Historic Structures

Frederick Douglass House (Cedar Hill) (John Van Hook House), Washington DC

Date added: January 14, 2011 Categories: House

The house was the residence of the Marshal and Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, Minister to Haiti and run-away slave, Fredrick Douglass.

The site of the Fredrick Douglass Home was originally purchased by John VanHook ca. 1855. He built the main portion of the present house soon after that. For a portion of 1877 the house was owned by the Freedom Savings and Trust Company and then on 1 September 1877 it was purchased by Fredrick Douglass.

At the time the house was owned by Fredrick Douglass it was known as the "old VanHook Mansion" or "Cedar Hill" and sat on about 8 1/2 acres. At two different times the house was added to and much interior and exterior redecoration carried out - much of this was undoubtedly done during Fredrick Douglass's occupancy. Douglass lived in the house from about 1889 to his death in 1895.

In 1900 Douglass's widow founded the Fredrick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association. In 1916 the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs joined with the Fredrick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association. These groups owned the house to 25 June 1964, when the Federal Government took deed to the House through the National Park Service, with the intent of restoring and preserving it.

The original structure was an L-shaped, brick, gable roofed, two story house with three main rooms on the first floor. These included the two front principal rooms and the present dining room. To this main house there were later changes and additions in the form of the two story library wing and the two story kitchen wing added to the south.

The ornamentation at the cornice lines and on the front porch was changed during some of these alterations. The only record of a building permit issued for the house is one dating from 12 July 1889 and there is no indication of what construction work was done at that time. Surface evidence indicates that the kitchen and library wings were added at different times. To the south of the house and connected to it by a breezeway is a small brick gable roofed, care-takers cottage which was added after the death of Fredrick Douglass between 1917 - 1920.

The Fredrick Douglass Home is a two and a half story brick, gable ended residence -with two wooden rear wings. The structure has an ornate, bracketed cornice, a standing seam metal roof, exterior blinds on all windows and is painted buff yellow with green and white trim. This central hall house is set on a high hill overlooking Anacostia and the City of Washington.

The overall size of the house with porches and wings is 73 by 43 feet. The 43 foot dimension being that of the front of the house which faces North. In the center of the first floor is a double door, each section of which has one panel above another, double hung side-lights are on either side of the doors and there is a transom over the whole assembly. The front porch extends across the entire front of the first floor of the house. On either side of the doors and also under the porch are two 6/12 light double hung windows. These extend from the floor of the porch to the ceiling and have wooden exterior blinds.

The floor plan of the original portion of the Fredrick Douglass Home is L-shaped, with a center stair hall flanked on either side by a primary room. To the rear of one side is another primary room.

The two wings to the rear of the house were built flush to each other extending south and filling the entire width of the rear of the house. On the east side of the rear extends the Library wing, consisting of one small room. To the west of the rear extends the kitchen wing, built on the end of the L of the original house. This kitchen wing consists of a stairway to the second floor, a large kitchen and three smaller rooms.

The second floor has one large bedroom over the small section of the original house, behind this is another bedroom connected by a wide doorway and located over the library wing. Across the center stair hall from these is a series of three bedrooms in the original portion of the house. Behind these and over the kitchen wing is another bedroom a later bathroom and a large hall. This hall is connected to the kitchen below by the above mentioned stairway.

The third floor has four finished attic rooms and a closet. All are small and have sloped ceilings.

The property on which the Fredrick Douglass Home was built was originally quite a large farm tract of several hundred acres. The house was built at the top of a hill called Cedar Hill and faced north, A long curving road was built to the top of the hill from the street corner of 14th and W, S. E.

The house is surrounded by regular residential planting and lawn. Many high trees are on the site, but few of them are the cedars from which Cedar Hill got its name. These high trees obscure much of the magnificent view of Washington, which the house enjoys. From the front of the house most of the major landmarks in the city are visible.