An African American Carpenter Built Julia Child’s House, Georgetown, D.C.
In 1948, Paul and Julia Child purchased a 150-year-old, three-story wood frame house at 2706 Olive Avenue in the Georgetown Section of Washington, D.C. Paul and Julia Child both worked for the Federal government at that time in the diplomatic realm–although Julia was “…just a file clerk.” They were probably the first white owners of the wood frame dwelling, as its history was that of African American roots. While the Childs purchased the house “…on the outskirts of Georgetown…” in ’48, they were soon sent abroad for Paul’s work. They were reluctant, but they leased the house to various tenants for roughly eight years. Little did they know that rental was a primary part of the house’s already long history.
As early as 1870, the little wood frame house at 2706 Olive Avenue, formerly No. 8 Olive, was a home. Edgar Murphy, an African American carpenter—probably the builder of 2706 Olive—was 46 in 1870, married with two children, and one set of tenants who occupied a separate portion of the premises. For 1870, Murphy was doing quite well—especially for a “Negro,” as the Civil War was of the very recent past. Murphy not only built houses for a living, but he had his very own house—the value of which was $2000—he also had $500 in personal property. While primarily working as a carpenter, Edgar Murphy was also known as Rev. Murphy—as he was eventually given that title at the Mount Zion Methodist Episcopal Church. He and his wife, Maria, would eventually have five children and adopt two. Tenants were always part of the equation at the Murphy house. In fact, as time moved on and the values continued to rise, not only did Murphy lease a separate unit within his premises, but he and his wife even “let rooms” to boarders—a common way of earning extra money in 19th century America. As African Americans, all of the tenants were also black. Whether Murphy built the house much before 1870 or not, we do not know; however, he lived in the house from that time at least until roughly 1913, when he died in residence. His widow remained in the house through at least 1914. They occupied the dwelling together for at least 40 years as Edgar Murphy appears in the 1910 Census—a strong stay for the District of Columbia.
The Childs arrived back in Washington, D.C. in November 1956—they immediately began renovating the Olive Avenue house. Julia taught cooking classes in her little kitchen and her co-authors from Paris even visited her in the house. Julia’s book would certainly flourish during this time. While the Childs first home together was a rental apartment in Washington, D.C., they had soon saved enough to buy the little house on Olive Avenue. The house and its tiny kitchen meant a lot to Julia. It stands today as not only a wood frame house in the Georgetown Historic District, but as a tribute to prosperity of the middle class in America. This prosperity was true of its early African American proprietor, in his way—and to Julia’s success, in her way.