Strolling Around the White House
START: White House Visitor Center, 1450 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (Metro: Federal Triangle or Metro Center).
FINISH: The Penn Quarter (Metro: Federal Triangle or Metro Center).
TIME: 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours (not including stops). It’s about a 1.6-mile trek.
BEST TIME: During the day. If you want to hit all of the museums, stroll on a Thursday of Friday.
WORST TIME: After dark, as some streets can be deserted.
The White House is the centerpiece of a national park, President’s Park, which includes not just the house itself but also its grounds, from the Ellipse to Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Square; the U.S. Treasury Building on 15th Street; and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on 17th Street. The individual histories of many of the surrounding buildings and sites are entwined with that of the White House. As you wend your way from landmark to landmark, you’ll be mingling with White House administration staff, high-powered attorneys, diplomats, and ordinary office workers. But all of you are treading the same ground as early American heroes—like Stephen Decatur, whose house you’ll see—and every president since George Washington (though the White House was not finished in time for him to live there).
This tour circumnavigates the White House grounds, with stops at historic sites and several noteworthy museums, as well. The White House Visitor Center is a good place to begin and end (for one thing, it’s got restrooms!). Note: Tours of the White House require advance reservations, as do tours of the U.S. Treasury Building. Go to www.treasury.gov/about/education/pages/tours.aspx to register for a Treasury Building tour; for White House tour info.
From the White House Visitor Center, stroll up 15th Street to your first stop, at 15th and F streets NW.
1 U.S. Treasury Building
Poor Alexander Hamilton. His statue outside the south end of the U.S. Treasury Building stands too close to the White House for security’s comfort to allow stray tourists a better look, so now you must resign yourself to gazing at him from a distance through the black iron fencing. Hamilton, who devised our modern financial system, was the first Secretary of the Treasury, established by Congress in 1789. Once you’ve caught a glimpse of Hamilton’s statue, turn your attention to the Treasury’s headquarters, America’s oldest office building, constructed between 1836 and 1869. Its most notable architectural feature is the colonnade you see running the length of the building: 30 columns, each 36 feet tall, carved out of a single piece of granite. In its lifetime, the building has served as a Civil War barracks, as a temporary home for President Andrew Johnson following the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, and as the site of President Ulysses S. Grant’s inaugural reception. Today the building houses offices for the U.S. Treasurer, the Secretary of the Treasury, its General Counsel, and their staffs.
Continue north on 15th Street and turn left onto the Pennsylvania Avenue promenade, where you’ll notice the statue of Albert Gallatin, the fourth Secretary of the Treasury, standing accessibly on the north side of the Treasury Building. Continue along:
2 Pennsylvania Avenue
Say hello to the president, who resides in that big white house beyond the black iron fencing. Security precautions put in place in 1995 keep this 2-block section of Pennsylvania Avenue closed to traffic. But that’s a good thing. You may have to dodge bicyclists, roller skaters, joggers, and random Frisbees, but not cars. Ninety Princeton American elm trees line the 84-foot-wide promenade, which offers plenty of great photo ops as you stroll past the White House. There are benches here, too, in case you’d like to sit and people-watch. L’Enfant’s original idea for Pennsylvania Avenue was that it would connect the legislative branch (Congress) at one end of the avenue with the executive branch (the president’s house) at the other end.
Turn your back on the White House and walk across the plaza to enter:
3 Lafayette Square
This 7-acre public park is known as a gathering spot for protesters. (In pleasant weather, when the White House keeps its doors and windows open, one can actually hear the protesters from inside the White House, as I discovered during a recent White House tour.) In its early days, the park served as an open-air market and as a military encampment. The park is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. But it’s General Andrew Jackson’s statue that centers the park. Erected in 1853, this was America’s first equestrian statue. It’s said that sculptor Clark Mills trained a horse to maintain a reared-up pose so that Mills could study how the horse balanced its weight. Other park statues are dedicated to foreign soldiers who fought in the War for Independence, including Lafayette; Tadeusz Kościuszko, from Poland; Prussian Baron von Steuben; and Frenchman Comte de Rochambeau.
Walk through the park and cross H Street to reach 1525 H St. NW, the site of:
4 St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square
St. John’s is known as “the Church of the Presidents” because every president since James Madison has attended at least one service here. If you tour the church, look for pew 54, eight rows from the front, which is the one traditionally reserved for the current president and first family. Other things to notice in this 1816 church, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, are the steeple bell, which was cast by Paul Revere’s son and has been in continuous use since its installation in 1822, and the beautiful stained-glass windows. And be careful not to overlook the Lincoln Pew at the very back of the church, where Lincoln would sit alone for evening services during the Civil War, slipping in after other congregants had arrived and slipping out before they left.
