908 17th St NW, Washington, DC 20006, USA
Welcome to Historic America’s walking tour of the Presidents’ Neighborhood. We’re glad you can join us! I’m Aaron, your guide (but I also respond to professional history nerd). This is the part of the tour where I fit in my shameless plug for our website www.historicamerica.org and invite you to use #historicamericatours on social media while traveling alongside us today. Alright, on with the show. This tour will explore not just the White House, but the fascinating buildings which surround it. Whatever mode of transportation you use to get here, a good starting point is Farragut Square beside the intersection of 17th & I Streets NW. Once you arrive, it’s a short walk to our first point of interest - the famous buildings of Pennsylvania Avenue. Locate the intersection of 17th & I Street NW. On the southeast corner of the intersection, note the metro station entrance. Walk south on 17th street, keeping the metro station on your left hand side. Two blocks down, you’ll hit the intersection of 17th Street & Pennsylvania Avenue. Make a left on Pennsylvania and a short walk ahead, you’ll notice a building with a long, green, street level awning. This is our first stop.
700 Jackson Pl NW, Washington, DC 20506, USA
Continue along 17th St. until you reach the intersection of 17th & Pennsylvania Avenue. Make a left on Pennsylvania and continue until (on your left side) you see the building with the green awning.
1619 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20503, USA
This tour focuses on the Presidents’ neighborhood - and you can’t experience this neighborhood without walking along Pennsylvania Avenue. Right now, you’re on the 1600 block of the avenue’s west end, amidst some of the neighborhood’s most well known buildings. Let’s get you oriented. Position yourself so that you’re in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue facing toward the building with the pale yellow exterior and green, street level awning (don’t worry, you won’t get hit by a car. The roadway is closed to regular vehicle traffic for security purposes). This building is Blair House. To the left of Blair House (at the corner with 17th Street) is the Renwick Gallery of Art - made of red brick & sandstone, it is one of the city’s well known Smithsonian museums. Directly opposite Blair House and behind you, is the massive & ornate bulk of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Beginning with the Renwick Gallery of Art, we’ll proceed clockwise and tell you a little history behind each. The Renwick Gallery of Art was named after its designer, James Renwick Jr. - also known for DC’s Smithsonian Castle and New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In 1858, a wealthy American Art collector named James Corcoran hired Renwick to design an art museum so that his private collection might be publicly displayed. When it opened the following year, it was dubbed “The American Louvre” as it marked the first time an American building had been purposefully designed & dedicated as an art museum. The building was almost demolished in the mid 1900s before John F. Kennedy’s wife Jackie led the effort to save it from the wrecking ball. It has been repurposed numerous times over its lifespan - even serving as an Army headquarters during the Civil War era. Today, the building is once again an art museum, free to visitors. If you’re here during operating hours, we encourage you to go inside if you have the time (particularly if you need bathrooms before we progress any further in our tour). The next building up is Blair House (aka the presidential guest house). That’s the one with the green awning. This is the building where foreign heads of state stay when they’re visiting the United States to meet with the President. In essence, it’s the world's most exclusive hotel. You’ll notice the flag that flies above the awning. When there’s no foreign visitor, it’s the American flag - if the building is occupied, the foreign leader’s national flag will be flown. In the modern era, the house is typically used by the outgoing president of the United States to house the president-elect in the days leading up to the inaugural ceremony - so if you’re a baseball fan you can think of it as a really comfortable on-deck circle for the oval office. Finally, on the opposite side of the street is the gray immensity of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB for short). Inside is where a large portion of the White House staff works - because the White House itself has limited office space. With over 550 rooms and ten acres of floorspace, it was the largest office building in the world when it opened in the late 1800s. At that time it housed the State, War & Navy Departments. Unfortunately for the architect Alfred Mullet (who also has the historical hardship to share his last name with a bad hairdo) after its unveiling the building was long criticized as being too ornate. President Harry Truman even dubbed it, “...the greatest monstrosity in America”. Opinions change however, and nowadays Mullet’s monstrous creation is seen as a triumph of Victorian architecture. If you had a security clearance to go inside, today you’d find the ceremonial offices of the Vice President and the presidential bowling alley in the basement. Before we move on, turn back around and face Blair House. Do you see the many plaques on the fence? They mark historical events that have taken place there. None of them more harrowing than the attempted assasinaton of President Harry S. Truman. The scene is an autumn afternoon in 1950 and President Truman is living in Blair House while the nearby White House undergoes extensive renovation. As Truman and wife Bess sit upstairs, they’re startled to hear gunfire outside. Two Puerto Rican terrorists - in a misguided attempt to achieve Puerto Rican independence from the United States - have attempted to storm inside the Blair House and slay the president. Luckily, they are confronted by guards and a brief yet violent firefight ensues. Truman himself briefly looks down on the melee from the building’s second floor before being yelled at by the secret service to get away from the window. When the smoke clears, both terrorists are down (one having been wounded; the other killed) and Leslie Coffelt, the only Secret Service agent ever to die in the line of duty, lies dead. At Truman’s insistence, Coffelt is laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. And if you don’t believe me, you can read the plaque! Let’s continue on. As you face Blair House, turn right and walk down the road. Up ahead on the left, you’ll see a bronze statue at the southwest corner of Lafayette Park. Walk up to it.
