Tag Archives: architecture

The Congressional Cemetery Offers a Reflective Look at DC’s More Ordinary History

Washington, DC had an interesting beginning, founded not by pilgrims or pioneers, but by an act of Congress in 1790 to establish a “federal city” that would be the seat of government.  Over time, the new city found its character, but almost entirely lost to history are the stories of the people who helped build it into a real, thriving place where everyday life occurred.  Luckily, the Congressional Cemetery preserves theses narratives, and many more.

The cemetery, tucked between the Potomac Avenue and Stadium Armory metro stations along the Anacostia River, has been called “America’s first de facto national cemetery.”  Founded in 1807 as the Washington Parish Burial Ground, the need for a close graveyard was a sign that the young capital had grown into its own.

Today, the Congressional Cemetery, which is still open for new burials, is the final resting place for approximately 55,000 individuals, who lie in 30,000 burial sites and under 14,000 headstones.  Famous figures interred at the site include J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa.  Others include Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Robert Mills, designer of the Washington Monument; and Belva Lockwood, who in 1884 was either the first or second woman to run for president (apparently there is debate on this topic, see here).

A number of more “ordinary” interesting characters buried at the Congressional Cemetery who have added their unique flair to DC include Mary Ann Hall, a high-end brothel owner; Marie Claire Fuller, a once famous silent film actress who died forgotten in a mental institution; and Matthew Brady, the father of photojournalism who covered the Civil War.

All of this and much more history can be learned during free Saturday tours at 11am, March through October.  Additionally, Civil War tours are held once a month on the afternoon.

In addition to the vast history that the Congressional Cemetery provides, the 35 acres of grounds are a serene haven in the midst of the bustling city.  Many nearby residents walk their dogs in the park, and birds and squirrels are easily observed in the large oak trees.

Whether you are a history buff or just curious to get a glimpse of the past, the Congressional Cemetery will offer you new insight into both our city and our nation.

To visit:  1801 E Street SE, (202) 543-0539, a few blocks from the Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue metro stations, and close to the 96 and other bus lines.  Open every day from dawn until dusk.

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High-Brow Living at the Brewmaster’s Castle

The Brewmaster’s Castle, located in the heart of Dupont Circle, is the historic home of Christian Heurich, a German immigrant and beer baron who was one of Washington DC’s most successful 19th-century businessman and landowners.  His gorgeous home was only recently restored and opened to the public, and now is one of the most intact and original late-Victorian homes in the country.

The only way to see the Brewmaster’s Castle is by way of a tour, which are offered Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for a suggested $5 donation.  And going with a tour is a good thing, because Mr. Heurich had a number of fascinating quirks that the guide is more than happy to divulge.  For example, he became deathly afraid of fire after two of his breweries and one of his houses burned down.  Consequently, the house is the first “fireproof” house in the city, meaning that wood is sparingly used and instead the frame of the house is made with reinforced steel and concrete.  Decorations in the ornate interior also echo this fear, such as flame-retardant curtains and intricate fireplaces that were never used.

The home has many elegant details that are sure to keep you oohing and aahing, including hand-painted ceilings, rows and rows of china, and magnificent wood furniture.  But the best is an antique Steinway that was made especially for the house and features the same inlays as the wall behind it.

The Brewmaster’s Castle came very close to not existing at all.  From 1956-2003, it functioned as the headquarters of the Washington Historical Society.  But the Society put the house up for sale, and was on the brink of selling it to a developer and restaurateur.  Coming to save the day, the Heurich family stepped in to re-purchase the house, and used cash for much of the transaction in order to ensure a quick deal.  Renovations are still continuing to this day, funded by public donations.

It is very interesting to compare the visits to Heurich’s house as compared to Hillwood Estate, Marjorie Merriweather-Post’s self-tribute and gift to DC (Heurich and Post were friends and both incredible philanthropists).  Whereas Hillwood is sweeping and full of millions of dollars worth of art and artifacts, the Brewmaster’s Castle is a more sober and realistic peak into how a family—albeit a very wealthy one—actual lived in our city 100 years ago.

To visit:  1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW.  202-429-1894.  Five minutes from the South Dupont Metro stop, and off the 42 and L2 buslines.  Easy!

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“There Are No Words to Describe This Place:” Adventure at the O St. Mansion

The O Street Mansion is an enthralling combination of hotel, art gallery, used-bookery, floor-to-ceiling kitsch, and Hogwarts that you simply must visit and explore sometime soon.  I’m not sure what to call it, just a building that is so quirky and odd and un-DC that it begs exploration and discovery!

The Mansion as it stands today is five old row houses converted into one dwelling, located on O Street between 20th and 21st Streets NW.  Its main function, as far as I can tell, is as a hotel, with rooms ranging in themes from the John Lennon Suite (complete with a chessboard in the bathroom and white jeweled pillows) to a log cabin style loft to Victorian-style homey and decorative.  Oh, and many of the rooms have bidets.  Bidets!  The epitome of luxury!

Not only can you stay at the Mansion, you can literally buy anything contained within it.  Everything is for sale, from the $5 hardcover of “The Bridges of Madison County” that I bought to $5,000 pieces of art on the wall to the carpets to the jukebox to the original Remington sculpture.  It really adds to the allure, to know that any piece of beauty/kitsch that you lay your eyes upon and discover can be yours.

And I have not even mentioned the most alluring part of the O St. Mansion, that there are over 30 secret doors concealed throughout the place.  Now, some of these must be truly secret, as I only discovered about 10, but it is quite titillating to discover that the mirror in which you are checking out your hairstyle opens up into a staircase.  Make sure you ask your tour guide or the friendly concierge to show you the wine cellar—you’ll never find it on your own!

