When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.
Travel: The District of Columbia
It's not technically "travel" when I do something in D.C., since I live there. But I write about this crap anyway, for the good of humanity. There are a few other D.C. sites, like Woodrow Wilson House and Ford's Theater, written up on the U.S. presidents part of the site.
The Supreme Court
December 5, 2007
There are things to do, and then there are the things that you do only when guests are in town.
And somewhere beyond those things are things that guests wouldn't give a crap about and that you just do for yourself, because you are a dork. In the third category: Supreme Court oral arguments. I've lived about a mile from the Supreme Court for almost eight years now, and I had never set foot in the building, let alone watched the Supremes in action.
And by "action," I mean rocking back and forth in high-backed chairs and being jerks. It was cool. Here's how it breaks down:
6 a.m. -- wake up, shower, and put on something that the Supreme Court might find sexy. The odds of bumping into Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the hall aren't that good, but could you live with yourself if it happened and you were in sweats? Fun bonus activity: take a minute right now and imagine Ruth Bader Ginsburg dancing in front of a Camaro to the Styx song "Lady."
6:30 -- my friend and fellow dork for the day, Allyson, showed up at the house, and we headed over to Ye Olde Court Building, right across from the Capitol. Actually, it's not THAT old -- it's from the 20th century. Chief Justice William Taft convinced the federales to build the Court its own special digs, probably because the toilet seats in the Capitol couldn't support him. Dork trivia: as a president and Chief Justice, Taft headed two of the three branches of government. Which other president matched this accomplishment? The correct answer gets you the adoration of the masses.
7:00ish -- the morning session for oral arguments (M,T,W) starts at 10, and seating is limited on a first-come, first-served basis. You have to figure that the Supreme Court, the most powerful judicial body in the most powerful country in the history of the world, is on par with Hannah Montana. But neither Allyson nor I own reliable camping gear (tent, urine purifiers, etc.) so we just rolled the dice and got there around 7. We were 11th and 12th in line -- not the first people there, but the first people in line who had no actual reason to be there. (Everyone in front of us was a law or college student filling a class requirement.) Does this scientifically prove our coolness? Yes. Yes it does.
7:30 -- the cops on duty moved us from the sidewalk to the plaza in front of the building. They handed out numbered cards to everyone in the line. If you go, DO NOT LOSE YOUR CARD. Allyson at some point misplaced hers -- it probably fell out of her pocket and got blown away by the 30 mph wind gusts that morning (be sure to visit in December, it's the best time of year to stand outside). When she tried to explain this to the lady cop who had taken over at the front of the plaza, she instantly concluded thatAllyson was up to something diabolical. So instead of giving her a new #11 card, they gave her #57.
9:00 -- After careful consideration, we decided to get signed affadavits from numbers 10 and 13 vouching for Allyson. And if she was still denied entry, it was decided that we would rush the building Butch and Sundance style. In one last talk with the cops, however, a third cop informed us that the numbers mean nothing and that no one checks them as long as other people in line don't object. So on second thought, GO AHEAD AND LOSE YOUR CARD. It is a highly refined system they have going there.
9:30 -- they let us into the building. Once you're in, you are given the list of things not allowed in the courtroom: jackets, scarves, recording devices, cell phones, bad attitudes, high-top fades, 8 by 10 glossies of Supreme Court justices that you're hoping they'll sign, air horns, signs that say "What Would Scalia Do," beer helmets ... all visitors are given a standard-issue spandex singlet to wear. Then they are deloused and given an MRI scan. Once everyone's results are back ...
9:40 -- you can head into the courtroom. Ushers will seat you. In our case, standing for 150 minutes in the cold got us some choice seats on the side of the courtroom, in uncomfortable chairs, with a view of the bench partially obstructed by a pillar. The high school group behind us in line got to sit on cushioned pews with a great view. Again, the numbered card system is just great.
