My Tour of Washington DC (36 cents)

Last night, I acted as the volunteer tour guide on a bus of women in town for their national conference. I had done this once before for the same group several years ago.

We had about 30 people on the bus, including a few who were making their first trip to Washington, and several more who had been here before, but had never taken a tour. Our trip, planned by the conference organizers and the bus driver, started at ended at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Woodley Park.

I started by telling the group that government was not the only industry in Washington and its suburbs. They were staying at a Marriott Hotel. Marriott was founded in the District of Columbia and has its headquarters in suburban Maryland. Similarly, the Ritz Carlton chain is headquartered in Chevy Chase, the Hilton Hotel organization in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and Choice Hotels in Silver Spring.

The Marriott name has not always been associated with the Marriott Wardman. Originally, it was called the Wardman Park, and was built as a 1000 room hotel right after World War I, in 1918, with the adjoining Wardman Tower being added ten years later. In the early 1950s, it became part of the Sheraton chain, and the entire hotel (but for the Tower) was demolished and rebuilt (now with over 1300 rooms – largest in the city) in the late 1970s, and shortly thereafter Marriott took over management from Sheraton. I was going to give them a list of famous people who had stayed at hotel, and tell them that the first “Meet the Press” was broadcast from there, but I quickly realized that our bus driver was not going to slow down as I talked, and that he was the soloist, and I the mere accompanist. (I also discovered that the bus had no sound system, so that rather than sitting and talking in a relaxed manner, I had to stand and strain, which took a small toll on my voice and a larger one on my typical informal and more genial delivery style.)

As we pulled out of the hotel, I did want them to get a little geographic understanding of the city under their belt, so we talked about the four quadrants (NW, NE, SW, SE) and how they met at the Capitol. I told them that many N-S streets were numerical, so that if you were on 14th Street, for example, in NW or SW (there is no 14th in SW), you would know you were fourteen blocks west of the Capitol, and then that many of the E-W Streets were lettered so that, for example, V Street NW or NE would be twenty two streets north of the Capitol. We were going to a restaurant at 14th and V, NW. And I told them that there were exceptions, of course, the most annoying (or convenient, depending on your perspective) exception were the “state streets”, like Connecticut Avenue on which we were turning, which traversed the city diagonally.

I also had told them a little about the Wardman name. Harry Wardman had been a large scale developer specially in residential buildings (homes and apartments) and hotels during the first decades of the twentieth century. I told them to keep their eyes open, because we were going to see several more Wardman structures.

Going down Connecticut Avenue towards DuPont Circle, we passed over the Taft Bridge, named (I said) for President Taft, but not for some years after it was built. To have named it for a future President (Taft would not be elected for more than a decade) would have required a degree of prescience unknown at the time. Because my driver had a mind of his own, I did not get a chance to talk about the four large lion statues (taken down a decade or so ago to be restored, but instead having been re-constructed when it was discovered that restoration would not be possible; they were too far gone). I also didn’t get to talk about the bridge structure (apparently still the largest un-reinforced concrete bridge in the country), but I did get to at least mention Rock Creek Park below it before we reached the other side, although I did not have nearly enough time to do the park justice.

Once we were over the bridge, I pointed out the old Chinese Embassy, and discussed the Kalorama neighborhood to our left, which I said contained some of the city’s most luxurious houses, as well as embassies and museums such as the Textile Museum and the Woodrow Wilson House. I also noted the attractive old Dresden Apartment Building, another structure developed by Harry Wardman.

We then went by the Washington Hilton, and turned onto T street, which gave me the opportunity to talk about the Reagan assassination attempt, the annual traffic disruption caused by the National Prayer Breakfast, and the fact that the largest single owner of the property is (I have been told) Magic Johnson. I told them they could relax because we were no longer traveling diagonally, and we were back on E-W T Street, but that only lasted a couple of blocks, before they were shaken from their torpor by learning we had moved to diagonal Florida Avenue (a road that confuses long term DC residents), but relieved quickly when we turned onto U Street and headed due east once more.

Of course, there is a lot to say about U Street, its prominence in the black community even before the Harlem Renaissance, its downhill slide continuing for a while after the World Wars and then being accelerated after the murder of Martin Luther King, and its more recent second renaissance, so that it is now the home of many restaurants and specialty shops. I was, for example, able to mention both Ben’s Chili Bowl (no one asked me what I thought of the food there, I am happy to say, because I have never tasted it), the plethora of Ethiopian restaurants around 9th Street, and of course Duke Ellington, who grew up and first played in the Shaw Area (I did not mention the word Shah, although I had planned to). I did not get a chance to talk about Bohemian Caverns and the other jazz clubs, or the African American Civil War Monument and Museum, because we were closing in on 14th Street, and our dinner stop at Andy Shallal’s Eatonville. And I had a story to tell.

