When official Washington spills from Capitol Hill late Friday afternoon, the neighborhood takes over. And while weekend tourists rattle the walls of the Smithsonian a few blocks away, Capitol Hill is quiet with its own quaint delights.
There are turrets and iron fences, the buzzing saws of the upwardly mobile in the throes of renovation, a drugstore that smells of talcum, a neighborhood bar where No. 110, "Margaritaville," is the most-played song on the jukebox. But more than that, to someone on the trail of an intown getaway, Capitol Hill is the Museum of African Art, alley houses and carriage houses, Victorian Gothic architecture, shops that aren't crowded like those in Georgetown, the Eastern Market, sidewalk cafes, wide boulevards and one of the tiniest streets in town.
On a Saturday morning, the sidewalk wanderer can hobnob with the farmers who back their trucks under the leaves at Eastern Market on Seventh Street SE. "But you've never tasted this kind of mint," said an herb-seller proffering leaf after leaf to a customer. He was delighted to see them popped in the mouth, and quickly offered to bring fresh tarragon the next Saturday. The farmers come as early as 5 to set up -- you can have breakfast alongside them at Market Lunch when it opens at 7:30 -- and stay until they sell out of the melons, the squash, the houseplants and honey and hot peppers. Inside, there are meats and fish and cheese and more vegetables.
Across the street in the Market Court shopping arcade, Howard Schweitzer gives a little cometition with his cheese store. He knows most of customers of "Cheese & Cheer" by their first names. With a yellow porkpie hat pulled down over his ears and square tortoise-shell glasses, he's the Miss Lonelyhearts of cheese. "Everybody is having somebody for dinner and wants to know what to serve," he said. He gives advice on when the camembert is ripe andhow long to leave the cheese out (three hours). The personal touch -- a sign on his wall that says, "Free chicken fat for our customers. Get your name on our list."
The shopkeepers on Seventh Street say goodbye just as pleasantly when you leave emptyhanded as they said hello when you arrived. There's an unrushed quality. It's possible to find something unique, perhaps a bargain, but without fighting crowds. There are those little $16 silk Chinese gymnast-style shoes in six different colors at The Leather Forecast in Market Court. Around the corner on C Street, at a vintage-clothing store called "As Time Goes By," a bowling shirt with "Peewee" on the pocket goes for $17. You may have to step over a large black poodle entrenched in the doorway, but it too looks like something from the past, an applique lifted from an old poodle skirt.
More than shopping is happening at Seventh and C. In the Hine Junior High School playground, pick-up basketball seems to run non-stop, so if you're game, someone else can do the shopping.
Another Capitol Hill area for small shops is Eighth Street SE, in the revitalized Barracks Row section across from the Marine Barracks. Walking into Miss B's Antiques, Ltd., is a little like walking into a Victorian-style house, except there are more than the usual number of crystal chandeliers. Apples were being served in front of the fireplace on recent afternoon, just like home. Upstairs inMiss B's attic, one can get lost in a great accumulation of oddments. A colage of tiny graduation pictures, white mortarboard alternating with back, of the DuVal High School class of '63 -- ten dollars, framed. A changes since. In between comes F Street Terrace, and from here it's a short stroll up to Archibald Walk, a few feet wide and a bit of Hill whimsy. For the length of the walk, a warehouse wall is covered with a cunning mural of make-believe houses, lampposts and even a little facade of Snoopy's doghouse. The mural was commissioned of Hill artist Harlan Westover (and his kids) by realtor Barbara Held Reich and her husband, builder Robert Reich. They'd bought two alley houses there and in the process of improving them did the same for the warehouse wall, which was, says Barbara Held Reich, "really ugly." According to her, the alley was named after a Hill resident, Archie Donohoe, who knew all the little alleys and the people in them. A weathered sign marks it: "In memory of Archibald Donohoe (1879-1964) who walked these alleys with a twinkle in his eye."
That may be the smallest street on Capitol Hill. Now, the oldest house on the Hill is believed to be the Sewall-Belmont house, over at 144 Constitution Avenue NE.
Part of it was burned by the British in 1814, but a small part of the original house remains, which may have been built in the late 1600s. Since 1929 the house has been headquaters for the National Women's Party, and a history of the movement is given on a tour inside. From the street you can see a fanlight, a Victorian-era stained-glass window arched over the doorway, with the street number part of the design.
Nearby is the Folger Shakespeare Library, where an exhibit on Shakespeare performances through the ages is displayed. Actually it's hard getting past the gift shop, where a dollar buys a button that says, "Shakespeare Was an Avon Product," or "Where There's a Will There's a Play." This is also where one picks up those "Jog On, Jog On" (quoth the Bard) T-shirts.