1619 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20503, USA
The statue just ahead is of a French general to whom America owes a debt of gratitude. He is the Comte De Rochambeau and in 1781 his French troops would cooperate with Continental soldiers under George Washington to capture an entire British army at the siege Yorktown - the last great battle of the American Revolution and the defeat which forced Great Britain to give America her independence. As you look up at Rochambeau, you can see him directing the placement of siege cannon to pummel the enemy into submission, while below him, a female figure (representing victory) holds the flags of both the United States & her first ally, France. Rochambeau stands at the corner of Lafayette Park. As we explore, you’ll notice each corner of the park has a different statue, each honoring a Revolutionary War general from a foriegn country. As you face Rochambeau and look to your left front, note the long row of houses. This is Jackson Place. Although all the homes along Jackson Place are now governmental buildings, they were once private residences. Their exteriors have been preserved as a reminder of what the White House neighborhood once was - and each address has a story to tell. Now travel down Jackson place until you reach the last house - either side of the road will do. While you walk, I’ll talk about some of these historic homes. The first house to look for is 712. In the 1800s, this was home belonged to Army Major Henry Rathbone. He & his fiancee Clara Harris would accompany Abraham Lincoln & his wife Mary Todd to the theater on the fateful night of Lincoln’s assasination. After the president’s mortal wounding at the hands of dastardly assassin John Wilkes Booth, Rathbone would be viciously stabbed in the arm as he tried to prevent Booth’s escape. Next up is 716, better known today as The Presidential Townhouse or President’s club because it is the exclusive residence used by former presidents who are visiting Washington DC. Designated for this purpose in the late 1960s by President Nixon, the house comes equipped with pictures of the last four Presidents, a bookcase stuffed with presidential papers dating back to the roaring 20s and fluffy, yellow bathrobes sporting the presidential seal. Moving along you’ll notice a more modern looking brick building, where once stood 722 Jackson Place which. In the early 1900s this was the headquarters of the National Women’s Party. The women who made up this organization were suffragettes who advocated for women’s voting rights. Led by the redoubtable Alice Paul, they would be the first people ever to stage a protest in front of the White House. And how did then President Woodrow Wilson reward them? He had them arrested of course - but that shouldn’t surprise us because Wilson was a jerk You know who wasn’t a jerk - President Theodore Roosevelt! Not only did he build the Panama Canal and lead the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill - during his presidency he lived at 726 Jackson Place (but only for a few months) while the West Wing was being added to the White House. You see, Roosevelt had a big family and his wife Edith feared that their rambunctious children were distracting the president from his important work. The answer? Build a new wing! The oval office would come later. Keep walking and I’ll see you at the final house.