I wanted to make sure that they knew how Eatonville, and its sister restaurant across V Street on 14th, Busboys and Poets, was named. Shallal named Busboys and Poets, the older of the two restaurants, to honor poet Langston Hughes. Hughes spent his early 20s in Washington, where his mother lived, trying to figure out how he was going to make a living while writing poetry and, for a time, got a job as a busboy. One day, famous American poet Vachel Lindsay was eating in the restaurant and Hughes gave him some of his poetry to read. Impressed, Lindsay showed the poetry to his publisher, and the rest, of course, is history. I assume that Shallal was pointing out that Washington was filled with both busboys and poets – and that sometimes they were the same folks. (And, to make their journey a bit more exciting, I told my passengers that, the Hughes-Lindsay meeting took place at the very same Wardman Park Hotel, where Langston Hughes was working.)

But that does not get us to Eatonville. Eatonville was named after another well known African American author of the early twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston and Hughes were perhaps the two best known intellectual figures in the Harlem Renaissance and, for a while they were close friends and collaborators. But a dispute arose, over who had the right to copyright certain material that they had apparently both worked on, and the result of this dispute was, among other things, that they never spoke to each other again. Hurston grew up in the town of Eatonville, Florida, hence the name. And the goal of Andy Shallal – the reuniting of these two famous authors.

Leaving the restaurant after a very tasty and appreciated dinner, we spoke a little about the rebuilding of 14th Street and turned back onto U Street, this time only going as far as 16th Street, where we turned south and headed towards the White House. I gave the ladies a little talk about the part of 16th Street we were into going to miss, telling them that if we had turned north, not south, we would see the beautiful houses of the “Gold Coast”, and many churches and eventually wind up in Silver Spring. Somehow, I forgot to mention Walter Reed.

At any event, we saw some of the stately buildings on 16th south of U Street, including the Jewish Community Center, the Carnegie Institute of Science (forgot to tell them that Ralph Nader has his office there), the National Education Association, AAUW, the National Geographic Society, the AFL_CIO, St. John’s Episcopal Church, and the Third Church of Christ the Scientist, whose architecture has been the subject of much discussion – with some wanted to demolish the hard to maintain, and somewhat unemotional structure, and others wanting to preserve this example of brutal modernism (or is it modern brutalism? I can never remember). We, of course, went under Scott Circle, but very very quickly, so I had no chance to tell everyone about his lengthy career, although I think that, from my listeners’ perspective, this might have been a positive omission.

Unfortunately, you can’t really see the White House well, since you are stopped on the north side of Lafayette Park, and since my driver was Speedy Gonzalez, those riding on the driver side of the bus missed it all together, but maybe they will come back. We talked a little about Lafayette Park – the Andrew Jackson statue and the statues of the four foreigners who came to help the Americans defeat the British in the War of Independence (Lafayette, Rochambeau, von Steuben, and Kosciusko), but little else. I would have liked to talk about the White House some (actually about its destruction in the War of 1812, and its having been rebuilt several times), as well as about the history of Lafayette Park, the Stephan Decatur House, the Blair House and the Renwick Gallery, but all that will have to wait another time.

Following this was the long cross-town drive down H Street, NW, past the Veterans Administration headquarters, the Inter-American Development Bank and Gallery, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the site of the Old Convention Center (we could only glimpse the new in the distance) where now a combination of commercial and residential buildings are being constructed, and then Chinatown and the “friendship arch” commemorating the sister-relationship between Washington and Beijing (who knew?). I could mention the recent burgeoning of venues on 7th street, but we could not see them, so they had to imagine the Verizon Center, the Shakespeare Theatre buildings, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of American Art, and the National Spy Museum all very quickly as the bus crossed the intersection.

We took H Street to Massachusetts Avenue and then went only as far as the circle in front of Union Station. The driver then asked me if I knew how Union Station came about and I told him it was built by a combine of the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads, which previously had their stations, and their tracks, right on the mall. Whether he thought I would know the answer, or whether he was playing “trip up the tour guide”, I am not sure. I told the passengers about the shops and restaurants in the station building and that they didn’t have to get on a train to have a good time there, and pointed out the National Postal Museum (not for you, if you are farsighted), statue of Christopher Columbus and, for some reason, the Dubliner (talking about St. Patrick’s Day).

Now things got a bit weird. The plan was then to drive by the Capitol up the hill and then pass by the east side of the Capitol and the Visitor Center, and look at the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. This didn’t happen – my driver told me that his bus was not allowed to go there, so the view of the Capitol was about as incomplete as that of the White House, as we passed below it (and not even all across the Mall) on Louisiana Avenue and then on to Pennsylvania Avenue. OK, so I was able to point out the Labor Department and the United States Court House, but they are hardly substitute for the Supreme Court and Library of Congress, which was very disappointing, at least to me.

