This post is a self-guided tour of Georgetown University. This is a fun way to experience Georgetown at your own leisure, although the walk is short and the whole tour is under one hour.
Our Historic Georgetown walking tour focuses on the neighborhood, ending here at Georgetown University campus. Use this as a complement to wander the historic campus after the tour!
You can also take this as an Audio Tour!
Here is how it works:
As you enter the “Healy Gates” at 37th and O St NW, the main entrance to campus, you’ll see the Georgetown University seal on the gate pillars. The seal was a gift to the university by Justane Douat. She was a nurse on campus and financed the design of the seal in 1798.
The seal depicts an eagle holding a cross to represent the Jesuit tradition of the university and a globe to represent the sciences. In its mouth, the eagle holds a scroll that says “Utraque Unum” or “from both, one.” This is thought to refer to the combination of religion and education but also later to reunify the campus after the American Civil War.
Above the eagle is a lyre to represent the humanities. Surrounding the lyre are 16 stars, one for each of the States at the time, and the Latin phrase “Adripas Potomaci in Marylandia – Collegium Georgipolitanum”. This translates to “Georgetown College on the banks of the Potomac in Maryland”. This is because when Georgetown was founded, there was no District of Columbia and was instead part of the State of Maryland.
During the Civil War, Union soldiers who were stationed on campus used the gatehouses you see on either side; after the First Battle of Bull Run, injured soldiers were treated wherever there was room, including at these gatehouses.
Before you head into the quad, visit Poulton Hall further up 37th St NW. The original plan for the quad which you’ll see later included Poulton Hall, but budget restrictions kept the original plan from being built. After WWII, there were surplus building materials available and this building was completed in 1947, though outside the campus walls. It is named after Ferdinand Poulton, a founding member of the Society of Jesuits in America.
Inside is the Mask and Bauble Society. This dramatic arts group was founded in 1852 and is the oldest continuously running collegiate theatre troupe. Former members include John Barrymore and Bradley Cooper.
Archbishop John Carroll founded Georgetown University in 1789. Carroll was a member of a prominent family: his cousin Charles Carol signed the Declaration of Independence and his brother Daniel Carol helped to draft the Articles of Confederation. They were also some of the large landowners in what later became Washington, DC.
As a young boy, John Carroll studied at a Jesuit school, Bohemian Manor in Maryland, but there was no Jesuit university in America. He continued his studied in Europe and was part of the movement to create more of a Jesuit presence in the United States. He was named the first archbishop in America as the Archbishop of Baltimore and was given the task to create this school.
He was given a choice in where to locate the campus, either Jenkins Hill or here on Georgetown Heights. He said Jenkins Hill was too far out in the country, which is ironic because what was Jenkins Hill is today called Capitol Hill, the literal center of the city.
Georgetown is the oldest Catholic university in America. At the time of its founding, other universities had a more Anglican focus and it is said that Catholics were not welcome. The founding of the university began quietly as there was still persecution of the Jesuits, but Congress awarded the university a charter in 1815.
Today, Georgetown University has over 19,000 students enrolled. Tuition to the college is around $75,000 per year with room and board. It has a mere 15% acceptance rate.
White-Gravenor Hall is named after two Jesuit priests, Andrew White and John Gravenor, who landed in Maryland in 1634 to establish a colony to educate the natives. Above the door of this 1932 building is carved the date 1634, which led the way for a Catholic university, and 1789, the actual founding of Georgetown.
Directly above the door are the five shields symbolizing academies founded by the Jesuits in Maryland, including Georgetown Heights – the academy founded by John Carroll here.
Often called a “sermon in stone” for the vast amount of religious symbolism, there are 14 symbols of academic fields accompanied by the name of Jesuit priest prominent in that study. Francisco Suarez and the lamp of learning, for example, represent philosophy.
At the entrance of the building is a bronze statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola called “The Pilgrim.” St. Ignatius is the founder of the Jesuits in 1540 in Manresa, Spain. He was a soldier who recovered from injury in a monastery and was inspired to create an order of teaching and missionaries.
