My 10 tips for Washington visitors (and locals, too)

I’ve seen tourists from dozens of countries visit Washington over the years. Now that I lead groups, I really have some advice for those coming in the summer. Since my blog is read nearly equally by out-of-towners as locals and from those in 58 countries this year, here are a few tips when coming to my hometown.

1. Wear light colors. Seriously, I know this sounds simple, but many Europeans come from cooler climates and don’t know a black shirt can feel 10 degrees hotter than a white one. They’re already dying from the humidity so don’t make it worse. Wear shorts, too.
2. Bring sneakers or sandals, but not dress shoes, high heels or clogs. You will get blisters walking around Washington.
3. If you want tickets to go inside the White House, call your Congressman or Senator six months ahead. They’ll need your social security number to run a security check. There’s no same-day line.
4. Don’t soak your feet in the fountains. I don’t care if you see others do it.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions from passersby. Washingtonians are used to tourists and don’t mind.
6. But, locals do mind if you stand on the left of subway escalators. Stand to right, walk on left. If you aren’t familiar with using the passes for the metro, pick one of the gates on the ends.
7. Spend the hot afternoons at inside attractions like the Smithsonians. Mornings and evenings are better spent at monuments.
8. Don’t talk politics with locals. We really don’t care what you think.
9. It’s pronounced War-shington. Not Wash-ington. I know it’s spelled like the latter.  We’ll smile if you say it like a native.
10. Tip your tour guide.

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Wordless Wednesday: Mount Vernon

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Scott: Best general of whom you’ve probably never heard

The legend says all statues face the White House. It’s not true, though this one does.

Gen. Winfield Scott’s statue lies in the three-sided circle of Massachusetts and Rhode Island Aves. and 16th St. N.W. just blocks from the White House that he failed to win in 1852. Indeed, Scott nearly ran in 1860 but decided he was getting too old. Instead, Scott lived until 1866, one year after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Scott was a bonafide military hero; veteran of three wars against Mexicans, Cherokee Indians and British. Scott served a half century and wrote the military’s first drill regulations.

The pedestal is 15 feet high, which James Goode’s bible of local monuments “Washington Sculpture” says was the largest single block of granite then quarried. Scott dons his field uniform of lieutenant general while looking ahead while his horse rests.

Goode says the horse was supposed to be a mare until family objections that generals always rode stallions. Sculptor Henry Kirke Brown modeled the horse after Scott’s favorite mare. Let’s just say certain additions were made to satisfy everyone. Wouldn’t be the first or last deal made in Washington.

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A stone of another color

It’s funny what grabs you while walking among the graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

The large purple quartz marker that includes the plaque of James Fingal Gregory is one of a kind. At least, I’ve never seen one like it and have covered probably 90 percent of the cemetery.

Gregory was an engineer so maybe they wanted something unusual from the earth to remember him. The West Point cadet from Albany, N.Y. was only 18 when the Civil War started. He rose through the ranks over the years from Second Lieutenant at war’s end to First Lieutenant the next year to captain in 1874. He became a colonel while serving as Aide-de-Camp to General Sheridan from 1881-86 before dying in 1897. Among Gregory’s achievements was a geodetic survey of the northern lakes, boundary survey of the 49th parallel and survey of the Union and Pacific Railroads.

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Full house at the Tomb of the Unknowns

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Fort Washington is a forgotten jewel of two centuries

(Reprinting one of our favorite columns)

Growing up near the fort just south of town, I remember walking Fort Washington’s steps and hills down to the Potomac River with great joy.

Then for some reason, I went 30 years without visiting until a beautiful sunny afternoon last week. And, it looked the same.

Fort Washington dates back to 1809 yet never fired a shot before finally given to the Dept. of Interior in 1946. Not even during the War of 1812 when the British fleet approached from the south while soldiers marched from the east.

Fort Washington’s stone and brick walls and a deteriorating drawbridge provide a rare and insightful look at an old fort without restriction. Sometimes you might be the only person around. You’re free to wander about nearly the entire fort. My brother always threatened to leave me in the dungeons when we were kids.

Originally called Fort Warburton, the post was completed on Dec. 1, 1809, but the first guns weren’t mounted until 1846. Soldiers from the First, Third and Fourth Artillery manned the only guns protecting the capital until the Civil War.

You’ll see plenty of cannons on the grounds. The 15-inch Rodman guns arrived between 1873-75, but they were never fully installed. Instead, concrete bunkers below the fort were built in 1886. But, the post was abandoned in 1891. Then new guns were mounted in 1896 before removed a decade later.

Fort Washington became a staging area for troops headed for France during World War I. The post was again abandoned in 1939 to become the site of a new bridge that instead went a few miles north 20 years later. During World War II, the post became the U.S. Army Adjutant General’s School.

And once again, the fort was abandoned in 1946 and is now run by the National Park Service. There are free self-guided brochures on the left after passing through the gate.

Nowadays, Fort Washington is a great park that’s pretty crowded on summer weekends, but otherwise has plenty of parking for a visit. It’s about 10 minutes from the beltway off Rt. 210 South. You can see the Wilson Bridge and the city easily from the fort. The 95-foot flagpole with a 36 by 20 foot flag can be seen from Alexandria.

