Washington DC

Woodland Normanstone Walking Tour in DC

Woodland Normanstone is a sylvan neighborhood bordering Rock Creek valley in NW Washington DC. Home to several ambassadors, this century-old community is a perfect place to escape to the country within a cosmopolitan city.

And if you are lucky to visit Washington DC when Washington Walks offers its twice-annual two-hour walking tour, you’ll also learn about famous architects who designed the mansions for the famous people who owned property here. (Spoiler alert: You’ll also hear about murder, mayhem, and one of the largest grass tennis courts in the country.)

The neighborhood is named after Woodland Drive and Normanstone Drive, which run parallel to each other. Its hilly terrain allows “peak views” of nearby posh neighborhoods. The neighborhood is a subdivision of Massachusetts Heights. After the Massachusetts Avenue bridge was built spanning Rock Creek Park, developers began buying lots to build homes.

“Its topography of rolling hills and deep valleys prompted a 1910 act of Congress that exempted the new development’s streets from conforming to Washington, DC’s existing street grid, thus enabling large cascading estates along meandering roads and culs-de-sac to be erected.”

Washington Walks

Woodland Normanstone Tour

Washington Walks guide Martin led my November 5 walk. He is a member of the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington DC. Our group included locals hailing from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC as well as tourists.

Martin specially created this guided walk during the pandemic. He lives near the Shoreham Hotel; he frequently walked on Woodland Drive, Normantown Drive, and Rock Creek Drive for stress relief. Martin became curious about the mansions and began researching individual homes.

He explained that the neighborhood is unique because there are no rowhouses, townhouses, apartment buildings, or condo buildings. We saw numerous mansions situated on sprawling lawns.

Moreover, Washington’s wealthy families hired such famous architects as John Russell Pope, George Ray, and Rose Greely, to design their homes and gardens.

Neighborhood History

Washington DC went through a building boom in the late 1800s in the Dupont Circle, Embassy Row, and Kalorama neighborhoods. Massachusetts Avenue was a major road intersecting this Northwest (NW) section of Washington DC.

Mansions behind gates

Developers bought up a lot of tracts of land along Massachusetts Avenue. The Federal Government designated the 1754-acre Rock Creek Park as a U.S. National Park in 1890. “It was the third U.S. national park (after Yellowstone and Mackinac National Park,” according to the National Park Service (NPS).

 “They figured it was going to pop. They built the first house in 1917. But they are still building houses today,” said Martin. There are three homes for sale, ranging from $6M to $10.5M, according to Realtor.com.

Today, there are about 160 homes in the neighborhood. Woodland Normanstone is located near Woodley Park, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, and Observatory Circle.

Home of Embassies

The secluded woodland neighborhood is a favorite for embassy employees.

“Two dozen of the 160 homes in the neighborhood are residences for embassies. And nature — picturesque woods, squirrels and deer — is a major focal point.”

Washington Post
Finnish residence

According to an Australian Embassy employee who participated in our walking tour, the “Australians own the block.”

Next to the Australian ambassador’s residence is the home of another Australian official. Emu bird and koala bear sculptures keep watch on the stoop. It is home to one of the few grass tennis courts in the U.S.

Australian sculptures as well as a grass tennis court

General George S. Patton, Jr. previously owned the Australian ambassador’s home. Patton (nicknamed Old Blood & Guts) rode horses in Rock Creek Park.

Ray & Waggaman Homes

The Morocco ambassador purchased its home in Woodland Normanstone in 2017 for $14 million from Mary Martin Ourisman. She sold the house after her husband Mandel Ourisman’s death. They owned Ourisman Automotive Group. Mary Ourisman also served as U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean during the Bush administration.

Built in 1930 by George Nicholas Ray (a native Washingtonian), the home exterior features rusticated stones. “The window circles have an Art Deco flair,” said Martin. There are relatively small windows on the first floor. The second floor is the public area. The third floor has modest windows for private bedrooms.

Ray joined the firm of Chark Waggaman in 1917. They formed Waggaman and Ray, Architects. Waggaman was elected to the American Institute of Architects. He built his dream house on 2840 Woodland Drive NW. But he only lived there for two years as he died in October 1919 at age 42 during the Influenza Epidemic.

Home of Media Stars

Denizens of industry, entertainment, and media also call Woodland Normanstone home. Former Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke owned a mansion in the neighborhood. Bet TV owner Deborah S. Lee purchased Cooke’s estate. She built a new house.

Washingtonian Magazine described it as “a contemporary Rock Creek Park oasis with everything you need”—including an elevator, gym, infinity pool, and eight-car garage.

The Hollywood Reporter named Lee as one of the “100 Most Powerful Women in Entertainment” due to her many achievements at Black Entertainment Television (BET). “She sold the house for $11 million during the pandemic,” said Martin.

Home of Famous Doors

Before the Hay-Adams Hotel opened in 1928, the former site was home to two 19th-century mansions on 16th Street NW (across from The White House). John Hay and Henry Adams owned these two residences, which were connected to provide ease of access.

“In 1884, the architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed elaborate, Romanesque homes at the corner of 16th and H Streets for Hay and Adams.”

Hay-Adams Hotel

John Hay served as private assistant to President Abraham Lincoln and later as Secretary of State in two administrations (William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt). Adams was a prolific writer and a descendant of two U.S. presidents—John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

The most famous doors in Lafayette Square—built in 1886 for the Henry Adams and John Hays houses—were saved. He took the doorways to both houses and recreated them. Built in 1928 by Horace Peaslee, the residence features John Hay’s door. (Peaslee was the primary architect for Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street NW, known as Presidents Avenue).

Facsimile of the door on Henry Adams’ 19th-century home in DC

Another house in the neighborhood. features a facsimile of “Henry Adams’ door” on his former home on 16th Street NW. The house features a slate roof, dormers, and gables.

