfilling the wishes of my grandmother. So I set about to professionalize it.
Our story is the same as Tudor Place’s story. People are reluctant to let go. At Tudor Place, they had a revolving door of directors that came and went because people couldn’t let the director do what was correct museum policy and practice.
The same thing happened at Hillwood except that I was there to stop that from happening. Where you didn’t have a family member that was involved in Tudor Place or anybody until Bucky Block came along that was willing to say, “Wait a minute. We’ve got to do this the right way.”
And most house museums go through that. That’s just part of becoming a professionally run organization, because you do lose some control. Not as much as you worry, but you’re going to. But you do. I mean, you have to go by the rules.
And I was very fortunate in the hires. Our first director was so perfect for what we needed. A very quiet, very knowledgeable man who had been the director of a house museum up in Glens Falls, New York, and had had the same kind of experience up there because he had taken it to the next step.
He was wonderful. A man that went by the rules, believed in what museum practices were and it moved us to the point that we were taken seriously, because we really weren’t taken seriously before.
Then, when Fred, he didn’t last 25 years [inaudible 07:27] 22 or 21. I mean, he could’ve lasted, but he decided he was going to retire. So then we did the search. That is so lucky. I mean, that is so lucky that you find somebody who was a perfect fit and just the next level.
Because I went to Fred as we were beginning this search and I said, “Fred, I’m going to tell you what I think who the next person should be, the talent, the abilities they have.” I said, “And tell me what you think.”
I said, “We need somebody who is not so much the administrator. We’re at the point we can have an administrator, but someone to go out in the community and somebody who can raise money.”
He said, “Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more.” And he said, I don’t have those skillsets. Those are the skill sets you need.”
So there she was. She was just over in Baltimore waiting for us. [laughs] I don’t think she knew she was waiting for us, but she was.
Betsy: Did you use a search firm?
Ellen: We used a search firm.
Cathy: How fortunate.
Ellen: Wonderful search form. They’re not the big, fancy ones. They’re very much museums … they’re specialty.
Cathy: What is Fred’s last name?
Cathy: Fischer, was the first one. And how long was he there did you say?
Ellen: For 20 years.
He was there. I mean, he was there a long time.
Cathy: So you brought him in.
Ellen: I hired him.
Cathy: And really worked closely with him establishing the structure and the administration, but then you were ready to bring on, branch out..
Betsy: Well, when you talked about somebody who would do more development and go into the community.
Ellen: Oh yeah, because we were run, things were right. I mean, as far as administrative and museum practices, we were right on the mark. We had a good financial investment policy. We were running in the black. All the right things were done.
Now we needed to move up and get the word out, raise our attendance and start raising money, because we had a very nice endowment, but when you live off your endowment, you keep making it, what’s the word I want to say? It gets smaller, even though you’re careful.
Betsy: You need to grow the endowment.
Ellen: Yeah, probably. We hope, as our development initiative continues, that we will be able to get the endowment money. That’s the only way you’re going to…
Cathy: Do you have a research arm for the museum? Do people come there to pursue research?
Ellen: Mm-hmm. I have a very good library, so people do come. As with everything, we’ve taken a home, an estate, and retrofitted buildings.
Betsy: Moved the boilers, I read.
Ellen: We did that. That was Fred who said, “We got to update this house.” Grandmother moved into it in 1957. It was overdue for…Everything was kept in pretty good working order. It was still behind the times as far as climate control and all those kinds of things.
Cathy: Which preserves your collection.
Ellen: We had problems with water in the basement and the usual kind of things you have in an older house. It was time.
One of the important things was the boilers were right underneath the [laughs] Faberge eggs.
Ellen: That’s not a good place for boilers .
Betsy: You’re worried about endangering the collection.
Ellen: We moved them across the street.
Ellen: Howard has money. It’s really all about money. I wish and I hope and I think it will happen that somehow we can get Georgetown to take ownership of Tudor Place in the best way and wanting to preserve it. It needs new funds. It needs new people. It is the most fantastic jewel for Georgetown.
This house is, in the first place, it has wonderful architect in William Thornton, who also designed and was the Capitol architect and did that wonderful house downtown. It’s a prize there, but when you think it sat on that hill and watched the Civil War, it has watched history over the years.
Because of the relationship with the Washington family, we have more Washingtonian than Mount Vernon has. It’s amazing how when you are a young country, you don’t save things. When Martha Washington died, everything went up for sale. [laughs] The Peters being great collectors marched right over there and bought so much.
Cathy: Those things are still there. Going back to Hillwood for a second, what of the things, because you were certainly family, but you were also so involved with every aspect of it. What were the one or two things you envision that you really wished for the place that you saw actually happen?
