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Trip report -- Northern Virginia (Alexandria, Arlington, Mount Vernon)

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Nov 30th, 2018, 05:22 AM
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Trip report -- Northern Virginia (Alexandria, Arlington, Mount Vernon)

One day (Alexandria)

There's about two days worth things to see in Alexandria. Started off at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, which despite its name is indeed a church. At first glance, the interior seems very plain the way most New England churches are, but a closer look inside reveals more detail work and molding, including candle posts along the balcony and two organs, one in front and one in back. The outside is brick and lacks a steeple. The parish house next door is old and attractive, and there's a cemetery out back that includes among other things a crypt for a Revolutionary War unknown soldier. The tour guide was extremely chatty but nice enough.

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum is located in an old torpedo factory, which today houses shops, restaurants, and several working artist studios. It's very small, containing dug-up artifacts from a local bakery, military hospital, tavern, plantation house, and hotel -- including things like a musket, porcelain, glass, boots and shoe pieces, ammunition, soldier's effects, ship timber pieces, bottles, buttons, and the like. There is also information on how an archaeological dig is done.

Gadsby's Tavern, unlike some other attractions that day, did open on time. It's fairly ornate of its type, containing quite a lot of wooden molding and similar decoration inside. Furnishings were minimal, but gave a sense of how this place may have looked at the time. It's larger than most, consisting of an older and newer building. The older section has both a public and private dining room on the first floor, a large assembly room on the second floor, and communal sleeping quarters above that. The newer building has private bedrooms, as well as a grand ballroom containing an upper balcony alcove for the musicians which was reached by a ladder.

The city's history museum is housed in the Lyceum, which looks like a Greek temple from the outside. This is also a modest sized attraction, containing thumbnail exhibitions on Native American predecessors, Colonial times, the War of 1812, the Civil War, 19th century economic issues, and World War I. Artifacts include a nice small collection of silver, pottery and porcelain, furniture, Civil War weaponry, a cannon, Fresnel lenses, a reconstructed Colonial era parlor, a neon drugstore sign, and information about George Washington.

The Lyceum's colonnaded twin is found several blocks over in the Athenaeum. Today, it serves as a gallery for local artists. The work displayed was okay.

The Carlyle House finally opened today at 1 pm (note well that attractions here sometimes open late with minimal notice to accommodate school group tours, so a little flexibility is needed). It's quite unusual, being a stone house in a town primarily containing brick and wood homes, being far larger than its neighbors, and having closets instead of large wooden wardrobes. There's plenty of good detail work, especially in the dining room and parlor, though for some reason the former housed a large coffin rather than the expected table and chairs. The first floor also contained an office/study and master bedroom, while the upstairs consisted of smaller, less ornate bedrooms. There are several furnishings original to the house, a surprise given that the structure stood largely abandoned during much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The tour was okay. There's a nice small hedge-dominated garden out back, and a sizable front lawn.

The Stabler-Leadbeater Pharmacy tour (this also was closed until 1 pm) was extremely interesting and informative. The store was open for over 140 years before going bankrupt in the 1930s, with all its pharmaceutical trappings left behind and still visible today. There are scads of jars, drawers, boxes, bottles, cabinets, and such, all labeled with a particular herbal or spice or other cure-all. The store later branched out into products such as paints and dyes, morphing into a cross between a drugstore and hardware store. Much enjoyed.

Headed across town to finish up at the National Inventor's Hall of Fame and Museum. The roster of inductees includes a who's who of science and industry: Edison, Howe, Whitney, Kellogg, Ford, Bell, Westinghouse, Tesla, Marconi, Morse, Diesel, Zamboni, Colt, Jobs, Otis, Fermi, Carver, Goodyear, Moog, Antheil, Roebling, and Muybridge. There were small exhibits on patents, trademarks, advertising characters, and mobile technology. Interesting little place.

Also did the Frommer’s Old Town walk in the guidebook, which allowed a good look at the old buildings in this historic city, of which there are plenty.


