Perched on a hill just outside of Washington and across the Potomac River from Alexandria lies National Harbor. The almost eight-years-old neighborhood and destination, a point of pride for Prince George’s County, Maryland, is poised to experience a week like no other. On Sunday, Major League Baseball’s General Managers fire up the hot stoves at their annual Winter Meetings. After they exit the stage on Wednesday, the new MGM Casino pops the top for its much anticipated Grand Opening on Thursday night.
Not bad for an empty piece of land no one paid much attention to until real estate magnate Milt Peterson made it all happen. Not counting recent temporary uses (remember the recycling event?), it may seem to some that nothing much has ever happened on this sloping riverside property located just a few rolls of the dice from the Beltway.
That’s not the case. Let’s take a look.
In the 1980s, readers of The Washington Post got the words of a proposed new development on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and across from Alexandria. The ambitious project was called the “Bay of America.” Renderings for a 52-story tower drew some interest in Prince George’s County, but ultimately the idea was rejected due to aviation concerns. In 1986, the project was re-branded as “Port America.” All the work and momentum came to a halt when a poor economy deep-sixed the plans.
The failure of this project proved to be a boon for archaeologists. In the 1980s, four different professional archaeology companies investigated the 15-acre site. The site proved to be a gold mine. More than 72,000 artifacts were recovered and cataloged.
The archaeological reports give us a glimpse into the life of the Addison family, who lived on the crest of Oxon Hill. Using enslaved labor, tobacco planters like John Addison became wealthy and powerful in the Colonial era.
With the blessings of the King, Addison emigrated from Westmoreland, England in 1674 and settled at St. Mary’s City, the colonial capital in southern Maryland. He married Rebecca Dent, a widow with six children. Their son Thomas was born in 1679.
Addison wore many hats — planter, merchant, sea captain and colonel in the militia, and Justice for Charles County. His property holdings reached 6,500 acres. Addison served on the Maryland Council, a position that gave him the governor’s ear. One of his probate inventory sheets includes fourteen slaves.
In 1687, Addison purchased a parcel of land we know today as both the MGM Casino at National Harbor and Oxon Cove Park.
Before he passed away in 1705, Addison built an “earthfast” (also known as “post in ground”) house on the property. Framed on posts set in the ground, the size of the house was approximately 50 by 30 feet.
John Addison’s son, Colonel Thomas Addison, inherited the property. Colonel Thomas Addison was not only a planter; he also held duties such as commander of the Prince George’s County Militia. Addison also hosted upper crust members of society with formal parties and teas.
Thomas Addison built a manor with eight principal rooms on the same spot at the top of Oxon Hill as his father’s house. Work done by the archaeologists revealed the time was around 1710-1711. The house, probably two and a half stories, measured 72 by 40 feet.
The Addison manor later became known as Oxon Hill Manor. In the coming years, admirers would marvel at its size and splendor and compare it to John Carlyle’s mansion in Alexandria and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Addison and his wife, Eleanor Smith, owned 75 enslaved persons and were among the wealthiest families in Maryland. The labor of these slaves produced tobacco, oats and corn at the Addison farm whose site is interpreted at nearby Oxon Hill Farm.
The Addison manor and plantation was not the only one in the Oxon Hill area. Less than a half mile away, on land currently occupied by the Tanger Mall Outlets, stood Salubria. A series of markers there, as well as at the Potomac River Heritage Visitors Center, tells some of its stories.
In 1830, John H. Bayne, a prominent doctor, educator and politician, built the two-story, wood framed house. Bayne owned as many as 19 slaves who performed the dirty work of planting, picking and harvesting tobacco. After the crops depleted the soils, Bayne switched to fruits and vegetables, which he sold in the markets in the city of Washington.
Enslaved humans such as those at Oxon Hill and Salubria faced obstacles at every level. In 1723 lawmakers in Maryland outlawed meetings of African Americans. One can only try and imagine what life was like in these environments.
Four generations of the Addison family resided at their ancestral home until ownership passed into other hands. In 1810, another wealthy planter in Prince George’s County, Zachariah Berry, purchased Oxon Hill Manor. When he passed away in 1845, his son Thomas inherited the estate. When Thomas died ten years later, the deed for the hillside manor went to his son, Thomas E. Berry. With tobacco no longer the cash crop it once was, the family neglected the dwelling.
After the Civil War was over, the Oxon Hill Manor fell into a quiet period. In 1879, ads for the sale of the property appeared in the Washington Evening Star. Perhaps it was an exaggeration, but the ad touted the property as “the most desirable and valuable real estate in Prince George’s County.”
Samuel Taylor Suit responded to the ads, and purchased the house and property in 1888. The estate consisted of 1,800 acres.
After a period of a series of owners, a fire destroyed Oxon Hill Manor in 1895. The Alexandria Gazette noted the mansion was “one of the landmarks which are famous in this part of the country.”
The story of Oxon Hill Manor also involves John Hanson. Born in Mulberry Grove, Maryland in 1715, he rose to fame by serving as a patriot during the American Revolution and as a Maryland delegate to the Continental Congress. From there he went on to become the first president (1781-1782) under the provisions of the Articles of Confederation.
While visiting the Addisons, Hanson passed away at the Oxon Hill Manor on November 15, 1783.
Peter Michael is the author of, “Remembering John Hanson.” His 2011 biography not only brings to life the story of this forgotten leader, he also documents his search for Hanson’s final resting place.
Michael came across one of the archaeological surveys done in 1985 for the Addison Plantation. The report revealed the crypt and vault were located on the steep hill below the manor site. The vault was sealed at that time. Two years later, archaeologists with John Milner Associates discovered the vault “robbed and empty.” Not long after, the crypt and vault were also no longer there.
From 1983-1984 Michael tried to contact James T. Lewis, CEO of Lewis Enterprises and owner of the land. Unfortunately, he came up empty-handed. The MGM Casino sits directly on top of where Hanson once rested in peace.
After the Manor burned down in 1895, the story of the Addison Plantation faded away. Then, in 1927, Sumner Welles, a hard-nosed and influential diplomat during the FDR administration, purchased the property. Sumner and his wife Mathilde, an heiress to the Pennsylvania Railroad, chose a secluded location approximately 400 yards south of the site of the manor. They hired Count Jules Henri de Sibour, who designed a neo-Georgian-style brick manor. Visitors today find a lovely setting overlooking National Harbor.
Big money and big dreams arrive next week at National Harbor. It may seem like these events will be the first time such monumental things have happened at a landmark on this part of the DMV.