Washington, DC day tripping

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I moved from Washington DC to St Paul, Minnesota almost exactly a year ago. Last weekend I found myself back in the District to visit friends and attend an alumni party from my high school. The weekend started with a party on the ninth floor of the Hay Adams Hotel. It sits directly across from the White House and the view is stunning.

Lobby of the Hay Adams
Lobby of the Hay Adams

There were originally two houses built on the site. In 1884, Henry Hobson Richardson designed and built one house for John Hay, Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt, and another house for Henry Adams, historian and Harvard professor. In 1927 both houses were torn down and replaced with a $900,000 apartment-hotel complex designed by Turkish-born Armenian architect Mirhan Mesrobian. It catered to Washington’s wealthy visitors including Ethel Barrymore, Amelia Earhart, Sinclair Lewis and Charles Lindbergh. The hotel is a Historic Hotels of America member, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The next morning we met for brunch at Old Ebbitt’s Grill which is always packed and always good. Old Ebbitt’s has been around in one form or another in multiple locations around DC since 1856. The final move was in 1983 when it moved into the old BF Keith’s Theater at 675 15th St NW, around the corner from the White House. It is full of antiques, animal heads, wooden bears, murals, statues, and paintings from a reclining nude painted around 1900 by Jean-Paul Gervais to a private dining room featuring six paintings of game birds by Robin Hill, one of the world’s most famous bird painters.

The group ordered grilled oysters to start with and a few had their famous crab cakes but Leo and I stuck to pumpkin French toast. Yum. It was almost Thanksgiving, after all.

President Andrew Jackson on his horse

From there we wandered over to Lafayette Square, named after the French General Lafayette, which is between the White House and the Hay Adams. In 1970 it became a National Historic Landmark District. There are five statues in the park. President Andrew Jackson is on his horse at its center. One great thing about DC is there are so many statues of guys on horses. DC has more than any other city in the USA – about 30. The other statues in the park are all Revolutionary War heroes, General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette, Major General Comte Jean de Rochambeau, General Tadeusz Kościuszko and Major General Baron Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Several famous buildings can be found around the park. Blair House was originally built in 1824 for Dr. Joseph Lovell, the first Surgeon General. In 1936, Francis Preston Blair purchased it and the Blair family lived in it for many years. In 1942 the house became the guesthouse for visiting dignitaries. It is a National Historic Landmark.

St John’s Episcopal Church sits across the park from the White House. Built in 1816 by Benjamin Latrobe, the church has seen every President since James Madison worship in it. By tradition, pew number 54 is reserved for the President. The church is still in use today and after 11 am service on Sundays, there is a guided tour. It is also open to visitors from 1-3 pm every day.

Around the corner from the Hay Adam Hotel is the Decatur House. Benjamin Latrobe also built this house for the Decaturs in 1818. Unfortunately Stephen Decatur died in 1820 after being shot in a duel against Commodore James Barron. Decatur had insulted Barron without knowing all the facts and therefore Barron’s honor was at stake. In the moments after the duel they each explained themselves and made up but it was too late for Decatur. He died ten hours later. It is rumored that he haunts the Decatur house to this day.

The house itself was rented for many years and eventually bought by General Edward Beale in 1872. In 1956 the Beale family left the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2010 it became the David M Rubenstein National Center for White House History.

Just down the street is the Renwick Gallery, another National Historic Landmark built in 1858 to house William Corcoran’s art collection. It was the first art museum built in the USA and is named after the architect, James Renwick. The museum is now part of the Smithsonian and houses a collection of contemporary crafts and decorative arts.

Connie protesting
Connie protesting

In contrast, Lafayette Square itself is the home to one of the longest protests ever. Connie Picciotto and William Thomas set up camp directly across from the White House in 1981. As full time peace activists protesting nuclear proliferation, they made big signs and displayed them along the sidewalk but the police and the Park Service were not too happy about it. After many battles and a few arrests, Connie and William were allowed to stay in the park but the camp has to be manned 24 hours a day. Thomas died in 2009. Now, on her own, Connie sleeps for brief periods sitting up and enlists friends to take her place when she needs to use the bathroom or get something to eat. In 2013, a friend was watching the camp and felt ill so he left and the camp was unmanned for a couple of hours. The Park Service swooped in and dismantled it. The camp was back up the next day. It has been there for 34 years.

In 2002, CodePink, a women-led grass roots organization, led a four months all-day vigil for peace in front of the White House. Over 10,000 people participated. The park has been used for many protests over the years both large and small.

Since we were all a bit tired from our night at the Hay Adams, we decided to try one of the double decker tour buses that guide tourists around the city. The sun was out and it was still fairly warm so most of us sat up top and enjoyed learning about all the famous buildings and monuments. We went around the Mall and finally got off at the Lincoln Memorial.

The Reflecting Pool
The Reflecting Pool

The last time I had been there, the reflecting pool was all dug up for repairs so it was nice to see it fully restored. After a quick trip to the Viet Nam Memorial, we hailed a cab and went home to collapse.

All in all a very good and satisfying weekend.