But once on Pennsylvania Ave., we passed by the beautiful Canadian Embassy (which occupies a prestigious location, just like the U.S. Embassy does in Ottawa), and the Newseum, which interests everyone. When I recommended it, a few people who had been to the museum agreed. n the left, we could see the two buildings comprising the National Gallery of Art, but again there was just time for a “And on your left, we are rushing past something else, the National Gallery of Art.” And we were gone.

I then asked the driver “where to, now?” and he told me he was going to turn left on 7th Street and go across the Mall. Being polite, I said nothing out loud and to myself said “?????”). My internal question was answered when he reached the intersection and said out loud “Oh, I guess I can’t turn here”, finding the NO LEFT TURN sign that has been there for a long time. It mean that he had to stay on Pennsylvania Avenue all the way to 15th Street to turn left. OK, so we got to see the FBI building at night, and the Old Post Office (“Don’t waste your time” was my message), and the District Building (I had a good line there, I thought: “That’s where our laws are made; we have already passed the Capitol, where they are rescinded”), and the White House Visitor Center (White House tickets are hard to get, must be applied for well in advance, and can only come through a Congressional representative. One of the passengers had a good thought: Just go to the visitor center and watch the movie. You see as much of the White as you would on the tour.)

At any rate, totally off program, the bus went left on 15th Street, and cut back on (is it?) Madison, one of the streets that cut through the Mall, so we did get to see the back of part of the Agriculture Department, and the Freer (where I explained, speaking quickly because we were zipping along, that all the art work was collected by Freer himself who specified there be no additions to the collection). Because of our speed, there was no way I could explain the Enid Haupt Garden, the African Art Museum, the Sackler Asian Art Museum or the Ripley Center, which are hard to see (it was by now dark), but deserve a few words of explanation, or the Smithsonian Castle, and could not even spend enough time as we turned on to 7th Street heading north, at the Hirshhorn and the Hirshhorn outdoor sculpture gallery. My frustration was growing, but the bus driver told me that he had to limit the tour to ninety minutes and time was flying by.

We crossed the Mall and turned left on Constitution. We ran past the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the American History Museum, we turned onto 17th Street and saw the Washington Monument (40 years to complete, several kinds of marble, elevator, 850+ steps, yadda yadda) on the left, and the new(ish) World War II Memorial (folks love it: I think the design is fascist or communist or some other kind of bad ist) viewing the Lincoln Monument in the background. Then, crossing the bridge over the Tidal Basin (“Did you know that the Tidal Basin plays a role in keeping the Potomac clear……”) whizzing by the back of the Holocaust Museum and the back of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (“Those buildings on the left we just whizzed past are the Holocaust Museum and the Bureau of Engrav……”, we were off to the Jefferson Memorial, drove around its backside, and went up Ohio Drive where you could see the pathway to the FDR Memorial (a lot of support from the ladies on how nice it was, encouraging their fellows to try to see it: one lady liked it because there was a statue of FDR’s dog!), past the empty fields (imagine baseball, softball and cricket here, I told them) back to Constitution (and a brief excursion across to the Lincoln Memorial parking lot for a U-turn), we went across Memorial Bridge to the sign that said “Arlington Cemetery closed at 7 p.m.) and back across the bridge, where at least you can see the Kennedy Center (no Watergate, no Georgetown on this trip)and then back around the Lincoln Memorial (I pointed my finger to where the Vietnam War Memorial Wall was, in response to a question, and told them we also missed the Korean War Monument and the World War I Monument and the site of the new Martin Luther King Monument (they were fascinating that it was designed and carved in China and is being put together by Chinese workers), but what the hell……

Up 23rd Street, we saw the mysterious United States Institute of Peace (in its new Moshe Safdie designed building), the American Pharmaceutical Association (by the way, we missed the Federal Reserve, the National Academy of Sciences, the OAS, the Red Cross, Constitution Hall and the DAR. and the Corcoran Gallery and School), and then the side of the State Department, the front of the World Health Organization, part of the George Washington University Campus and the new GW Hospital, and Washington Circle, as headed up New Hampshire and 20th Street, crossing P Street, where I could say “If we were a block east, you could look at DuPont Circle”, and left on Massachusetts past embassies (I pointed out Indonesia, Croatia, Greece, Japan, Korea, Venezuela, Turkey, Cote d’Ivoire, Italy, Brazil, Britain, Finland, the Vatican and Norway, but we missed the statues of Masaryk, Gandhi, Churchill and the rest). I pointed out a few of the churches and the mosque (told them that this is where you can catch a cab after Friday prayers), and the entry to the park, and finally the Cathedral, which again we sped around, talking a little about Woodrow Wilson being buried in the church, and about the annual Flower Mart, and the three schools (Beauvoir, National Cathedral and St. Alban’s) on site. No time to stop and reflect, however, before we were wending our way through Woodley Park back to the Marriott Wardman, and then home.


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