9:50 -- this is a good chance to take in the court chamber, which is really impressive. There's a carved floral pattern on the ceiling, huge red curtains, some marble friezes shwing great moments in law (Moses, the signing of the Prime Directive, highlights from "Demolition Man") and some great metalwork along the walls that is just covered with legal imagery: acorns, stone tablets, and for some reason a dolphin that appears to have a parrot's beak. If you understand that last one please let me know. This is also a good time to speculate about how the justices might enter. Me, Allyson and our line-standing buddies (#10 and #13) decided that the Chicago Bulls entrance would be the best. ("And now ... at 5'11" ... from Harvard Law School ...") We also talked about judge pickup lines. If you were in a bar wearing the robe, I think you could go with: "In a 1-0 decision, I rule that you are the sexiest girl in here."
9:55 -- right around now a security guy will remind you that if you make any noise, chew any gum, sneeze or disrupt the proceedings in any way, you will be beaten to death with a very large gavel.
10:00 -- Oyez oyez oyez, the games begin! Everyone stands and the judges come in to the theme song of "Night Court." They take care of some minor business up front: admitting people to the bar, and in our very special case, saying their very first hello to the new Attorney General of the United States, Michael Mukasey! They hazed him by putting him through the dreaded 9-justice spanking machine. It was great. Then, it's time for business ...
Sprint vs. Mendelson. A woman is laid off by Sprint and sues for age discrimination. To help make her case, she tries to use the testimony of various other Sprint employees who feel they're in the same boat -- though they don't have the same supervisor or work in the same office as her. Can their testimony be counted as evidence?
Who the hell knows. Whatever case you're watching, they're going to start going into legalese. So just watch the fun:
11:00 -- once they wrap up, the justices go straight to the back, and everyone has to file out of the building pretty quickly (after turning in their singlet and retreiving their belongings). Then you can see a lot of the lawyers in the lobby afterwards. If you offer them a sip of your Coke, they will throw their necktie to you.
The whole process is for show -- the way the judges ask (or don't ask) questions, it's pretty clear they already know what they think. There are tons of written summaries of the various arguments put together well before the case every makes it to oral arguments. There are no surprise witnesses or emotional breakdowns. But it serves a purpose: getting me out of bed before 10 a.m. on a Monday.
And that's something.
May 1, 2008
I got my first look at the inside of Nationals Park on Tuesday. It's a little bit nicer than RFK, in the same way that kissing a beautiful woman is a little bit nicer than getting hit repeatedly in the face with a millstone.
Let's DO THIS!
Location: C plus. It's right on Metro, and since Nats fans aren't in plentiful supply, the parking issues don't seem to be that big of a deal. There's not really a Washington skyline, so it's not like the views will be that much better from anywhere else in the city. The only downer right now is the surrounding neighborhood. There are hardly any bars or restaurants in the 'hood, so there's not too much of a "game day" or social atmosphere if you're hanging around outside. They're working on this, but the "if you build it they will come" theory hasn't always worked in other cities. If they turn that part of the city around a bit, this could jump up to an A.
Food: B. I didn't eat much but they seem to have a good variety, including at least one D.C. institution (Ben's Chili Bowl). It's all hideously overpriced, but they're also sort of liberal about you bringing food in. So huzzah.
History: D. This isn't really the fault of the Nationals, since they have no history. There are some wall displays on the history of baseball in Washington, and some paintings on the concourse of several famous Hall of Famers. I guess you could put a giant statue of Ryan Church behind the center field wall, but since he now plays for the Mets, that could get awkward when they come to town.
Seating: B. No truly bad views in the house. The stadium is very vertical, if that makes sense -- there are 40,000 plus seats but they're stacked upward, not outward. You can see the field from almost any point on the concourse. The center field seats (where I was) have the same problem as RFK -- anything to the deep outfield (i.e. the most exciting plays), and the stands themselves cut off your view. The rows are too narrow for people over six feet tall to sit comfortably, but that's the case with almost any arena anywhere.
Scoreboard: ?. Supposedly great. I was sitting in front of it, though, so I can't say that I looked at it more than once.
Fans: C. There are people who really work at loving the Nats, and good for them. But attendance (listed at 25,000) had to have been under 20,000, in the first month of a NEW STADIUM. I know they had a rough month, and I know it's a school night, but COME ON.
Intangibles: C. The Mount Rushmore president-mascots are still great; Screech is still awful. In game presentation is just average, since they don't really do too much to get the crowd amped outside of the usual.
