Lily Pond: art for art’s sake, I guess

On this site was the first water to be piped through the streets for city residents.

I’ll let you have a moment to absorb all that.

The Lily Pond in John Marshall Park at 4th and C Sts. N.W. by the Canadian embassy is one of the silliest things. Indeed, it commemorates the city spring first used as a water source, hence the life-sized lily pads, frogs, turtles, fish and dragon flies.

Part of a 1983 makeover of the park, the Lily Pond is 2 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter. The granite and bronze fountain designed by American artist David Phillips makes a fine place to rest.

I guess it’s art for art’s sake . . . or for pete’s sake.

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U.S. Botanic Gardens more than a greenhouse

One of the joys of becoming a tour guide is stopping at places I’ve driven past a million times.

High on the list is the U.S. Botanic Garden on 1st and Maryland Ave. S.W. on the footstep of the U.S. Capitol. I just figured it was some small green house and not worth stopping.

I was wrong. As usual.

I stopped by on a Saturday and it was pretty crowded with families looking for a low-stress activity. Something you can just walk around and combine with other places.

George Washington wanted a botanic garden in the new capitol city showing the importance of plants. The mission has more than succeeded.

The conservatory has world deserts with some pretty wild looking cactus. They look like that could jump up and grab you. The children’s garden lets kids burn off some energy. The Garden Primeval smells like the beginning of time with high humidity for ferns and ancient plants from 150 million years ago. The Jungle is a tropical rainforest where you can climb to a second level for a better overall view. The orchid room has more than 5,000 varieties with 200 on display.

There are replicas of major monuments and buildings scattered throughout that kids especially love at Christmastime. It’s a good chance for a pop quiz on what they’ve seen already around town.

Overall, it’s free admission, easy to get in and out and you can stay however long you like. The Botanic Garden is easy on the eyes and a mental break from so much history around town.

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Wordless Wednesday: The Irish Sea

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Bugler welcome visitors to Arlington National Cemetery

ANC buglerThe first makeover of the Arlington National Cemetery welcome center in 20 years included six large murals of scenes around the cemetery. However, the centerpiece of the room is a Taps bugler patterned after Staff Sgt. Jesse Tubb of South Lake Tahoe, Calif. who’s part of the U.S. Army Band. The lifesized model shows Tubbs playing the song performed throughout Arlington during funerals.

Nearby are murals depicting the 1963 funeral procession of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, space shuttle Challenger Memorial, history of Arlington House, Freedman’s Village, the cemetery’s history and funeral processions.

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Congressional is still the cemetery for Congress

Congressional Cemetery was once a happening place for U.S. Senators or Congressmen to spend their eternal years. Eighty were buried there until 1870 when the sandstone centographs were deemed ugly.

So the black marble stone of Stephen Joshua Solarz near the gate caught my eye. The nine-term New York Congressman was buried at Congressional in 2010 after dying of cancer.

Solarz was a foreign policy expert, even once joking that he wasn’t that big in his Brooklyn district but was very well known in Mongolia. Solarz opposed President Reagan sending Marines into Lebanon in 1982 and the 1991 Gulf War.

But, turned out a man who specialized in world affairs was a homebody at heart and is buried just a few miles from the Capitol. Makes you wonder.

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Wordless Wednesday: OBX sunset

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5 things to know before visiting Washington

Visitors arrive in Washington expecting to see the president walking down Pennsylvania Ave. in open warfare with Congress. Instead, you probably won’t see a politician.

Washington is a city of surprises. I’m a native, maybe the only one you’ll know since reportedly only 40 percent of the 700,000 residents are natives. Frankly, nobody I know believes that number. It’s maybe 10 percent. Hell, 20 percent of residents were born in another country so we’re outnumbered from the start. Even five percent are from New York so meeting a “War-shingtonian” as multi-generational locals like me say is unusual.

Now I know you’re going to the National Mall. And by the way, it’s not a store. You’d be surprised how many people ask.

But aside walking to the right and even more importantly stand to the right on escalators so locals can get to work while you’re gawking at the sites, here are a few other things you should know.