The lighthouse built below the fort in 1882 is 28 feet tall. You’ll often see people fishing along the shoreline or nearby boats. There’s excellent fishing along this part of the river.

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Remembering Audie Murphy at Arlington National Cemetery

(Reprinting one of our favorite columns)

It’s amazing how yesterday’s heroes are today’s forgotten ones.

It happens all the time in society. Singers and actors once all the rage now draw blank stares from teens. Sinatra – is that a first or last name?

So it goes with Audie Murphy. Whenever someone asks me where his grave is at Arlington National Cemetery I usually figure they’re at least 70 because no one under 50 has ever asked me and those less than 30 have no idea who he is.

Murphy is buried very near the Memorial amphitheater where the sidewalk bends to accommodate more people by the corner grave. At one time it was the second most visited grave at Arlington behind John F. Kennedy.

Murphy lived an incredible life of helping others. He was the most decorated soldier of World War II after enlisting at age 17, winning the Medal of Honor plus 32 medals, ribbons and citations that included five from France and one from Belgium. After once single-handedly battling Germans for one hour using a machine gun from a burning tank, he simply said, “They were killing my friends.”

Murphy became a movie star after the war, appearing in “To Hell and Back” based on his autobiography of 27 months fighting in Europe and 43 other films.

Murphy was killed in a 1971 plane crash at age 46.

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Wordless Wednesday: Columbia Gardens

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Restoration on Mount Vernon mansion

Keeping a 250-year-old mansion in pristine shape isn’t easy. Now Mount Vernon is taking things down to scratch.

George Washington was a sharp guy in more than beating the British. He wanted the mansion to have a stone look like those in England despite being made of wood. So, sand was mixed with paint and from a distance indeed looks like stone. That is, until you knock on it.

The most visited home in America with more than 1.1 million people annually, Mount Vernon opted to return the mansion to its original look several years ago from white to tan. Now they’re stripping off the old paint down to the boards, which have shown surprisingly little deterioration. They are removing 28 layers of paint.

Yes, it stinks to have all the scaffolding in front to ruin pictures, but ultimately, you’ll see the home in its original glory once more.

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George Washington’s whiskey is a little rye, uh dry

George Washington whiskey(Reprinting one of our favorites)

After beating the British and serving two terms as our president that included putting down the Whiskey Rebellion, George Washington retired to his home Mount Vernon — to make whiskey.

In fact, Washington was the nation’s biggest whiskey maker the last couple years before dying in 1799. Washington made 11,000 gallons , earning 50 cents per gallon.

In recent years, Mount Vernon created Washington’s still and using George’s recipe makes three batches annually of several hundred bottles. They’re not easy to get. They’re not sold on the internet so people arrive two hours early to wait for the rare sales that go quickly.

Luckily, I have a friend that can buy it for me and settle up later. I got the small bottle of whiskey ($99) and poured three glasses for my two sons-in-law and I.

I’d like to say it went down smooth, but I’m not much of a hard liquor drinker. Mostly, it seemed awfully dry. Still, the bottle is in my china cabinet for rare events. After all, it’s pretty cool.

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Wordless Wednesday: Crouching Woman

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Society of the Cincinnati and Larz Anderson House

When first hearing the Society of the Cincinnati was not about the town but a Roman soldier, I thought how strange. Weren’t all Roman warriors named Spartacus or something like that?

Well, it was something like that. The Society is named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a farmer who served as Roman Consul and Magister Populi with lawful dictatorial control of Rome in case of war. After winning a battle, Cincinnatus returned power to the Senate and resuming farming.

George Washington loved that story, seeing his own as a reflection of it. He served as the Society’s first president for 16 years. The Society was formed in the U.S. and France in 1783 by Revolutionary offices to lobby the government to fulfill its promises to them. Today, it’s a nonprofit historical, diplomatic, and educational organization promoting interest in the American Revolution. Members must be descended from a Revolutionary War officer and only one descendant from that officer can be a member at one time.

Today, the Washington branch is housed in the old Larz Anderson House, built from 1902-05 on Massachusetts Ave. near Dupont Circle. The 50-room mansion cost $750,000, but the furnishing are worth far more. Verona marble columns, flying staircase, carved wooden walls, marble floors and even two elevators made it a showcase of its time.

Anderson was from a prominent family in Cincinnati, Ohio and a U.S. diplomat in London, Rome, Belgium and Japan. He was a member of the Society.

The Andersons used the home for entertaining diplomats, including Presidents William H. Taft and Calvin Coolidge and several kings. When Anderson died without children in 1937, his widow gave the house to the Society. It’s now a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Eleftherios Venizelos: Maker of Modern Greece

OK, I admit knowing nothing of Eleftherios Venizelos when coming across the statue along Embassy Row on Massachusetts Ave. by the Greek embassy. But that’s the cool part of being a tour guide – you learn, learn and learn.