Overall: They're hamstrung by a complete lack of team history, and they're still working on becoming a beloved D.C. sports institution. So right now, the park is beautiful and new, but a bit antisceptic. It has all the amenities of a new park, but it stays away from the throwback look that was all the rage; I like the modern feel, but maybe there's too much concrete (if that makes sense). I don't know that anyone's done Greek revival for a baseball stadium since The Palace of the Fans, but if you were going to give it a try, D.C. would have been the place. Still, it's a perfectly fine place to see a game, it's a billion times nicer than RFK and you gotta figure the stadium experience will get upgraded as the years go by and the fanbase (hopefully) improves. B minus.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
June 22, 2008
Our Founding Fathers, in all their infinite wisdom, decided to build the capital of our budding nation on a malarial swamp. It was probably part of their commitment to limited government. Sadly, that swamp is now drained, leaving only 100 degree summers with 95 percent humidity as reminders of our glorious past.
But not all is lost! One of D.C.'s forgotten attractions (i.e., something in a neighborhood most white tourists are scared to go to for vaguely racist reasons) is Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
It's a swamp. Specifically, a SMITHSONIAN swamp, so your tax dollars are funding my semiannual trips to see frogs in the wild. But don't say I never gave back. Here are some pictures ...
That's right, it's a BUG ORGY! ON YOUR TAX DOLLAR! I don't know how people can sleep at night knowing a piece of their paycheck is funding this smut.
We saw one frog on our visit. We heard many of them. They are organized and stealthy. Fear them. We did run into three different turtles, including one very cool looking snapping turtle (not pictured, I was petrified with fear).
There are lots of pretty flowers at the swamp. I'd say more but I like the LADIES! Cough. Cough.
I don't know what this thing is. A crawdad? A pigmy lobster? A jukajoo? I'm pretty sure it's poisonous though. Just LOOK at it.
And finally, the required metaphor shot.
U.S. Postal Museum
September 3, 2008
I like to keep busy on the weekends, and the pass the savings on to you. So here we go ...
A History of the Postal Service By a Person Who Visited the Postal Museum for 90 Minutes But Didn't Take Any Notes
1632: The British Crown attempts to establish regular mail service between New York and Boston, at the request of colonial governors, who wish to exchage the latest in Drunken Indian jokes. Couriers are repeatedly killed by sober Indians.
1768: Colonists, furious over an onslaught of catalogs from the British East India Company, establish an independent mail system, only to be flooded with copies of postmaster Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Secret" catalogs.
1776-1781: The independent postal system pays dividends, as revolutionary leaders are capable of communicating well enough to defeat an opponent too dumb to realize that it might want to shut down an independent postal system. It also allows John Adams to send a non-stop and historically prolific series of erotic vingettes to his wife Abigail, despite her pleas for him to stop.
1790: Newspapers are the primary type of mail, despite the lack of all news from 1790-1827.
1845: The postal service initiates "Star Routes," which employ contractors to carry mail through the transit method of their choosing. These methods include dog sled, carriage, and in one unfortunate instance, runaway slaves.
1850: The average American gets six pieces of mail a year, five of which are letters indicating that relatives out West need money or have died in a hail of arrows, or both.
1861: The Pony Express opens, with a series of riders carrying mail from New York to San Francisco in an average of 11 days. The service shuts down in 1862 when clients complain of receiving mail that smells like horse junk.
1900: Mail is delivered increasingly by train, as the average American now gets 70 pieces of mail a year. Improved freight capacity increases the popularity of catalog shopping, ushering in a Golden Era for American shut-ins that would not be surpassed until the invention of the World Wide Web. Free rural delivery
1918: The inverted "Jenny" stamp is printed (showing an upside-down plane), instantly becoming the most valuable mistake in the world ... until your parents had you, of course.
1935: The average American gets 3,428,000 pieces of mail a year, as part of a New Deal program to have unemployed people cut down trees, make paper, and then send resumes to everyone they know.
1970: Most "Star Routes" are given to long-haul trucking operations, providing long-haul truckers with comfy piles of your mail on which to do truck-stop skanks.
1993-present: Postage rates increase within five days of every time you buy a coil of 100 stamps, so that the government can continue to fund operation of the Postal Museum.