Another day (Alexandria)

Finished up the rest of the city's attractions today, with the first stop being Christ Church. Like a couple other such places, it claims George Washington as a regular member -- he did have his own box pew area; it’s the only one not converted to standard pews later on, though that belonging to a later member, Robert E. Lee, eventually was. It's an old Georgian style brick building with a tiered steeple added on later. Like the other churches seen, there's more here than meets the eye -- columns, a tulip style pulpit, decorative urns, crystal chandeliers, and wood molding. The tour guide inside gave some brief information on the congregation's history, and was far less verbose than the one at the Presbyterian Meeting House. An attractive old burial ground surrounds the building, though most of the headstones are heavily weathered and tough to read nowadays.

Several blocks away is the modest Alexandria Black History Museum, located in a former African-American Library that came about courtesy of a 1939 sit-in protest at the main library -- a little demonstration which preceded similar events in the South by better than a decade (the protesters were arrested, but ultimately not charged). There's a video explaining this in detail. Exhibits on local plantation slavery, free Blacks, and local attempts to preserve historic African-American neighborhood buildings were seen. There was also a small exhibit of paintings and a large collection of dollhouses recreating local Black-based businesses and homes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Small but informative.

Not far from here is the Lee-Fendal House, an old wooden home with black shutters and a pleasant backyard garden. The house inside boasts a bumper crop of decorative trim and wood ornamentation, especially downstairs, plus things like chandeliers and not-original-to-the-family furnishings. The downstairs consists of a front and back parlor, dining room, and entry hall, with several bedrooms upstairs. Interestingly, each room is furnished and decorated to illustrate a particular time period: Colonial, Victorian, Edwardian, etc., rather than sticking to just one era. The tour guide was knowledgeable and informative.

The tiny Friendship Firehouse Museum was home to one of the major local volunteer fire departments, housed today in a brick building that ironically replaces the original edifice which burned down in the 19th century, topped with a weather vane adorned with a fireman. They make a big deal here about a connection with George Washington, claiming he founded the company -- but unfortunately, they can't verify that. There are a few 19th century fire vehicles (a hose engine and water pump engine) and firefighting paraphernalia such as hats, buckets, nozzles, hoses, and axes, plus ribbons, medals, parade banners and capes, belts, and uniforms. The upstairs preserves the fire department's old meeting room and contains lots of information on George Washington.

The somber Freedom House Museum is situated in the old location of a local slave trading company and its successors. There are exhibits on local Civil War history and loads of information on the company and its practices, the cotton industry, and the slaves themselves. They courageously do not sugarcoat how barbaric the whole situation was, with harrowing descriptions of conditions here. Fascinating and troubling.

The final stop was the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. This is situated atop a sizable hill (up a punishing set of stairs) in a building that's plenty impressive -- nine stories high and modeled after the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria (in Egypt, of course). Today it houses the local Masonic Lodge, and you can see its two big meeting rooms, huge theater, and imposingly impressive grand central hall, this last with its huge George Washington statue, stained glass, and gigantic murals. Washington looms large over this place as it was his local lodge, and there's a museum devoted to him that includes several artifacts (mostly reproductions, though it does have his original Bible with signature). There are separate exhibits showing lodge artifacts, a history of Freemasonry in the US, and allied organizations such as DeMolay, Rainbow, and Knights Templar. Further up is a small chapel with nice modernist stained glass and a top floor observation deck with great views of Washington DC, Alexandria, and surrounding parts of Maryland and Northern Virginia.

More to come.

