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  •   New Downtown Tour Brings Past Alive

    By Linda Wheeler
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, April 1, 1998; Page B03

    The woman in long skirt and Victorian lace blouse seemed to know the best Washington gossip -- stories of intrigue, lust and murder -- and for a price, she was willing to tell anyone. Yesterday, her audience of about a dozen trailed behind her as she pointed out the home of a young widow who had flirted with a notorious stage actor and the grand hall where presidential inaugural guests behaved like animals.

    Natalie Zanin, a tour guide and actress, used the historic streetscapes and buildings near the new MCI Center to dramatize the daily life of residents in the last century.

    Sites included the former Chinatown home of widow Mary Surratt, who was charmed by the dashing actor John Wilkes Booth, a visitor at her boarding house. After Booth shot President Lincoln at nearby Ford's Theatre, Surratt was arrested, tried, convicted and hanged for participating in the conspiracy.

    At the former Patent Office, now the National Portrait Gallery, Zanin took visitors to the third floor, where Civil War soldiers were hospitalized next to glassed displays of patent models. The same hall, minus the soldiers, later was the site of Lincoln's second inaugural ball, where guests danced until midnight.

    "Then the footman announces that dinner is about to be served, but only 300 can be seated at a time," Zanin said. "There are 4,000 people who have waited hours for the food. The doors open, and they attack the food, break the ice sculptures and spill the champagne. The Lincolns had to escape out a side door."

    The tour is co-sponsored by the Discovery Channel Store, a $20 million addition to MCI Center, and the DC Heritage Tourism Coalition.

    "This tour fits our mantra, 'Explore your world,' " said Greg Moyer, president and chief editorial and creative officer of Discovery Communications Inc. "We feel that cultural tourism is a tremendous business opportunity. We have found a place where good business and good social activism can make a link. We have built a business around that."

    Moyer joined the company's first tour, a leisurely stroll of 15 blocks that included eight stops on Zanin's tour. With Moyer were officials from historical and cultural associations who had helped research the tour material as well as finance the undertaking.

    The Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., which is a member of the heritage coalition, contributed $20,000 to the effort, said Executive Director Fran Cary. Her organization and others, including the Historical Society of Washington, have long promoted neighborhood cultural tours as a way to bring tourists into residential Washington.

    "We are saying, with this tour, that Washington is a fabulous place," she said. "After seeing the Mall, we are telling people to come to downtown Washington and see our history and culture."

    The twice-daily, 90-minute tours, which begin and end at the store, are $7.50 for adults and $5 for children and those older than 65. An 18-minute movie on Washington is shown at the store every 30 minutes for $2.50.

    Zanin encouraged her audience to return to the Gallery as well as the adjoining National Museum of American Art for a longer visit.

    "The Mall is just surface," she said at tour's end. "This was the place Washington people called home. It was here that Frederick Douglass's son sold real estate. It was here that Clara Barton ran an office for missing soldiers. This is Washington."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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