Crime and Punishment Museum
April 14, 2009
Washington has by conservative counts 342,000 world class museums that, thanks to your tax dollars, are completely free to people like me who actually live here and can enjoy them. Thanks for subsidizing my weekends!
So when people visit Washington, they naturally head straight to the Spy Museum, which costs about $20 to get in. I scoff at these people, and I would never join them. Or more to the point, the attempts of my brother, buddy Mike and me to join them last Saturday were unsuccessful, since there was a three hour wait just to get in.
Fortunately, there's ANOTHER $20 museum just blocks away! It's the Crime and Punishment museum, and it has no real reason to be in Washington, other than to snap up all the people who didn't want to wait on a sidewalk to see spy stuff.
It's not bad! There's a linear display, starting with crime, then moving on to policework, then punishment, then the ultimate expression of justice (the giftshop). There's LOTS of reading, on everything from Caribbean piracy to the fun things you can find with luminol, and a few interactive displays where you get to shoot people. By being that broad, they're able to squeeze in some neat artifacts; basically, if a serial killer sneezed on a Denny's placemat, then that Denny's placemat is automatically cool. A few notes:
April 21, 2010
Greetings from the nation's capital, where I'm happy to report that azaleas are out!
Not the cherry blossoms -- those divas are gone, and good riddance. Sure, they're pretty, and Justin Guarini did visit the Cherry Blossom Festival parade. But for a man on the go such as myself, the trees get lost in the sullen forest of tourists. After an educational death march through five or six Smithsonians, all they can manage is a sidewalk-clogging shuffle past the blossoms.
First lady Helen Taft -- the mastermind who put the trees around Washington's Tidal Basin -- would probably smile at the thought of heavy-set Americans out for a stroll. However, she probably never envisioned the 450-pound guy in a Senor Frog's T-shirt, sitting on a tree trunk, right next to a "don't sit on the trunk" sign. The best part of the cherry blossoms is their end, when the crowds have gone and a good wind carries clouds of petals over the water. You can pretend you're an anime character for a few hours, or until the Park Police tell you to stop summoning energy bolts.
So now I'm an azalea man, stout and true. By careful design, Mount Hamilton, a towering peak in the National Arboretum (236 feet), is covered with them. A few weeks after the cherry blossoms are spent, the whole hillside explodes with pinks, purples and reds. You can actually enjoy the spectacle at leisure, because most people aren't aware that we have a National Arboretum.
I swear, we do! It's on maps and everything. Since the 1920s, your tax dollars have been hard at work maintaining 400-plus acres of lovely meadows and woods along the Anacostia River, a place where the state trees of Texas (the pecan) and Massachusetts (the American elm) can set differences aside and grow in bipartisan harmony. Just down the road from some nail parlors.
It's light on visitors because of iffy public transportation, and also because the surrounding area could politely be described as "bombed out" for large portions of recent decades. Many Washingtonians, while deeply concerned with the plight of the poor, don't like being near them. So on a weekday, it's usually just me, a few Asian families in minivans and the hearty office workers who take in nature's splendor by parking in it and sleeping in their cars. Sometimes, you just have to get away from Shirley in accounting.
Crowds aside, I'll take an azalea over a cherry blossom any day. They're brighter, hardier and more diverse -- a plant as American as eagle pie! Considering they're ubiquitous and often made in China, doubly so!
But even if the azaleas aren't in bloom at your next visit, do stop in and enjoy maybe my favorite sight in all the District. During one of the Capitol renovations -- putting in more portals to Hell, or something along those lines -- they took the old sandstone columns off the East Portico and dumped them in storage. In the 1980s, a man of great vision dusted them off and arranged them, sans building, in an arboretum meadow. They're surrounding a fountain and supporting nothing but the sky. Freed from their architectural duties, they almost seem happy.
Whatever your floral preferences, I think we can agree that the world needs more happy columns.
Yours, Chris White
The Library of Congress
February 21, 2011
The Library of Congress is an awesome place, filled with wonderment, naked carvings and the nation's hottest librarians. But you can only get the full experience two days out of the year.
One of those is Presidents Day, so I hoofed it over for a rare opportunity: dumb slobs are allowed into the main reading room. Ordinarily, you need a research card to get in to that coolest of rooms, because they don't want any dumb slob noisily stumbling around every day looking for the Book of Secrets.