If this sounds like a terrible model for a hotel—curious visitors peering into your private space—fear not.  The only rule on the self-guided tours of the Mansion is not to open doors marked with “Do Not Disturb.”  In fact, friends have told me that it is common for covert agents and other seeking the surreptitious lifestyle to stay here, as you can truly not be found if you are trying to hide.

History of the place is a bit difficult to track down, but most recently the houses were purchased by art collector H.H. Leonards  in 1980.  She continues to be proprietor, and hosts music, art, and cultural events almost every day of the year.  Famous folks have visited, from Rosa Parks to guitar legends to foreign dignitaries.

The O Street Mansion is one of those rare places that you feel like you are the first to discover, that no one else has set foot in the rooms besides you—the feeling I imagine those children got stepping through the wardrobe in the “Chronicles of Narnia.”  If you are looking to lose yourself in somewhere completely unexpected, that changes every time you visit, it’s high time you head over to your quirky neighborhood Mansion.

To visit:  many ways, from overnight to $5 self-guided tours to brunch to Martini Mondays to becoming a full member.  See the website for options and details.  Sundays and Mondays are the easiest and cheapest days to visit.  2020 O Street NW, Washington DC.

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Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

I’m just going to say it—the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the most beautiful building in DC.  I know, I know, some National Cathedral and Library of Congress devotees may get upset at my pronouncement, but Catholic University’s Basilica makes my jaw drop and fills me with awe more than any other place in the District.

The concept of the Basilica is to pay tribute to different identities of the Virgin Mary across the world.  All along the sides of the main hall, there are small alcoves and shrines to various incarnations of the Virgin and countries’ patron saints, such as Mary Queen of Ireland, Our Lady of Czestochova (Poland), Our Lady of Bistrica (Croatia), and Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico).  In fact, the Basilica’s flier lists over 30 versions of Our Lady that are paid tribute to in the building.

Also featured prominently are female saints, such as St. Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia in the Hall of American saints.  The Basilica also has dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces of sacred art, including extraordinarily detailed mosaics and artifacts from many papal visits.

The beginnings of the Basilica were completed in 1926, but the building was not completed and finally dedicated until 1959.  From the start, the place had the blessing of the Pope and was heavily financed by the Knights of Columbus.  It is still a working church, with six masses every Sunday and also throughout the week.

I’m no religious scholar, but I will say that there is something strangely comforting and delightful about a building dedicated to women helping other women.  There is no doubt that these female saints and embodiments of Mary provided guidance to women across cultures for thousands of years, especially immigrants to America whose stories are frequently detailed on plaques across the Basilica.

The place is well worth a visit, especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for grand, sweeping Byzantine-style churches.  Enjoy!

To visit:  a short walk from the Brookland/Catholic University Metro station, 400 Michigan Ave. NE.  202-526-8300. Hours seasonal, but usually 7am-6pm or 7pm.

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The Library in a New Light: Get Your Reader’s Card from the Library of Congress!

The Library of Congress is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places owned by the American people.  If you (like me as of last week!) haven’t yet visited the main foyer of the Thomas Jefferson building (on 1st St. SE between Independence and East Capitol) to glimpse a Gutenberg Bible and marvel at the intricate mosaics, let me tell you, now is the time!

The Library in its entirety is home to 142 million items, including books, film, and objects like slides and photographs.  While some of the collections are located in the three main buildings in downtown DC, most are stored in 650 miles of shelves underground and off-site in Maryland and Virginia.  Books travel up via conveyor belt (or come from further away) and are delivered by hand by Library staffers to the eager researchers awaiting them.

But if you’re looking for a deeper adventure into our country’s Alexandria (indeed the Library boasts “the largest collection anywhere of the world’s knowledge”) and want to set yourself apart from the other 1.6 million people who visit every year, take 20 minutes out of your day off to acquire your Reader Identification Card.

To get your Reader’s Card, visit Room LM 140 of the James Madison building (Independence Ave SE, between 1st and 2nd).  There, you will go through a 3-step process including on-line registration and the printing of your card.  The card is valid for two years and can be obtained by any researcher/student over the age of 16 with a government ID.

Having a Reader’s Card will get you access into the bowels of the Library and into its approximately 20 different reading rooms that are not accessible to the public.  Ranging from the Children’s Literature Room to the American Folklife Center to the Asian Reading Room, each room has staff who are deeply familiar with the subjects of those rooms and able to help you delve into whatever topic you could possibly be researching.

But the crème de la crème of our Library is the Main Reading Room, which is home to a tremendous collection of reference materials and is the starting point for most researchers.  It is a fantastic room, organized as a series of large desks around a center reference area.  Above, on the ceiling, are personified images of the civilizations that have helped America become what it is today—the Egyptians gave us written records, the Greeks gave us philosophy, Islam gave us physics, the Italians gave us culture, etc.  And of course, the Main Reading Room is intimately quiet and scholarly—the perfect place for cracking open a novel on a given afternoon.

If you visit the Library of Congress, keep in mind that it is not open on Sundays, and reading rooms have their own schedules (check online for details).  You are not allowed to bring book bags or purses into the rooms, but there is a coat check in the front where you can leave your bags.

(Note:  Pictures of the Main Reading Room are not permitted, so  I leave it to you to quietly walk in and take a gaping look around before you begin your reading for the day…!)

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