Ellen: I envisioned a well-run institution that had a knowledgeable museum staff. I envisioned a board that understood how not-for-profit boards worked. Once those were in place, the sky was the limit. It would happen because there would be people with the same vision. That’s what happened.
We’ve been recognized and so it’s so much easier to get qualified people to come work and qualified people to sit on your board. I had never been involved in the museums in this city. Certainly, we had some of the best in the world, but that had not been my thing. I was more of a social service person. I have been a volunteer at Planned Parenthood for many years and served on that board.
I learned a lot about governance from the Planned Parenthood board, which was well run, and [inaudible 16:11]. That helped me immeasurably when I started on this journey, but as far as the protocol and what you can and can’t do when you have a collection, I didn’t know anything about it. I was learning as I went.
Betsy: It must have been exciting to go from being part of a family that accumulated and collected all those things to making the segue into how do you present it as a museum.
Ellen: There were good days and bad days.
Betsy: Tell us a good story and a bad story.
Ellen: My vision for the museum was not shared by all my family. [laughs] It was not easy. In the end, when I stepped down in my farewell ceremony, which I think started flying under false colors because I am not going anywhere. Somebody wants to give you a party and tell you how wonderful you are, why would you turn them down?
Cathy: You deserved it.
Ellen: Maybe, but other people think I do so that’s fine. I said, “I really appreciate everybody’s kind words. There were times where it was hard, but it really isn’t hard when you have a goal and you know where you are going. My goal was to fulfill my grandmother’s wishes. I had a road to go down.”
Betsy: You had an objective when you started.
Ellen: I never felt I had lost my way. I ran into some problems…
Betsy: Along the way.
Ellen: …along the way, but I knew where it was going and where it should go. I joined the Museum Trustee Association because what I found when I started this, being totally ignorant about what to do. I was taking the advice of museum professionals, which is fine except I needed the other side.
We’re trustees. How is there a difference? There really isn’t. The only thing trustees have to watch is your staff doesn’t get too excited [laughs] and you can’t afford their excitement. That seldom happens to me because of the staff. They’re probably even more responsible than you are.
It’s hard. The other thing is that all of a sudden, the curators own your grandmother’s things. That’s how you are when you’re a good curator if you’re in charge. It’s under your stewardship. It’s yours. You have to get used to that.
Cathy: That would feel a little wrenching sometimes.
Ellen: Yeah, it is.
Betsy: I visited there with my sisters and we were lucky we had a tour with the curator of the clothing.
Ellen: Oh, Howard. Is he wonderful?
Betsy: Just amazing, but it’s remarkable, the way you’ve set that out to be that way, but it’s still your grandmother, and it’s really personal stuff. To have people come in, even with the most knowledgeable, charming curator, that would seem a little strange.
Ellen: You have to get used to it. I don’t think much about it now, but you do have to get used to it.
Ellen: Howard is amazing. My granddaughter came up a couple of summers ago and did an internship at…Actually, they have a mini term where they go and do something and this was hers.
She came home one day and she said, “Oh, they let me touch an object.” I thought, “Oh my goodness. This girl may just end up…” [laughs]
She came home one day and she said, “Grandma, I don’t think I’m supposed to tell anyone, but we were having an exhibit of costumes that grandmother wore to the costume balls in Palm Beach all those years ago. He let me wear one.” [inaudible 21:16] [laughs]
Cathy: How wonderful for your granddaughter.
Ellen: She was thrilled. She is very interested in it. How lucky and I hope it continues, but I really think she may have found what she wants to do when she’s no longer in school. She just was amazed by it. They loved her there.
Of course, they couldn’t say if they didn’t, but [laughs] they say it often enough that it’s the truth. [laughs]
Betsy: It seems genuine.
Ellen: She’s very smart and she’s not a pushy, know-it-all kind of person. I think she probably fit in very well with that.
Betsy: In the early days, when it was transitioning from a family museum to a more advanced concept of a museum, had everything been catalogued and accounted for and that kind of thing?
Ellen: There were parts of Hillwood that were very well run, and the curators were really good. We had this wonderful woman named Mrs. Taylor who’d been there forever. She was very strict. She took very good care of her collection.
They had started cataloging, but of course, it’s a huge job. I think they maybe probably are finished now. Tudor Place isn’t finished yet, not that they hadn’t kept on, but they’d keep getting into another closet and finding [laughs] something else.
Betsy: Finding a Whistler etching, they just found.
Ellen: They found two.
Cathy: Did they consolidate the items from Florida to Hillwood?