Directly across the street from St. John’s is the Hay-Adams Hotel, which turns 87 this year. Recross H Street to stand in front of 748 Jackson Place NW, the:
5 Decatur House
In addition to St. John’s, Latrobe also designed this Federal-style brick town house in 1818 for Commodore Stephen Decatur, a renowned naval hero in the War of 1812. Decatur and his wife, Susan, established themselves as gracious hosts in the 14 short months they lived here. In March 1820, two days after hosting a ball for President James Monroe’s daughter, Marie, Decatur was killed in a gentleman’s duel by his former mentor, James Barron. Barron blamed Decatur for his 5-year suspension from the Navy, following a court-martial in which Decatur had played an active role. Other distinguished occupants have included Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren, when each was serving as Secretary of State (Clay under Pres. John Quincy Adams, Van Buren under Pres. Andrew Jackson). Decatur House is no longer open for house tours, but do stop in at the White House Historical Association’s gift shop, at the entrance to Decatur House, at 1610 H Street.
Walk back through Lafayette Square to return to the Pennsylvania Avenue plaza, where you’ll have another chance to admire the:
6 White House
As grand as the White House is, it is at least one-fourth the size that Pierre L’Enfant had in mind when he planned a grand palace to house the President. George Washington and his commission had something else in mind, however, and dismissed L’Enfant, though they kept L’Enfant’s site proposal. An Irishman named James Hoban designed the building, having entered his architectural draft in a contest held by George Washington, beating out 52 other entries. Although Washington picked the winner, he was the only president never to live in the White House, or “President’s Palace,” as it was called before whitewashing brought the name “White House” into use. Construction of the White House took 8 years, beginning in 1792, when its cornerstone was laid. Its facade is made of the same stone used to construct the Capitol.
Turn around and head toward the northwest corner of the plaza, at 17th Street, to reach the:
7 Renwick Gallery
Its esteemed neighbors are the White House and, right next door, the Blair-Lee House, where the White House sends overnighting foreign dignitaries. The Renwick, nevertheless, holds its own. This distinguished redbrick and brownstone structure was the original location for the Corcoran Gallery of Art. James Renwick designed the building (if it reminds you of the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, it’s because Renwick designed that one, too), which opened in 1874. When the collection outgrew its quarters, the Corcoran moved to its current location in 1897 . Decorative arts and American crafts are the focus of the Renwick, which since 1972 has operated as an annex of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, eight blocks away in the Penn Quarter. Alas, the Renwick is closed until 2016 for a major renovation.
Turn left on 17th Street, where you’ll notice on your left the:
8 Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Old-timers still refer to this ornate building as the “OEOB,” for “Old Executive Office Building”; as it sounds, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building houses the offices of people who work in or with the Executive Office of the President. Originally, the structure was called the State, War, and Navy Building; when its construction was completed in 1888, it was the largest office building in the world. During the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan presidency, the OEOB became famous as the site of document shredding by Colonel Oliver North and his secretary Fawn Hall. Open to the public? Nope.
Cross 17th Street, walk a couple of blocks to New York Avenue, and turn right. Follow it one block to 18th Street, where you’ll see the unmistakable:
9 Octagon House
Lot of history in this old house. But first, before you enter, admire its unique shape. Count its sides and you’ll discover that the Octagon is, in fact, a hexagon. Designed by Dr. William Thornton, first architect of the U.S. Capitol, this 1801 building apparently earned its name from interior features, though experts disagree about that. Enter the Octagon to view the round rooms; the central, oval-shaped staircase that curves gracefully to the third level; the hidden doors; and the triangular chambers. Built originally for the wealthy Tayloe family, the Octagon served as a temporary president’s home for James and Dolley Madison after the British torched the White House in 1814. On February 17, 1815, President Madison sat at the circular table in the upstairs circular room and signed the Treaty of Ghent, establishing peace with Great Britain. The house has belonged to the American Institute of Architects since 1899.
Cross New York Avenue and return to 17th Street, where you should turn right and walk to the Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art. Go ahead and enter, but before you start touring, stop for a delicious break at:
10 Todd Gray’s Muse Cafe at the Corcoran
How wonderful that one of the city’s best chefs, Todd Gray, has designed the menu for the Corcoran’s in-house cafe (www.toddgraysmuse.com; tel 202/639-1786). The setting itself, behind Doric columns and under a lofty skylight ceiling, is lovely and unusual. The menu includes soups, salads, sandwiches, and select desserts. I’ve ordered the egg salad sandwich on brioche, which, as it turns out, is layered with a wide, thin slice of crisply peppery organic heirloom watermelon radish. The menu is pricey—sandwiches cost around $8.95 and are unaccompanied by the usual chips or fries—but the food is worth it.