748 Jackson Pl NW, Washington, DC 20506, USA
You should now be near the end of the sidewalk by the intersection of Jackson Place & H Street NW. Note the final house on the block and another Revolutionary War general statue on the opposite side of the street. Let’s start with the statue - the grandly named Prussian drill master, General Frederick Wilhelm Von Steuben. Like Rochambeau, Von Steuben came from Europe to help America win the revolution, but unlike Rochambeau he was from Germany. As a result he spoke - you guessed it - German. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, except for the fact that Von Steuben was brought aboard the Continental Army as a drillmaster, and the Americans he was training couldn’t understand him. In order to solve the problem, before each drill lesson, Von Steuben would write his drills out in German whereupon they would be translated by his secretary into French whereupon another secretary would translate them into English. Got that? Well even if you don’t the Continental soldiers did. Over the course of a harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge in 1778, Von Steuben’s training whipped the ragtag Continentals into shape. The result was that American soldiers became every bit the equal of their British enemy. Fittingly, Von Steuben’s statue has him grimly posed - overseeing the instruction of his troops. Don’t stare at him too long - as you may feel yourself strangely compelled to drop down and give him 20 pushups. Now look at the final building on Jackson Place - this is the Decatur House, one of the most historic homes in Wasington, DC. Nowadays, it is home to the White House Historical Association (with a nice gift shop accessible from the building entrance on H street if you happen to be in the market for a Christmas ornament). It was originally built in the early 1800s to serve as a dreamhouse for the owner - American naval hero Stephen Decatur. Unfortunately for Decatur, however, he would not live long enough to truly enjoy it as he got himself killed in a duel only 2 years after moving in. Here’s the story … Decatur won fame and fortune for himself on the high seas during the Barbary Wars and America’s 2nd clash with Great Britain - the War of 1812. After these conflicts, Decatur was a national hero, and he wanted a home to match his status. By building this home nearby the president’s mansion, Decatur was making a clear statement about his place in society. It was also the first home in the neighborhood apart from the White House, so now the President finally had a door to knock on if he needed to borrow a cup of sugar. As you might have inferred, Decatur was a haughty, prickly fellow and during his rise to prominence, he managed to step on a few toes. He was particularly detested by fellow American Naval Commander James Barron - a sea captain whom Decatur had singled out for discredit & court martial. Barron would eventually challenge Decatur to a duel (fought with pistols) during which Decatur would be mortally wounded. The duel did not take place in DC - that would have been illegal. The two rivals had instead gone over the border into Maryland and after being shot in the pelvis and suffering a severed artery, Decatur was rushed back to his dream house, and exclaimed “I did not know that any man could suffer such pain!" shortly before dying. Following his demise, it was rumored that those who had helped to organize the duel had conspired against Decatur by establishing rules that increased the odds in favor of his opponent. For instance, the distance between Decatur & Barron was set at 8 paces instead of the customary 10, and rather than turning and firing quickly, the men were allowed to face one another and take careful aim over multiple seconds - both of these wrinkles helped Barron, who was nearsighted and a bad shot. So today we are left to wonder, was it an honorable fight, or muuuuurder? Excuse me We now leave Jackson Place and continue along H Street. Keep Lafayette park on your right and H street on your left as you walk along the roadway toward the next intersection. You’ll know you’re getting close when you see a yellow church with a white steeple on your left.
1601 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20502, USA
As you approach our next stop, you should be standing on the sidewalk alongside the edge of Lafayette Park at the intersection of H & 16th Streets. Stand so that you’re facing up 16th Street with the yellow church to your right front, the Hay Adams hotel with its overhanging flags to your left front, and the Lafayette park behind you. With a five star rating, the Hay Adams is among the ritziest hotels in the city. It was built atop the spot where once stood the adjoining homes of Henry Adams - the eminent American historian and descendent of the Adams presidential dynasty - and John Hay, a personal assistant of Abraham Lincoln who eventually became secretary of state. Although the homes were demolished to make room for the hotel, Henry Adams’ wife Clover still haunts the premises (supposedly). She took her own life on this site in 1885 after drinking poisonous chemicals which smelt of almonds - a scent which still lingers in the hotel according to DC folklore. *Sniff* *Sniff*, do you smell that? Opposite the Hay Adams is St. John’s Church, otherwise known as the Church of Presidents because every president since James Madison (number 4 on your bingo card) has worshipped here. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (a gifted architect who also oversaw a legendarily difficult expansion of the United States Capitol Building) the church is in the shape of a Greek cross. If you venture inside, you’ll note that the rightmost rear pew was used by Abraham Lincoln during his time in office - as he was fond of unobtrusively slipping into evening services after they had begun and exiting just as quietly to avoid attention. There is also a dedicated presidential pew - No.54 should you care to locate it. FDR famously prayed inside St. John’s before two of his inaugural ceremonies - interestingly, during his presidency (and from inside the White House) FDR would lead what many historians believe to be the largest organized prayer in human history with an audience of 100 million Americans listening in over the radio. Question: What was the event and why was FDR invoking God’s blessing? Answer: June 6th, 1944 - American troops storm the Normandy Beaches on D-Day. Here’s an audio sampling Evidently FDR’s prayer worked, because the good guys won. Continue walking along H Street in the same direction you were moving before. Momentarily, you will encounter another Revolutionary War statue across from a yellow house with green shutters. This is where I’ll meet you next.
