FORGET ALL those stories about how hard it is to fight your way to the top in Washington. You've got friends in high places -- us -- who'll help you rise above the crowd. Whether you're looking for a mountain top or a rooftop restaurant or just that towering feeling, here's a tour that's strictly on the up and up:
BECAUSE IT'S THERE: The highest spot of land in Washington, according to topographical maps, is 434 feet above sea level. You can reach this summit in Fort Reno Park in Tenleytown, near the reservoir. Climb it and know you're as high as you're ever going to get in Washington and still have your feet on the ground. A little way down the slope -- at about 420 feet above sea level -- tower the television towers of Channel 9. If you could climb to the top of the antenna of the tllest tower -- some technicians have, but you can't try it -- you could look down on the city from a dizzying 1,049 feet above sea level.
The Fort Reno knoll, according to the Works Progress Administration Guide to Washington, is a fragment of one of a series of terraces carved by the Potomac in pre-historic times. This particular terrace, which rose to about 500 feet above sea level west of the city, sloped to 170 feet east of the city in Prince George's County. Most of the terrace has been worn down but, in addition to the Tenleytown hill, two other high spots remain -- at the Soldiers Home (elevation 328 feet) in Northwest and on Good Hope Hill in Anacostia (elevation 282 feet).
The Soldiers Home is off limits except to residents, but Good Hope Hill is accessible. Its highest point is in Fort Stanton Park. Just down the slope -- at 255 feet above sea level -- is Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, at 1600 Morris Road SE. The church has a vast parking lot plus a large lawn where you can picnic with a view that takes in the National Shrine, Washington Cathedral, the Washington Monument, the planes pouring in and out of National Airport and -- much closer -- the helicopters taking off at the Anacostia Naval Air Station. The church's Panorama Room, where the view is the same but behind glass, rents out for weddings and parties.
EXCELSIOR: Yes, Washington, we do have mountains, and some of our mountains even have names. Mount Saint Alban, site of Washington Cathedral, rises 389 feet above sea level. And the central tower soars to 676 feet and nine inches above sea level. You can only climb to the central tower once a year, at the Cathedral's Open House (scheduled for September 28), but you can ride the elevator weekdays 10 to 3:45 and Sundays 12:30 to 3:15 to the Pilgrim Gallery in the West Tower. It's only about two hundred feet above grade, but that's 589 feet above sea level -- and the view is tops.
Another "name" mountain in Washington is Mount Hamilton on the grounds of the National Arboretum in Northeast. It's 239 feet above sea level, and covered with trees -- just like a real mountain. You can drive to the top, but you'll feel more like you've climbed a mountain if you hike up from the Morrison Azalea Garden.
Mount Pleasant, once the 120-acre estate of one William Stone who settled there in 1815, lies on another of the terraces carved by the Potomac eons ago. Its highest point is 208 feet above sea level -- substantially higher than the malarial lowlands where most of Washington's population used to live. In the 1870s, real estate developers pushed this area as "the most healthy suburb of Washington, proved by its exemption from the chills and autumnal fevers of malarial districts." Mount Pleasant shares the terrace with Meridian Hill, which, though it's only a "hill," is roughly the same elevation as the "mount."
Mount Alto -- just an octave downhill from the sopranos at Washington Cathedral -- is a 10-acre site just north of Calvert Street between Wisconsin Avenue and Tunlaw Road. It was once occupied by a girls' domestic science school and later by the Mount Alto Veterans Hospital. Now a $70 million Soviet Union compound, including housing for diplomats and families, sits atop Mount Alto. The height of the site -- 349 feet above sea level -- has American security officials down in the dumps. They say that the Soviets, from that high ground, will be able to listen in on all sorts of would-be secret phone and radio communications.
TOWER OF POWER: The earliest towers were built for military purposes -- in order to discharge missiles on the attacking force from an advantageous position. Later, religious towers came into use -- to get the priest closer to the sun, moon and stars or to lift the congregation's thoughts to heaven. Still later, towers were built to house clocks (which wouldn't work unless they had long pendulums) or bells or simply to make an architectural statement.
The Old Post Office tower on Pennsylvania Avenue houses a clock (which had a pendulum until it fell off and was replaced by a motor) and some bells (a bicentennial gift from the British) and made such an architectural statement that for years almost everybody wanted to tear it down. Preservationists prevailed, however, and the tower is alive and well and open to the public.
To attain its 315-foot height, you float upward in a glass elevator through the vast open space of the Pavilion. At the ninth floor you change elevators to complete the journey to the observation area. It's open, but protected by screens, and has breathtaking views to the east, west, north and south. You can walk part of the way down for a look at the inside of the clock face and the 10 giant bronze bells that are rung on national holidays and at the opening and closing of Congress.
Another tower available for climbing -- by elevator -- is the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria. The building is 333 feet tall but it sits on a hill, so when you're on the outside observation deck at the top you're about 460 feet above sea level. Tours are given free, seven days a week from 9:15 to 4.
