Sojourn's DC City blog

Five Fascinating Sites and Stories to Explore in Downtown Washington, DC

Sojourn DC brings you 5 fascinating sites and stories to uncover as you set out to explore the president’s neighborhood. Check out Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure by local DC author JoAnn Hill to learn more about these hidden histories, and dozens of off-the-beaten path locales in and around Washington, DC.

Cunning spies, trailblazing women, the occult, a crime of passion, and a refreshing DC-centric cocktail to wash it all down are just some of the incredible and lesser-known stories just waiting to be explored in Downtown DC.  Now that summertime is upon us and the city is opening back up, it’s time to shake off that cabin fever, get outside, and become a tourist in the city we proudly call home.

DC Callbox Art Project

“A Wake-Call: A Tribute to Women”

For centuries, history books, monuments, and memorials have overwhelmingly cast a spotlight on male figures. Out of some 160 monuments and memorials in the capital region, just over 50 statues include women. A local artist and an ambitious project answered the call to change that. 

The DowntownDC BID and the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities partnered with artist Charles Bergen to reimagine nine nonfunctioning call boxes as public art installations. Throughout the 19th century, cast-iron call boxes served as an early emergency alert system predating telephones and two-way radio systems. These call boxes are still scattered across the city, but they haven’t been in operation since the 1970s. Bergen worked with urban historian Mara Cherkasky to identify nine prominent women throughout history for the project. The esteemed group of female trailblazers includes gospel street musician Flora Molton and expressionist painter Alma Thomas. Each colorful and vibrant callbox is beautifully decorated and includes information about the woman’s life, historical contributions, and dates of birth and death. 

Read All About It: Learn more about how these extraordinary women made history on pages 178-179 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: Grab your walking shoes and head downtown to explore these intricately designed call boxes while paying homage to these noteworthy women. 

Where: Many of these callboxes can be found between 13th and 15th streets NW, between G and L streets and are a short walk from Metro Center Station.

Lafayette Park

“Oh, Say Can You Cheat: An Affair Turns Deadly”

Lafayette Square, a meticulously manicured public park, is a picturesque square where locals and tourists gather to stroll, relax, and get an up-close-and-personal view of the White House, which stands directly north of the square. Today the park offers a welcomed reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city streets; however, its history depicts a dark and dismal past. 

Lafayette Park has stood for over 200 years, undergoing many changes in identity. It has been used as a racetrack, zoo, graveyard, barracks for soldiers during the War of 1812, and a slave market. The pristine park is also the site of the murder of Francis Scott Key’s son, Philip Barton Key II. 

On February 27, 1859, Daniel Sickles, a former New York congressman and later a prominent Union general, shot and killed the national anthem’s songwriter’s son after learning of an affair between the younger Key and his wife, Teresa Sickles. On the night when he would meet his fate, Key had come to the park for a tryst with Mrs. Sickles, but instead was confronted and eventually shot by her irate husband.

Read all about it: Learn more about this tragic and scandalous story on pages 132-133 of Secret Washington, DC:  A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: Lafayette Park is free and open to the public 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Where: Lafayette Park is located on Pennsylvania Avenue and 16th Street NW.

The White House

“As White as a Ghost” 

 The White House, often regarded as the People’s House, boasts the most recognizable address in America. While the stately residence symbolizes power, patriotism, and the American people, it has also been connected to the occult and is considered by many to be quite haunted, with countless sightings of former presidents, first ladies, and White House staff members. 

One of the most frequent ghostly sightings is that of First Lady Abigail Adams. Adams used to hang laundry in the East Room, the warmest and driest room of the White House. Her apparition has been reportedly seen walking toward the East Room dressed in a lace shawl and cap with outstretched arms like she’s carrying laundry. President Andrew Jackson has been said to haunt the Rose Room as well as the halls of the president’s chambers. The Rose Room served as Jackson’s bedroom and is believed by many to be one of the White House’s most haunted rooms. 

Without a doubt most persistently reported ghost sighting has been of President Abraham Lincoln. Many psychics believe that Lincoln’s presence has remained in the White House to serve as an aide during crises as well as to finish the work that was interrupted by his assassination. 

Read all about it: Discover more about which famous White House ghosts have been sighted on pages 166-167 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: Due to the Coronavirus, White House tours are currently suspended. Once tours resume, public tour requests must be submitted through your Member of Congress and are generally available on Fridays and Saturdays.

Where: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

The Mayflower Hotel

“Eat, Sleep, Spy: Espionage at the Mayflower Hotel”

Regarded as one the most historic and iconic hotels in the nation’s capital, The Mayflower Hotel has hosted a long line of distinguished guests, including presidents, royalty, dignitaries, and celebrities. 

Some of its most beguiling guests, however, have been the many spies who have worked, dined, and slept here. The stately hotel has been an espionage haven for decades, dating back to World War II and continuing into recent years. 

In 1942, German spy George John Dasch checked into room 351 with hopes of meeting with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to divulge his spy mission, Operation Pastorius. Dasch was ultimately pardoned by President Truman, while six of the convicted saboteurs were executed in DC’s electric chair. 

Most recently in 2009, NASA scientist Stewart Nozette was arrested at the Mayflower for attempting to sell classified satellite information to agents he thought were Israeli spies. 

The Mayflower’s proximity to the White House and legendary reputation for being a convivial hotspot make for an ideal location for spies and espionage fanatics to gather and test just how safe some secrets truly are. 

Read All About It: Discover more spy-related incidents at the prestigious Mayflower Hotel on pages 58-99 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: In addition to staying at the Mayflower, the Edgar Bar & Kitchen is a great spot to grab a bite to eat and/or drink. If you’re in the mood for something a bit different, the newly opened Tolson Bird Bar is touted as DC’s newest fried chicken and cocktail bar.

Where: The Mayflower Hotel is located at 1127 Connecticut Avenue NW.

The Rickey Cocktail: DC’s Official Native Drink

“Cheers to That!”

Mixologists often take careful measurements in creating the perfect amalgamation of spirits, mixers, ice, and accompanying garnishes. Some bartenders, however, venture beyond the craft. Some, like Derek Brown, seek out the drink’s history and significance. Such curiosity explains how Brown learned of the rickey, the cocktail that would eventually be designated Washington’s official drink. 

In the mid-1800s, a bartender named George A. Williamson concocted the rickey at a well-known bar called Shoomaker’s, situated off Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The cocktail was a favorite of Colonel Joseph Kyle Rickey, a Democratic lobbyist and regular Shoomaker’s patron who was often credited with co-creating the drink. 

Thanks to Derek Brown, who promoted the rickey in a multitude of ways, the rickey was officially declared Washington’s “native cocktail” in 2011. The event was commemorated with a ceremony dedicating a plaque
in the cocktail’s honor. The plaque hangs in the JW Marriott’s bar. Although the Marriott is where the ceremony occurred and the location of its accompanying plaque, the hotel and its bar had no connection to the drink’s creation. 

Read All About It: Learn more about the evolution of the Rickey and how it became DC’s official native cocktail on pages 66-67 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The JW Marriott bar is in the lower level of the hotel.

Where: The JW Marriott Hotel is located at 1331 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.