H St + Madison Pl NW, Washington, DC 20006, USA
The Revolutionary War general you’re approaching on the right is Polish freedom fighter Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who not only fought for American independence as a young man, but also struggled to liberate his home country of Poland from Russian domination later in life. After the American Revolution, he would strike up a friendship with none other than Thomas Jefferson who would later say that General Kosciuszko was, “...as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known”. High praise from the author of the Declaration of Independence. To General Kosciuszko’s right, note the light yellow house with green shutters. This is our next point of interest, the Dolley Madison House. This building was the home of First Lady Dolley Madison during the period of her 1837-1849 widowhood after husband James passed away. After James left the presidency, the Madisons left the White House and returned to their country home - but when James died, Dolley (who was always the more social of the two) moved back to the city in the hopes that it would provide her with distraction and entertainment. She was right. During her time in this house, Dolley established herself as the city’s premier hostess. A frequent guest of Dollies’ parties would later observe, No wonder she was the idol of Washington—at once in possession of everything that could ennoble a woman. But chiefly, she captivated by her artless, though warm, affability. . . . Her power to please—the irresistible grace of her every movement—sheds such a charm over all she says and does that it is impossible not to admire her. During her time in the White House - Dolley Madison is still remembered for her efforts in rescuing - from a fiery fate - a treasured portrait of George Washington. Here’s how the story goes It is a sultry August evening in 1814. As first lady, Dolley Madison heads a bustling White House staff populated with white servants and black slaves. As they finish setting the table for dinner, horrifying news races through the city - the American Army defending the capital has been defeated by the British and redcoats are marching unopposed into Washington. Dolley is the only member of the first family at home as husband James is with the troops. When she realizes that the White House is likely to be destroyed and that she will have only moments to spare if she wishes to avoid potential capture and humiliation, she keeps her head and actively coordinates the removal of as many valuables as possible from the presidential mansion - the most valuable of which is the stately, 8-foot-tall portrait of George Washington which is bolted to the dining room wall. Dolley orders the White House doorkeeper & gardener to break the frame and remove the canvas as time is of the essence. As the painting is evacuated Dolley further instructs the men protecting it that the painting itself should be destroyed before it is allowed to fall into British hands. She then makes good her escape mere minutes before the British arrive, whereupon they eat the dinner still left out, and put the house to the torch. The painting would eventually return and hangs in the East Room of the White House to this day. As you take one last look at the Dolley Madison house, here’s a parting factoid you might find interesting. In the 1960s, Dolley’s humble abode was transitioned into the first NASA Headquarters and it served as the location of the first press conference for the Mercury 7 astronauts. As we move on, look behind the statue of General Kosciuszko and you’ll notice a brick path leading off diagonally into the center of the park. Follow it, and I’ll meet you at the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson.
1563 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20006, USA
You are now at the center of Lafayette Park and you should be looking at a bronze statue of a rearing horse, topped with a hat waving rider, further surrounded by four cannon. This rider is Andrew Jackson - and his horse is special. A creation of sculptor Clark Mills, this statue of Andrew Jackson (not counted among the 4 Revolutionary War figures I mentioned earlier) was the first bronze equestrian ever cast in the United States AND it is also the first equestrian statue ever to balance its entire weight on the hind legs of the horse - a fact Mills was so proud of, he had it etched onto his tombstone. Mills' unlikely creation honors the life & legacy of the 7th President of the United States - Andrew Jackson. A man who was both colorful and controversial, Jackson left his mark on U.S. history. Under his leadership, the Bank of the United States was brought to an end, executive power was expanded, the modern Democratic party was formed & American Indians were evicted from their ancestral homeland in unprecedented fashion. Prior to the presidency, Jackson was known for his military exploits - his thorough whipping of the British Army at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 was the catalytic event for his eventual White House bid. This statue is a depiction of Jackson at the battle and the cannon which surround him are trophies he captured from the Spanish during another successful campaign. l Infamously, his first inaugural party as president almost spelled the end of the White House when it devolved into drunkenness and mayhem - or so the legend goes. You see, it had taken two nasty elections and a massive popular uprising within the American voting public to bring Jackson into office, and his ascendancy marked a titanic shift in American politics. When he became president, the common man was ready to celebrate and thousands reportedly arrived at the White House on inauguration day to participate in an ‘open house’ reception where anyone could attend. As the booze flowed freely, chairs were overturned, cheese was ground into the carpet and a scene unlike any other in White House history unfolded. One aghast female observer described the crowd as, “...a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made, no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated.” Maybe this sounds like a good time to you, but Jackson didn’t think so. The White House had been caught completely unprepared by the crowds - and Jackson was caught in a crush of people so dense he was reportedly pinned against the wall for a time. He would retire early that night (unsurprisingly) and those who remained had to be lured outside with ice cream and alcoholic punch in order to empty the house. Many historians think that the party’s mayhem was actually overstated by critics - a way for snobby society types to denigrate Jackson’s rough hewn supporters … and perhaps this is so. It certainly makes for a good story though. For our next stop, locate the White House & walk toward it.
