In an informative interview with Carey Rivers, seventh-generation Georgetown family member George Hill explores his appreciation for the history, beauty, friendships, and opportunities that have allowed him to serve this community. Currently, George is President of the Board of Managers of Oak Hill Cemetery.
George shared many fascinating tales of his historically prominent relatives. Family lore tells of hosting President George Washington for dinner. Family members over several generations were men of national and international importance. They attended the Continental Congresses and were instrumental in the establishment of the US Capitol. They were successful landowners and shippers. Their wives were renowned for hosting elegant dinner parties.
George’s family has been associated with many notable houses in Georgetown. Around 1785, George’s mother’s ancestor, Uriah Forrest, built the Forrest-Marbury house on M ST that is now the Ukrainian Embassy. In 1793 they built Rosedale, on Newark St NW. Uriah Forrest’s business partner, Benjamin Stoddert built Halcyon House at 3400 Prospect St NW.
George grew up in Georgetown, graduated from Landon, went to college in Boston and returned to a long and successful career in Washington DC. He and his family have made many contributions to our community over the generations.
George: I have tried to disseminate it to family members. When I was young, I didn’t care much about it, and I don’t think my children care much about it yet.
Later in life, I thought, this is really interesting. When I went to Louise Mann‑Kenny lecture and reading of “Rosedale” and lecture, I became more interested in my family and the history of Georgetown. My interest grew with my work at Oak Hill Cemetery. All of these things snowballed.
Carey: What about your professional career?
George: My mother did have a friend of a friend who worked at Folger, Nolan Fleming and Douglas which is an old DC investment firm. It just seemed natural to go and work for an old Washington DC firm. I have been there for more than four decades and its a wonderful firm.
Carey: You family has been consistent in location and profession?
George: What I like to say is, we either have deep roots or no imagination to do anything else and go elsewhere. My children ‑‑ my son is 22 and just graduated from the University of Chicago, and I’m not sure he is coming back to Washington, DC. My daughter went to the University of Vermont and a grad‑school up there. I’m not sure if she’s coming back too. So, this may be the end of the line. We’ll see.
Carey: Time may change. They’re just out of school and probably very bonded with the communities where they are. Do they get back for visits fairly often?
George: Reasonably, holidays and such. She’s working at grad‑school and is engaged so she doesn’t have a lot of time to run home and see the parents.
George: He just finished college and he said, “Dad, I’m finishing college a quarter early. Can I have half the tuition?”
George: I said, “yes.” He’s in Japan and Vietnam for a month.
Carey: Is he studying the languages?
George: No. Well, he likes languages, but he’s a computer scientist. He’ll go work in New York starting in July.
Carey: Oh, great. At least they’ll be a little closer.
George: Yes. They’re just wonderful kids.
Carey: How do you find Georgetown today compared to when you were growing up here, even one more generation?
George: I am an adult now and I was a child then. I find it much more commercial now. Back then the shops were Weaver Hardware, Miriam Crocker’s Lamp Shade Shop. Tommy Crocker and I are friends. I still see him. Learmont’s gone and replaced by national chains.
More so, I remember when in 1969, when Britches came along, I used to go and have lunch at Clyde’s. John Lathan is gone. I used to go to The Cellar Door and take girlfriends. I think at 17 or 18, you could get a Heineken. It’s changed quite a bit.
Carey: What do you foresee in terms of the future of Georgetown? It looks like so many shops are empty.
George: I have friends who are in real estate here and they complain about the state of retail. Georgetown has struggled a little bit on the shop level and the restaurants have changed quite a bit over time. There is a lot of change. Many people would argue that change is disconcerting and all but Georgetown, it’s a beautiful place. Owners are keeping their houses in condition. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the real estate better maintained.
George: Look across the street. People are renovating that house. My cousin Richard Zanzinger renovated that house recently.
Carey: There’s a dumpster on every block now.
George: Exactly. The state of real estate is very strong. It’s a very livable neighborhood. The retail comes and goes, and I think it’s done that at least the last 20 years. I’m not too worried about that.
Carey: Do you find that a lot of your peers did come back to Georgetown?
George: No, a lot of my childhood friends have gone to Maine, or Colorado and elsewhere so, no. There’s been a huge turnover. My parents’ friends, they’re mostly gone and their children are not in Georgetown. I miss that. There’s a lot of turnover in Georgetown.
Carey: Yes, but it does seem it still has appeal to young families.
George: I think so, yes. Look at the number of condos that have been built down on K Street and Wisconsin Avenue. There’s a lot of demand for people to live in this neighborhood.
Carey: Commercially what’s happened is that other areas that have sucked some of the merchants out of Georgetown.
George. That’s true.
Carey: That’s unfortunate, but hopefully as you say, it waxes and wanes.
George: What’s that expression? Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too popular.
Carey: That’s good. What do you find particularly special about Georgetown that has kept you here?