Ellen: There were just a few that were named in her will that she wanted brought to Hillwood, the dining room table, which is that amazing…
Cathy: It’s gorgeous.
Ellen: …hard stone carving and it’s got a name, which I usually know, but I don’t now. They brought that up.
There were a couple of pieces of furniture too, but there was very little. It wasn’t…Each one of her homes was very different than the last. The interesting thing is that her main home [inaudible 23:40] looks very much alike, or her bedroom, or her dressing room, they looked…
You’re not sure which house or apartment you’re looking at, but as far as Florida, Florida’s totally different as far as the public rooms than anything else. The same thing with the Adirondacks.
The drawing room of the apartment in New York, you’re not sure where you are. You think maybe you’re at Hillwood.
Cathy: Isn’t that interesting?
Ellen: There’s very much a lot of the same furniture, because she collected beautiful, 18th Century decorative arts. You don’t change those with your moves. [laughs]
Hillwood was the culmination of all of her homes. She really got it down as to how she wanted it to look and how she wanted to live in it. Also, she loved to entertain. To have a house flow well fits in very well with having a good flow for your tourists, or visitors, as we call them.
Betsy: Your visitors, your guests.
Cathy: It does flow beautifully.
Ellen: It would work for a party too. You wouldn’t have to walk through the room. You could go through those corridors.
It’s an amazing place. She loved Washington. She was happy being here. She went to school here for a while.
Cathy: Did she?
Ellen: Yeah. She went to the old…which became Mount Vernon Seminary, which was called Miss Cook’s.
Cathy: Which became Mount Vernon College? The one there on Foxhall Road?
Ellen: First it was Mount Vernon Seminary. Originally, it was downtown. It was Miss Cook’s. Then it moved up to the naval facility on Wisconsin right at Ward Circle. Not Wisconsin, Nebraska, right? At Ward Circle? It has the church.
Betsy: Yes, I know.
Ellen: That was Mount Vernon when the Second World War broke out. The government took that over…
Cathy: I didn’t know that.
Ellen: …and then Grandmother went out and bought up the property off Foxhall Road and that helped…
Cathy: Create Mount Vernon Seminary?
Ellen: Yeah. She was on the board.
Betsy: There is that tradition?
Betsy: There really is. When you moved to Georgetown, did it affect your involvement with other places? Tell me of your experience of coming from Chevy Chase.
Ellen: I never see my Chevy Chase friends any more. [laughs] I just stay in Georgetown. [laughs]
Betsy: Is that good?
Ellen: That’s fine. I do see them, but it’s not…Somehow, getting in a car and going out to the far reaches of Montgomery County doesn’t happen very often, especially as you get older. You don’t like to drive a lot at night either.
Betsy: And everything is here. It’s convenient.
Cathy: You were happy you made the move?
Ellen: I never looked back. I loved where I lived, but I knew that I needed to move. I couldn’t be dependent on somebody living in, because as soon as the weather gets bad, they go home. [laughs]
I’d sit on top of that hill in the snow. Here, people know what you’re up to. As you get older, somebody needs to think, “Gosh, I haven’t seen her in a while.”
Betsy: We have a much closer community in a sense.
Ellen: It doesn’t stop me from having four dogs. I can do that. I have a house down in Southern Maryland in a place called Deal, which is about 20 miles south of Annapolis and easy to get to from here. You just get on the Southwest Expressway and Suitland Parkway and you’re there, if you’re lucky, in 50 minutes.
Betsy: I don’t want to interrupt the interview, but afterwards, I’ll tell you my experience with Deale recently. That is such a lovely area. Not that many people know about it.
Ellen: They’re starting to learn. It’s wonderful.
Betsy: What caused you to come to Georgetown? Why did you make the…?
Ellen: My friend [inaudible 28:47] , I said to her, “I’m getting ready. It’s time for me to move on.” She and Jack started off in Georgetown and moved to Wesley Heights and then moved back once they had an empty nest.
I said, “I can’t decide whether I want to move to Kalorama or Georgetown.” She said, “Ellen, get in a car on a Sunday and drive through Kalorama and drive through Georgetown and let me know what you think.”
Cathy: What excellent advice.
Ellen: It was the wisest thing anybody ever said to me. Of course, I drove through Kalorama and there were all the embassy chauffeurs washing the cars and not a soul on the street.
You went to Georgetown and there was everybody out with their dogs and chatting with their neighbors. It was night and day.
I had another friend who lived on the east side. She said, “Do not move to the west side. You can only live on the east side.” [laughs] My guy’s real estate agent kept saying, “Is it [inaudible 30:01] ?” I said, “No. Beverly told me I had to live on the east side.” [laughs]
She’s right. It’s much more small town, villagey feeling over here than it is on the west side. It’s beautiful and some of the most fabulous houses are over there, but this is sort of like a smaller community somehow.
