Updated July 8, 2020.
People come to Washington, D.C., for work, vacation, educational trips, and any other number of reasons. One of the things that drew me to my nation’s Capital is its history. The monuments and memorials exist for the sole purpose of helping us all remember the past, and the Smithsonian, the largest museum institution in the world, is here to preserve history! But there are many lesser-known historical facts and places in and around D.C. than most visitors realize. This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a good start for your next trip to Washington, D.C.!
The Original District
Jones Point Light House and Park, Alexandria, VA
If you’re looking at a current map of Washington, D.C., you’re only getting half the story. The District of Columbia was officially founded on July 16, 1790, and was a 10-mile by 10-mile square situated on both sides of the Potomac River, with land from both Maryland and Virginia. George Washington pushed for this site so that his hometown of Alexandria could be part of the District.
It’s true! Arlington and Alexandria, VA, were formerly part of Washington, D.C., and were only retroceded to Virginia in 1848 after residents voted in favor of that. Some of the sites on this list are actually in the original D.C., currently in Virginia. I felt I just couldn’t begin this post without mentioning how it all began and showing you one of the original boundary stones at Jones Point Lighthouse, just 1.5 miles south of Old Town Alexandria.
The Washington Monument’s Discoloration
Washington Monument, 2 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.
Not too long ago, I befriended one of the interns on Capitol Hill. He would occasionally give tours to constituents, and one of his favorite things to tell them was why the Washington Monument is two colors–lighter on the bottom, darker on the top. “You see,” he would say, “they wash the monument once a month at night. They have to lower it down on its side and scrub it by hand. Last night they didn’t get finished, so they will have to tilt it over again tonight to finish scrubbing it. It will all be one color again tomorrow.”
He was kidding! The truth is, the Washington Monument was started in 1848. An organization called the Washington National Monument Society decided on the design and raised the funds themselves with no government aid, and they laid the cornerstone on July 4, 1848. However, lack of funding and a complicated turn of events stopped construction in 1855. Twenty-two years later, on July 5, 1876, Congress took control of the stunted monument and its construction.
Unfortunately, the original quarry was no longer available, so they had to acquire stone elsewhere. They tried a couple of different quarries, but the stone color never matched exactly. But the builders forged ahead! The monument was completed in 1884, two-toned stonework and all!
More here: How to Go Inside the Washington Monument
Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA
If you love history, you probably already have Arlington National Cemetery on your “to do” list. Do not forget to walk up the hill to Arlington House. Not only will you be rewarded with a beautiful view across the river, you will also be able to visit this historic home. At the time of its construction, it was the first example of Greek Revival architecture in the nation. It was also home to U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee, granddaughter of Martha and George Washington.
Robert E. Lee resigned from the U.S. Army on April 20, 1861, and two days later he left Arlington House for Richmond, never to return to his home of 30 years. Mrs. Lee stayed behind, but she and the rest of the family left soon thereafter due to Arlington House’s proximity to the Union border and Washington, D.C.
The home was eventually occupied by the Union army, and in May 1864, the first soldiers were buried on the land surrounding Arlington House. U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs chose the property as the official site of a new national cemetery in part to restore honor to the property, as he felt General Lee had dishonored it by resigning from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy.
More here: Your Ultimate Guide to Arlington Cemetery
Pierre L’Enfant’s Grave
Near Arlington House, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA
D.C. is set up on a grid, and that is no accident. That was an intentional design choice from Pierre L’Enfant, French architect and designer of the District of Columbia. George Washington personally asked L’Enfant to be the District’s architect. It was an easy choice, since he came over as a Lieutenant of Infantry with the French Colonial Troops during the American Revolutionary War, and then went on to become an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers under George Washington.
When Washington appointed L’Enfant, he set to work designing a capitol city with all the best of the European cities and the symbolism of openness and freedom that the new nation stood for. He wasn’t exactly easy to get along with, however, and he eventually resigned instead of being fired for insubordination. He died without recognition for his contributions in 1825, but he was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery in 1909.
James Garfield’s Statue and Assassination Location
Statue: Capitol Reflecting Pool
Assassination Location: 6th and Constitution Ave, NW
President James Garfield Was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. On July 2 that same year, Charles Guiteau shot him at 6th and B Streets, NW, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station. Interestingly, the shot did not kill him. The non-sterilized tools doctors used to find the bullet infected him, which is the most likely cause of his death two months later. There was a gold star memorializing the spot in the lobby of the train station, but it was lost when the station was torn down in 1908. Nothing currently marks the spot, but now you know about it.
More interesting facts: B Street is now Constitution Avenue, and the location of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station is now the location of the National Gallery of Art.
Declaration Signer’s Memorial
North side of the National Mall, between 18th and 19th Streets, NW
There is a little-known memorial on the National Mall, just north of the Reflecting Pool, which memorializes all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Along with their names, each signer’s home state and occupation are listed as well. As a history lover, I also love the stories of the players in history, and I think most history buffs feel the same. These men were farmers, statesmen, lawyers, professors, etc., and knowing that seems to make them a little more human–they weren’t career politicians, but everyday citizens who were literally risking their lives to create this new country that we can enjoy as free citizens.
George Washington’s Townhouse
508 Cameron Street, Alexandria, VA
Did you know George Washington had a townhouse in Alexandria? He did! And it’s still standing. It’s a private home, so don’t expect to go inside, but it can certainly be admired from outside! The best viewing will be across the street, but be sure to read the plaque on the side of the house as well. Interestingly, it was the first thing given away in George Washington’s will. And he gave it to his beloved wife, Martha. Want a truly historical experience? Spend the night here with HomeAway!
