Throughout much of its more than 280-year history, the Rosedale Farmhouse was the heart of a large farm and estate lying just north of Georgetown. Said to be the oldest home still standing in Washington, D.C., the Farmhouse and its sculptured grounds were named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The property was rescued in 2002 thanks to an award-winning neighborhood effort that saw the Farmhouse restored and returned to residential use and the grounds opened to the public and placed in the care of the Rosedale Conservancy. This is the story of an historic place that today stands protected, looking much the same as it has for more than two centuries.
The history of Rosedale begins before the 1730’s, when an unknown Maryland colonist built a stone cottage on what was then known as Pretty Prospects, a tract of many hundreds of acres extending from Rock Creek to the old “Rockville Road” (now Wisconsin Avenue). As originally constructed, the Stone Cottage consisted of a single stone structure, apparently partitioned into a main area and two very small sleeping rooms, with its entrance opening east toward the hill down to Rock Creek. At some point shortly thereafter, a second structure was added on the south side. Joining the two sections was a small curved corner hall, more like a tunnel, that remains to this day. The roofs merge unevenly, and the southern portion is wider on the east side by more than a foot and includes a large cooking fireplace that still retains its kettle crane.
The record resumes fifty years later, when General Uriah Forrest and his wife Rebecca purchased the property and named it Rosedale. Forrest was a native of the Maryland Colony, son of a successful middle-class planter. With the coming of the Revolutionary War, Forrest enlisted and fought as an officer of Maryland’s famed Flying Camp, a special unit that served directly under General George Washington. He suffered a severe leg fracture in the Battle of Germantown, 1777, surviving a mid-thigh amputation a year later. Forrest went on to accumulate a fortune in a successful mercantile trade, and married Rebecca Plater in 1789, the year the Constitution was ratified. Having served as Mayor of Georgetown, Forrest was elected to the Third Congress of the United States in 1793, thus achieving the rare status of elected Member of Congress from what had by then been established as the District of Columbia.
General Forrest purchased the Rosedale property in that same year, 1793, as a respite for Rebecca and their children from the bustling port city life of Georgetown, and to remove them from the threat of impending war. When General Forrest originally acquired the property, it included only the original two-part Stone Cottage. The following year, after spending a quiet summer in that simple structure, General and Rebecca Forrest built a large frame house just south of the Stone Cottage, including the southern face and expansive front porch you see from what is now The Rosedale Conservancy. Within a decade or two, the Forrests enclosed the eleven-foot space between the Stone Cottage and front frame house, and the result is the picturesque dwelling that still stands just north of the Conservancy grounds.
General Forrest is recognized today as one of the founders of the Federal City. Around 1796, he mortgaged Rosedale to obtain loans from the State of Maryland to bolster the new Federal City’s economy. Forrest was a gregarious sort, and throughout his time at Rosedale, the house and grounds were a center for political discussions and social entertaining. In June of 1800, for example, Rosedale was the site of a large dinner party for President John Adams. Reversals of fortune forced many of those involved in land deals during the early years of the District into bankruptcy, and Forrest was no exception. Declaring bankruptcy in 1802, he was able to salvage Rosedale when his brother-in-law, Philip Barton Key, agreed to accept a mortgage and to grant Forrest lifetime use of the Rosedale estate.
The General died in 1805 in the parlor of the Farmhouse. In the years following, the estate was almost lost again to debts and litigation. Key died in 1815, but before he did, Key forgave the mortgage and returned the property to Rebecca Forrest outright. Upon Rebecca’s death, the property transferred to her daughter, Ann Forrest Green in 1843. The Rosedale Farmhouse and grounds remained in the family, even as much of the estate was sold to enable growth and development of the City of Washington.
The City expanded and developed rapidly over the next several decades. In 1886, President Grover Cleveland built his famed summer residence, Red Top, nearby. Wisconsin Avenue was built in 1890, followed by Connecticut Avenue in 1892. The area that is now Cleveland Park was appealing then for the same reasons the Forrest family appreciated the land a hundred years earlier – the lure of a rural environment, fresh air, clear water, an excellent view, and an ideal refuge from the busy city.
The Forrest/Green family resided at Rosedale through several generations until 1917, when the Coonley family of Chicago agreed to rent Rosedale. The Coonleys had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build them a house in Riverside, Illinois, and they asked him for his opinion of the Rosedale Farmhouse. Wright responded that “it is honest” and “good for its time.” Unfortunately, it was also beset by termites. On Frank Lloyd Wright’s recommendation, the Coonleys preserved the house, repairing and restoring the termite-ridden portion of the residence and doing much to update the house, installing hot water heat and electricity. They also added the guest house cottage that still stands to the northeast of the main house, on what is now Ordway Street, and took substantial effort to preserve the general character of Rosedale and landscape the grounds.