I think the other side’s more alive, because you’ve got the college and everything, so here I am because I’m obeying my friends. [laughs]
Betsy: So many things are within walking distance, or within a stone’s throw. It’s amazing.
Ellen: I’m [inaudible 30:52] , I’ve had wonderful [inaudible 30:34], now that she has macular degeneration, somebody who can’t see well enough to drive. That woman, she must be close to 90, walks up to the Safeway.
Cathy: Does she really? From O Street?
Ellen: Yes. I think of that, and think “You’re really pathetic, Ellen.” [laughs]
Betsy: I don’t know, walking to the Safeway. I go through the park.
Ellen: I’m still very suburban. I hop in my car to go to those places because I’m lucky enough to have a parking space. If you don’t have a parking space, you’re much more dependent on your…
Betsy: On your legs.
I’ve never regretted living here. If I was going to look…I’d love to look at real estate, but I would always look in Georgetown. [laughs] At this point in my life, I don’t have any business to move. [laughs]
Betsy: This is a wonderful house.
Ellen: Unless it’s to one of those places you go when you can’t cope with yourself anymore.
Betsy: Georgetown is lucky to have you. Talk more about Tudor Place. How have you gotten involved there?
Ellen: I’m now on the steering committee for the capital campaign.
Betsy: I wondered. Because you’ve been on the board for awhile, right?
Ellen: Mm-hmm. I’m President Emeritus again.
Betsy: They don’t let you go.
Ellen: No. I don’t know why but they have their claws into me. I was involved when we were having the issue with the neighbors about the new plans which was just…I’m going to tell you, we’ve had trouble with our neighbors in Hillwood when we’ve wanted changes.
I think that’s part of…I would never feel the way I did if I hadn’t been on the other end. I think it’s just bizarre that you can tell an institution how to run their business. That’s all it was. It was just the neighbors and it just takes one or two to stir them up and reasonable people become irrational.
But in the end the system worked. We all know what it’s like going through all these boards if you live in Georgetown. But they saw the rationale for it and they understood that we care about the property more than anybody else. We’re stewards for it, so they let it happen. Now we just have to afford to do it.
Betsy: To do it. To implement the plan.
Cathy: You’re pleased with the master plan and how that is looking at this point?
Ellen: Yes, mm-hmm. Leslie is amazing. She has a process and she has an order for doing things and it all makes sense. In order to go into that house and do the things that need to be done with the wiring and all that infrastructure, you have to have a place to put your collection and everything.
We’ve looked into off-site storage, and that is prohibitively expensive for an institution that counts every penny. We really need to have a place.
Also, we need to protect. We have priceless documents that are sitting down in the basement that we’ve spent a lot of money keeping it from taking on water. But sometimes it still does if you get a really bad gusher as well as all the heat pipes, if they burst. It’s just horrifying.
Betsy: I know. Some of that stuff is just sitting there under plastic. When you think about what happened with the Georgetown Library…
Betsy: …the fire. It’s just amazing. What a loss.
The interaction of Georgetowners and Tudor Place, talk about that a little bit.
Ellen: I think it’s fine now. I guess I’m hoping for more…Just because since I’ve become involved in museums, and museums with collections, and certainly at this museum with history, I have more of a passion for it than I think most people do. It’s up to us, to create that kind of caring and interest in…
Betsy: Is that what you meant in your earlier statement that you’re hoping Georgetown will take on Tudor Place?
Betsy: It will become an aspect of pride for the community.
Ellen: To adopt it instead of it being their green space, which is really what it is right now. We need to be responsible for it.
Betsy: To be stewards of the property.
Ellen: Stewards. Yeah to be stewards is to understand that you can’t just look at it. You have to help. Everybody has different abilities. They can do it. But it seems to me that if you live here and enjoy here that it should come to the top of one’s mind that Tudor Place needs you.
Betsy: It’s a treasure to be valued. I think more people are getting into it because of the terrific programming that’s going on.
Betsy: Everything from Tudor Tots to the evenings to the interactions with the schools, and like that. But yet it’s almost like it’s too…Some Georgetowners take it for granted because it is right there and it’s always been right there and it needs more than that in people’s minds to stay right there.
Betsy: It sounds like the goal has been defined.
Betsy: Now you just have to reach it.
Ellen: That’s right.
Betsy: As you’ve done in the past.
Ellen: It’s very ambitious. This capital campaign is very ambitious. We’ve never raised that kind of money, but we have to. We have to.