Last edited by bachslunch; Nov 30th, 2018 at 05:38 AM.
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Nov 30th, 2018, 07:38 AM
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Good stuff. Makes me want to return. We only spent part of an afternoon there. Looking forward to more of the report.
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Dec 3rd, 2018, 05:18 AM
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Yet another day (Arlington/Mount Vernon)

A full and enjoyable sightseeing day today. First up was a tour of the Pentagon, and while I'm glad to have gone, it's not the most satisfying tour I've ever taken. After going through airport-style security, you're assigned a tour guide (in this case, a young Air Force member). The tour is mostly spent hiking down corridor after corridor and up and down escalator after escalator while the tour guide rattles off one thing after another, all the while scooting past wall exhibits that you don't really get to see -- though I have to admit his ability to briskly walk backwards while explaining things over the course of an hour is an impressive achievement. There were thumbnail descriptions about the five service branches, POWs/MIAs, the Korean War, and women in the forces. The place is huge, almost like a small city unto itself, complete with cafeterias, offices, pharmacies, florists, PX style groceries -- and frankly pretty bland inside. The only pause taken was at the indoor 9/11 memorial, located at the spot where the planes crashed into the building.

Given that the Pentagon tour was not lengthy, this allowed for plenty of time to take a subway and bus out for a later-in-the-day full exploration of Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. The house itself is a little bit unusual for a presidential dwelling, Georgian and a little boxy looking outside, built out of wood treated to look like limestone with a small cupola-type construct on top. The porch columns are also square-shaped, another curiosity -- though the view of the Potomac River from here is stunning. Inside, however, the place is gorgeous, a riot of woodworking and plaster detail throughout the various rooms (especially the large and small dining rooms, formal parlor, and some of the bedrooms). Washington’s study by contrast felt cozily homespun, full of books and warm wood. The tour was relatively brief, but still pretty informative given its length; the group was passed from one guide to another, one guide per room, rather than following the same person throughout. Washington and his wife are buried in above-ground sarcophagi in a caged crypt area down the hill from the house, with various relatives interred nearby; there's also a marker showing the slaves’ burial ground not far away. There are loads of outbuildings, with most of them being original, including a greenhouse, slave quarters bunkhouse style, smokehouse, blacksmith shop, shoemakers shop, spinning house, laundry, gardener's quarters, outdoor kitchen, icehouse, and carriage house and horse stables, not to mention several gardens and a large lawn area behind the house. Three miles distant and reachable by shuttle are a gristmill and distillery, restored and fully functional (the gift shop sells ground cornmeal and house-made booze), with interesting tours of both. The visitors center has a film showing and a sizable museum that follows Washington's life and achievements as well as that of his slaves (uniquely among founding fathers, he freed his slaves upon Martha’s death); there are no shortage of personal effects ranging from dishes and clothing to weaponry to farm implements, and much more.

Returned to the Pentagon at the end of the day to see the outdoor 9/11 memorial, which is quite eerie and poignant after dark. There is a field of benches, one for each person killed in the attack. The rectangular benches are each anchored to the ground at one side, arching over a lighted pool water of the same size, with the name of the person who died carved into the free end.


Still another day (Arlington/Mount Vernon)

Began at Arlington National Cemetery, a lovely rolling and hilly green space scattered with trees and lots of gravestones, the latter for deceased members of the Armed Forces and their families. It's serene and relaxing. Had three things I wanted to see besides just strolling. John F. Kennedy’s burial spot, which includes his wife and two infant children, is found on a quiet hillside niche with a pleasant view of Washington DC, topped with an eternal flame. William Howard Taft and his wife are also interred in another part of this cemetery, marked by a tall monument stone. The Tomb of the Unknowns is found further to the south and up a hill; this is a peaceful venue, with a lone patrol guard watching over things. There's a large rectangular sarcophagus-like entity for the World War I unknowns, as well as three large in-ground plaques, one each for soldiers from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam (though they have since been able to identify the Vietnam soldier via DNA testing, so that particular crypt is empty). It also has a nice overlook view. Behind is a large amphitheater and a small exhibit about the Unknown Soldiers and rituals surrounding them. Arlington House is currently closed for renovation, so I settled for a vantage viewpoint -- no reason to hike up that hill for nothing. There is a tiny exhibit about the house that shares an extensive tribute to women in the Armed Forces.