Venizelos was prime minister of Greece from 1910-20 and 1928-32. During his time, Venizelos helped re-unite Crete and Greece, aligned with the Allied forces during World War I despite the monarchy’s opposition and doubled overall population and geography by gaining Macedonia, Epirus and the Aegean islands.

If you fly into Athens nowadays you’ll see its named for Venizelos.

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Wordless Wednesday: Spring is for blossoms

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RFK, Griffith and Marshall fill stadium entrance

(Reprinted from 2015)

RFK Stadium is known for its games, concerts and events, but the statues in front are altogether missed by many too busy to get inside or in too much of a hurry to beat the crowd afterwards.

The stadium was originally D.C. Stadium when opening in Oct. 1961 at a whopping cost of $24 million – triple its original budget. It was renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in 1969, one year after Kennedy’s assassination.

I happened to co-author a book Hail to RFK still available on that details the greatest players, coaches and games of the Redskins.

In the middle of the stadium’s main entrance are three monuments, two that shaped Washington sports.

The first game was a Redskins loss (what else?) and the owner was George Preston Marshall, who brought the team from Boston in 1937. There’s a large red granite marker on the right side of the entrance by the street with Marshall’s image.

A former RFK general manager wanted to move the monument in 2001 to make way for a concession stand. He tried to give the monument to Marshall’s family. A deal was made with Marshall’s hometown for a site, but nobody wanted to pay the $30,000 shipping costs. District politicians, well aware Marshall was forced to sign black players in return for the stadium’s use, don’t want it downtown, either. So the marker remains there indefinitely.

On the left side is a granite marker to Clark Calvin Griffith, who simply did everything there is to do in baseball before his son moved the team after 1960 to become the Minnesota Twins. Thus, Griffith isn’t a popular name in sports circles despite the American League placing an expansion team in Washington in 1961, which also left in 1971 to become the Texas Rangers. The Washington Nationals came from Montreal in 2005 and after three years at RFK now play at their own stadium a few miles away.

Anyway, Griffith pitched, managed and owned the Senators and even built his own stadium – Griffith Stadium – that is now the site of Howard University Hospital. The “Old Fox” died in 1955 and a monument was erected by the former stadium in 1956 and moved to RFK by 1965.

The seven-foot tall Georgia marble marker was dedicated by U.S. vice president Richard Nixon and cost $7,000, which was paid by the Home Plate Club of Washington. The memorial was designed by Lee Preston Claggett of Arlington-Claggett Memorial Co.

Finally, the centerpiece is a bronze bust of Bobby Kennedy, who was assassinated in June 1968 just when it appeared he would be the Democratic presidential nominee and likely become president. The former Senator and U.S. Attorney General was honored as the stadium’s namesake. There was a brief movement in 2005 to sell naming rights when the Nationals arrived, but that was quickly beaten by then Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The bust was created by Robert Berks, who made hundred of pieces, including the John F. Kennedy bust in the Kennedy Performing Arts Center, the Albert Einstein statue on 22nd and Constitution Ave. and the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Lincoln Park. Berks died on May 17, 2011.

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The Torch of Freedom still shines brightly

Torch of Freedom

It’s not often one monument can essentially tell the history of the U.S., but the Torch of Freedom gives 12 scenes from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam.

Located in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars building at Constitution Ave. and Second St. N.E. the three-sided bronze marker features relief scenes of major events.

The 35-foot marker was erected in 1976 and sculpted by Felix de Weldon, who is more famous for the Marine Corps War Memorial commonly known as the Iwo Jima Memorial.

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Wordless Wednesday: The Burghers of Calais

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National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is must see

National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
It has probably been 40 years since I last saw the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and it wasn’t even completed then. A recent visit showed I’ve been away too long.

National Shrine of the Immaculate ConceptionThe Shrine on the outer edge of Catholic University on 400 Michigan Ave. NE is far more than a Catholic church that has seen Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict visit. It is a place of unique architecture as well as worship with nearly one million visitors annually.

It was a long journey towards completion, starting with a 1910 request to build it that took 10 years before the cornerstone was layed. The lower (crypt) level was completed by 1931, but the death of a bishop, the Great Depression and World War II halted construction until 1959. It was completed in 1990. More than 70 chapels and oratories fill it.

The beauty and peace that fills the Shrine certainly make it a must see. And, there’s even guided tours, free and ample parking and a cafeteria.

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Jefferson Memorial to get cleaning

Notice the white stripe on the Jefferson Memorial’s dome? It’s just the start.

The U.S. Park Service awarded an $8.75 million contract to clean the marble of a biofilm, repair stone and replace the roof by May 2020. Meanwhile, the memorial to the nation’s third president will remain open to the public.

The white stripe came from a laser test to remove the black biofilm comprised of algae and bacteria that resembles dirt. Removal through chemicals was thought to damage the marble so lasers to burn it off were tested several years ago. Now, the park service has funding to complete the job on the 1944 memorial.

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Hands off Yoko Ono tree

The Yoko One tree in the Hirshhorn sculpture gardens remains, but people are now asked to whisper their wishes rather than write them down and tie them to the tree until it blooms.

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