Things farther than they look – You see the Washington Monument. It doesn’t look too far so you walk. Twenty minutes later, you’re still not there. Politicians aren’t the only ones with optical illusions.

Downtown blocks are one-tenth of one mile. In New York City, that would be two or three blocks. So, if you’re walking from Fifth to Eight Street, that’s three-tenths of a mile. Washington is a walkable town. It’s just a little farther than you think.

Humidity sucks – Visit in the summer at your own risk. Oh, you think you come from somewhere hot, but not many of you are used to the humidity our swampy town offers. I know because I’ve seen visitors hit the deck. You’re going to sweat a lot. Please, drink a lot of water. When I have day walking tours, I may drink 100 ounces of water. Don’t worry, the water fountains are safe here so just refill your bottles often.

Metro is subway and bus – It’s a little confusing to first-timers. Same company runs both. Not especially well, but they do both. The worst problem is no more paper tickets. You’ll need to buy a plastic card for every person. They cost $10 each, which is credited for use. But, many tourists only need a few dollars and lose the rest. Sorry – no refunds. But, you can donate it to different charities, thank you. For a family of four, maybe a $40 investment makes taking a cab the better value.

No special food – We’re not a foodie town. Oh, there are lots of great restaurants, but as far as a signature dish, it’s not crabs. That’s Maryland’s thing. Washington can only boast of half smokes, which are hot dogs mixed with stuff you don’t want to know, covered in chili. Honestly, they’re OK, but it’s not fine dining.

White House iffy – Since 9/11, you need tickets from your House of Representative member to tour the White House. No exceptions and it takes three to six months to get tickets. If you did plan ahead, remember to bring a photo ID, cell phone and nothing else. No bags. As for outside, sometimes the northern park is closed for a whole lot of reasons that are never explained. Nor do we know for how long. If closed, walk to H and 16th Sts. to get at least a peek of the White House.

OK, one more tip — come in the fall. It has the best weather and smaller crowds. Winter is really sparse, but it’s pretty cold to be outside.


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Petersen House is a must stop for Lincoln fans

For many years, I’ve walked past Petersen House en route to Ford Theatre. I should have detoured across the street years earlier.

President Abraham Lincoln died at Petersen House on April 14, 1865 after shot the night before at Ford’s on 10th St. N.W. near F St. Moving the president so he wouldn’t suffer the indignity of dying in a theater, the military was in the street amid thousands knowing Lincoln couldn’t survive the trip to the White House, but not knowing where to go. William Petersen, who owned a boarding house across the street, waved to the troops from his doorway to bring the president inside.

I figured the house would be fairly big. Instead, it’s three rooms for public viewing. The bedroom is pretty small and the bed even smaller. How all those people in the famed painting were there I question.

The cool part of the home is you can take photos even with a flash.

Petersen House is a five-minute stop, but at least it’s a famous stop. But now the new Center for Education and Leadership is open and greatly enhances the experience.

The Aftermath Gallery tells what happened to assassin John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators. The Leadership Gallery explains why Lincoln still resonates in today’s society. And the 34-foot tower of books featuring 205 current titles of the 16,000 books on Lincoln is so interesting to review while descending the stairs. The tower is 6,800 books overall. Of course, it leads to a gift shop where I paid $25 for a book.

Combined with Ford’s, the two sites are well worth seeing to gain a full appreciation of Lincoln’s final hours.

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Cenotaphs define Congressional Cemetery

They hit you right away. Amid the acres of graves, the rows of cenotaphs made me say, “What the . . . “

(And shame on you with dirty minds even if you guessed right.)

Congressional Cemetery has 168 nearly identical cenotaphs remembering or marking the graves of deceased congressmen and senators. Perfect rows of Aquia sandstone just like the White House and U.S. Capitol.

A cenotaph is Greek for empty tomb, but can also be the initial tomb for someone later interred elsewhere. It can also serve as a marker for someone whose buried elsewhere or cremated.

However, some congressmen are buried under a cenotaph while others are elsewhere in the cemetery like James Gillespie. There’s a cenotaph for every congressman who died in office from 1833-76 beginning with James Lent.

Cenotaphs were no longer used in 1876 when Massachusetts Sen. Geporge Hoar said, “the thought of being buried beneath one of those atrocities brought new terror to death.”

