Dupont Circle/Embassy Row
START: Dupont Circle
FINISH: Vice President’s Residence/U.S. Naval Observatory
TIME: 2 hours (not including stops). The distance is about 3 miles.
BEST TIME: Any day is fine unless you want to tour the Brewmaster's Castle and/or Anderson House, in which case you should see the descriptions for their public tour days and times, and plan accordingly.
WORST TIME: Nighttime, as you won’t be able to see the details on the houses.
This is a rather lengthy walk. It’s worthwhile, I think, especially because you’ll see nearly the whole world—or at least its embassies—on this route. (To see more look for the national flags of other embassies located on side streets a few steps to the left or right.)
If you feel yourself tiring, you can catch the N2 Metrobus at a number of stops along this route and it will take you back to Dupont Circle. Some of the walk is uphill, which is why I’m suggesting this precaution. You can do the walk in reverse, taking the bus to your starting point as well, though the more interesting Gilded Age sites are closer to Dupont Circle, and I want you to see those while you’re still fresh.
Embassies are not normally open to visitors. Some do organize art shows and concerts featuring homeland artists. The City Paper, a free tabloid newspaper, lists embassy shows in its Thursday “Galleries” column. Take advantage of these shows to step inside for a look at the embassy itself.
As for food, you won’t find much of it as you wander along. Better to pick up a picnic at Teasism and stop in one of the garden areas along the way to nosh.
1 Dupont Circle
We’ll start right in the center of the traffic circle so you can get a good look around. Dupont Circle is one of the most famous place names in D.C., at one and the same time a historic district, a traffic circle, and a progressive neighborhood that’s been home, since the mid-[‘]70s, to the city’s gay and lesbian community. In fact, every year on the Tuesday before Halloween, they stage the “High Heel Race” during which two dozen or so drag queens, in outrageous regalia, dash down 17th Street.
Named for Civil War Naval hero Samuel Francis Du Pont, the circle is placed exactly where Washington’s famed architect Charles Pierre L’Enfant envisioned it, though construction didn’t begin until 1871, long after L’Enfant’s death. For its center, Congress commissioned a small bronze statue of the Admiral, but the proud Du Pont family would have none of it. Without asking permission, they commissioned the two men behind the Lincoln Memorial—sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon—to create the fountain you see in front of you. It replaced the bronze statue in 1921; on its shaft are allegorical figures representing the elements a sea captain needs to navigate and propel the boat forward. See if you can figure out which is “the stars,” which is “the sea,” and which is “the wind.”
Cross Massachusetts Avenue to New Hampshire Avenue until you come to Sunderland Place, and see at 1307 New Hampshire Ave.:
2 The Brewmaster’s Castle (The Christian Heurich House Museum)
Known in less polite circles as “burp castle,” this is the house beer built. Christian Heurich was a highly successful brewer who was the largest landowner in Washington, D.C. after the federal government. He loved his work so much that he never retired, continuing to manage his brewery until his death at the age of 102 in 1945. That wasn’t just a work ethic—the man had murals celebrating the joys of beer in his breakfast room and used as the slogan for his company, “Beer recommended for family use by Physicians in General.” Yup, those were the days. You can see the interior on tours (Thurs–Sat 11:30am, 1pm, 2:30pm; $5 requested donation; www.heurichhouse.org; tel 202/429-1894).
And if you can tour it, do so—the house is notable not just for the colorful history of its owner but for its importance architecturally. Built between 1892 and 1894, it is likely the first domestic structure framed with steel and poured concrete, an effort to make it fireproof. (The salamander symbol, at the top of the tower, was used as a superstitious shield against fire.) Many consider this Romanesque-style, 31-room structure to be one of the most intact late-Victorian structures in the country. But I really like spotting the gargoyles.
Walk towards 20th Street, turn right and continue north two blocks to Massachusetts Ave. Turn left and on the corner you’ll find 2000 Massachusetts Ave which is:
3 Blaine Mansion
The last standing mansion from the early days of Dupont Circle, this imposing brick and terracotta structure retains the name of its first owner: James G. Blaine. Had it not been for the Mugwumps—and don’t you love it that we used to have political parties with such colorful names—he might well have become president instead of Grover Cleveland. As it was, charges of corruption involving illicit dealings with the railroads, ahem, derailed his campaign. This, despite the fact that Blaine had a longer and more distinguished career than most, having served as Secretary of State twice, Congressman and Senator from Maine, and Speaker of the House. The vertical sweep of the house surely impresses as much as the man, though to be honest, he barely lived here. Once the home was built, he decided it would be too costly to maintain and he leased it, first to Levi Leiter (an early co-owner of Marshall Field) and then to George Westinghouse. Yes, that Westinghouse. The latter bought it in 1901 and lived here until his death in 1914.