I think we’ll probably end up doing what most institutions do. You just never are out of a capital campaign. It’s a rolling capital campaign because it’s just too much to raise all at one time unless every now and then you get really lucky and someone with deep pockets and a love for Tudor Place appears and leaves you a lot of money.
Cathy: Has that not happened at Tudor Place in a major way yet?
Ellen: There have been very nice contributions, but not a defining one.
Cathy: You need significant ones.
Betsy: Tudor Place is, comparing it to Hillwood, it is almost the opposite. It’s not a great space for entertaining.
Betsy: In terms of you can’t take that many people there unless the tent is up outside and like that, so that’s a hurdle.
Ellen: I think that the wonderful part of Tudor Place is that you can imagine living in it. It’s a space that you could be comfortable in. It’s a good-size house, but you could be very comfortable there. It would be a lovely family home, on a large scale but not…If you lived in Hillwood by yourself you would rattle.
Betsy: You certainly would.
Again, it’s like everything in Georgetown, I guess, is that everybody’s cheek by jowl. Even if you’re a big, historic estate like that you are surrounded by people so close up.
Ellen: It’s a very, very special place. I just love that lawn looking down to the south, I guess, we look. It hasn’t changed. There are very few gardens that somebody hasn’t moved in and changed it all to suit them. I mean, we’ve done it here. This didn’t have a garden.
Cathy: Oh, there wasn’t a garden here?
Ellen: I think it was a yard.
Betsy: More like my garden which is a yard.
Ellen: It was pathetic. It was just pathetic.
Betsy: I didn’t realize until recently, that Tudor Place went all the way up to R Street at one point.
Ellen: They sold it because they probably needed some money.
Betsy: It did go all the way to R Street?
Betsy: Because there are all the houses along there now. Yeah, all those row houses are right there.
Ellen: I wonder what 32nd Street was. That must have been part of Tudor Place.
Betsy: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I could learn even more about Tudor Place, yesterday. We’ve been trying to get to one of the Peters’ descendants to interview them and we hope to do that. But they don’t seem to be…They’re not as open and interested in talking about the family.
Ellen: I think there seems to be, and it’s never been explained to me exactly, but they’re not involved in the museum. There isn’t a member of the family…
Cathy: Like you.
Cathy: That’s too bad.
Ellen: It is too bad.
Cathy: Because you have been a real force.
Ellen: I think they’re, you know, I think that they…I don’t know…Leslie works hard to get them to be a part of it and to know what’s going on and to be enthusiastic, but I don’t feel that it’s happened. I don’t, whatever the reason is, happened long before either she or I were involved.
Betsy: Yeah. I imagine that’s true. Well, we’re still going to try to get one of them to interview. None of them live right here anymore, which is part of the problem.
Ellen: It used to be that Marky lived here, but she moved to Baltimore.
Betsy: I think that’s the closest person Leslie suggested. Any other observations on Georgetown?
Ellen: It’s a marvelous place. I don’t know.
Betsy: Is there anything that you learned about after you got here that you weren’t aware of before? Any surprises or discoveries?
Ellen: I discovered that there are those who have lived here a long time who really think that anybody who moves in doesn’t know what it’s about. But as time goes on, they are getting to be fewer.
Ellen: I [inaudible 43:55] do it that way in Georgetown.
Cathy: In what sense?
Ellen: I don’t know. I don’t think I did anything wrong. I’ve just heard the comments on it. When I did this renovation, when Faulkner was my architect, the loveliest man that ever was. What a wonderful person.
He went to every single neighbor and talked to them about what we were going to do to make sure that everyone was on board. I mean these neighbors were thrilled. There were about ten different kinds of stockade fence, so they were just thrilled to have a brick wall.
Betsy: To get some brickwork.
Ellen: I always wanted to have a walled garden. I thought if I don’t do it now, I never will have a chance.
Betsy: You never will, yeah.
Cathy: Oh, you put in a whole brick wall around it. That is handsome.
Ellen: Now, it looks like it has been here awhile. It’s got moss on it and everything.
Cathy: I didn’t even notice that it didn’t match because it does look that way.
Ellen: We try and get the plants to grow, but I find with the new people moving in, now that I’m an old person. There’s not the same sort of neighborliness as there once was. We have an eyesore out here. We have one of these outside barbeques where the chimney comes up over my…
Cathy: My neighbors have just built one.
Ellen: Have they?
Cathy: It’s huge. There’s this big chimney thing that just looms over everything. The house has been under construction for three years.
Ellen: Oh, my lord.
Cathy: Unbelievable. I’m not looking forward to the first party!