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Wordless Wednesday: Things are looking up for me

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Veterans Affairs chief rests in Arlington National Cemetery

MansfieldComing around the corner from Joe Kennedy’s memorial marker when heading to Lee’s mansion or the Crook’s Stairs, there’s a shiny black marble marker that catches your eye.

Gordan Hall Mansfield, a wounded Vietnam veteran who later served as Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, now rests next to Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War.

Mansfield served as Veteran Affairs chief from 2004-08 after nominated by President George W. Bush. Earlier, Mansfield was executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America for 11 years after eight years with the organization.

Mansfield served two tours in Vietnam. He was wounded during the 1968 Tet Offensive while serving as company commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Mansfield suffered a spinal injury, but refused to be evacuated until his unit’s injured men were first moved that earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Bronze Star.

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Look up at National Archives pediment

archives pedimentI’m a big advocate of looking up when walking around major buildings. It’s amazing what you’re missing at street level.

The Recorder of the Archives hangs above Pennsylvania Ave. Author James Goode called it “the finest sculptured pediment in Washington” in his “Washington Sculpture” book that is the definitive work on the city’s outdoor works.

The central figure is an elderly man who receives documents (hence the Recorder) while sitting on rams that symbolize parchment. On both sides of the Recorder are Attendants who are fronted by the winged-horse Pegasus, which symbolizes aspiration. The Attendants present documents like the Declaration of Independence. The remainder of people are those acquiring documents while the dogs are guardians.

The 104-foot pediment is limestone and carved by James Earl Fraser.

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Wordless Wednesday: Lincoln Memorial

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Henry Rathbone’s house – the man next to Lincoln

Rathbone homeThe White House isn’t the only house to walk by the front door around Lafayette Park. A famous bystander to history is a few doors down.

Major Henry Rathbone was in Abraham Lincoln’s box when murdered by John Wilkes Booth. His home is 722 Jackson Place on the western side of the park and near a fountain. The black door and red brick exterior seem fitting with the street that is now mostly government buildings, including Rathbone’s.

The story goes that Lincoln was going to see “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater with Gen. Grant and his wife. But, Mrs. Grant was known to dislike Mrs. Lincoln as many society ladies did. Rathbone was supposedly Lincoln’s seventh choice as others begged off that day while Washington celebrated Lee’s surrender and virtual end of the war. Mrs. Lincoln liked Clara Harris, step sister and fiancee of Rathbone, a son of a wealthy New York merchant. Harris stayed with Mary Lincoln throughout the night as Lincoln lay dying.

Harris and Rathbone weren’t blood related as their parents married after both children were adults. Rathbone and Harris married in 1867 with three children, including future U.S. Congressman from Illinois Henry Riggs Rathbone.

Rathbone was later named U.S. consul to Hanover, Germany where he shot and stabbed his wife to death in 1883. Rathbone spent the rest of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane in Germany. After dying in 1911, Rathbone was buried by his wife in Hanover. However, in 1952 cemetery officials decided there was no family interest in the graves and had the pair exhumed, cremated and poured into the river together.

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That’s Smithson . . . as in Smithsonian

Smithson cryptWho’s the man in the bathtub?

Wow, what am I going to do with you guys? That’s the remains of James Smithson as in the man that founded museums that bear his name.

So what’s he doing in a bathtub?

It’s not a bathtub, you cretin. It’s a sarcophagus.

Let’s start from the beginning. James Louis Macie Smithson was an illegitimate son of Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie. Born in secrecy around 1765 in Paris, he would become a chemist and live well off his mother’s estate. He wrote papers on varied subjects from snake venom to human tears.

SmithsonSmithson died in 1938 in Genoa, Italy and left his fortune to a nephew, who died in 1835 without heirs. Smithson’s will then stipulated the money should be donated to the U.S. that he never visited to create Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Smithson’s donation was $508,318.46 in gold plus $54,165.38 in funds along with a 213-book collection still with the Smithsonian.