1563 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20006, USA
At last, the White House! You didn’t think I’d forgotten it, did you? It’s not particularly important where you stand for this stop, so long as you can see the house. Where to begin? Let’s start with numbers. Begun in 1792 and completed in 1800, the White House is the oldest federal building in Washington, DC and its 55,000 square feet and 132 rooms have borne witness to some of the most storied moments in American history. John Adams - our second president - was the first chief executive to occupy the home in 1800. Funnily enough, even though the house is indeed white, THE WHITE HOUSE is not the buildings’ original name. Built of porous brown sandstone, when first created, it was known as the executive mansion and coated with a white wash to prevent the building stone from absorbing too much water. Locals quickly nicknamed it the white house. 100 years later, the name became so popular that Theodore Roosevelt made it official during his time in office. Now a bit about the layout. Even though they are not all visible from where you stand, the central portion of the estate, the mansion, has 6 floors, the top two of which are dubbed ‘the residence’ because it is there where the first family has its living quarters. To the right of the mansion is the West Wing - the White House office area. Here you’ll find the situation room, the Cabinet Room, the Roosevelt Room and of course, the Oval Office. To the left is the East Wing. This is where the offices of the First Lady & her staff are located, alongside the White House movie theater & the entrance for the official tour (tickets for which need to be obtained well in advance through your congressperson's office). The American flag atop the building always flies, regardless of whether or not the President is inside the house - a common misconception among the visiting public. The face of the White House you’re currently looking at is the north entrance. It is on this side of the White House where guests enter to attend special functions (like state dinners or official receptions) and it is also the door which the incoming & outgoing presidents use to exit the house on inauguration day as they make their way to the Capitol for the swearing in. There’s so much to say about the White House - but we must end somewhere - I’ll conclude with a brief story. Shortly after he moved in, the building’s first occupant, John Adams, crafted a prayer for the house that would be fondly remembered by successive presidents. During his time in office almost a century-and-a-half later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had the words carved above the state dining room mantlepiece. Later, First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy would share Adams’ words with the entire country as she led a televised tour of the house. I’ll let her tell you the rest of the story … [Audio] As you face the White House, turn left and start walking down Pennsylvania Avenue until you encounter our final Revolutionary War General statue on your left hand side on the southeast corner of Lafayette Park. When you get there, I’ll introduce you.
701 Madison Pl NW, Washington, DC 20005, USA
This fellow is the Marquis de Lafayette, the man from whom the park takes its name. Although a Frenchman, Lafayette is arguably as much an American founding father as Washington, Franklin, Hamilton etc. He was instrumental in bringing French recognition & material support to the United States during the Revolutionary War through his high profile service in the Continental Army under George Washington - who loved Lafayette as a son. Only a teenager when he first came to the fledgling wartorn republic, Lafayette pledged his life to the American cause and served with distinction in numerous revolutionary war battles. Upon returning to France after the war, he would support the cause of liberty again during multiple French Revolutions and in his old age, during his last visit to the United States, the Marquis had a large trunk filled with American soil from Bunker Hill. Upon Lafayette’s death (during his burial service) his son, Georges Washington Lafayette, fulfilled his father’s wish and covered his father’s grave with a mixture of both French & American dirt, a symbol of Lafayette’s cross-continental commitment to human freedom. His is undoubtedly the most famous of the 4 Revolutionary War statues you’ve seen and ever since it’s unveiling in 1891, people have been making a funny observation about its appearance. As you look up at Lafayette, notice his pose - with a cloak in one hand he is addressing the French National Assembly, asking for French aid for the United States in its struggle for independence against Great Britain. Below him, you notice a naked, female allegorical figure (America), lifting a sword to Lafayette, asking that he take it up in her defense. That’s one way to look at it - but for generations now smart alecks have alternately suggested that she’s actually offering the Marquis a trade, “I’ll give you this sword, if you’ll give me my clothes back). As you face the statue, turn right, and continue along Pennsylvania Avenue. As you walk, notice the gray stone building to your right behind the black fence and fronted with stately columns. This is our next stop, the United States Treasury Department.
