'The Nation's Square'

Hay-Adams Hotel Area Was Home to History Long Before Obamas' Arrival

At a barber shop in Washington, D.C., customers discuss Obama's imminent move into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The Obamas are currently staying at the Hay-Adams Hotel, near Lafayette Park and the White House. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009

From an office high above 16th Street in downtown Lafayette Square, Maureen Collins, a secretary for the AFL-CIO, often steals a moment to peer down at the entrance of the Hay-Adams Hotel, trying to catch a glimpse of history.

"I feel good that he's my neighbor," Collins said of President-elect Barack Obama, who, with his family, is staying temporarily in the hotel.

One day this week, Collins said: "I saw his daughters being taken to school and knew he was upstairs. It gave me a warm feeling. It's history."

History permeated this extraordinary District neighborhood long before Obama's arrival Sunday: There is the court building that was once the site of a pretty yellow house where a former first lady died broke, the Chamber of Commerce building that was once home to a secretary of state whose black butler helped plot a daring escape attempt by slaves and a Treasury Department annex that was once a major black bank that went belly up and hurt the reputation of a great abolitionist.

To live in the Washington area is to be surrounded by history -- a reality often lost in daily routines -- but with the Obamas' arrival, historical consciousness has been heightened.

Wall's Barber Shop sits on 15th Street NW, around the corner from the Hay-Adams. Talk of Obama's history-making campaign eventually yields to talk of the shop's history.

"It is one of the last old-fashioned barbershops left in the city," owner Dale Simmons said.

He recounted that it was opened 70 years ago by an Italian man, who sold it to a Tuskegee Airman, who sold it to Simmons.

He said he hopes that Obama will one day walk through his shop's door and ask for a shave and a shoeshine. That, he said, would add to his shop's rich story.

In a barbershop such as his, in a deeply historic place such as Lafayette Square, Simmons said, Obama "would be right at home."

Lafayette Square today is a mix of mammoth government buildings, restaurants, churches, hotels, coffeehouses and an occasional barber shop. But at one time, houses ringed the square.

"It has an incredibly rich history," said Cindi Malinick, executive director of the Decatur House on Lafayette Square, the former home of Secretary of State Henry Clay, whose slave Charlotte Dupuy sued him for her freedom and lost.

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