After you’ve satisfied your hunger, start exploring the:
11 Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art
This museum, long known as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is now one entity in a tripartite arrangement with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. Basically, the university and the National Gallery have rescued the Corcoran from dissolution. I can’t tell you for sure at this time that the museum will be open in 2015 (renovations are planned) or if it is open, exactly what art you might see when you tour the museum. Could be modern art from the National Gallery’s collection, or maybe some of the historic American art for which the Corcoran is renowned; most likely it will be a combination of art from both galleries. What I can tell you is that this gallery, which was the first art museum in Washington and one of the first in the country, has always had a penchant for playing the wild card. In 1851, gallery founder William Corcoran caused a stir when he displayed artist Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave, which was the first publicly exhibited, life-sized American sculpture depicting a fully nude female figure. Perhaps you will have the chance to see the statue on display.
Exit to 17th Street and turn right, away from the White House. Follow it down to D Street and turn right, following the signs that lead to the entrance of the:
12 DAR Museum and Period Rooms
The National Headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution comprises three joined buildings that take up an entire block. The middle building, Memorial Continental Hall, is the one you’ll enter. Dedicated to the heroes of the American Revolution, the building’s cornerstone was laid in 1902 with the same trowel that George Washington used to lay the cornerstone for the Capitol. At the time, the front of the building faced the White House pasture, where presidential cattle grazed. At any rate, what you’re here for is the DAR Museum, which rotates exhibits of items from its 33,000-object collection, and the 31 period rooms, representing decors from the past, as interpreted by different states. The museum’s collections veer from folk art to decorative arts and include old rocking chairs, ceramics, needlework samplers, and lots of silver. Quilters from far and wide come to admire a large collection of quilts, many of which are kept in glass sleeves that you can pull out from a case for better viewing. Period rooms are viewable from the doorways, a velvet rope preventing your entry. Highlights include the New Jersey Room, which replicates an English Council chamber of the 17th century, with woodwork and furnishings created from the salvaged oak timbers of the British frigate Augusta, which sank during the Revolutionary War; an opulent Victorian Missouri parlor; and New Hampshire’s “Children’s Attic,” filled with 19th-century toys, dolls, and children’s furnishings. You can tour the museum and Period Rooms on your own, but you might consider taking a free docent-led tour if you’re interested in American decorative arts.
Exit the DAR, turning left and continuing along D Street to 18th Street, where you’ll turn left again and follow to 201 18th St. NW, the pretty, Spanish colonial–style building that houses the:
13 Art Museum of the Americas
Off the beaten path, but just slightly—across Constitution Avenue, the World War II Memorial is a short walk to the left, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a short walk to the right—the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) showcases the works of contemporary Latin American and Caribbean artists. For example, a recent exhibit focused on the theme of mobility and migration, as interpreted by Spanish and Latin American artists living in New York City. You’ll be on your own; a tour takes 30 minutes, tops. Not to miss: a stunning loggia whose tall beamed ceiling and wall of deep-blue tiles set in patterns modeled after Aztec and Mayan art constitute a work of art on its own. A series of French (and usually locked) doors leads to a terrace and the museum’s garden, which separates the museum from the Organization of American States headquarters that owns it. When you leave the museum, you may notice the nearby sculptures of José Artigus, “Father of the Independence of Uruguay,” and a large representation of liberator Simón Bolívar on horseback.
From 18th Street, head back in the direction of the White House, turning right on C Street, which takes you past the AMA’s garden and the OAS headquarters. Turn left on 17th Street and follow it to E Street. Then cross 17th Street and pick up the section of E Street that takes you between the South Lawn of the White House and the:
Did you know that it’s possible to bring a blanket and some food and picnic on the Ellipse? It’s true. That is, it’s true in the nation’s capital sense of the word, meaning that if a White House event requires increased security and the Secret Service tell you to skedaddle, you’d best skedaddle. Otherwise, though, feel free to stroll the grounds. The Ellipse continues to be the site for the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony every December, and a spot near the Zero Milestone monument remains a favored place for shooting photos against the backdrop of the White House. If you’re ready to call it a day, keep walking a few more steps to return to 15th Street NW in the Penn Quarter, and its many options for an end-of-stroll repast.