Ellen: We have renovation across the street which is caused all sorts of concern and for good reason.
Betsy: Which one? I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said.
Ellen: It’s right across the street. It’s the…I think their names are Levi, but I’m not sure. It’s where Elizabeth Powell lived and before that it was Aubrey Services and before that it was the Bruces, David and Janet Bruce lived there for awhile. It’s right directly across the street.
They come in and they did nothing. When the people on the corner here, she came around and brought us cupcakes and said, “If there’s any problem, please call me. We don’t want to cause you any discomfort or whatever.”
These came in with equipment and a great big dumpster and blocked off three quarters of the street so there’s no parking. Then, they proceeded to excavate underneath the house.
Betsy: Oh, is that what’s happening there? I didn’t know that. It has been a construction site for quite awhile.
Ellen: Of course, Carol, of course, “CNN” as I call her. She’s a good friend. Wrote it all up for everybody. Then, we had Conrad Cafritz doing his huge renovation. For people without garages, it was terrible. They had no place to park. Now, they let you mark off six or seven spaces, it really…
Betsy: It’s disruptive.
Cathy: I’ve been looking at a port-a-john and a dumpster for three years out my living room window.
Betsy: I know, it’s like…
Ellen: It’s terrible.
Betsy: Three years.
Cathy: It’s the good news and the bad news, but really bad news, in terms of when construction goes on for so long and the dumpsters are out there and everything else.
Ellen: In Alexandria, they won’t let them put dumpsters up. I think really here they should have the same…
Cathy: I think that’s…I would agree.
Betsy: I would agree with you because it clogs the traffic so enormously. I worry about people driving into them at night.
Betsy: Most of them are dark in color.
Ellen: We were so lucky here. We had a dumpster of course, but there was no garden in the front. We just parked right…
Betsy: You put it where the drive way is.
Ellen: Yeah. You know, the house is set fairly far off the street. And it’s level so he didn’t have any trouble putting one in. Nobody fussed with us, I think. Everybody with their poop bags loved us because they would just toss them in and didn’t have to carry it around. [laughs]
Betsy: [inaudible 48:57] do take advantage of the dumpsters. I love the way you have the topiary boxwood out front that you always decorate. Especially at Easter, obviously.
Ellen: I had a wonderful landscape architect named Rodney Robinson, who is just a lovely man. He said, “I think you ought to have…” because I take him to Hillwood at one point so he could see it because he had never seen it and we were going to need his advice one day. His thing is restoration, really.
He said, “I think you ought to have Easter eggs out front.” That was his idea. I love it. I think it’s really fun. I never wanted to collect eggs, but I don’t mind having them in front of my house.
Betsy: I love going by. I’ve admired them for years.
Cathy: It’s such a cheerful reference to Hillwood. What is the red little structure out front?
Ellen: One day, the workman came to work and the city had put up the meter box. I mean, why? Why? Except maybe it was before they could electronically do it. I think they could still do it on the side of the house and leave it, because the gas company does.
My gas meter is out there. But, anyways, [inaudible 50:42] had the most wonderful sense of humor. He said, “You know, we ought to have one of those [inaudible 50:48] boxes like they have in London.”
I said, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”
Betsy: So, it’s camouflage.
Ellen: Yeah, it’s camouflage. I said, “I’d like to put a face and a hat on it.” He said, “I think we’ll get into trouble.” [laughs]
Cathy: So, it’s really a whimsy. That’s great. I love the way you had the interior courtyard designed in here.
Ellen: Isn’t that fun? What happened was is that we added on, this is new construction from half way of that back, so that enabled us…we put in a mechanical room downstairs where [inaudible 51:39] . Then, that enabled us to have this which is switches. Tom said, “Are you going to have a Christmas tree this year?”
We had one inside for a couple of years because there was a woman who lived downstairs that [inaudible 52:01] a Christmas tree, so I said, “Fine.” I am beyond Christmas trees. I love them, but I don’t want to deal with them. We put this outside then we decorate it with colored lights and stuff, but it doesn’t leave needles and stuff everywhere.
Betsy: I would love to have the same setup so I could do mine that way. It’s lovely.
Ellen: Marcia Carter absolutely adores it. She doesn’t really understand why sometimes I don’t have it because, you know, she thinks she owns the block. [laughs]
Cathy: That’s the nice, special thing about neighbors that you are close by to.
Betsy: It’s part of the quality of Georgetown.
Ellen: Well, I mean it really is. People go off the reservation about things and it really affects the quality of your life. I find you get used to it. [laughs]
I’m lucky that I have a son that, you know…and it’s been fun with this garden, you know? I had a huge garden where I lived before. This was such fun to decide what really mattered to me, you know? What I really wanted in my garden counted because I didn’t have [laughs] a lot of space. [laughs] Couldn’t keep going and buying something and having space to where to put it.