Home of Mansion Murder

In May 2015, the firemen came to a mansion on Woodland Drive NW to find the whole family was murdered. Savvas Savopoulos, his wife Amy, their son Philip, and their housekeeper Vera Figueroa “were bludgeoned to death and staff. The culprit worked for the family,” said Martin.

Police broke the case when murderer Daron Wint’s DNA was discovered on the Dominos Pizza crust which he ordered while torturing them. The house has been owned twice since this gruesome murder.

Some Architectural Surprises

One of the most surprising homes we saw on our walking tour was a white modernist home.

But this is just one example of the range of architectural styles, which includes Mid-Century Modern, Beaux Art, French Chateau, and Art Deco.

I highly recommend this tour if you are interested in architecture, nature . . . and gossip. It was amazing to stand on the sidewalk on Woodland Drive and learn about the famous Washingtonians who lived/live here. Where else can you peer through a fence at the former home of the “king of bankruptcy” as well as the site of a horrific murder?

A TripAdvisor reviewer recommended “this tour for residents and visitors who have been to the national monuments and done more common tours. Thank you Washington Walks and especially Martin for your engaging and friendly tour.”

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  • Lisa
    November 19, 2022 at 7:47 am

    Such an interesting post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and photos with us.

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 8:29 am

      This neighborhood may be the best kept secret in DC! Most locals don’t know about it. I was so happy to discover this off-the-beaten path tour.

  • Natalie
    November 19, 2022 at 11:41 am

    These houses are gorgeous! I love architecture and nature, so this seems like a walk I need to go on next time I’m in DC 🙂

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 11:51 am

      This is the dream walking tour if you love architecture & nature. I can’t wait to go back and hike the neighborhood with my Golden Retriever.

  • Alanna Koritzke
    November 19, 2022 at 1:09 pm

    Wow what a beautiful area despite that one gruesome story (who orders a pizza???).

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 3:29 pm

      Bad things happen everywhere. But it was a gruesome murder in such a peaceful neighborhood!

  • Shannon Murray
    November 19, 2022 at 1:21 pm

    It looks peaceful and beautiful!

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 3:28 pm

      It was particularly beautiful to explore in autumn when all the trees change colors. 🍂🍁

  • Hazel
    November 19, 2022 at 2:07 pm

    This looks like a gorgeous neighbourhood, Terri. In my experience, embassies usually choose the most gorgeous parts of town to locate. Thanks for sharing.

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 3:28 pm

      You are correct! The embassies in DC are mainly clustered in Embassy Row and the surrounding DC neighborhoods.

  • Alisha
    November 19, 2022 at 2:31 pm

    What a unique way to explore DC! Beautiful neighborhood and interesting architecture.

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 3:27 pm

      I highly recommend walking tours in Washington to learn about the history and architecture in different DC neighborhoods

  • Anita
    November 19, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    Woodland Normanstone Tour looks like a great tour to follow. Lots of interesting details. Thanks for sharing!

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 3:26 pm

      Very interesting to learn about the architects who designed houses a century ago

  • La Zia Ro
    November 19, 2022 at 3:42 pm

    What a fancy neighbourhood! So many awesome houses! The creepy murder mansion is just the cherry on top of the cake! 😂

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 3:47 pm

      So true! Fancy! The mansions typically cost $10 million so it is a very elite neighborhood.

  • Catherine - Savvy Family Travel
    November 19, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    I can’t believe anyone could live in this house after such a grotesque murder!

    These doorways are stunning and I’m always fascinated to learn more about the early history of National Parks in the US. I just recently learned about Mackinac being #2 (but it is now a State Park).

    You always find such incredible corners of the world.

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 6:18 pm

      I too was surprised to learn that Mackinaw lost its status as a National Park. Rock Creek Park is a treasure. I can’t believe anyone could live in that hike where the father, mother, son & maid were murdered.

  • Heather
    November 19, 2022 at 4:51 pm

    It’s so amazing that I lived in DC for 3 years in college and I come to your blog and learn how much of DC I never saw! 🤣

    • Terri
      November 19, 2022 at 6:16 pm

      This makes me so happy to hear. I look writing about places in DC that even former residents never explored!

  • Linda Jane
    November 19, 2022 at 6:48 pm

    A lovely historic neighbourhood to explore in DC & a walking tour looks like a lot of fun. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

    • Terri
      November 20, 2022 at 9:01 am

      I try to book walking tours whenever I travel. But Washington DC really offers a lot of specialized neighborhood and seasonal tours.

  • Ashley
    November 19, 2022 at 8:26 pm

    Looks like a nice neighborhood to explore and some interesting facts!

  • Andrea
    November 19, 2022 at 9:52 pm

    This looks like such an interesting neighborhood! Thank you so much for sharing.

  • sue
    November 20, 2022 at 4:40 am

    What a beautiful & fascinating neighborhood to explore. And the walking tour sounds like the perfect way to do it to truly understand the detailed history of all the important residences. It would certainly be on my list when I’m next in Washington.

    • Terri
      November 20, 2022 at 8:59 am

      I recommend booking a walking tour to all my visitors who come to Washington DC. They are led by experts—historians, architects, and professional guides. This tour costs $35–what a value!!!!!

  • Sharyn
    November 20, 2022 at 4:43 am

    What an interesting and different thing to do to discover a neighbourhood. I would enjoy this as I like doing things like this.

    • Terri
      November 20, 2022 at 8:57 am

      We are so lucky in Washington DC to have these specialized neighborhood walking tours. I have taken over two dozen.

  • Dani
    November 25, 2022 at 5:30 am

    Some of the architecture is amazing! This was quite interesting to read!