It's kind of like the prototypical asteroid-based sci-fi labor camp. There's a big, elevated central desk, from where the head librarian has a 360-degree view to facilitate the shooting of anyone who picks their nose before turning a page.
All requests for materials must go through the LOC staff, and they handle them with their truly awesome ... card catalog. Yes, Virginia, there is a card catalog. It has been entirely digitized, and and they have not added a card since the 1980s. But they keep it around because it's the federally protected spawning ground of the Great North American Poindexter. Also, the drawers are great place for the library staff to hide drug stashes. Right there in the "self improvement" drawers are 40 ounces of Colombian pure. Allegedly. Please not in the following shot that I have recreated the classic scene from "Ghostbusters," minus the large quantities of ectoplasm and the sexy/scary ghost that made me crap my pants as a young lad.
So few buildings color to the edge of the page these days. It's exhilarating to see a public space where every square inch has purpose, and inspring to think of the number of academics who sat at those desks to launch a 40-year career of bitter disillusionment and complacency. Huzzah!
National Museum of the U.S. Navy
January 14, 2013
There are lots of ways to celebrate your birthday, and none of them are wrong. But the most right way is to force your friends to visit historical sites and museums with you. Turning 36 is like being an adult twice over, so I got to see two things, and no one could tell me I was wrong because it was MY SPECIAL DAY.
So: I lived on Capitol Hill for a decade, three blocks from the Navy Yard that was originally surveyed by Thomas Jefferson. In that time, I visited more than a hundred homes and museums in 30 states and a bunch of different countries. Not once did I visit the museum three blocks from my house that is dedicated to one of the most pivotal institutions in world history. I now live 50 or so blocks from the Navy Yard, but I have a car, so it's not a big deal.
Now: Washington has a lot of world-class museums filled with fat, ugly people from around the globe every single weekend. You should definitely take your fat, ugly children there if it's your first visit to the nation's capital. They'll hate you, resent the experience and rebel against learning, but that's how parenting works. Should you make a second trip to the nation's captial, we also have museums that no one goes to, because they're seduced by the glitz and glamour of the National Mall -- it's the museum equivalent of that street in Amsterdam with the whores in the windows.
Once you've seen the Navy museum, it seems ridiculous that no one goes there. It's hangar-sized, with no wasted space. There are exhibits on all the sexy periods of the Navy when the were actively blowing up our enemies, plus some nice displays on Arctic exploration, navigation, submarines and deep-water dives (the entire Trieste is in the building).
Most important, they let you sit on giant guns. Yes, there's reading to do if you want to get the full experience, and few people want to spend their fun time reading. But let me repeat: they let you sit on giant guns. The World War II exhibit has swanky deck guns from battleships -- the kind where you rotate the gun and elevate the barrel with hand cranks. You can sit on those guns, and either you're allowed to work the cranks, or they don't have enough people on staff to prevent you from doing it. You can point the guns in the general direction of the full-sized WWII planes hanging from the ceiling, then imagine that those planes are carrying the people who made "Pearl Harbor." Take your children, so that history might come to life for them, and then you can pretend to blow up that history. Together.
What I learned:
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
January 14, 2013
It was embarrassing that I had never been to the Navy museum. If you take that embarrassment and multiply it by white guilt, then you have a sense of how I was feeling about the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Here is a National Park site with no admission charge, within a mile of my former home, that I had never seen. And it's dedicated to an escaped slave with truly phenomenal hair.
Douglass was an interesting guy. He was born in Maryland as a slave, but he escaped to the North as a fairly young dude. He was literate and had a kick-ass speaking voice, so once he was an established free man, he was able to rake in the dough as a journalist and speaker on behalf of the abolitionist cause; while living in upstate New York her published an abolitionist newspaper. Eventually he expanded his brand to women's suffrage, and also endorsing a line of hair-care products for the dapper man on the run from fugitve-slave hunters.