It’s been fun. Things have changed, as we all know with gardening, you know? Some things like it better than others and you have to try and find something that will grow.
Cathy: They have a mind of their own. Absolutely.
Betsy: I remember when I moved to Georgetown in 1999, and my neighbor, who had a lovely garden next door, said, “Betsy, consider everything your plants.” It’s a zone further south than the Washington area.
The concentration of the buildings and less wind and that kind of thing. Indeed, some of the nicest plants in her garden were from Monticello. She said, “We really are a whole gardening zone south.”
Ellen: My camilias, which I just l loved. Last winter…
Betsy: They didn’t do well.
Ellen: They really bothered the [inaudible 54:39] .
Cathy: Did they survive?
Ellen: Yeah, but they killed them. We had to underplant them down because they’re all bare at the back. Not the japonicas, they had seemed to be a little hardier in the fall once. But in 17 years, you get winter like that.
Betsy: Maybe it will be 17 years…
Ellen: What was really scary was the snowmageddon. [chuckles] I went out to try and brush some of the snow off some of the plants. Which was almost impossible because it snowed so fast that they were already beyond a lot of help.
All of a sudden, I heard everything start to crack and I thought, “I better go in the house before something falls on my head.” [chuckles] Especially the magnolias took a terrible hit with the way that it snowed.
That didn’t really bother my garden that much, but last year was just really hard.
Cathy: I lost all of my hydrangeas, except for the oakleafs. The others, none of them came back. They’re just gone.
Ellen: It was very hard. Fortunately, they grow pretty fast.
Betsy: And they’re not too expensive to replace.
Ellen: Yeah. It’s not like your beautiful English Box was [inaudible 56:04] .
Ellen: I had one English Box out there and I lost that from snowmageddon, it just was like a pancake.
Cathy: You were smart to come back in time in that. I mean that was ferocious.
Ellen: I hope we don’t get it again this year. I think it’s going to be very cold winter though. It is already getting awful cold for early December.
Betsy: I think November’s been very cold.
Ellen: Colder than usual.
Betsy: We had that one beautiful week early in November, but recently, it’s been quite cold.
Ellen: I can remember, even when I lived in Chevy Chase, a lot of times, I’d have roses blooming. And I had a rose garden there. Roses blooming in thanksgiving, but all this is…
Betsy: Not this year.
Ellen: Not even here, because this is as you said…
Cathy: Except there are cherry trees blooming on Lowell Street.
Ellen: But those are those cherry trees that bloom this time of year.
Cathy: Are they?
Ellen: Yeah. And they have a…
Cathy: Because I thought it was that 70-degree day we had last week.
Ellen: They had it on Reno Road too. They put them in by a cathedral, and they did bloom.
Betsy: Very good to know.
Ellen: They’re a much smaller bloom. They’re so pretty, and you have a lot of them.
Betsy: They are smaller blooms that you’ve been mentioning. They are fall blooming.
Betsy: You are a gardener. you are both are gardeners. It’s interesting to hear you, clearly you go on. I remember, I went to Hillwood a long time ago to take a workshop on azaleas and trimming them. It was early on, I think, because at the end of the session, they said, “We have so many azaleas here that need trimming. Now that we’ve told you how to do it, you can all go out and spend as long as you want to trimming those azaleas.”
Betsy: My eyes practically popped out of my head. I said, “What? You really want…?” They said, “We really need help with it.” Knowing they’re azaleas, you can’t go wrong because they do grow so fast.
But wasn’t that cute that they let us go out and do it?
Ellen: That was cute. [laughs]
Cathy: I enjoyed the series last spring, the various different gardens. That was a wonderful experience.
Ellen: I didn’t get to that. I’d love to, but most of that is…
Betsy: I didn’t get to that either but I know a friend and some of her friends went. They said it was fabulous.
Ellen: Where did they plan to go?
Betsy: They’ve rented an apartment in Roslyn. We’re talking about Fran and…
Ellen: Kenworthy, Stuart.
Cathy: Who, until very recently, was the rector on the corner at…
Betsy: Christ Church.
Cathy: Thank you. There are so many Episcopal churches in Georgetown. I always have to think twice to make sure I’ve got the right, or I don’t know. Do you go there? Is that your parish?
Ellen: If I went to church, that’s where I’d go.
Betsy: [laughs] I think I’d have a very similar answer.
Cathy: I go to all the Christmas events, because the choir is so magnificent.