Continue in the same direction on Massachusetts Avenue to our first embassy at 2020 Massachusetts Ave.:
4 Embassy of Indonesia
The ornate structure occupied today by the Embassy of Indonesia is said to have cost $835,000 when it was built in 1903—the city’s most expensive house at the time. Sadly, by the time the house was purchased by the Indonesians in 1951, the family fortune was so depleted that they let it go for a mere $350,000. A reminder that housing bubbles have been around for quite some time.
The man who commissioned its construction, Thomas Walsh, came to the United States from Ireland in 1869 at the age of 19. He headed west, and in 1876 struck it rich not once but twice, finding what is widely thought to be one of the richest veins of gold in the world. Suddenly a modern-day Midas, he moved his family to Washington, figuring a grand 60-room mansion was the way to make a splash in society. And remembering his roots, he’s said to have embedded a nugget of gold ore in the porch. You’ll notice that this neo-Baroque mansion is unusually curvaceous. That’s because it’s meant to evoke the look of an ocean liner. A grand staircase in the home itself is a direct copy of one on the White Star ocean liner.
The fortune depleter, daughter Evalyn Walsh McLean, was notable for the tragic turn her life took. Despite the jaunty title of her autobiography, Father Struck It Rich!, not much else went right in her life. Her son was killed at the age of 9 in a car crash and her daughter overdosed as a young women. Husband Edward Beale McLean, an heir to the Post fortune, turned out to be an alcoholic, and together they burned through some $100 million. A large chunk of it went to the purchase of the famed Hope Diamond. Those who believe the diamond is cursed claim that her misfortunes started with that purchase. She died nearly penniless at the age of 58. The Diamond is now on display at the Smithsonian .
Keep walking in the same direction to a small triangular park where you’ll find the:
5 Statue of Mahatma Gandhi
Striding purposefully, the man who led India to freedom from British rule in 1947 seems to be headed (aptly) for the Embassy of India (2107 Massachusetts Ave.), just across the adjacent side street. His walking stick, simple bowl, dress and age in the sculpture suggest that this is a portrait of him on the famed protest march when he and a number of followers walked 200 miles to the Arabian Sea to collect salt (and evade the British tax on that condiment). A turning point in the non-violent fight for Indian freedom, it’s an apt subject for this striking portrait.
Keep walking in the same direction to 2118 Massachusetts Ave., the:
6 Anderson House
Larz Anderson, an American diplomat, and his wife Isabel Weld Perkins, author and Red Cross volunteer, took advantage of their immense Boston wealth and built not just a home but a palace. Their intent? To create a space large enough to serve as a headquarters for the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Larz was a member (and to which they bequeathed the home upon their death). Guided tours to this museum of the gilded age and clubhouse are available. The membership of the society, founded in 1783, is composed of male descendants of officers in George Washington’s Continental Army.
The building itself—sporting a cavernous two-story ballroom, a dining room seating 50, grand staircase, massive wall murals, acres of marble, and 23-karat gold trim—is palatial.
Head across the street to 2121 Massachusetts Ave., the:
7 Cosmos Club
A prestigious private social club, Cosmos Club was founded in 1878 as a gathering place for scientists and public policy intellectuals. The National Geographic Society spun off from the Cosmos ten years later. The Cosmos Club’s first meeting was held in the home of John Wesley Powell, the soldier and explorer who first navigated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in a dory. Since then, three presidents, two vice presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices, 32 Nobel Prize winners, 56 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 45 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom have numbered among its ranks. But none of them were women until 1998, when the Washington, DC Human Rights Office ruled that the club’s men-only policy was discriminatory and illegal.
The club is the latest occupant of a French-inspired chateau built in 1901 with the railroad wealth of Richard and Mary Scott Townsend. His fortune came from the Erie Line; hers from the Pennsylvania Railroad (no joke). They hired the famed New York architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, which created the New York Public Library, to build a chateau built to resemble the Petit Trianon—the royal hideaway at Versailles. Somewhat superstitious, the couple had the structure built around an older one. Apparently, a gypsy had once predicted that Mrs. Townsend would die “under a new roof.” Despite these precautions, Mrs. Townsend did eventually pass away (darn!).
As you head towards Sheridan Square, look for the Romanian Chancery and the Embassy of Ireland (2234 Massachusetts Ave. NW). In front of these two is the:
8 Letelier/Moffitt Memorial
On September 21, 1976, Orlando Letelier, the former foreign minister of ousted President Salvador Allende offered his colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt a ride home. A car bomb killed them both. This small cylindrical monument honors their memory. Thousands showed up later that week for a hastily organized protest funeral march. Eventually, five men were prosecuted for the crime. One, who led police to the others, was given just 2 years of prison time before being taken into the witness protection program. For years, rumors circulated that the American government was also in some way involved.