A decade or so after that whole Civil War thing blew over, Douglass was appointed the U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, so he relocated to the nation's capital. He bought a home about three miles from the Capitol, in a formerly all-white neighborhood; the estate had a functioning farm and a great view of downtown. It was dubbed Cedar Hill. The park ranger did not confirm that Douglass hired only white farm help and watched them while drinking mint juleps and laughing, but let's just say that he did. In one of the more interesting developments of his late life, his wife died, and Douglass got married to a white lady. This was the exact story, with the names changed for copyright purposes, of the Spike Lee joint "Jungle Fever."
The house is delightful, because Douglass had wads of cash from his speaking and publishing career (he wrote three memoirs), and his family made a point of preserving things with the knowledge that it would one day be a fine museum. His office, where he did a lot of his late-life writing, looks like he might stop in at any second; the living room has his favorite rocking chair, which he took on trips with him. The upstairs has Douglass' bedroom, which was separate from his wife's, because Frederick Douglass needs his space, baby.
We had an interesting park ranger, who professed to only sort of like working at the Frederick Douglass house. But he referred to Douglass as "Mr. Frederick Douglass" on every reference. Also, instead of using "um" as a place holder, he said "if you will." Which, over the course of a 40-minute tour, becomes hilarious. And then grating. And then hilarious again. Followed by puzzling, and then back again to hilarious.
FUN FREDERICK DOUGLASS FACTS!
How the Other Half Rolls
August 28, 2008
For the last 31 years I've been a big supporter of walking: it's affordable, it's convenient, and it seems to get you where you're going.
Well, NO MORE! Kick it to the curb, walking! I have travelled to tomorrow, and I have done so not on two feet, but on wheels of glorious rubber, which were in turn attached to a glorious Segway. There was even some sort of glorious bag attached to the handlebars to hold my glorious bottled water. Which reminds me: Kick it to the curb, tap water!
I rode this magnificent beast as part of a D.C. Segway tour last weekend, for which my girlfriend had a gift certificate. And once I save up $3,000, I will never, ever walk again. It's no contest.
Learning. It takes babies 9 to 18 months to learn to walk. To learn to Segway, I watched a three-minute video in which a stick figure fell off a Segway and landed on its neck about 43 times. Then I practiced on a sidewalk for five minutes. At that point, I was qualified to move at top speed through city streets -- even city streets choked with slow, stupid pedesdtrians. Advantage Segway.
Headgear. Walking requires no helmet. Segways require a helmet, which could easily be personalized with racing stripes, flame decals or nicknames like "Segs Machine" or "Roll Model." Advantage Segway.
Speed. Average walking speed is 3.5 miles per hour. Segways can break the sound barrier, though for safety's sake, those on the tour were regulated to about 12 miles per hour. Still, advantage Segway.
Fuel. A Segway can go 25 miles on an electric charge. A walker, charged with the same amount of eletricity, will simply twitch and flop in agony, hardly moving forward at all, instead wasting their energy to yell, "Please stop, why are you doing this to me." Advantage Segway.
Maneuverability. Segways cannot travel on rough surfaces, steep slopes, slippery surfaces, sticky surfaces, uneven surfaces, or over the prone bodies of civilians who prostrate themselves before the glory that is your Segway. You could walk on many of these things, but honestly, why are you walking up the side of a sticky mountain? What do you have to prove, you snot? And do you even have a gyroscope in your hips? I didn't think so. Advantage Segway.
Respect. As a pedestrian, I often would describe Segway riders as "tools," "losers" or "lazy." Now I understand that I was acting out of unreconciled jealousy, and that all those bound to the lowly earth must have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the gods that glide six inches above it. For example, in 31 years of walking, no one has every seen me go by and asked if I was having a good time. In two hours of Segway riding, I was asked this five times. The proper answer is "Silence, plebian!" Advantage Segway.
Stop, Drop, Roll
I really did enjoy the whole Segway experience, possibly because I didn't fall. I suppose it's possible that face planting while moving forward at 12 miles per hour might put a damper on the day. And according to the safety video, it is a sensitive device. A Segway will tip over or stop ...
