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Living History

By John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
From the book "Kid-O-Rama"
Copyright 1998


Museums | From Slaves to Heroes | The Alexandria Experience | Of Water and Bread | Presidential Material

This chapter explores the past in varied forms, from homes of famous Americans to discursions on how ordinary Americans lived and played (especially played) to the devastating effects of human prejudice. Our criteria for inclusion have been fairly loose, including hands-on archaeology, some fussy historic homes and museums bursting with historic artifacts.

Some places here are not for all kids. The heavily visited U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, demands careful parental judgment on whether children are ready to cope with that enormous tragedy. Similarly, Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum has one exhibit on the tortured occupants of a slave ship and another on lynchings, which parents may find too disturbing for some children.

In less difficult cases, some kids simply may be bored by static displays of rusty tools or musty furniture or old-fashioned clothing. Many sites feature docents dressed in what is invariably referred to as "period garb," acting as if the cotton gin was never invented and penicillin never discovered. It can be more than a little precious when some lady in a mobcap asks you what a digital watch is, but many children connect with what is essentially play-acting.

Because of the central roles that slavery and racism have played in American history, we've separated out explorations of African American history, even though a planned Washington museum addressing the subject has unfortunately not yet been built. Since Alexandria — once the most bustling and cosmopolitan town on the Potomac — is basically one big piece of living history, we've organized it separately as well. Finally, water was the fossil fuel of the 18th Century, and the Washington region is awash in one of the prominent water uses of those days: grist mills. We review them here, too.

The attractions discussed can, of course, be visited in any season, but timing a visit to coincide with when your child is learning about a particular historic period at school might be more rewarding for both of you.

Museums | From Slaves to Heroes | The Alexandria Experience | Of Water and Bread


The District Maryland Virginia
National Museum of American History Children's Museum of Rose Hill Manor Park Mount Vernon
Hands On History Room Clara Barton House Gunston Hall
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Baltimore Museum of Industry Sully Plantation
Ford's Theatre Sandy Spring Museum Woodlawn Plantation
Arts and Industries Building   Manassas Museum
DAR Museum    
Washington Dolls' House and Toy Museum    

From Slaves to Heroes

A museum of African American history is planned for the Mall. Until it becomes a reality, you can find at least some parts of the sweeping story of African Amercians at various places. The National Museum of American History's "From Field to Factory" exhibit details the great migration that brought rural blacks from the South to such urban centers as Chicago. The National Museum of American Art holds major works by black artists in its collection, including paintings by William H. Johnson. The Arts and Industries Building often plays host to shows with an African American theme. The following places take a more active role in exploring black history:

The District Maryland Virginia
African American Civil War Memorial Banneker-Douglass Museum Alexandria Black History Resource Center
Anacostia Museum Great Blacks In Wax Museum  
Bethune Council House    
Frederick Douglass Home    

The Alexandria Experience

You can't walk very far in Alexandria without stepping on something historic. The former tobacco port has been steeping itself in history since the days of Washington and Lee. Most attractions will be over the heads of the smallest children, Alexandria having a somewhat rarified and genteel approach to its complement of historic sights. Teens and precocious preteens may prefer simply to shop along King Street and down by the water. Be aware that the city's stock of historic buildings means that wheelchair access can be problematical.

The Lyceum Alexandria Black History Resource Center
Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee Carlyle House
Gadsby's Tavern Museum Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Shop
George Washington Masonic National Memorial  

Of Water and Bread

Few things are as anachronistic today as the grist mills that once were a staple of American life: huge, grooved stones turned by water, crushing grain. Yet they suggest how life used to be. A half-dozen area mills can show kids the work that used to go into making a simple loaf of bread. Many have special programs, such as cider-pressing or blacksmithing demonstrations, and most sell flour that's been ground the old-fashioned way. Note that the main attraction — a water-turned wheel — may not always be functioning. There needs to be enough water to make the thing work. Pierce Mill in the District and Colvin Run in Great Falls are the most convenient for most Washingtonians.

The District Maryland Virginia
Pierce Mill Union Mills Aldie Mill
  Wye Grist Mill Burwell-Morgan Mill
    Colvin Run Mill Historic Site

Presidential Material

Every U.S. president with the exception of George Washington has lived in the White House, but around town you will of course find memorials, monuments and tributes to many of Washington's successors. Not all are worth a trip unto themselves, but any of them can make informative, sometimes fascinating stopovers during other outings. We examine those that are of most interest to parents and kids.

George Washington
If the kids are getting a dose of the alleged cherry-tree-chopper in school, you can visit several places for more insight into the Father of Our Country. First should be Mount Vernon. The 555-foot-high Washington Monument, despite its skyline prominence, is one of the city's more disappointing attractions, usually with a long wait to ride a cramped elevator to sample views that, while impressive, are clouded by thick, awkwardly placed lenses. At this writing, the momument was closed for renovations. Tours resumed in December 1998 while exterior stonework continued, though some scheduling disruptions were possible. But you'd be unwise to stand in a long line to visit this memorial. Our recommendation: Save it for a summer evening, when there are extended hours (to near midnight from April through Labor Day), the crowds have thinned and you can take in a Washington sunset from all four directions. You can get free timed tickets at the monument's kiosk or in advance through TicketMaster (800/505-5040; modest service charges).

For a view of the first president as engineer and entrepreneur, visit the museum and grounds of Virginia's Great Falls Park, which tells the story of his ill-fated Potowmack Canal Company. For a stranger and intimate view into Washington the Freemason, visit the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria. And when you're in Baltimore, the other Washington Monument (Charles Street and Mount Vernon Place; 410/396-0929) makes a great side trip. For a $1 donation, you can climb the steps of the 178-foot-tall monument (described as the nation's "first formal" monument to Washington, dating from 1831) for a breathtaking view of one of the Baltimore's most urbane neighborhoods.

