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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.”