THE HAUTE-EST CUISINE: There are eating and drinking establishments here where you can get high without even ordering a cocktail. Top o' the Town at 14th and N. Oak streets in Arlington sits atop the Arlington Ridge behind the Iwo Jima Memorial. The view begins with a ride in a glass-sided outside elevator to the cocktail lounge and restaurant on the 12th floor. Once you get there, there's a 180-degree view of the Kennedy Center, the top of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, the Capitol, Memorial Bridge, the Pentagon and other landmarks. The restaurant is open weekdays from 6 to 10, weekends until 11. The lounge, complete with disc jockey, is open until midnight on weekdays, and until 1:30 on weekends. Call 525-9200.
The View is on the 13th floor of the Key Bridge Marriott at 1401 Lee Highway in Arlington, but there's nothing unlucky about the vista -- or vistas. From the cocktail lounge (open from 4 to 2) you can see the Potomac, the Three Sisters, rowing crews, the Washington Canoe Club and Roosevelt Island. The restaurant (open from 6 to 10:30) looks down on the Mall. Call 524-6400.
The Vantage Point in the Rosslyn Westpark Hotel at 1900 Fort Myer Drive has a higher vantage point: It's on the 17th floor. The vista includes Washington Cathedral, Georgetown, Key Bridge, and -- if you reserve a table at the south end -- the Mall. It's open from 5:30 to 10:30. Call 527-2814.
Skylights is on the 18th floor of the Hyatt Regency Crystal City at 2799 Jefferson Davis Highway. To reach the summit, you board a glass elevator for a ride through a characteristically spectacular Hyatt atrium then into the great outdoors of south Arlington. Once you've made it to the top, you can watch the planes land and take off at National Airport while you eat (from 11 to 2 and 5 to 11). From the north end of the restaurant, there's a rather distant view of the Mall and the Washington Monument.
If you want to be in Washington and not just look at it, scurry on up to the Sky Terrace of the Washington Hotel at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Unlike the Virginia rooftops, this one is outdoors, under awnings to keep out the rain. You sit on chintz-covered rattan settees while you sip, seeing the Treasury building, the White House, the Red Cross building and the Ellipse. Sandwiches are available outside, but for a full meal -- and a view of the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue -- you have to retreat to the glassed-in Two Continents in the Sky restaurant. The restaurant is open Monday through Friday noon to 3 and 6 to 11; the terrace is open Monday through Friday noon to 1 a.m. and weekends 4 to 1 a.m. Call 638-9500.
UP AND AROUND: At the Sky Dome, on the 14th floor of the Quality Inn Pentagon City at 300 Army Navy Drive in Arlington, it isn't only the music that goes round and round. The whole place rotates, slowly, affording a 360-degree view if you stay there long enough. It's open daily 4 to 1, weekends until 2. Call 892-4100.
THE BELLS ARE RINGING: All 49 bells in the Netherlands Carillon are rung every Saturday afternoon through September by a professional carillonneur. And during the concerts, from 2 to 4, you can climb the 127-foot tower, chat with the carillonneur, and enjoy a tip-top view. It's free, as is the parking nearby at the Iwo Jima Memorial. Call 285-2598 for more information.
DOME-INATING THE SKYLINE: The Capitol sits atop Jenkins Hill (elevation 90.5 feet above sea level) and its 8,909,202- pound cast-iron dome rises another 287 feet 51/2 inches from the ground to the feather on the helmet of the statue of Freedom on top. (If you think it looks like an Indian, thank Jefferson Davis. As secretary of war, Davis was in charge of the construction of the Capitol and vetoed sculptor Thomas Crawford's original plan to cap the figure with a Phrygian cap, symbol of the liberated slave. Crawford substituted the crested helmet, which is often mistaken for a native American head-dress.)
Anybody can stand under the dome, but only members of Congress and accompanying parties can actually go up into it, on a stairway that runs between the dome's inner and outer shells to a point just below the lantern. (A smaller but no less interesting dome that the public can examine at close range is the one over the main reading room of the Library of Congress. It measures 160 feet from floor to top, and a bird's eye view of its murals and statues can be had from the visitors gallery that looks down on the reading room.)
The fact that the Capitol dome still dominates the Washington skyline is due to Congress, which in 1899 and 1910 passed laws limiting the heights of buildings in Washington.
"There's nothing about buildings not being higher than the Capitol in the public record," says Nelson Rimensnyder of the House District Committee. "I think there were aesthetic considerations, but people figured that a better way to sell the idea to Congress was with the fire considerations, which were real."
When the city's first skyscraper, the 147-foot Cairo Hotel (now the Cairo Apartments) was built at 1615 Q Street in 1894, it raised a hue and cry from the city's fire officials, who claimed that water pressure wasn't adequate to fight fires in such tall buildings. Only buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue are allowed to be that tall now. On the avenue, the height limit is 160 feet. On lesser avenues, it's 130 feet or lower.