Thomas Jefferson
The Jefferson Memorial, at the southern end of the Tidal Basin, creates a powerful impression of our third president, credited with authoring the Declaration of Independence (viewable at the National Archives) and viewed as America's greatest Renaissance man. Its neoclassical form recalls the amateur architect's personal tastes, as well as his self-designed home near Charlottesville (during your visit, you may want to grab a nickel, whose back carries an image of Monticello and front a portrait of Jefferson). Inside is a big open space surrounding a three-times-life-size statue of the man. Excerpts from his writings are engraved, including, in a grand sweep around the dome: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." If you can sufficiently explain the nuances of that one to your kids, they — or at least you — may qualify for AP credits. This is another site that gathers power during a nighttime viewing.

Abraham Lincoln
The Lincoln Memorial, anchoring the West end of the Mall, is our hands-down favorite memorial for kids and perhaps the closest thing Washington has to a patch of sacred ground. Every visitor, even a baby in a backpack, seems to sense the power of the place. As you walk up the front steps, the statue of a seated, brooding Lincoln looms larger with every stride (seated, he's 19 feet tall, like Jefferson, but if the figure were to stand it would be 28 feet tall). There are plenty of details to engage kids. Across the top frieze you'll find the names and admission dates of the 36 United States at the time of Lincoln's death; just above are the names of all 48 states (lacking only Alaska and Hawaii) that were in place when the memorial was dedicated in 1922. Along the interior walls are two works of Lincoln's prose worth absorbing with older children: the vaunted Gettysburg Address and, more powerful thanks to its relative obscurity, the second inaugural address. Turn your back on the Lincoln statue and the view of the Mall, with the 2,000-foot reflecting pool and the Washington Monument rising behind, is stunning. Walk around back and look across the Potomac River at Arlington Cemetery, where you can see both Arlington House (the final resting place of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, a former Union general until he signed up with his native Virginia during the Civil War) and the gravesite, with the eternal flame, of John F. Kennedy. In the base of the memorial is an informative mini-museum highlighting the role of the memorial as center in the struggle for civil rights. Other Lincoln sites around town include Ford's Theatre and Lincoln Museum and, directly across the street, Petersen House. Like the Jefferson and Washington memorials, Lincoln's is best visited at night, when dramatic interior lighting and the lighted rippling image on the reflecting pool leave potent impressions.

Theodore Roosevelt
On Roosevelt Island you'll find a statue and inscriptions honoring the 26th president, a fitting tribute to the hearty outdoorsman, rugged individualist and military man.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The newest presidential tribute, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, is also one of the most innovative. Composed of four "rooms" (suggesting FDR's four terms), it provides more of a narrative about the man and his times than any other presidential memorial. It's also huge (7.5 acres) and filled with waterfalls, fountains, sculptures, gardens and various contemplative nooks. It offers plenty to engage kids and get them thinking about the depths (the Depression) and heights (victory in World War II) of the American Century. The first FDR tribute, located in front of the National Archives at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW and dedicated in 1965, bears only his name and birth and death dates. (FDR said he wanted a memorial the size of his desk, and so it is.)

John F. Kennedy
The 35th president's gravesite at Arlington Cemetery has burned with an eternal flame since his burial here in November 1963; the headstone is Cape Cod slate, and the marble plaza features quotations from his inaugural address. Nearby is a simple cross marking the grave of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968, the grave of Jacqueline Kennedy, buried here in 1994, and a tiny marker for the baby the Kennedys lost in 1961. The sweeping view of Washington across the river is one of the best. A living tribute to JFK is the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, containing a mid-century-style bust of Kennedy in the lobby.

The Other 36
If older kids want to indulge in local presidential obscurities, they have some choices. The Grant Memorial, on the West front of The Capitol, is a huge equestrian tribute to Ulysses S. Grant as Civil War hero (kids are certain to be amused by the lions, and the lesser soldiers, surrounding him). Near the reflecting pool is a modest remembrance of James A. Garfield, who served only four months in the White House before being assassinated. William Howard Taft, the 27th president, is buried at Arlington (in a grave located en route to the Kennedy site), and the massive, scenic span of Connecticut Avenue bridging Rock Creek carries his name.

Near National Airport, alongside the George Washington Memorial Parkway en route to National Airport, you'll find the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, 15 acres of gardens fronting a freeway and a rather unpleasant waterfront; there's a big chunk of Texas granite and some of that President's less colorful quotes (it's part of the larger Lady Byrd Johnson Park, a tribute to her role as beautifier of the U.S. landscape). And the Woodrow Wilson House, home of the 28th U.S. president (the only one to choose to live here after his presidency), may be a worthy stop for curious students 12 and up. The admission price provides a movie and a tour; the kitchen is a time capsule of 1920s upper-class domestic life, and the library is full of souvenirs from Wilson's travels. Wilson, disabled by a stroke in 1919, used the vintage 1915 elevator to maneuver between the floors. Wilson is the only president buried in the District of Columbia; you can visit his tomb, adorned with the sword of a crusader, at Washington National Cathedral.

Finally, the area's largest collection of presidential portraiture is at the National Portrait Gallery's Hall of Presidents. Not to be missed: Norman Rockwell's Richard Nixon, so pure and idealized that it makes you want to re-evaluate your opinion of both the subject and the artist.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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