The Stately Sights of Massachusetts Avenue

Sunday, November 25, 2007

WHERE: The District and Bethesda.

WHY: A haunted mansion, the church of Darth

Vader and sculptural surprises.

HOW FAR: About 11 miles from start to finish.

On Massachusetts Avenue, see how the mighty have risen -- and fallen.

The 12-mile road, which stretches from the D.C. border with Prince George's County into Bethesda, is best known for its stately mansions. During the 1920s, the area around Sheridan, Dupont and Scott circles was so gilded with tycoons and socialites that it became known as Millionaires' Row. The Great Depression, however, turned many of those riches to rags.

The opulent beaux-arts-style Walsh-McLean House near Dupont Circle, once the most expensive home in Washington, suffered the ultimate fall from grace. Gold-mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean bought the Hope Diamond in 1911 and became afflicted with its alleged curse: Her son died in a car crash, her husband ran off with another woman, her daughter fatally overdosed on drugs and her debts piled up. The 60-room mansion had been built for $835,000 in 1901-03 but was sold in 1952 to the Indonesian government for $335,000. The house became an embassy, and Millionaires' Row turned into Embassy Row.

Darth Vader may have once lorded over the Galactic Empire, but now he oversees the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral. The limestone Vader sculpture resulted from a cathedral contest in 1985 in which children submitted designs for carvings. Look for Luke Skywalker's father perched amid the Gothic spires on the northwest tower, facing the cathedral's dark side, of course.

Another fancy Massachusetts Avenue institution, the Henley Park Hotel, also features surprising sculpture. Among the 119 medieval-style gargoyles are the faces of a cigar-chomping man and a bespectacled woman. The immortalized couple are the hotel's stone mason and his wife. Score one for the workingman.

-- Phuong Ly

© 2007 The Washington Post Company