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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The lady in white

Lady FreedomIt’s not often a statue gets center stage – twice.

The Statue of Freedom lies atop the U.S. Capitol dome, but also inside the Capitol Visitors Center underneath.

The statue shows the “Lady Freedom” with her right hand on a sheathed sword and her left holding a laurel wreath that means victory and the U.S. shield.

The plaster cast of the statue is in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center. It doesn’t look so big atop the dome, but up close you see its 19½ feet tall and weighs 13,000 pounds.

American sculptor Thomas Crawford made the plaster model while working in Rome in 1857. Clark Mills then cast the bronze statue at his Washington foundry. After an employee refused to remove the cast unless paid more money, a slave Philip Reid was put in charge. Reid was freed shortly before Lady Freedom was placed atop the dome on Dec. 2, 1863.

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Wordless Wednesday: DAR reading room

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Four brothers at Arlington National Cemetery

4 brothersBand of Brothers is often used beyond the famous World War II unit. But for one grave marker at Arlington National Cemetery, it’s true.

The four McCullough brothers are buried together in the back of the cemetery. All served in the Pennsylvania One Hundredth — the Round Head Regiment — during the Civil War. Two died during the war.

The unit formed Aug. 27, 1861. Jacob E. McCullough joined Aug. 31 and was killed at Cold Harbor on June 2, 1864. John L. McCullough mustered in Aug. 29, 1862, was wounded July 30, 1864 and discharged May 21, 1865, two months before the One Hundredth disbanded. He died in 1869.

Nathaniel N. McCullough enlisted Aug. 31, 1864, wounded on June 2, 1864 and discharged Jan. 8, 1865. He died in 1908. Joseph E. McCullough entered March 31, 1864, wounded accidentally June 26, 1864 and died July 19, 1864.

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Jefferson keeps an eye on Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The Library of Congress across the street from the U.S. Capitol was created as a reference library for our politicians. Today, the public also uses it for research.

The three buildings are grand to see with their architecture and collections. Well worth a quick walk through or a long afternoon. But if you only have a few minutes, stop by the collection of Jefferson’s personal books in the main Jefferson building.

When the British burned the Capitol, White House, Navy Yard and Treasury in August 1814 as part of the War of 1812, it also torched the LOC. Jefferson’s personal library was the nation’s largest and was sold to Congress for $23,950 in 1815. Nearly two thirds of the 6,487 books were destroyed in an 1851 fire, but you can still see the remainder in glass-enclosed cases on the second floor.

I lingered past the shelves, wondering what types of books Jefferson read. Farming, Maryland law, medicine – practical reading. No Harry Potter novels, though there was probably some equivalent novel of the times thereabouts.

“I cannot live without books,” said Jefferson, who restarted his library after selling it off to Congress.

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Wordless Wednesday: Atop the DAR

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Seabees Monument stands ready for action

Seabees MonumentThe toughest men of World War II might have been the Navy Seabees.

Created in March 1942 to construct whatever was needed in World War II, the “Construction Builders” were known as “CBs” and hence Seabees.

These guys could build anything and everything while even under attack. Indeed, they built housing for more than 1.5 million soldiers, 111 airports, 441 piers, thousands of miles of roads and 100 million gallons of water storage tanks.

Located between the Memorial Bridge and Arlington National Cemetery, the nine-foot bronze statue is by Felix de Weldon, who you also know from his Iwo Jima Memorial nearby. The Seabee extends his hand to a young child with a wall depicting scenes of the unit’s capabilities.

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John Carroll still overseeing his campus

John CarrollBishop John Carroll grew up in Upper Marlboro, Md., educated in Europe and returned to become the leader of American Catholics and establish Georgetown University.

Why do students put toilet seats under the bronze statue on campus and place jack-o-lanters atop his head? Kid these days. Well, actually, the pranks have been ongoing since the statue’s 1912 dedication on the center of campus at 37th and O Sts. N.W.

What’s next — taking the hands off the tower clock?

The six-foot statue of Carroll seats atop a marble base was sculpted by Jerome Connor. Ironically, it wasn’t ready for the official dedication so a plaster cast was painted brown to fool everyone. Weeks later, the real one was swapped under the cover of darkness.

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Wordless Wednesday: DAR staircase

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Off The Record – for a drink

Some new folks to town wanted to see the sights . . . and some bars. So, why not start with Off The Record at the Hay Adams Hotel?

It’s a little tricky to find, which is probably how some folks like it. Go through the lobby to the left and take the stairs down to the bar. The lobby staff is so professional that someone will surely show you the way. (By the way, you can take the elevator up to the lobby, but not down to the bar.)

Off The Record is a real stunner when you walk through the door. Like bam- here’s a bar. An old-school place where people go to have some privacy. Legends says that’s why it’s named off the record. And, right on cue some White House staffers came in after work.

The cool thing is the pads for your drinks. There are drawings of many famous folks like those on the wall. So, try something different with an air of class.




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A walk in a French forest . . . kinda

Linden treesMost people walk through Meridian House and come away impressed with the shear size of the Beaux Arts mansion designed by the renowned John Russell Pope in 1919.

Me – I liked the trees in the back.

U.S. ambassador Irwin Boyle Laughlin built the house at 1630 Crescent Place N.W. by Meridian Park after retiring from the Foreign Service, though he would later become ambassador to Green and Spain over the 1920s and ‘30s. Oriental porcelains and 18th century French paintings fill the house.

Boyle imported 40 Linden trees from France where many ancient southern villages use them for shade and fragrance. The leaves are dried to create tea.

You feel a little like Robert Frost wandering through these trees. They have a calming effect even in winter minus their canopy. Sounds perfect for an ambassador’s retreat.

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Wordless Wednesday: Joan of Arc has her sword back

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Final salute for the Sergeant at Arms

The simple white marker surrounded by a small black metal fence shows someone special lies below in the center of Congressional Cemetery.

Montjoy Bayly was more than a captain in the 7th regiment of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War as his stone states. He was also the doorkeeper and the second Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate.

A newspaper death notice following his March 22, 1836 passing stated, “On the 22nd instant, General Mountjoy Bayly, an officer of the Revolution, in the 82nd year of his age. His friends are requested to attend his funeral from his late dwelling on Capitol Hill this evening at 4 o’clock.”

That dwelling is now the Bayly Building at 122 Maryland Avenue, NE. The 1822 structure includes both Second Empire and Federal styles. The American Civil Liberties Union now occupies it. The property is a National Historic Landmark.

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Congressional Cemetery: an overlooked jewel

After driving past Congressional Cemetery countless times, I finally decided to tour it. Maybe it was the abundant street parking that convinced me, but what a jewel I’ve been missing.

The 35-acre cemetery on Capitol Hill was established in 1807 as the Washington Parish Burial Ground. Soon it would be called the “national burying ground” for the congressmen, justices, military leaders and prominent citizens that now number 55,000.

The famous folks interned there include military band composer John Phillip Sousa, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Capitol architect William Thornton and Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.

But the really curious attraction is the 166 sandstone cenotaphs. Eighty U.S. Congressmen and Senators who died in office were buried there until 1870 when Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar said the strange markers gave new meaning to the “terrors of death.” However, Congressman Stephen Joshua Solarz was buried there in 2010, though with a traditional black marble stone.

There are soldiers from the Revolutionary, War of 1812 and Civil Wars with an occasional sprinkling of those white marble stones more often seen at Arlington National Cemetery.

The cemetery offers free tours on Saturdays at 11 a.m. from April through November. It’s open every day with access through the gate to the right of the house. Maps are in a mailbox to the right just inside.

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Wordless Wednesday: Capitol Hill walkways

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