Katherine Ott, December 2003
This is a short list of offbeat locations and uncommon places that I recommend to my out-of-town friends when they have a few hours to spare while waiting for books at the Library of Congress or want to avoid cultural spots with security screenings. Although the historical memory of most people here is about as long as it takes to update a web site, there are splendid historical sites all over town. All of these places can be reached by a combination of Metrorail, Metrobus, and walking. Map your course using Metro's Ride Guide (http://www.wmata.com).
We begin with the general category of "old things." At the top of the list is a visit to the oldest living thing in the District. In the front yard of the house at 2829 Northampton Street NW sits a majestic oak that is over 500 years old and provides a friendly habitat for numerous other living creatures. At 1054 31st Street NW in Georgetown, Herman Hollerith's Tabulating Machine Company manufactured punch cards, first used in the 1890 census. Mount Zion Cemetery, the oldest black cemetery in the District, is located on Q Street NW, behind numbers 2515–2531 (enter at 27th Street). The plots are rather overgrown but well worth a meditative visit. The Congressional Cemetery (http://www.congressionalcemetery.org), located at 1801 E Street SE (accessible by the Potomac Avenue Metro station on the Blue and Orange Lines), is the final resting place of J. Edgar Hoover, John Phillip Sousa, and other Washington personalities.
The U Street/Shaw neighborhood has many important sites, such as the 12th Street YMCA and the restored Lincoln Theater (http://www.DCheritage.org). The house that Duke Ellington grew up in is at 1212 T Street NW, though it is not marked in any way as an historic spot. Carter G. Woodson's home is nearby at 1538 Ninth Street NW, and is in the process of restoration. Woodson, a giant of 20th-century history, changed the professional landscape for everyone who came after him.
Anti-war Christian activists founded the Potter's House coffee house (http://www.pottershousebooks.org) at 1658 Columbia Road NW in 1960. The coffee house still serves hearty, homemade lunches to both paying customers and the poor, operates a bookstore, and remains a gathering place for activists and spiritual seekers. Walking through the front door is an oddly comforting walk back in time.
Some famous (and infamous) sites are no longer there. The Imperial German Embassy once stood at the corner of 15th and Massachusetts Streets NW. Arthur Zimmermann composed his fateful 1917 telegram about the payoff for Mexico if it sided with Germany while working as ambassador there. And don't forget the former Vista Hotel (now the Wyndham Hotel) at 14th and M Streets NW, where Mayor Marion Barry was stung by the FBI in 1990. In the cold war category, there are dozens of drop sites around town that were used by used by spies and political operatives. But for many of us, the post war era was all about style and glamour. So in the spirit of plenty and consensus there is 3307 N Street NW in Georgetown, where Senator John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie were living in 1960 when he was elected president.
Segueing into the theme of presidents, the presidency exhibit at the National Museum of American History (http://www.americanhistory.si.edu) has a podium and teleprompter where you can be televised giving a forceful speech about Khrushchev and peace. After the strenuous work of defending the Free World, take a 10-minute walk to St. John's Episcopal Church (http://www.stjohns-dc.org) at 16th and H Street NW (Lafayette Square) to sit in the presidential pew (pew 54). The church dates to 1815 and nearly every president since then has worshipped there.
A favorite for thrill-seekers is the Squished Penny Museum (http://www.squished.com, 202-986-5644), lovingly maintained in the home of curators Christine and Pete. You can even swap pennies with them. Their collections management policy is more relaxed than you'll find in other museums. Since the gallery is essentially their LeDroit Park living room, you should telephone before showing up.
Washington has always had a special relationship with Hollywood, both in film content and as a shooting location. I have two favorites, based upon my professional interests in science and technology and the gross and creepy. In the opening scenes of Robert Wise's 1951 classic film about the ugly and overbearing violence of earth's inhabitants, alien Michael Rennie hurtles his flying saucer over the Capitol and down the Mall to land by the Washington Monument. Mercifully, The Day the Earth Stood Still has not been colorized and the film is a 90-minute tutorial on 1950s paranoia, gender roles, and social evolution. The other Washington-based film worth mentioning is 1973's The Exorcist. The steps that so poorly cushioned Father Karras's fall are at 36th and Prospect NW, running down to M Street.