When it's time to take a break, close-by Massachusetts Avenue offers at least three restaurants with outdoor tables: The Brasserie, American Cafe and The Man in the Green Hat. This last is neighborhood bar at night, and Hill meeting-place by day when just a hamburger is de rigueur , the talk is everything: "His votes aren't going to come from Reagan people." "This guy is a state senator.They call him Swampy. And if he gets elected it's going to be unbelievable."
From the restaurants, wander into the residential area via Third Street NE. On the way you'll notice an interesting collection of dozen blue willow saucers, one blue willow cup. A photo of his aircraft carrier. A No Parking sign from the 1973 inauguration.
Up the street and just down from The D.C. Horolgist (watch repair), Spanish doors lead into Ademas Tile shop. Inside is as cool as the tiles they sell for walls and counters, some for floors, hand-made tiles in lovely designs imported from Portugal, Spain,Mexico, Israel and France. And before leaving Eighth Street, surely there is something you need from District Lock and Hardware Co. -- a doorpull? a dog collar? -- their filing system crowds to the ceiling.
The shopping areas on Seventh and Eighth are both an easy walk from the Eastern Market subway stop.
Capitol Hill, where the new blends with the old. Little boys with books under their arms dawdle their way home from school oblivious to a cast-iron hitching post where horse and carriage once waited. (There's a post in front of 421 1/2 Sixth Street SE.)
Nearby, John Philip Sousa's birthplace is at 636 G Street SE; it's just down from old Christ Church, built in 1806 with several cupolas, cornices and other roof adornments on the bay-fronted Victorian homes that are familiar on the Hill.
Around the corner, the Museum of African Art, 316 A Street NE, is both a museum and the former residence of Frederick Douglass, who lived there from 1877. Inside are headdresses worn by men in ceremonies before planting crops, and masks, fertility figured, power figures, given more meaning by a show of slides taken by Life photographer Eliot Elisofon; in the background play the voice and music and sounds of Africa.
Back outside in the alley the museum begins to merge with the neighborhood. Bright African murals cover the walls of the garages behind it. It's a custom for a wife of the N'debele people of the Transvaal region to paint her small house with large geometric patterns, and the styles were copied here as a bicentennial project.
On A Street NE, flat-front houses in Federal style come in all colors, including maroon and mauve. People here seem to express themselves through their houses more, sometimes whimsically. One brick house, at 407 A Street NE, is painted mustard with teal woodworking. A bit unusual, but then the eye scans to the second story where an alabaster hand reaches out from the bricks to wave. In daylight through the front window one makes out a staircase under a skylight and on the newel post a sculpted head straining to look up at the sky.
Around the corner at 326 East Capitol is the neighborhood drugstore, Grubb's Pharmacy. It's a place to pause and order an egg cream or a lemonade over the old marble-top counter, to read the notices on the community bulletin board -- cats lost (see photo), cats found, lawn-mowing; or take in the smells of good things all crowded together, the school pencils with the Dr. Scholls, the greeting cards with the umbrellas and cough syrup. Outside along the broad expanse of East Capitol Street, condominiums aborning won't stop hollyhocks from growing beside the boards and empty boxes.
Across East Capitol Street, beyondthe condo castles, other alleys speak of neighborhood and times past. There are renovated alley houses, and old carriage houses, identifiable by a wooden beam over the second-story window: the beam was used to pull hay into the loft. Examples of alley houses and carriage houses can be found in LibraryCourt SE, which runs south between the 300 block of East Capitol Street and Independence Avenue SE, and in Rumsey Court behind the 100 block of C Street SE. Note the garage in the court, behind 125 C: the occupantspainted a rock garden on the wall above the trash cans.
Getting to Rumsey Court takes you past Pennsylvania Avenue, where there's a chance for a late breakfast or just a place to sit a while. The restaurants range from Taverna the Greek Islands, where one can sit at a counter and watch the moussaka bubbling next to the grape leaves, to Tune Inn, a down-at-the-heels, find-an-empty-booth bar where a glass of beer is 70 cents and the juke box plays on. Or toJenkins Hill: packed for lunch during the week -- Bearnaise burgers under Tiffany lamps -- but on Saturdays the only other people at the long oak bar are Hill residents who arrive in sweatshirts to read the newspaper over bloody marys.
Oh, just up the street is the place the hill is named after. If you feel obliged to visit, because it's there, there are tours of the Capitol every day between 9 and 3:45 except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. And you can ride the Capitol subway. Go through the Rotunda to the Senate or House side and take the elevator to the basement. The subway will take you to the Russell or Dirksen Buildings, or the Rayburn Building and back again. On Saturdays, it's open to the public from 9 to noon when Congress isn't in session. No one has to know you just live here.