In the middle of campus you’ll find the resting place of over 350 priests. Sixteen of these are former presidents, including Patrick Healy, for whom the flagship building of campus is named. The cemetery was founded in 1808 with the burial of Thomas Kelly, S.J. close to what is now the southern end of Healy Hall. However, in 1854 Kelly and 46 other graves were moved to this location due to construction on campus, namely a dormitory that didn’t want a graveyard next door. The cemetery is exclusive to Jesuits.
On many of these headstones, you’ll see IHS. This is the romanization of the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek.
This is the Copley Crypt, where Jesuit fathers would lie for wake before being buried in the Jesuit Cemetery behind you. The chapel was built in 1932 and is dedicated to Jesuit missionaries who were martyred in the mid 17th century in what is modern-day Ontario.
The crypt is beneath St. William Chapel in Copley residence hall, the 1932 building you’re now standing behind. The Chapel was built in the dorm to help students meet their mass requirements. In the early years of the school, daily mass attendance was required of all students to graduate regardless of their personal faith.
Today it is used for many orthodox Christian services, apparent by the Icons of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship. The stained glass windows depict each of the eight martyred Jesuits for whom the crypt is dedicated. It is open to the public.
As you make your way around the back of Dahlgren Chapel, pause to find a small gargoyle carved along the gutter. Legend says a stone carver was making his way through the area and volunteered his services to show his skill. Though the artwork is superb, he must not have been commissioned for more carving since this is his only piece.
Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart has been the main chapel of the university since 1893. It was funded by a donation from outside the university, a gift from John and Elizabeth Dahlgren in memory of their infant son. The iron cross hanging in the chapel is said to be parts of the Ark and the Dove sailing vessels, which brought the first Jesuit priest to Maryland.
It is often the site of baptisms, weddings, and mass but it is open to the public.
Old North is the oldest remaining structure on campus. This quadrangle was the original land grant given to Archbishop John Carroll. Across the quad was the location of Old South (now New South). This building was constructed in 1794 as dorms but now is the School of Business.
In 1797 George Washington come to visit two of his nephews attending the university. He stood on the porch where you are standing to address the student body. Since then, many presidents who visit Georgetown choose this spot for speeches. They are listed on a plaque to the right of the door. (There is a gap in visiting presidents from 1868-1983, the reason unknown).
To the left of the door, a small plaque details the story of the Georgetown University colors. As the Civil War loomed, Georgetown was mostly students from wealthy Southern farmers but the faculty was mostly from the North. These boys and men would leave school to fight for both the Union and Confederacy. From 1859 to1861 the student body population decreased from 313 to 17. 80% of the students fought for the South.
When the students and faculty returned, the Georgetown University rowing club adopted grey for the Confederacy and blue for the Union. These two colors have remained the official colors since.
Healy Hall is the most iconic structure on campus. It was completed in 1879 and named for President Patrick Healy. Healy is thought of as the second founder. After the loss of student body during the Civil War, Healy is credited with a revival in bringing students back to Georgetown. He was born legally a slave like his mother, but was raised by both his mother and his white father in a very loving household. Despite his mixed race, he earned a Ph.D., though he had to go to Europe to do so, and became the president of a predominately white university – the first man of African descent to do so – and all in 1873.
The building is home to Riggs Library, one of the few remaining cast-iron libraries. It houses over 35,000 volumes but is no longer a working student or public library. Gaston Hall is the jewel of the building but was not completed until 1909 due to the unexpected expenses of building the rest of Healy Hall. The 750-seat auditorium is named after William Gaston, the university’s first student at the age of 13 and also it’s first drop-out.
Healy Hall was both classrooms and dorms; it even had a ratskeller in the basement where beers were .43c! Today it is classrooms and offices. You’ll also find public restrooms in this final stop.
As you exit the building – be careful! On the stoop outside the door, you will see the Georgetown University seal. Don’t step on it – it’s cursed! Legend says that if you step on it and you’re applying, you won’t get in. If you go here, you won’t graduate.
This story has been around for so many decades there is a large crack down the center of the seal from the weight of thousands of footsteps walking down either side.
Much of the tour route and information is based on a tour from Deirdre Manger, Georgetown alum and Washington DC Tour Guide