George: History, family, beauty of the place, friends, tradition and my service at Oak Hill.
I’ve worked down near The White House. I’m sort of halfway between the White House and the golf course.
Carey: It’s not a bad way to look at it.
George: Exactly. It’s a very livable city. If you can live in Georgetown, you’re living in a small, beautiful community. You can’t do this in Manhattan, maybe on Beacon Hill in Boston, but Beacon Hill’s pretty tiny compared to Georgetown.
Carey: Do you feel the village is actually apropos?
George: Yes, I think so.
Carey: I was going to ask you about Hillandale. How do you feel, because I live across the street from the Cloisters and then there’s Hillandale. How do you think it relates to Georgetown.
Has that become a part of Georgetown? I know your mother didn’t think so. [laughs]
George: I’m not sure it’s part of. Georgetown. I think every real estate agent would like you to think it’s Georgetown, but it’s not old George. It’s not Colonial Georgetown.
It’s a very livable, gated community, just outside Georgetown.
Carey: Is there a good sense of community within Hillandale?
George: Yes. We bought a townhouse there in 1987 and a single‑family house in 1999. I was on the board for 7 or more years and a president for two years. I have known a lot of people there. I enjoy it. I have a lot of great neighbors.
Hillandale is a neighborhood were a lot of people live who serve the diplomatic community. There’s a lot of turnover, more than Georgetown, I think. People come and go.
Carey: I think also students and interns from Georgetown?
George: Not so many students. It’s every now and then. Student housing at Hillandale is pretty pricey. Unless it’s a group house, which Hillandale discourages.
Maybe down in the Cloisters area around, or in the Georgetown Court area there are students Maybe that, but there’s not a lot of student housing. It does tend to be young diplomatic families who work at the French Embassy or the Australian.
Carey: It’s more diverse than…
George: It’s more diverse than that, yes. Students can’t afford to live in Hillandale unless their parents are rich millionaires.
Carey: It sounds like you’re on a lot of different boards. Is that a way of giving back to the community?
George: I have been. I have found it hard to say no. I lived in Logan Circle for a couple of years after college. I served on the Community Association there. I generally tend to be the treasurer because of my financial background.
Carey: That would make sense.
George: I was treasurer of an education organization here in Georgetown, The Porsche Club in the DC area. Hillandale, I was a treasurer there for many years before becoming president.
I’ve tended to do a fair amount of that. I am on my alumni board at Landon.
Carey: Has Oak Hill been your big…
George: For the last 10 years. I became the treasurer at Oak Hill. Then for one reason or other, they asked me to become president. I just love the organization. Oak Hill is a beautiful little gem in Georgetown. It’s like Tudor place or Dumbarton Oaks or Evermay. It’s one of the gems of Georgetown. It’s 150, 170 years old. My view is that, in my parents’ time people weren’t quite as generous and perhaps people weren’t quite as wealthy in Georgetown. They weren’t maybe as open with their checkbooks. Oak Hill and other organizations, Tudor Place, and well, Dumbarton, didn’t have that problem, but there has been a maintenance problem at Oak Hill. There has been a lot of deferred maintenance. We’ve had to rebuild a lot of sections. I like rebuilding things. I like metalworking and woodworking.
Rebuilding and helping to rebuild ‑‑ it’s just not me ‑‑ helping to rebuild the gardens, the drainage, and the pathways.
Carey: I attended an event at the chapel where the windows had just been restored.
George: Yes. We had rebuilt the chapel, or put a new roof on it, and renovated the inside. Most of the roads have been redone. We’ve done a lot with the drainage. We built a new columbarium. We’ve built several new mausoleums.
We’re almost finished renovating the Gatehouse. We’ve started the renovation of the historic Bigelow iron fence on R Street. There’s a lot of work and there’s a lot yet to be done.
Carey: How long have you been on the board?
George: I guess it’s 10 or 12 years now and I’ve been president the last 7‑ish.
Carey: What first drew you to Oak Hill?
George: Joe Pozell. He knew my family was interested.
Carey: Did you have a chance to read, look at Joe’s wife’s interview?
George: I will do it.
Carey: I’m not testing you. Let’s see what else we should cover. What are the future plans for Oak Hill? Do you feel like it’s in fairly good shape now?
George: We’re in very good shape now. We have a lot of projects left to do. I don’t think we need to gild the lily. There are a lot of pathways we need to be rebuilt or steps need to be rebuilt.
Carey: A lot of hardscape.
George: A lot of hardscape needs to be rebuilt. The fence project is probably the single biggest. That’s in the million‑and‑a‑half or two million dollars range. Oak Hill has never raised a significant amount of money. It’s challenging. I’m not sure we’re prepared to do it yet.
Carey: Is there still space for new burials?
George: Yes. One of the things we’ve done is to find redundant pathways, and to sell. We’ve created 10 new mausoleums sites. Maybe another one, an 11th one.
Carey: What’s the history of the Van Ness Mausoleum? That was the original one.