619 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005, USA
As you approach the Treasury Department, you should notice yet another statue (boy, there are alot of those on this tour) depicting a colonial looking fellow with his left hand on his hip. Position yourself so that you are staring directly at him. The statue is of Albert Gallatin. A Swiss born American immigrant - Albert, like Lafayette, would become a founding father, and the pinnacle of his career was his appointment to the position of United States Treasury Secretary under Thomas Jefferson - a position he would hold for a record setting 13 years. He is also famous for founding New York University and writing the text of the Louisiana Purchase. Behind him is the United States Treasury Department - this is the place where Federal Revenue (American tax dollars) are managed. Granted they’re not managed well, but hey, what-are-ya-gonna do? If you look beside the steps at the bottom level of the building, you’ll notice heavy iron bars on all the windows - they harken back to an earlier time when the nation’s gold depository was housed in the basement of the Treasury Department. Eventually, the gold reserve of the United States was relocated to Fort Knox, Kentucky and the Treasury Department filled the empty space with bureaucrats and red tape. Inside, you’ll also find the headquarters of the United States Secret Service. Why is this? During your walk around the White House area, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the heavy security presence. Most of these folks are uniformed Secret Service personnel. The Secret Service itself, the organization famously responsible for protecting the president - is headquartered inside the Treasury Department - because they are a branch of the Treasury Department. The Secret Service was originally created not to protect the president, but to combat counterfeiters. In order to finance the Civil War, during the 1860s the federal government printed millions of green back dollar bills. They weren’t high quality and between the slovenliness of the federal bills and the hodge podge of state & locally issued currency also in circulation, paper money was easily counterfeited. Criminals took advantage, and by the end of the war it was estimated that ⅓ of paper money circulating in the United States was fake. It was a full blown economic crisis, and thus, the Secret Service was born out of the necessity to stop it. Ironically, Abraham Lincoln signed the organization into being on the day of his assassination, April 14th, 1865. It would take another 36 years, however, and the deaths of three Presidents at the hands of lone, close range gunmen, before Congress expanded the Secret Services’ duties to include Presidential Protection. And you might ask, why the Secret Service, why not some other organization? The simple reason - they worked right next door to the president’s house and they already carried guns. As you face the Treasury Department, turn left and head toward the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue & 15th Street NW. Here you’ll notice that regular car traffic begins again. At the corner, take the crosswalk over to the farside of 15th and then hang a right in front of the White House Gift Store. Our next stop will be on the following block at the Old Ebbitt Grill.
15th Street and, F St NW, Washington, DC 20229, USA
As you walk south on 15th street, on your left hand side, you’ll notice a golden revolving door which leads into DC’s oldest restaurant, the Old Ebbitt Grill. Though current rankings vary, it’s consistently rated among the nation’s 5 busiest restaurants serving over 1 million meals per year with food and drink sales averaging almost $35 million annually. All the animal heads mounted above the main bar are hunting trophies supposedly collected by President Theodore Roosevelt. Please duck inside and take a look (and if you need it, the bathroom is at the bottom of the staircase immediately inside the door). When you come back outside, continue south on 15th street until you reach the next intersection and I’ll tell you a story about Theodore Roosevelt & hunting.
1434 F St NW, Washington, DC 20004, USA
Cross to the far side of F and turn left. Just before the end of the block on your right hand side will be the rear entrance to the Willard Hotel. That’s where we’re going and here’s a story to keep you company. Perhaps no childhood toy is more widely recognized or endearing than the cuddly Teddy Bear - which itself is a relatively new childhood staple, and we can thank our former President, Theodore Roosevelt, for its advent. In November 1902, outdoor enthusiast Teddy Roosevelt took a hunting trip to Onward, Mississippi to hunt bears with the state's Governor. Two of Roosevelt's assistants found and captured a black bear, tying the creature to a tree to give their boss an easy shot. Roosevelt, a true sportsman, refused to shoot the bound creature. The story reached newspapers and took off like wildfire. A political cartoonist satiricalized the scene in the Washington Post paper. A Brooklyn candy shop owner showed the cartoon to his wife, who made stuffed animals, and together they created a stuffed bear in honor of their honorable president. Roosevelt gave the couple permission to formally use his name and the Teddy Bear was launched, soon becoming an internationally recognized and beloved toy. Once you find the door to the Willard Hotel on your right, head inside.