Took a subway and bus out to see two historic homes located not far from Mount Vernon, Woodlawn and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Pope-Leighy House. The former is a large brick plantation home that belonged to George Washington’s nephew and his wife. The downstairs rooms all have hugely high ceilings and loads of architectural ornament and molding, especially in the dining room, music room (the family all played instruments), and parlor. There are four good-sized bedrooms upstairs as well as a small nook room for unknown use. All well worth seeing. The Pope-Leighy was moved to this spot from Falls Church to avoid being torn down to make way for a highway. This is an impressive 1940s Usonian "practical" style home, sporting typical FLW touches like a long carport-style front porch overhang, flat roofs, and relatively small size. It's a nice mix of wood and brick outside, mostly wood inside. There's a good-sized living room with open and perfunctory fireplace, a modest kitchen (though for its day pretty state-of-the-art), two small bedrooms, and a tiny study. The place does have a lot of windows, which helps make it seem bigger than it really is. A particular carved pattern recurs over the top window strip and in other decorative details. Very distinctive and enjoyable, as most of Wright’s stuff is.

Further down the road is the Pohick Church, another house of worship that claims George Washington as well as George Mason as members. Both had private box pews available for worship. There's a modest amount of detail work and some nice enough chandeliers. The baptismal font was originally a large stone vessel dating from ca. 1000 AD England. The building itself is a nice old Georgian brick edifice lacking a steeple. It was occupied during the Civil War, and the outside wooden door moldings still show soldier’s graffiti carved in them. A pleasant cemetery sits alongside. Located well out of the way, but worth the extra trip.

More to come.

Last edited by bachslunch; Dec 3rd, 2018 at 05:36 AM.
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Dec 4th, 2018, 05:05 AM
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One more day

Decided to head across the Potomac River to experience two Washington DC attractions which may be closed as of the end of the year. First stop was the Newseum, which has been reportedly running on financially shaky ground for the last couple of years and rumored to be closing, but still exists as of now. Was lucky enough to bypass the hefty admission fee thanks to a special promotion. It's an intriguing place in some ways, particularly if you’re a youngster or someone who knows little about the news industry -- though a fair bit of what it covered were things I already knew. If it's news related, it's fair game for this place to present. There were two photography exhibits with a little bit of overlap, one for "Picture of the Year," the other for the annual Pulitzer Prize winner; many of these are famous, iconic photographs. There were presentations on civil rights, 9/11 (including a twisted antenna from one of the twin towers and a building stone from the damaged wing of the Pentagon), the Berlin Wall (complete with numerous graffiti-scarred sections), a First Amendment gallery, examples of the killing and arrest and intimidation of the press worldwide, a timeline comparing developments in radio and TV and the Internet, newspaper and political cartoons, presidential dogs, the Vietnam Tet Offensive, and terrorism -- all accompanied by artifacts or memorabilia. The most extensive presentation, though, deals with the history of the news in the US, addressing everything from mistakes, bias, satire, editorials, fake news, the role of newspapers and TV and Internet, and war reporting, with such artifacts as Don Bolles’s wrecked car (an Arizona reporter blown up in his automobile by a shady man he was covering in an exposť), typewriters, cameras, a door from the Watergate Building, and similar things. There's a good-sized section here on minority- and gender-focused press as well.

The nearby International Spy Museum will close its doors in January for two years while they build a new home for its collection -- a wise idea, given how cramped the current space is and how claustrophobic it can become when there are a lot of visitors. The downstairs exhibit on James Bond and the various villains from these films wasn't especially interesting (mostly props and such), but the rest of the collection on the second floor was intriguing. There's a good bit of information on how to be a spy -- covers, disguises, behavior modification, cameras and weapons (both overt and hidden), the use of hidden compartment possibilities in ordinary objects, codes and secret ink writing, concealment (employing everything from fake rocks to fake dog poop to hide information), microdot technology, the use of aerial reconnaissance via balloons and drones and pigeons, and things like that. There's also a lot on the history of spying in the Civil War, the Cold War, World War II, and the like, as well as presentations focusing on various famous spies ranging from the expected such as Mata Hari and Kim Philby and Moe Berg to the unexpected such as Josephine Baker and Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin. Quite good, and a larger space should help keep visitors from creating bottlenecks, as often happened.


