Is there life after fish in Southwest Washington?
Most people would say no, that once you've checked out the fish market you might as well leave. There's nothing else to see, they tell you. They use words like bleak, desolate, deserted, depressing, characterless to describe the neighborhood, most of which was razed in a '50s fit of urban renewal.
But look at it this way: Washingtonians don't know how lucky they are. Everyone else in the country has to drive for miles to get away from the noise and crowds of the city; we've got Southwest. And even if the architecture is dreary, it too has a function - it makes the old landmarks that much more interesting. There are some, believe it or not, that have managed to survive the city planners' wrecking balls, and finding them is part of the fun.
A friend and I set out one recent afternoon to explore the neighborhood. Our starting point, for no particular reason other than the fact that there's parking nearby, was the Wilson Line pier at 6th and Water Streets. It's typical of the area: bigh wide empty streets, modern beige apartments and those ubiquitous round street lamps.
But tucked in among the high-rises at 6th and N Streets was our first surprise of the day: an elegant old brick house. With its arched windows, winding staircase and wrought-iron railings, it's obviously been there a while. Sure enough, we learn from a bronze plaque that Thomas Law and his wife Elizabeth Parke Custis, granddaughter of Martha Washington, resided here in 1796. Later the home of Richard Bland Lee, who was influential in bringing the capital to the Potomac . Signed, National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission, 1950.
Later we find that the Sesquicentennial Commission left out all the juicy details. Little did we know that we were staring at "Honeymoon House," the home of Washington's first Fun Couple. Thomas and Eliza Law were famous for their parties. But although their house's name lasted, their marriage didn't. The Laws' divorce was the first in Washington, according to the Junior League's "The City of Washington - An Illustrated History," and Eliza Law went back to using her maiden name. The forward-thinking couple also had a marriage contract, at the insistence of the bride's skeptical step-grandfather, George Washington, and the book tells how his foresight protected her Custis inheritance when they spilt up in 1804. Thomas Law later lost his shirt speculating on real estate.
There's swimming pool in back of the house now, and it's connected to a smaller house by a short elevated walkway. It's owned by Tibel Island Apartments - they restored it - and they use it for receptions for their tenants. It's not open to the Public.
It's a nice walk south along Washington Channel through the concrete "park," with a gorgeous view of East Potomac Park and Hains Point. There are benches for sitting and admiring the view, but no one is using them. It would be nice if there were grass.
There's a statue at the end of the park you'd never see if you were driving. It's a man on tip-toe, robes flowing, arms outstretched. We can't quite figure it out, but the inscription clears everything up. To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic, April 15, 1912, it says. They gave their lives that women and children might be saved. Erected by the women of America.
But it looks a little incongruous here, a little out of place among the conversation pits, and sure enough, when you get home and look it up, you find the Titanic Memorial used to stand on Rock Creek Parkway, overlooking the Potomac. It was moved in 1966 to make way for the Kennedy Center, and after a bit of bickering - some people thought it would be a nice addition to Hains Point, but the Fine Arts Commission said the statue was not "significant enough" for that location - it came to rest in this remote Southwest spot.
The park ends right at the statue. If you crane your neck you can see the backs of the officers' houses in Fort McNair, all lined up along the water. We decide to have a closer look, and walk over to the entrance at 4th and P Streets. We ask the guard if we can walk through the fort. That depends on what you want to do, he says. Just look around, we say. Permission is granted, and we proceed down Third Avenue.
Fort McNair is not just old, it's a historical gold mine. The site near the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers was picked by Pierre L'Enfant almost 200 years ago. Almost a century later, the eight Lincoln conspirators were tried and imprisoned here, and four of them were hanged here and buried at the foot of the gallows (now covered over by tennis courts, but a part of the penitentiary still exists). Walter Reed did most of his research here, and you can see the two-story red brick building where he died, ironically enough after saving the world from yellow fever, of complications from an appendectomy in 1902.
I love this sort of thing: I didn't know any of this existed, and I feel like an urban explorer. We stroll contentedly down Generals' Row, past the Southern-style mini-mansions with their incredible views of the river. I feel a wave of that old '60s hostility creeping up on me, except now my main concern is how much a piece of real estate like that would cost. At the end of the row is the National War College, which, despite its ominous name, is a pretty red brick building reminiscent of Union Station, right down to the pigeons in the rafters. Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1904; now it's a national historic landmark.
The nighborhood landmarks aren't restricted to the fort. Less than two blocks from the main gate, around 4th and N, some of the oldest houses in Washington are still standing. Wheat Row (1315-21 4th St.), the Washington Lewis House (456 N St.) and the Barney Neighborhood House (468-70 N St.) were built around 1795 to house the Washington elite. A little more than a century later, they'd become settlement houses. Barney House was sort of a community center for neighborhood kids, and for 50 years they'd close off N Street each May and throw a block party, with a May Queen and her court dancing around the maypoles and the Marine Band playing. But by the early '60s funds and services dwindled as the slums were bulldozed away. Now the three old houses have come full circle and the fashionable residences once again.
Back to reality, to M Street and Metro construction and Waterside Mall. At 6th Street we come to a combination temple/church with a cross and menorah on the roof. Once past Arena Stage, the high-rises begin to be replaced by townhouses. Everything's on a much more human scale, and when the trees get a little bigger it will probably look like a real neighborhood.
Left on G Street, right on 7th, past the monstrous HUD building - a fitting monument to the housing policies of the federal government, says my friend. At 6th and E, across from the Transportation Department, is St. Dominic's Catholic Church. It's 102 years old, dark and gothic-looking, an oddity in this smooth, beige world. We stop in and I'm overcome by nostalgia - the echo-y sound of my childhood, the same rack of pamphlets along the wall, that church smell of burnt incense - or is it newly extinguished candles? We whisper . . .
Outside again, we head toward L'Enfant Plaza. We pass the Transportation Building again. Pieces of it - big whit slabs of it - are falling off. Left on D, past the Gencral Services Administration and, finally, up the steps to L'Enfant Plaza at 7th and D.
I had heard there was a shopping mall there, and after wandering around the concree maze like laboratory rats, we eventually found it, down some steps in the middle of the concrete plaza.There's a whole shopping network underground there, and though many of the shops are closed on Saturday, you can buy a *dress, some candy, a pair of shoes or a book without getting jostled. You can order lunch and be waited on instantly.Think of it. That alone may be reason enough to visit Southwest.
It was reason enough for us to spend more time than we'd intended checking out the shops, and it was getting dark by the time we emerged. So we jogged down L'Enfant Promenade Street to 9th; then down to Maine and over to Water Street again, past Hogate's and Pier 7 and the Gangplank, and back to the car at 6th and Water.