Turn away from the Memorial and look at:
9 Sheridan Circle
The Civil War officer mounted on his muscular horse is General Philip H. Sheridan, commander of the Union cavalry and the Army of the Shenandoah. His horse Rienzi, who carried him through 85 battles and skirmishes, became almost as famous during the war as “the steed that saved the day.”
Sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, who carved the presidential faces on South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, the statue depicts Sheridan rallying his men at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Northern Virginia on October 19, 1864. Sheridan was 15 miles north in the town of Winchester when a Confederate force under General Jubal A. Early surprised and drove back his army. Racing to the battle site on stout-hearted Rienzi, Sheridan led his men in a victorious counterattack.
Sheridan’s wife is said to have chosen the site for the statue, which is flanked by two hidden pools. His son, Second Lieutenant Philip H. Sheridan, Jr., served as a model for the statue. He was present at the unveiling in 1908, as was President Theodore Roosevelt. I suggest crossing (carefully) into the circle to get a close-up look.
Carefully cross the Circle again, back to Massachusetts Avenue and continue going north-west to 2343 Massachusetts Ave., the:
10 Embassy of Croatia
Outside the building themuscular figure of St. Jerome the Priest (a.d. 341–420) sits hunched over a book, his head in his hand. Jerome, the pedestal of the statue informs us, was “the greatest Doctor of the Church.” This is a reference to his work in translating the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, a version called the Vulgate because it was in the language of the common people of the day. Historically, it is considered the most important vernacular edition of the Bible. At times in his younger years, Jerome’s religious faith declined; he became involved in numerous theological disputes, and he spent several years in the desert leading an ascetical life while fighting temptations. I get the feeling this glum statue is commemorating those troubled times. The statue initially sat on the grounds of the Franciscan Abbey near Catholic University; it was moved here when the nation of Croatia was created at the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Continue walking to the 2400 block of Massachusetts Avenue where, in a triangular park, you’ll see the:
11 Statue of Robert Emmet
Although somewhat obscured by foliage, the Irish revolutionary stands in a pose that he reportedly struck in Dublin in 1803 when a British court sentenced him to death by hanging. He appears to be gazing toward the Embassy of Ireland two blocks away. Born in 1778, Emmet led a failed uprising in Dublin on July 23, 1803. The statue was presented to the Smithsonian Institution in 1917 as a gift to the American public from a group of American citizens of Irish ancestry. It was moved to its present site in 1966, marking the 50th anniversary of Irish independence.
Note the numerous embassies en route to the next stop, including the Embassy of Japan (2520 Massachusetts Ave.), set back behind the cobblestone courtyard. The 1932 Georgian revival-style structure suggests the Far East with a subtle “rising sun” above the balcony over the door.
On the right is the new Embassy of Turkey (2525 Massachusetts Ave.). The statue in front is of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Just before the bridge, head to 2551 Massachusetts Ave.:
12 The Islamic Center
The 160-foot tall white limestone minaret, soaring above Embassy Row, makes the Islamic Center impossible to miss. From it, a loudspeaker intones the call to prayer five times daily. Built in 1949, the center does not line up directly with the street; instead it faces Mecca. On Friday afternoons, throngs of the faithful pour into the mosque for prayer services, many of them embassy employees attired in their native dress. At times, prayer rugs are spread in the courtyard or even on the sidewalk outside the iron railing fence. This is when Embassy Row takes on its most dramatic multicultural look.
Visitors are welcome inside (daily 10am–5pm), so don’t be shy about stepping through the open gates. But be sure to remove your shoes before entering the mosque itself; leave them in one of the slots provided on the entrance wall. Men should dress neatly; no shorts. Women are not allowed to wear sleeveless clothes or short dresses and must cover their hair. The interior, filled with colorful Arabic art, is well worth these preliminaries. Persian rugs drape the floor, overlapping one another; 7,000 blue tiles cover the lower walls in mosaic patterns; eight ornate pillars soar overhead, ringing a huge copper chandelier. The carved pulpit is inlaid with ivory, and stained-glass windows add more color.
Cross the bridge. Take a look down: 75 feet below is Rock Creek Parkway as well as the 1,700-acre Rock Creek Park . At the other end of the bridge, walk on and take the time to look at the embassies you’ll be passing until you get to 3000 Massachusetts Ave., the:
13 Embassy of Brazil
This stately, palace-like building next to the big, black, boxlike building (the chancery) is the ambassador’s residence. The older building, derived from an Italian Renaissance palazzo, was designed in 1931 by John Russell Pope, a leader of the city’s early-20th-century neoclassicist movement. The Jefferson Memorial, National Gallery of Art, and National Archives are among Pope’s other local works.