Ellen: I love it in the summertime, because if I sit outside, I can hear them.
Betsy: You can hear them.
Cathy: You can. That is fabulous. You can actually hear the choir, or the organ?
Ellen: I think they have outdoor services.
Betsy: They probably have the doors open at times.
Ellen: Mm-hmm. You can hear them. It’s a lovely church, but I am just not a churchgoer.
Betsy: Like having angels in your garden.
Ellen: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Cathy: And the chimes, the bells are always nice too.
Ellen: I love those at eight o’clock on Sunday morning, you know [laughs] .
Betsy: Who is the new rector there?
Ellen: They’re doing a search, I think. They have an interim minister, rector whatever we call it.
Betsy: Probably. I wish we knew more, but I don’t. I’ve been meaning to ask people who might know more.
Ellen: I read…I get the…the hymns are so nice. My aunt died and she lived in France. She has this dreadful only child, who is…She and I [laughs] don’t get along at all, because I removed him from the board at Hillwood because he was that bad, and everybody heaved a sigh of relief when I didn’t lose the rest of my board, because that was what I was going to do.
But that doesn’t really need to be publicized, I don’t think.
Betsy: We’ll strike it.
Ellen: [inaudible 60:35] Fred Fisher, our director, said to me, “Aren’t you going to do something for her?” I thought, “Gosh, why is it always me?” [laughs] I said, “I really should.”
So, I went to Stuart and I said, “Here is the story. She was raised an Episcopalian, but she became [laughs] a Christian Scientist, but I’d like to do a memorial service for her because the family has…That’s no way of saying ‘Bye’ and I think they need closure.”
He agreed to do it, bless his heart. A lot of Episcopal ministers would have said, “Nah,” but he did. It was a lovely service. We had it in the pavilion at Hillwood.
My cousin’s Glenn Close and she sang [laughs]. It was quite lovely. [laughs]
Cathy: Your cousin is Glenn Close?
Ellen: Yeah. My grandmother’s first husband was Edward Close. He remarried after they were divorced and had twin sons. Uncle Bill is the father of Glenn.
Cathy: The actress?
Cathy: I didn’t know she can…Of course, she can sing, because she was in that wonderful…
Ellen: And then he was part of that. He and his wife joined that cult called…I never can think of the name or it, but anyway, they did this thing called, “Up With the People,” where the kids went around and sang. The members of this religious group went around and sang.
Betsy: They were proselytizing?
Betsy: Glenn was part of that?
Ellen: Her parents were, so she was. [laughs] They left, in the end, but they went through a…He did missionary work in the Congo and became Mobutu’s private physician.
Betsy: Really? How fascinating.
Ellen: He was a wonderful man, fascinating man, not like most people you meet that are doctors. It was different, but very creative, very smart, very public-minded, worked very hard to try and do, had the United States do what was right for the Congo.
He fast became disillusioned with Mobutu. He was, I guess being an optimist, thought that he could get Mobutu to become a good [laughs] advocate of democracy. Well, “Ha Ha.” [laughs]
Cathy: A lot of people have tried in that.
Ellen: I think that it there’s a pretty cardinal, sitting out there on the…See him?
Betsy: Mm-hmm, I see him. Male cardinal.
Cathy: He’s got his wings…
Betsy: On the mossy part.
Ellen: I think he has a [inaudible 63:59] right behind him. Does he? Or he did at one point
Betsy: I don’t see her.
Ellen: No. I thought it was but it’s actually the branch of a holly tree moving around that I mistook.
Cathy: I love the way your garden is so expansive. You don’t see much of other gardens but you have lots of sky.
Ellen: My first summer here I would sit out in the garden and think, “It’s hard to believe that I’m in the middle of the city.” With all the trees leafed out you really can hardly see anything. It isn’t any noisier when I lived in Chevy Chase because I had the beltway not that far away and Connecticut Avenue and you still had traffic noises. Really I think it’s lesser here because it’s slower traffic.
Betsy: And you’re inside. The houses would block a lot of the traffic noise.
Ellen: Yeah. And you still have your Caret Nolson.
Cathy: You still have your…
Ellen: You still can watch the cardinals. There’s a little bit of bird watching. I don’t have any of those wonderful goldfinches, but you can’t have everything. I had those down in Deale. I see them bobbing along.
Betsy: Is there anything else you want to talk about or relate?
Ellen: I can’t think of anything.
Cathy: You’ve been very generous with your story and your time.
Ellen: Thank you. I guess, maybe it’s a story. I never think of my life much as a story but maybe it is.
Betsy: It is. It is. We all have our stories.
Cathy: It is. It is indeed.