George: The Van Ness Mausoleum was downtown at Fifth and I Street, and was moved to Oak Hill when that part of downtown was redeveloped. It needs a little bit of renovation. We’re in talks with the family right now about how best to do that.
Carey: Who was the Van Ness family? I’m curious because you see that name, it’s on many different places.
George: I don’t know. I don’t want to misstate. I believe Van Ness was a prominent military family during the Civil War. It’s his wife’s family who is responsible for the mausoleum. There are several different families that are involved with the history of that.
Carey: It was moved there how long ago?
Carey: That’s one of the earliest. How long ago was the chapel built?
George: 1851. 1851, by James Renwick, who did the castle at the Smithsonian. The Van Ness Mausoleum is interesting, because it’s made of Potomac limestone. That is the stone that built the White House. The White House is painted white, but the Van Ness is unpainted. If you want to know what the White House looks before paint, come see the Van Ness Mausoleum.
Carey: That’s an interesting tidbit!
George: You asked about the future of Oak Hill. I think eventually Oak Hill will run out of pathways and cremation sites and burial sites. One of my jobs is to look at the finances. Oak Hill had a modest endowment of 2 or 3, 4 million dollars when I got on the board. We’re maybe $10 million now. I think in today’s dollars, we will need $20 or $30 million. Eventually, we’ll run out of burial space to sell.
We do a million dollars worth of revenue a year from contributions and sales and our expenses are a little bit below that. We normally have a surplus and we try and bank that, hopefully, the portfolio will grow over time.
Eventually, I think Oak Hill will have to become a museum. I think we’ll need a million dollars plus or minus in today’s dollars to mow the grass and keep the lights on to be a museum. To generate a million dollars, you probably needed at least $20, $30 million in investment to generate that.
Carey: What’s the living culture of the cemetery? Do people use it like Congressional, is there a dog park?
George: Congressional has been more neighbor‑friendly. The dog program, I think rescued Congressional in someway. They have a lot of land, two or three times as much as we do. They still have burial spaces available.
We’ve tried to be a little bit more exclusive or…I mean, we’re not exclusive anyway.
Carey: A lot of people feel if you lived in this zip code all your life, you should go to Oak Hill.
George: Exactly. The tour bus would drive up our street and say, “Well, there’s Oak Hill. There’s nothing available anymore.” That’s not true, so between casket sites and cremation sites, and other opportunities, there are plenty of options at Oak Hill from, as I say, “The modest to the grand.” Anyway, there are lots of opportunities for burial options at Oak Hill today.
Eventually, it will have to become a museum. How do you pay for the maintenance of the trees, and the flowers, and the monument restoration, etc.? That’s what I’m focused on.
Carey: Are you serving on any other boards now?
George: I’m starting to, do less at the Smithsonian libraries. I’m a member of the Metropolitan Club. I serve there on the Human Resources and Finance Committee.
Carey: Finance is a good spot to be if you want to have an impact.
George: There are a couple of other very accomplished people on that board.
Carey: That’s true.
George: I contribute a little bit and they contribute a lot.
Carey: I feel like there’s probably a lot more to talk about. Do you have anything else you want to add?
George: No, but Georgetown’s the neighborhood where I grew up. We all have our hometown neighborhood. I was lucky enough that this one was mine. I love the people here. Many of them have come and gone but new ones have come as well. There are a lot of smart, attractive, intelligent, well‑educated people in Georgetown. It’s a very rich environment. If you say hello at Starbucks, or to the barista, or the person standing in line, you’re probably going to meet somebody very interesting. School towns, towns that have colleges in them ‑‑ like Charlottesville, Georgetown, or Burlington with the University of Vermont, they tend to be very interesting, exciting, energetic towns.
I think Georgetown’s presence is positive. I went to a lecture that George Saunders gave about “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which is set in Oak Hill cemetery. The lecture was over at Georgetown’s library a couple of weeks ago. I got to sit next to George Saunders at dinner time and talk to him for an hour or so. In university towns, you got to do things like that.
Carey: Well, also you do find, as you say, if you’re in Starbucks, the person standing next to you could be easily recognizable?
George: Exactly, a political figure or a news figure or a Georgetown kid. I think it is a wonderful little town. You just have to be open to all the possibilities.
Carey: Yes. I think even in this library, they’ve done some really nice programming.
George: Look how many people are using it ‑‑ young kids, and old kids like me. [laughs]
Carey: I know, and they have programs. Do you use it very often?
George: No, not a lot, I’ve got the Metropolitan Club library.
George: I like books. I like to own books and I like hardbacks, so I buy them on Amazon then I don’t know what to do with. [laughs] It is a problem. Where do you stack them all?
Carey: I don’t see anything else in my notes that we haven’t covered.
George: I’m always available if you want to do it again or if you want to follow up with a phone call.
Carey: Thank you very much.
Transcription by CastingWords