Keep walking in the same direction and look to the right side to find the:
14 Kahlil Gibran Memorial
An elaborate 2-acre garden, eight-sided star fountain, circular walkway, shaded benches, and bronze bust celebrate the life and achievements of the Lebanese-American philosopher. Dedicated on May 24, 1991, it is a gift “to the people of the United States” from the Kahlil Gibran Centennial Foundation. Born in 1883 in a village near the Biblical Cedars of Lebanon, Gibran arrived in Boston as a child. Building a successful career as an artist and author, he published widely quoted books in English and Arabic. He died in New York City in 1931. Excerpts from his writings are etched into the memorial’s circular wall, among them: “We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting.” If you need to rest your feet for a few moments, this lovely garden is the perfect place to do so.
Continue your stroll to 3100 Massachusetts Ave., the:
15 British Embassy
Out in front and instantly recognizable in a familiar pose, Sir Winston Churchill stands in bronze. One foot rests on Embassy property, thus British soil; the other is planted on American soil. Anglo-American unity is the symbolism, but the placement also reflects Churchill’s heritage as the child of a British father and American mother. And, of course, his right hand is raised in the iconic familiar V for Victory sign he displayed in World War II. His other hand often sports a small bouquet of fresh flowers, left by admirers. The English-Speaking Union of the United States commissioned the statue, which was erected in 1966. The statue stands on a granite plinth; beneath it are blended soils from Blenheim Palace, his birthplace; from the rose garden at Chartwell, his home; and from his mother’s home in Brooklyn, NY.
The U-shaped, red-brick structure rising behind the World War II prime minister is the main chancery, built in 1931. Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of Great Britain’s leading architects of the day, designed both it and the ambassador’s residence, located out of sight behind the chancery. The American Institute of Architects describes the pair as a “triumph,” noting that Lutyens rejected the prevailing passion for neoclassical structures and instead created a colonial American design. Others suggest it looks like an 18th-century English country house. Whatever, it makes an impressive show. Too bad the concrete box on the right, an office building dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, failed to match the architectural standard Lutyens set. The round glass structure, another unfortunately bland modern addition, is used for conferences.
On your right as you continue around Observatory Circle (a wide curve in Embassy Row) is a steep, heavily wooded slope that drops into a slender canyon. It is Rock Creek Trail, and if you wish you could take a little nature detour. It’s amazing how quickly, within 60 seconds really, you leave the hubbub of the city and find yourself in nature. Okay, enough greenery. Continue walking to 3301 Massachusetts Ave., the dramatic:
16 Embassy of Finland
An abstract metal and glass front forms a green wall of climbing plants on a bronze, gridlike trellis. Within, huge windows in the rear look out onto a thickly forested slope, as if—to quote architectural historian William Morgan—[“]The Finns have brought a bit of the woods to Washington.” The architects, Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen, are considered one of Finland’s hottest architectural partnerships. Completed in 1994, the embassy was designed to display the life and culture of Finland. The embassy is open for tours one afternoon a month, 2 to 4pm, and you must register in advance.
From the Finnish Embassy, look across the street to the green slope behind the tall iron fence. That white Victorian-style house partially visible atop the hill is the:
17 Vice President’s Residence/U.S. Naval Observatory
Number One Observatory Circle is the official residence of the U.S. vice president. As I write this, it is the home of Joseph and Jill Biden. The wooded estate surrounding the residence is the site of the U.S. Naval Observatory; the large white dome holding its 12-inch refracting telescope is easily seen on the right. Built in 1893, the veep’s house initially was assigned to the observatory’s superintendent. But in 1923 the Chief of Naval Operations took a liking to it, booted out the superintendent, and made the house his home. In 1974, Congress evicted the Navy and transformed it into the vice president’s residence.
Up to that time, vice presidents occupied their own homes, as Supreme Court judges, Cabinet members, and senators still do. But providing full security apparatus for the private homes of each new vice president became expensive. Nelson Rockefeller, vice president in the Gerald Ford administration, was the first potential resident, but he used the house only for entertaining. So Vice President Walter Mondale became the first official occupant, followed by the elder Bush, Quayle, and Gore. If you see a big tent on the front lawn, it usually means the vice president is hosting a gala reception.
The observatory moved from Foggy Bottom to its present location in 1910. At the time, the hilltop site was rural countryside. One of the oldest scientific agencies in the country, the U.S. Naval Observatory was established in 1830. Its primary mission was to oversee the Navy’s chronometers, charts, and other navigational equipment. Today it remains the preeminent authority on precise time. Scientists take observations of the sun, moon, planets, and selected stars; determine the precise time, and publish astronomical data needed for accurate navigation.