Dolley Madison and the Haunted Porch?

Gentleman departing the nearby Washington Club tipped their caps to the woman softly rocking on the porch of the corner home – Dolley Madison.

Some 168 years later, the late First Lady supposed is still found some nights rocking on the porch. That is, when she’s not haunting the nearby Octagon House where she and President James Madison lived while the White House was rebuilt after its burning in 1814 as part of the War of 1812 with England.

OK, I’ve never seen Dolley, but I mention her regularly to groups when walking past. (Oddly, young people nowadays have never heard of Dolley Madison cupcakes. What are they teaching in schools nowadays?)

Dolley lived the final two years at the home on H. St. N.W. in poverty after a son squandered the last of her money following the death of the president in 1837. Dolley was well known for saving some White House objects like the painting of George Washington before British troops arrived. The official term “First Lady” came during her tenure after she sometimes served so earlier for President Thomas Jefferson, a widower. During James Madison’s 1809-17 tenure, Dolley was known for “The Charm Offensive” when getting both political parties to meet at informal White House parties to air differences away from Capitol Hill.

Dolley died in 1849 at age 81 with all of Washington turning out for her funeral while the nation mourned. She was first buried in Congressional Cemetery before later buried at Montpelier, Va.

But sometimes, she’s still on that porch. Let me know if you see her.

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The Cursed Lincoln?

Robert Todd LincolnRobert Todd Lincoln fascinates me.

The only son of Abraham Lincoln (please tell me you know who he is) to live past 18 was called “The Cursed Lincoln.” Really? His father was assassinated and Robert’s the one who was cursed?

Robert wanted to attend the play at Ford’s Theatre with his father that ill-fated night, but Abe asked his son to take little brother Tad to a new play called “Aladdin” opening down the street. He always felt guilty over not being able to protect his father.

However, Robert did see President James Garfield (my cousin) murdered in Washington in 1881. In 1901, Robert was near President William McKinley when assassinated in Buffalo, though Lincoln didn’t see the shot.

Robert Todd LincolnAfterwards, Lincoln refused to be near another president until the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication in 1922 where both President Warren Harding and former President William Howard Taft were nearby. Harding died during his presidency, though.

I also love the story of Robert nearly dying on a train platform months before his father’s death. Robert fell between a train and the platform where he could have been crushed when someone suddenly grabbed his collar and pulled him to safety.

That savior was Edwin Booth – brother of his father’s assassin John Wilkes Booth (another of my cousins.)

Of course, Robert had quite the life. He was present at Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Robert served as Secretary of War under Garfield, minister to the Court of St. James, president of the Pullman Palace Car Company and a noted astronomer.

Robert died in 1926 at age 82 and later buried at Arlington National Cemetery with wife Mary Harlan, daughter of Iowa Sen. James Harlan. The couple and their son Jack are buried in a sarcophagus amid a small grove of trees not far from Taft (another cousin.) I’ve walked past it a half dozen times before using the new GPS app by Arlington.

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Wordless Wednesday: DuPont Circle art

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Finding my mentor in Arlington National Cemetery

Walking through Arlington National Cemetery touches many emotions, but rarely does it feel personal. The names on stones are of those we’ve never met and seldom heard.

As the years pass, I know more people who are buried on General Robert E. Lee’s old plantation. My Aunt Butts and Uncle Charlie were buried there in 2014. Working on my family tree led me to a grand uncle buried near the back wall in 1945.

A teacher who may have been my favorite and provided lasting lessons was buried at Arlington recently. David Pennington acted like the West Virginia rinky-dinks that he called us in ninth grade at Eugene Burroughs Junior High in Accokeek, Md. where I grew up. He pretended to be a country boy who was a simple man that actually knew a whole lot. He made learning fun and sometimes terrifying, like the time he asked me following my report on Russia if prostitution was legal there. I didn’t know what the word meant and was tormented by classmates for a few minutes. You don’t forget things like that.

More importantly, I haven’t forgotten the list of 46 most-used prepositions he made us memorize and pledge never to end a sentence with. Just kidding there. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition like with. It’s a common error, but Mr. Pennington didn’t want us to act like West Virginia rinky-dinks.

Words like in, near and beside indicating location are prepositions. So are about, besides and after that have a relationship between the noun/pronoun and other parts of the sentence.

As a newspaper reporter/columnist for nearly 40 years, Mr. Pennington saved me from making many dumb mistakes by memorizing that list. I still remember those sweltering and freezing days in his temporary classroom that unlike today’s modern ones were really just metal boxes with no air conditioning or heat. It was Spartan and I think Mr. Pennington liked it that way.

Mr. Pennington’s remains are in court 9, N30, column 13, niche 1 where many permanent markers like his aren’t yet completed. It’s near Sections 60/61 that include recent deaths in the Middle East. It’s a long walk down the cemetery near the Pentagon and took me back to 1975 that was truly one of my wonder years.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Pennington. Your list of prepositions lives on with your students. I’ll try not to act like a rinky-dink, too.

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Meridian Hill Park needs some love

I’ve driven past Meridian Hill Park many times, but finally decided on a warm Sunday afternoon to walk into it.