1416 F St NW, Washington, DC 20004, USA
As you enter the Willard Hotel’s rear door off of F Street, you’ll notice a stairway leading down to a long carpeted hall, overhung with chandeliers. Pause at the top of this staircase before heading down. You’re now inside the Willard - DC’s most famous hotel. Although the building you see around you is not the original hotel, the Willard itself (in all its forms) has occupied this site. From the time of its birth 1818, the hotel has welcomed every U.S. President since Franklin Pierce in 1853. It has also played host to countless other famous figures such as writer Mark Twain, escape artist Harry Houdini and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the night before he delivered his immortal I Have a Dream Speech (which he put the finishing touches on during his hotel stay). The Willard also has a well known lobby, which I’d like you to see. So start walking down the stairs and along the hall. You’re now walking down Peacock Alley, so named because during the building’s early years women sporting the latest fashions would strut this hallway on their way to the hotel lobby where the chattering uppercrust of DC society loved to gather. In essence this was the city’s unofficial fashion runway where women would Peacock in their resplendent attire. Speaking of which, you’re looking pretty good yourself. But, those shoes? Come on. When you reach the lobby, pause. I’ll tell you a story and then give you directions to our final destination. As legend has it, usage of the term ‘lobbyist’ as a word meant to describe one who pursues the reward of political favors & support, was coined in this very lobby. After many a hard day at work, President Ulysses S. Grant was often known to visit the Willard’s lobby because he found it a comfortable and relaxing place to kick back & enjoy a cigar (a habit which would eventually lead to his death from throat cancer - but that’s beside the point). Eventually office seekers, fanboys, suck ups & various & sundry other hangers on started to position themselves in the lobby as well, with the aim of getting Grant’s attention. The President, who just wanted to be left alone, one day had enough and yelled out, “Leave me alone you damn lobbyists!”. It’s a fun story. In reality the term was actually coined in England a few centuries earlier, but even if Grant didn’t create it, he sure did use the term to insult those pesky hangers on. You can explore if you like, but if you want to avoid being called a lobbyist yourself, when you’re ready exit the lobby & turn right.
1400 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004, USA
As you exit the Willard, turn right. Proceed down the sidewalk until (on your right hand side) you see a large staircase in the middle of which is a fountain. Face the staircase.
1475 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004, USA
At the top of the staircase and just beyond the fountain you should see a large door over-hung with the words Occidental. Go inside the door and turn left in order to overlook the dining area. We end today’s tour in the city’s 2nd oldest restaurant, the Occidental Grill. Every president since Theodore Roosevelt has dined here - and if you need proof, you can find it inside. Just stand overlooking the dining room, off the main bar. This is the most famous restaurant interior in the city. The Occidental wears its history, and its historic roster of dining room guests on its sleeve - or more appropriately its walls as you’ll notice they’re covered in signed, sepia toned celebrity snapshots (political & otherwise). The Occidental’s tradition of asking famous guests to leave a signed photograph of themselves was begun in the early 1900s and, as you can see, it really took hold. If you want help finding out whose-who, just ask a member of the staff to provide you a list. They can also tell you where to find the famous Cuban Missile Crisis booth, a cozy seating area inside the restaurant where the world drew back from the brink of nuclear war in 1962. During the height of the crisis (which had America & the Soviet Union poised on the brink of nuclear war unless offensive Russian missiles were removed from Cuba) the Soviet Embassy in DC sent an agent to lunch at the Occidental with an ABC news correspondent named John Scali. During the lunch, the agent passed Scali documents which signaled the Soviet willingness to make a deal regarding the missiles. Scali brought the information to the White House, and the crisis was averted. That was a good lunch meeting. We hope you enjoyed your tour with us today. Remember to visit our website at www.historicamerica.org and use the #historicamericatours with reckless abandon. We look forward to taking you on another historic adventure soon! Oh and by-the-way, visit the bar and tell them Historic America sent you (provided you’re old enough).