Upon Mr. Coonley’s death in 1920, Rosedale was purchased by his widow, who became the first owner outside the original Forrest family. Mrs. Coonley owned the property for some 38 years, during which several of the modern homes along 36th Street were built. On Mrs. Coonley’s death in 1958, Rosedale passed to her daughter and son in law, Elizabeth and Waldron Faulkner.
In 1959, the Waldron-Faulkners sold Rosedale to the National Cathedral as a boarding facility for students attending the National Cathedral School for girls, marking the first time in the property’s long history that it was used for anything but a private residence. In the mid-1960’s, National Cathedral School constructed three modern brick buildings as dormitories, surrounding the old house with large three-story structures to the east, west, and north, leaving only the terraced lawns to the south. For some years, the house existed as a place for teachers and others connected with National Cathedral School to live, surrounded by 75,000 square feet of girl’s dormitory space. Stories abound from these years, including a reported contribution by an NCS parent, Senator John Warner, of funds to restore and repaint the exterior of the house.
By 1977, the National Cathedral School decided to stop accepting boarding students, and the Cathedral looked for a buyer. The neighborhood united against a sale to the Bulgarian Socialist Republic for use as its embassy, and with widespread neighborhood support, Rosedale was ultimately sold to Youth for Understanding, an exchange student organization, for use as its headquarters. As part of that sale, YFU agreed to a Covenant with numerous surrounding neighbors guaranteeing stewardship of the property. The Covenant also stipulated that the public would have access to the terraced grounds in keeping with the past traditional use, and, in what would become a critical provision 25 years later, that the owners of some 18 neighboring properties would have a deeded right of last refusal in the event Rosedale was ever sold. The neighborhood formed “Friends of Rosedale” to monitor the property and protect it for future generations, and YFU took up residence in the house and dormitory buildings.
Again, stories from YFU’s years abound, including its agreement in 2000 to lend the Farmhouse to the Cuban family of refugee Elian Gonzalez during the months of dispute about whether they would be allowed to return the boy to his native country. Lore has it that President Clinton also made a loan to the family – his dog, Buddy, who proceeded to chew up the mullions on the Farmhouse’s front windows.
In the 1990’s, YFU began to experience financial difficulty, and by 2000 it was seeking a buyer for the property. Once again, the neighborhood organized, reviving Friends of Rosedale and bringing together the 18 holders of the Covenant with YFU, along with numerous other concerned citizens who valued the historical nature of what was by now the oldest house standing in the Nation’s capital and its terraced grounds. Friends of Rosedale monitored the negotiations as different potential buyers emerged, ranging from developers to embassies to schools. In the Spring of 2002, after a potential sale to another charitable organization failed to close, Youth for Understanding held what amounted to an auction for the property. Two neighbors put together a bid that matched the prior contract’s price and that would have assured public access to the ground in perpetuity. Ultimately, an independent school submitted the winning bid, and YFU entered into a contract in June to sell the property for $12 million, a very substantially higher price, and one that appeared to bring to an end the neighborhood’s effort to preserve the property and assure its continued availability to the public.
Under YFU’s covenant, however, the right of last refusal gave surrounding neighbors ninety days to match any sale contract. Although the pending price made success seem nearly impossible, the Cleveland Park community mobilized an unprecedented fund-raising and legal effort aimed at triggering the neighborhood’s right to match the school’s terms. On September 3, 2002, after a summer-long and neighborhood-wide effort, the Covenant holders unanimously exercised their right to match the sale contract’s terms to enable a complex purchase of the property. The front historic grounds would be purchased by a conservancy and ultimately held by a local neighborhood land trust. The historic Farmhouse would return to its original use as a residence, the dormitory buildings would be demolished, and the rear Ordway Street side of the property would be the site of several homes in place of the large institutional structures. It was a plan with virtually unanimous support in the neighborhood.
The school fought the neighborhood’s covenant-based right to purchase the property, asking YFU’s bankruptcy court to reject the neighborhood’s matching of the school’s contract. After a day-long hearing, with neighbors waiting in the gallery, the Judge upheld the neighborhood’s right to purchase the property. Several weeks later, with funds contributed by over 100 families, the neighborhood was able to close on its purchase, thereby achieving an award-winning outcome that resulted in protection and preservation of the front three acres in perpetuity, restoration of the Farmhouse, and the return of the north side of the property to the residential use typical of the larger neighborhood.
Today, the Farmhouse stands restored to virtually the same floor plan as existed in the early 1800’s, after the original Stone Cottage was joined to the 1794 frame main house. Having been granted tax-exempt status by special act of the D.C. Counsel, the historic terraced grounds remain, forever preserved in the hands of a land trust created and managed by the neighborhood and other concerned citizens, The Rosedale Conservancy.