Buried in Genoa, his grave was going to be relocated in 1905 when Smithsonian regent and investor Alexander Graham Bell asked that it moved to the Smithsonian Castle. It arrived in 1904, escorted through the city by the U.S. Cavalry. Officials were going to create a crypt, but the remains are in a former children’s museum just inside the left doorway when entering from the National Mall side.

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Wordless Wednesday: St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral

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Mayor Smallwood at Congressional Cemetery

SmallwoodsThe old simple stones near the entrance of Congressional Cemetery mark one of the early prominent families of Washington who made the graveyard possible.

Samuel Nicholas Smallwood was twice mayor of Washington from 1819-22 and 1824 when dying in office. He oversaw the 11th St. Bridge construction to connect present Anacostia that replaced those spans burned by the British in the War of 1812, created the first City Hall that’s now the city’s Supreme Court and erected a brick wall around Congressional Cemetery.

As a businessman, Smallwood quarried the rock for the White House’s foundation while becoming wealthy by selling lumber and building supplies. In 1807, Smallwood helped establish a cemetery that would become Congressional. Smallwood, his wife and several children are buried together at the plot.

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St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral’s artwork is inspiring

Washington has no shortage of beautiful churches from the National Cathedral to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral on 3400 Massachusetts Ave. NW is perhaps the city’s most colorful church from floor to ceiling. Every square inch is painted. With a Russian and Belarus congregation about two blocks from the Naval Observatory that houses Vice President Mike Pence, the church was founded in 1930 and built from 1954-62. The bell tower was dedicated in 1988 to commemorate the millennium of Christianity in Russia.

The cathedral replicates the 12th century St. Demetrius Cathedral in Vladimir, Russia. From 1991-94, Alexander Maskalionov and a team of iconographers painted iconic images through the interior. The website has plenty of images.

The church is open to the public with a very friendly staff. Even a few minutes will leave you in awe of it.

There’s also a fall bazaar on Sept. 8-9 filled with food and entertainment.

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Lock Keeper’s House is open for business

The old house on the corner of 17th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW was a shuttered reminder of days long ago when the swamp was real. It’s the second oldest home (behind Georgetown’s Old Stone House) as an 1837 reminder of when freight was carried down a canal long since filled in as Constitution Ave.


And it’s open once more after closed 40 years.

The new gateway to Constitution Gardens section of the National Mall, the Lock Keeper’s House is part of a $4 million makeover that included moving the home about 50 feet farther from the street. A new roof and totally scrubbed interior now filled with historical displays will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. whenever a volunteer guide is available. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing whether there’s a guide until turning the door knob. I suggested to the guide to install a flag pole and fly the stars and stripes whenever open.

The stone structure is three floors, though the cellar isn’t open to the public, which enters on the second floor at street level. The upstairs where the family slept has only new beams and the fireplace isn’t working. But, you get the gist of the place with a large video screen showing the makeover.

Four lock keepers were housed there over 20 years. The guide said it was a bad place to be posted, paying only half the normal $100 monthly stipend. Photos of lock keeper John Moore and his wife Mary Catherine are displayed. Legend has it one lock keeper had nine kids, but which is unknown.

The Washington City Canal operated from 1815 to the mid-1850s as a means of shipping goods. Lock keepers collected tolls and kept records of passing commerce. Congress spent $100,000 on the canal and President James Madison presided over its May 2, 1810 groundbreaking. The War of 1812 delayed the canal’s finish until 1815.

Only three feet deep, the canal sometimes overflowed during high tide. By the 1860s, canals were made obsolete by trains and Washington’s became an open sewer whose stench made the Lincoln flee to the Northeast cottage each summer. Boss Shepherd, then head of Public Works before later becoming territorial mayor, ordered it filled in 1871 and named it B Street.

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Christman stands tall in death

Claude B. ChristmanSometimes I wander by a grave at Arlington National Cemetery and wonder who inspired such an interesting marker. And sometimes there’s very little information to learn.

Cpl. Claude B. Christman  of the 27th U.S. Infantry was killed in Manila on Dec. 19, 1899 in the early days of the Philippine-American War that lasted three years. The 21-year-old infantryman’s interment date isn’t even known, but he’s in Arlington’s Section 22, Grave 15,350. And that’s all we know, but it’s a cool memorial.

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