301 King Street, Alexandria, VA
Just down the street and around the corner from George Washington’s townhouse, you’ll find historic Market Square. Not only was this the site of military drill practice during the American Revolution, it’s also the site of City Hall. And if you’re in town on a Saturday, you’re really in for a treat. The farmers’ market here is the longest-running, continuous open-air market in the country! Each Saturday, all year round, you can shop at the same market where George Washington and other local farmers sold their crops and wares, and where former slaves earned their own money to purchase their freedom and that of their family members. I’ll bet you never guessed that!
The Carlyle House
121 N. Fairfax Street, Alexandria, VA
The Carlyle House is a fountain of history and even intrigue! Certainly take a tour while you’re there to find out all about it, but one of the most unique historical facts about this grand home came from my friend and former employer, Wellington Watts, owner of Alexandria Colonial Tours. During the French and Indian War British General Edward Braddock came for a most unpleasant and disruptive visit. But while he was there, he called a meeting of all the Colonial governors. That, my history-loving friends, was the first meeting of congress on the continent!
Keep reading: Reasons to Visit Old Town Alexandria, VA
Capitol’s East Portico
First Street, NE, Washington, D.C., between Constitution and Independence Avenues
The Capitol Building itself is likely on your list of things to see and tours to take, and rightfully so. But don’t miss the east portico. Just above the Visitor Center, on the east-facing side of the Capitol, a pretty epic event took place. Then-president Andrew Jackson survived two shots from a would-be assassin when both of the assassin’s guns misfired. Jackson then proceeded to beat his would-be assassin with his cane.
Jackson: 1, Would-be Assassin: 0.
For my fellow Tennesseans: Where to Find Tennessee at the U.S. Capitol
The Octagon House
1799 New York Ave, NW, Washington, D.C.
While this uniquely-shaped building is currently a museum and home to the American Institute of Architects, this house has a very important place in our nation’s history. If you’re an American history enthusiast, you may already know that the British set the White House and other important D.C. buildings on fire on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812. You may also know that Dolley Madison and Peter Jennings saved the portrait of George Washington from the burning White House.
But where did they take it? Where did the people living in the White House go? Just a few blocks away to the Octagon House, of course. This was, for all intents and purposes, the White House (then called the “Executive Mansion”). In fact, President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent in the circular room over the entrance, ending the War of 1812!
Spanning from M & 29th Streets, NW, to the U.S. Capitol Building
Sometimes called “America’s Main Street,” Pennsylvania Avenue has been the site of parades, protests, and, of course, the White House over the years. But do you know why it’s Pennsylvania Avenue and not named for another state? It’s all to honor history. Washington, D.C., is not the first or second capitol city of the United States of America; it’s the third.
The first capitol, and in fact the location where George Washington was inaugurated for his first term, was in New York City, New York. The second capitol, where George Washington was inaugurated for his second term, was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And where did the capitol move after Pennsylvania? Washington, D.C. So we are paying homage to that last move from Pennsylvania to D.C. with Pennsylvania Avenue!
Old Stone House
3051 M Street NW, Georgetown
The Old Stone House in Georgetown is the oldest structure in D.C. that is still on its original foundation. It was a clock shop run by a man named John Suter, Jr. Why was it so important to save a clock shop over the years? Well, like many things in history, it was a bit of a fluke! John Suter, Sr., had a tavern in Georgetown called the Fountain Inn (also affectionately known as Suter’s Tavern).
What’s the big deal? That is the tavern where George Washington and city designer Pierre L’Enfant met to negotiate with landowners regarding the newly established District of Columbia. By the time the mix-up was discovered, the tavern was gone, but the clock shop was preserved and designated as historic.
More here: What to Do and See in Georgetown
President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rhino
Smithsonian Natural History Museum, National Mall, Washington, D.C.
Teddy Roosevelt is known for being a larger-than-life figure. But he was also an avid nature enthusiast. He went on some big game hunting expeditions in East Africa, specifically to hunt and preserve the white rhinoceros. Today, we might think of preserving them differently, but I think part of understanding history is not judging the past through a present lens. The white rhinoceros is endangered, but you can see one that our 26th president acquired in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum!
Need to Know: Your Ultimate Guide to D.C.’s Smithsonian Museums
Boat Ride to Mount Vernon
Alexandria Waterfront, Alexandria, VA
If you’re planning to visit our first president’s home at Mount Vernon, may I suggest taking the trip by boat? That was the fastest method of travel between Mount Vernon and Alexandria in Washington’s time, and the view of the mansion and estate from the river is the same one Washington had, and one you can’t get if coming by road or bike trail. Historic views and modes of transportation are just to me as exciting as the history itself–perhaps it will be for you, too!
The Smithsonian Castle
1000 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, D.C.
Who doesn’t love a castle, am I right? The original Smithsonian Museum was in this building, completed in 1855 after the Institution’s founding in 1846. Now it houses the Smithsonian’s visitor center–the museum of museums, if you will! Feeling creepy? Check out founder James Smithson’s remains in the crypt just inside the entrance. His statue is also the one out front. Mr. Smithson was a British man who left a good deal of money for the “diffusion of knowledge” in America. Make of that what you will!
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