Society of the Cincinnati
December 28, 2011
I started out my 35th birthday by visiting the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Virginia. But sometimes one secret society isn't enough. Superfriends Melanie and Eric were up for some more sleuthing, so we checked out the Society of the Cincinnati, back in the District. The short version: a bunch of Revolutionary War military officers, both French and American, thought it would be cool to form some kind of a club so that they could K.I.T. and be B.F.F.s even after graduation. They came up with the Society of the Cincinnati -- named after the Roman general who beat his sword into a plowshare -- and set up some pretty strict rules. First, you had to be cool. Second, you had to be willing to help out other people in the club. Third, membership would be passed down to the first-born male sons. All this sounded great to George Washington, who, even though he had personally spanked George III, was a total chip-carrying social elitist. He liked the perks of aristocracy, if not the actual titles. (I'm getting this all from "His Excellency" by Joseph Ellis, by the way.)
Unfortunately, people were a little wary of anything that looked like royalty, so membership in that elitist society was the 1780s political equivalent of having a brother in the Klan. Washington ultimately decided to steer relatively clear of the group, but they kept electing him their president before moving on the Alexander Hamilton.
Still, there were a lot of high-rollers in the Society, and by the time the 20th century arrived a guy by the name of Anderson decided they needed a swank headquarters. He owned a Gilded Age mansion in Washington, which he had used to entertain foreign dignitaries (he was a diplomat). He gave it to the society, and they used it as a base of operations and boarding house for traveling members.
We only got the tail end of a tour, so I have to go back to get the full story. It's pretty awesome, though, in that the Andersons had some ties to Asian trading interests, i.e. opium. So the walls are all decked out with crazy Japanese and Chinese art. Fun stuff.
Old Soldiers' Home
Winfield Scott started his career in the Army in 1808, so by the 1840s he was an old sodier. He thought about old soldiers' problems and wanted to solve them, but the government never seemed to have the cash to realize his vision. Scott, being a Type A personality, found another government that would.
During the Mexican-American War, Scott led his troops on an ass-kicking tour of our neighbor to the south. No group of Americans would abuse Mexico so thoroughly until Spring Break 1995. By the time he reached Mexico City, the Mexicans had no hope of victory or even a spirited defense; Scott astutely "negotiated" a $150,000 contribution from their leaders, and in exchange he graciously declined to burn their city to the ground. With a little bit of bureaucratic strong-arming, he kept that money in his own budget, and 1851 he used it to set up a nice little village for retired and disabled troops in Washington. They called it the Old Soldiers' Home. High atop a hill, it had views of the capital and nice breezes that would blow away the old guy smell.
Abraham Lincoln liked spending his summers there, since it was removed from the muggy shores of the Potomac and closer to some of the Union troops he was ordering into battle. He spent almost a quarter of his presidency as a resident of the Anderson Cottage (the main residence of the estate that was purchased to create the facility). It was there that he finalized the Emancipation Proclamation.
But when you focus on Lincoln, you miss out on the glorious depth of history on display at the Soldiers' Home. Sure, Lincoln crashed there. But so did Chester A. Arthur, and Rutherford B. Hayes. And who could forget the stunning residency of James Buchanan, who walked those hallowed grounds while thinking about ... uh, whatever James Buchanan actually did. His completely ineffective approach to the presidency might have allowed the Civil War to start, which allowed Lincoln to become famous, which gives you a reason to visit the Soldiers' Home today.
Sadly, there are few opportunities for most visitors to rejoice in James Buchanan. On the other hand, I'm not most visitors. As a member of the exclusive "Lincoln Cottage" e-mail list (which you can get on only by asking) I was informed over the the summer of a delightful event marking the opening of a new veterans' facility on the grounds; as part of the festivities, guests could walk around some of the structures that are usually closed to the public. I went up in the clock tower of the Sherman Building, which gives you a view clear down to the river. I tramped around some very exciting administrative offices with linoleum floors.
Best of all, I got to see Quarters 1. There are private residences on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home, which makes it the ultimate gated community -- not only do you have a fence, but you have government employees with assault rifles standing guard at the driveway. (Preference is given to people who work at the Home, so don't get your hopes up.) A few of those homes were damaged by a 2011 earthquake, and during the renovations they were emptied out. The "open house" for the whole campus came along just as the touch-up work was completed, so they let us snoop around.
As indicated by a very nice plaque at the entrance, Buchanan stayed at Quarters 1 in 1857, making him its second resident. There's nothing all that amazing about the home, and there was no real furniture in it when I visited. But hey, James Buchanan. Don't act like you aren't jealous.
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