For movie viewing, you can't beat the art deco Uptown Theater (http://www.clevelandpark.com/uptowntheater), 3426 Connecticut Avenue NW. Built in 1936, this movie palace is one of the few remaining in the United States with only one really big screen and Surround Sound.
And while you are up that way (the Uptown is only a 10- or 15-minute walk from the hotels), note the Park and Shop line of stores at Ordway and Connecticut NW. The shops date from 1930 and were one of the first strip malls with off-street parking.
The gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered landmarks are not as spectacular as the Stonewall Inn in New York City, but we do have J. Edgar Hoover's home (not open to the public) at 4936 30th Place NW, off Ellicott Street. Hoover moved into this house at age 43, having lived with his mother until her death. There is also Lambda Rising Bookstore at 1625 Connecticut NW, where the urban traveler will find books and an essential bulletin board in the back.
In the "whatever" category (formerly known as miscellaneous), there are unusual shopping destinations. One of the best museum shops in town is at the National Building Museum (http://www.nbm.org), 401 F Street NW. It may be the breathtakingly beautiful Renaissance Revival surroundings of the old Pension Office Building that make the shop, but it is worth a visit. Another interesting place for consumer behavior, if you plan on being in town past the weekend, is Weschler's Auction (http://www.weschlers.com), 909 E St. NW. On-site, you'll find basic estate sale goods, with a Monday viewing and Tuesday auction. The better quality objects are sold through a catalog auction. Additionally, there is a Sunday morning flea market at Eastern Market on 7th Street at Independence SE, on Capitol Hill, where you can mingle with the locals and try to spot the Hill staffers.
The original 1961 Barbie and Ken dolls are on display at the Library of Congress, outside the copyright office (4th floor, Madison Building). In the same exhibit, you'll also find original materials related to the registration of the Pickwick papers (1898), Monopoly (the 1954 Parker Brothers version), Tarzan, Buster Brown, and more. The restored dome inside the Jefferson Building is worth a visit for its magnificence and to commune with the spirit of past scholars who toiled at the fountain of knowledge (and whined about the cost of photocopying). My favorite room contains the old card catalog. The edges of the cards are soiled by decades of thumbing and here and there one finds a penciled annotation by a diligent librarian.
Social dancers will appreciate the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park (http://www.glenechopark.org), 7300 MacArthur Boulevard. You will need a car to get there, but it is newly renovated and a fabulous place for a Friday night contra, Saturday zydeco, or Sunday afternoon waltz on the sprung maple floor. There is also a working 1920s Dentzel carousel and much more to visit on the grounds, overseen by the National Park Service.
The National Cathedral (http://www.nationalcathedral.org) at Massachusetts and Wisconsin NW, offers a self-guided gargoyle tour (bring binoculars). The gargoyles include a representation of Darth Vader. The cathedral has other wonders to explore, such as a contemplative maze embedded in the floor.
There are two new additions to my tour. One is in the very lobby of the meeting hotel. I direct your attention to the massive chocolate sculpture, made by specifically trained chefs from the Philippines who come as part of Marriott's sculpture program. The sculptures are "cast" from foam molds made by the chefs, who then finish carving the details. Past sculptures have included the Jefferson Memorial; Greenough's statue of a buffed, seated George Washington; and Michelangelo's David. Despite the obvious gender imbalance, the chocolate marvels are kept and reused and sometimes sent out on loan.
The other new addition is the currently favored site for construction of the Museum of African American History. It is at the bottom of Capitol Hill, across from the Department of Labor on Pennsylvania Avenue. The spot is presently being used as a staging area while the Capitol Visitor's Center is under construction.
I hope that you enjoy wandering around Washington, D.C., but if you decide to stay put in the hotel, that is all in a day's work, too.
—Katherine Ott is a curator at the National Museum of American History. I must acknowledge the indispensable assistance of NMAH intern Renee Gamache who tirelessly checked facts for this essay and Kay Garlick-Ott, a resourceful second grader, who kept notes as we drove around to make sure everything was still where it once was. As for the seeming lack of corroborating sources, I consulted numerous travel guides, web sites, and colleagues.