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Wandering in Washington


Washington, DC is a city of monuments and museums, of famous places and  famous people—but it's also a city with a life of its own, with bits of unexpected history poking up in its neighborhoods, and just plain curiosities.


Earlier this spring, on a visit to family, we took a walk across the city from Georgetown to nearly the foot of Capital Hill, and with a few added strolls in other places, collecting the 'sights and seens' below.


On our way to look at Georgetown's Old Stone House (of which more later in the week), we spotted this building, with its plaque stating "Instituted 1817." The building itself dates to 1844, and it's the oldest firehouse building in the city. It was named after its first fire engine. By the time the building was turned over to a professional fire company in 1867, in part because the Vigilants had become known mainly for rowdyism.


A few steps away from Vigilant, the C&O canal cuts through the neighborhood; it was dewatered for repairs, but is scheduled to be back in service this month, with a new canal cruiser ready to accommodate visitors.


Moving along, we visited the Old Stone House, now operated by the National Park Service. It's the oldest private house building in Washington, and may owe its survival past 1950 to the mistaken belief that George Washington had stayed there while he and L'Enfant were laying out the future city. Nearby, the historic Grace Episcopal Church.


Leaving Georgetown and heading east along M Street, we added photos of some decorative touches before hitting classic 'downtown' areas, and stopping for a moment for a look at the Sign of the Whale.


If marble and classical columns are the mark of the main Federal buildings in DC, its other glory is red brick from the 'Gilded Age' with touches of many architectural styles.


That holds true for St Matthew Cathedral, seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, built in 1893. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the same building clad in marble or limestone, and it would look far more familiar. St Matthew, by the way, was a tax collector and is therefore the patron saint of civil servants.


Down the block a little further is another red-brick monument, and a bit of a paradox. The award-winning building by a prominent architect of the 1870s was the first building created for Washington, DC's separate school system for Black children. That's right, not just separate schools, but a whole separate system with its own superintendent. Named for a leading Abolitionist Senator, it housed elementary and high schools and a school to train Black teachers. Today, it is a museum and archive for the school system.


And then on to more 'official' Washington—Lafayette Park, home to various heroic statues opposite the White House, and also at that location, America's longest-lasting protest site.


This monument honors the French nobleman who played prominent roles in both the American and French Revolutions. He's surrounded by some of his compatriots, none of whom seem to notice  the partially-clad woman trying to get his attention.


Also near the White House is the former home of the Riggs Bank, now many mergers later part of Truist, but with its landmark clock and minarets intact. Below that, the home of the National Press Club, most of whose building is occupied by a shopping mall.


Speaking of shopping, my eye was easily distracted by a large pen store, with all the old familiar lovely fountain pens and a great many new styles on offer. But I resisted. And now I regret my resistance.


Time for a moment's reflection. To be honest, the reflection is the best part of a fairly banal building, something you can't say for the two below it. The Adams Building and its neighbors were once home to the International Spy Museum, with some artwork from then showing on the left The whole blockfront is on the National Register of Historic Places.


Our crosstown walk ended at the National Building Museum, perhaps the apotheosis of red-brick architecture. With magnificent proportions and a beautiful interior, it was one of the world's largest enclosed spaces for years.


A couple of days later we were back in Georgetown following another historic trail as well as taking pictures of Georgetown houses and other buildings. Brick rowhouses are the most common image of the area, but they're not all created equal, and some have unusual entry arrangements reflecting multiple apartments.


And some are just plain ritzy...


And, two last images: windows of the First Baptist Church in Georgetown, and another of spring blossoms at the Georgetown University Law Center.


I'm sure I'll be back...there are many more streets to roam!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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