A much earlier day

I’ve decided to add information to this trip report on a brief visit to Washington DC made earlier. Seems like a reasonable place to do so, am thinking. Have been to this city in the distant past, but had never been to the National Gallery of Art before. Really glad I got the chance to finally come here, as this is a truly world class museum. It’s not utterly exhaustive like The Met or The Louvre, more along the lines of a place one can see in a long day’s visit, like The Prado or The Getty. It has a number of "famous" canvases commonly found in art history books, and both the quality-to-quantity ratio and brand name quotient is very high. Most of the collection is devoted to European and US art from Medieval times to today, with works by folks such as Leonardo (his only painting held by a US gallery), Giotto, Fra Angelico, Lippi, Botticelli, Bellini, Giorgione, Raphael, Vasari, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, El Greco, Velazquez, Holbein, Durer, Cranach, Van Dyck, Van Eyck, Rubens, Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Bosch, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Delacroix, Matisse, Bierstadt, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Redon, Cassatt, Sargent, Seurat, Corot, Courbet, Friedrich, Constable, Fragonard, Millet, Copley, Rauschenberg, Johns, Guston, Rothko, Calder, Klee, Miro, Leger, Picasso, Duchamp, Ernst, Mondrian, Oldenburg, Arp, O’Keeffe, Giacometti, Rousseau, Magritte, Beckmann, Delauney, Hartley, Dubuffet, Gorky, Pollock, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Indiana, Stella, Katz, Close, Dufy, Modigliani, Braque, Soutine, Rouault, Bellows, Henri, Hopper, Dali, Stuart, St. Gaudens, Rodin, David, Ingres, Turner, Goya, Munch, Catlin, Reynolds, Gainsborough, West, Fuseli, Eakins, Whistler, and Homer. In a number of cases, there are actually several canvases by the same artist, a most welcome feature. A modest amount of the collection encompasses decorative arts such as porcelain, tapestries, furniture, metal work, stained glass, and metals and plaquettes. The 20th century holdings are a little bit hit-and-miss, but otherwise no complaints here. An absolute, utter must, one of the best sightseeing days I've ever spent.

Last edited by bachslunch; Dec 4th, 2018 at 05:07 AM.
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Dec 4th, 2018, 05:26 AM
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Food experiences

There are a fair amount of respectable dining options in Alexandria and environs:

-Fontaine Cafe and Creperie: a lunch-only spot specializing in crepes. Had a buckwheat crepe with ham, spinach, and caramelized onion, which made for a yummy cheap lunch. Coffee was not very good, though.

-Virtue Feed and Grain: a dinner spot with creative wrinkles in American cuisine. Had duck meatloaf with mashed yams and a salad (this last replaced hard as a rock Brussels sprouts), excellent and unusual.

-Ben's Chili Bowl (Rosslyn branch): a legendary DC based place for dogs, burgers, and chili, this is a suburban Virginia outpost. Got two dogs, one a veggie dog with veggie chili, the other a standard chili half-smoke sausage, both with mustard and onion coney dog style. Both were excellent, though I preferred the meat version. Still, tough to go wrong with either.

-Taverna Cretekou: a Greek place. Excellent mixed lunch sampler plate of spinach filo pie, stuffed grape leaves, meatballs, moussaka, and pastitsio. Classic and delicious.

-The Fish Market: a pub-like spot with seafood as a specialty. Had a fine crab soup and a salad with blackened shrimp.

-Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant (Mount Vernon): a somewhat upscale bar and restaurant on the property at the George Washington home location. Grazed among a few items -- peanut soup, grits, and wilted spinach, all fine.

Last edited by bachslunch; Dec 4th, 2018 at 05:30 AM.
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