What a disappointment.

Meridian Hill Park needs a lot of love. The kind that only comes through lots of cash. Nearly all the grass is dead in the upper areas of the 12-acre park completed in 1940. The statue of Joan of Arc is missing its sword. But the real bummer is no water in the cascading 13 basins of the Italianate marble fountain. It’s usually breath taking. Now it’s gasping for life.

Not that the park is abandoned. There were plenty of young people enjoying the park. Three different bridal parties posed for photos. There’s plenty of life around Meridian Hill. It just needs a pulse of a lifeline for revitalization.

Even the James Buchanan Memorial, the only local site dedicated to our only bachelor U.S. president, needs some cleaning. Oddly, Buchanan’s presence is why the park wasn’t renamed Malcolm X park years ago despite many locals still calling it so. Seems a presidential memorial site can’t be named for anyone else.

Given Meridian Hill Park was once a seedy area decades ago, it’s present state is a major improvement. But, there are still miles to go in its recovery.

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Wordless Wednesday: Bull at Mount Vernon

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Gold thieves — beware the griffins

Plenty of treasure hunters come to Washington looking for riches, but the guardians are always there to protect our gold.

Two Acacia Griffins protect the Acacia Mutual Life Insurance Building at 51 Louisiana Ave. N.W. in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. The limestone sculptures by Edmond Romulus Amateis are 5 ½ feet wide, 4 ½ feet wide and 9 feet deep. The pair were placed by the main entranceway in 1936.

Griffins were fabled protectors of gold in Scythia, which was north of Greece. Seems the Arimaspians were always unsuccessfully trying to steal the gold only to be stopped by the griffins. Their image was used throughout medieval Europe as protectors.

These two statues have a female on the left and a male on the right holding eggs in their paws. The word acacia is traced to an ancient tree that symbolizes immortality.

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On vacation: Walking the Brooklyn Bridge

One thing I love about traveling is seeing places I’ve long heard about and never expected to see. But in my annual bucket list of travels, I recently found myself walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on a warm fall afternoon.

It was crowded, but nobody offered to sell it. There was a wedding on the pedestrian path. A worker cut off locks on a pole by a sign saying $100 fine for locks. Bikes whizzed by on the left and traffic underneath as we slowly walked slightly uphill after starting from the Manhattan side.

By midpoint, the Brooklyn and Manhattan skylines rose around us. After 40 minutes of steady walking, we were on a Brooklyn pier staring at the big buildings before us like mountains with snowcaps. Instead of walking bad, though, we took the ferry.

So now I’ve crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn off my list (along with Harlem later.) Not a bad day and a good workout. Maybe next time I’ll go to Staten Island on the free ferry.

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Wordless Wednesday: Roof work at Mount Vernon

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Secret White House entrance is no secret

Is something a secret if everyone that cared to know about it since 1941 indeed knows about it?

Visitors often asked about whether there are secret tunnels from the White House. They’re thinking of the 1993 movie “Dave” where a lookalike subbed for a president in a coma and slipped in and out of the White House.

Well, I don’t know about the one from the film, but there’s a passage that runs to an alley seen from H. St. across Lafayette Park. It has a gate and guardhouse protecting the alley so good luck trying to access the tunnel.

Supposedly, the tunnel was built in the 1941 that includes the Treasury Annex that may have been an equal reason for an underground passage to protect currency runners. World War II saw officials worried over FDR being vulnerable to aerial bombings. That a Congressman complained of its costs during a hearing made the tunnel public knowledge.

So, it’s no secret, but let’s just say not trying to see it is common knowledge.

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Handscaping U.S. Capitol grounds was visionary

Give Frederick Law Olmsted credit — he didn’t miss a thing.

When landscaping the U.S. Capitol grounds in 1874, Olmstead wanted to create things that were both aesthetic and functional. The walls were low so the public could see over them. Lanterns like the one shown above lit the grounds at night. The fountains now even have meters to lower the water pressure in heavy winds. Modern architects now call this type of landscaping as handscaping.

This photo is on the west side by the Peace Monument where many tour groups meet their bus. It’s a typical corner of the wall with a good look at the lantern.

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Wordless Wednesday: U.S. Botanic Gardens

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Update: The man with the dog on the Korean War Memorial

Korea1The Korean War Memorial’s Wall of Remembrance is often overlooked by passersby concentrating on the statues. But, it has so many great images among the 1,500 that are worth seeing.

And the best is for last – the German Shepherd is one panel from the right end. The 26th Scout Dog Platoon arrived in Korea in May 1951. They were used for sentry duty and taught to silently warn guards of coming enemy when barking would have tipped Koreans that Americans knew they were coming.

The dogs worked mostly nights and rotated to work every four days not to overtax them. The 1,500 dogs used during the war had one problem – the wind and terrain made it difficult for them to use their sense of smell to distinguish the enemy.

UPDATE: The man with the dog on the wall was Raymond Donnelly, Jr., whose son Tripp contacted me with more information. A Massachusetts native, Donnelly was in the the 24th Infantry Division’s highly-decorated 5th Regimental Combat Team, Intelligence and Reconnaissance Group. He was the only member of his 19-member training class to survive the war.

Donnelly later worked at several major U.S. newspapers as an editor and compositor while also serving on presidential campaigns of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy plus Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Scoop Jackson. Donnelly also served as a director of the Democratic National Convention and with NASA before retiring to work on the Korean War Veterans Memorial organization. He died in 2003 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


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Meridian Hill Park is for lovers?

Saw three wedding couples posing for photos on Saturday.

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Two men carry another while a woman shows compassion. The Red Cross Men and Women Killed in Service statue in the Red Cross courtyard at 17th and D Sts. N.W. is the perfect example of what the organization means.

The seven-foot statues, dedicated in 1959 by Gen. Mark Clark, were sculpted by Felix de Weldon., who wanted to show the organization’s compassion and strength. Nobody wears uniforms to represent the group’s willingness to help everyone. Clark was there to represent World War II when 78 Red Cross workers were killed.

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Wordless Wednesday: Pizza at Ledo in College Park

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Remembering a soldier’s death – John Rodgers Meigs

A life-sized bronze Union soldier is shown atop his grave just like this final moments were spent. It’s pretty dramatic in Arlington National Cemetery filled with overwhelming memorials.

John Rodgers Meigs was the third generation of a proud military family. His grandfather was Commodore John Rodgers, a naval officer in the War of 1812. His father was Major Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who’s buried aside his son.

Meigs was a West Pointer who left to serve as an aide-de-camp of General Philip Sheridan during the First Battle of Bull Run before later graduating first in his 1863 class.

Meigs served at Gettysburg and the Shenandoah Valley, rising to brevetted captain and major for gallantry. On Oct. 3, 1864, Meigs and two others went against three Confederate cavalrymen outside Dayton, Va. Meigs were killed and Sheridan burned 30 homes and barns in retaliation before learning it was a fair fight and not Confederate guerillas executing Meigs. Still, Meigs’ father posted a $1,000 for the killer even after the war’s end.

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The far side of Mount Vernon

I’ve been to Mount Vernon countless times over a half century since growing up across the Potomac River from the mansion. But I’ve only been down to the boat ramp and far crops twice.

Yeah, that’s nuts.

Nearly all of the visitors to President George Washington’s colonial estate head for the mansion and then his tomb. It’s a fair walk overall, especially with a big hill awaiting the return to the museum. Between limited time and the walk, most people never see the far end that’s really not that far away.

On a nice fall day and no clients after a meeting at Mount Vernon, I was restless for a long walk. So, I headed to the water. It’s easy to find. From the tomb, just take the path straight down to the water’s edge where a modern dock welcomes those arriving by boat. It’s maybe a five-minute walk, but downhill.

Sit on the benches for a few minutes and watch the Potomac River pass by on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll feel a million miles away from town. It’s then a couple minutes to walk to Washington’s fields of corn, cabbage and squash. It’s just a small patch of the estate’s once 8,000 acres that fed 340 people on the plantation, but at least you see some crops. There’s also Washington’s round barn that he designed. Pretty unique.

Now, how do you get back? Well, there’s a shuttle bus every 20 minutes that will take you to the museum. For those with mobility problems, it’s a fine option. (The bus will also take you from the museum to the water.) But there’s also a path straight through the woods that will burn a few calories and end nearly at the top of the hill. You’ll feel a sense of achievement when emerging from the woods.

So if you have extra time and a desire for some extra steps, don’t stop at the mansion or tomb. Keep going.

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Wordless Wednesday: Cavalry comes to Grant’s rescue

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Finding Abingdon plantation inside airport

There’s a colonial plantation at Reagan (Washington National to locals) Airport. Or rather, there’s an airport on an old colonial plantation.

I had to check out Abingdon Plantation when first learning of it from a company specializing in unique urban sites. I’ve flown out of DCA hundreds of times since 1972 and never knew this. With some googling and help from a friend who works at the airport, I parked in Garage A and walked the sidewalk towards Garage B. And there it was. Not that you’d ever know. It can’t be seen from the road and who walks between garages?

Anyway, the plantation is best known as the birthplace of Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, who was the step granddaughter of George and Martha Washington.

The estate was created in 1669 by shipmaster Rovert Howson for settlers brought to Virginia. It would be sold to John Alexander for 6,000 pounds of tobacco.

Flash forward to 1778 where John Parke Custis, son of Martha Washington by a previous marriage, bought Abingdon and 1,000 acres to be near Mount Vernon. Custis died in 1781 while serving in the Revolutionary War and Nelly along with brother George would move to Mount Vernon where they were raised by the Washingtons.

Flash forward to 1864 and a few owners later when the federal government seized the land for unpaid taxes. Two more generations and several owners later, the abandoned house burned in 1930. Soon after, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided Abingdon would make a swell airport.

Today, the brick foundation of two sites of the mansion, several signs and a few benches dot the small site. You can mostly see the main terminal in the distance and a small view of the Potomac River. It makes you imagine what a nice view it had in the day.

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