HIS HIGH-NESS: Even while he lived, there were plans to build some sort of monument to George Washington. Planner Pierre L'Enfant envisioned an equestrian statue and mapped it at the intersection of an east-west line through the center of the Capitol and a north-south line through the center of the White House. However, if you go to that spot (northeast of the Washington Monument just outside the flagpole area), you'll find only a marker. The site was found too unstable, and the real monument was built southwest of it -- eventually.
By the 1840s, when public subscriptions had raised enough money to begin construction, architect Robert Mills had plans for a fancy pseudo-Greek temple surrounding a 700-foot obelisk. By the time the cornerstone was laid -- on July 4, 1848, the temple at the base was dropped and the obelisk had shrunk to 555 feet 5! inches high -- which still makes it the tallest piece of masonry in the world. (Because the monument sits on a hill, the tip of the top is about 585 feet above sea level.) The first 152 feet, built between 1848 and 1854, is faced with marble from Texas, Maryland, near Baltimore. Funding problems and the Civil War halted progress until 1879, when construction began again with marble from Lee, Massachusetts. Only 26 feet of this marble had been put on, however, before budget bureaucrats pronounced it too expensive. The remainder of the shaft is faced with marble from Cockeysville, Maryland.
The marble is capped with an aluminum pyramid, which was exhibited in New York and Washington prior to being placed atop the monument. While it was on exhibit, visitors enjoyed stepping over it -- just so they could say that they had stepped over what was then the tallest building in the world.
An elevator carries visitors to the top every day from 8 a.m. until midnight, and even women and children may ride. This was not always the case. When the monument first opened in 1888, its steam elevator was considered so unsafe that only men were allowed to risk it. Women and children had to walk the 897 steps to the top. Nowadays, no one's allowed to walk up, but people of all ages and sexes may walk down provided they join a tour conducted by a ranger. Just request the tour when you arrive at the Monument.
HIGH-FALUTIN' NEIGHBORS: Washington has an approximate mean elevation of 150 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Maryland, which rises from sea level to 3,360 feet (on Backbone Mountain in Garrett County) has a mean elevation of 350 feet. But Virginia has Maryland beat by half a mile. Its highest peak, Mount Rogers, near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, sticks up 5,729 feet, and the state's mean elevation is 950 feet.
The highest peak within easy commuting distance of Washington is Sugar Loaf Mountain on the border of Montgomery and Frederick counties. You can huff and puff your way to the 1,282-foot summit in an easy half hour.
Farther afield and higher up is the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, a 4100-foot plateau near Canaan Valley, West Virginia. That's a favorite trekking place of Anne Zebaldo, founder of Great Encounters, an outdoor adventure program for women.
"It looks like the moon,"says Zebaldo. "It's boggy. It's in the path of the westerlies, and the top soil blew away."
Zebaldo also recommends the Maryland Heights, across the river from Harpers Ferry near Sandy Hook, Maryland. After "an easy rock scramble to the top," you're rewarded with "overwhelming views of the Shenandoah and the Potomac."
ROPING YOUR WAY TO THE TOP: If you like to take the most direct route, even if it's straight up a cliff, rock climbing may be your sport. Favorite ascents locally are on the Virginia side of the Potomac in Great Falls Park; Wolf Rocks, near Camp David; and Seneca Rocks, near Petersburg, West Virginia. Classes in basic rock climbing at these and other sites are available through Potomac River Tours (667-6161); the Open University (966-9606); Great Encounters (546-4654); Washington Women Outdoors (797-8222); and the Outdoor School (471-
REACHING FOR THE SKY: Washington is sometimes called "the city of trees," and nobody puts height limits on them. Well, hardly ever.
"There's a big old white oak on Observatory Circle, off Massachusetts Avenue," said a spokesman for the tree division of the District's Department of Transportation. "We had to cut off a portion of the top so the vice-president's helicopter could get in, but it's still about 60 feet high."
The tallest tree in the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington is a 200-year-old willow oak that's more than a hundred feet tall. Follow Meadow Road past the Administration Building and the Bonsai Collection. After you go through an intersection, look to your right. You'll see the tree in the middle of a meadow.
Top tree on the White House grounds is an elm planted by President John Quincy Adams in 1826. It stands near the southeast gate and has grown to a height of 75 feet. Tallest tree on the Capitol grounds is an 85-foot English elm just east of the steps to the House of Representatives.
On the Mall, tall means an 80-foot bald cypress that shades the statue of Uncle Beazley, the dinosaur.
UP ON OBSERVATORY HILLS: Observatories have traditonally sat on hills, not in order to get the astronomers that much closer to the moon and stars but to get the telescopes above the obstructions of the city. The original Naval Observatory rose in 1843 on a 96-foot hill in Foggy Bottom that is now occupied by the Navy's medical branch. (Georgetown University built an observatory on its campus at about the same time; it is still used by student astronomy clubs, making it the oldest still- operating observatory in the city). The Naval Observatory moved uphill in the 1880s, not only to rise above the smoke stacks that were beginning to clutter up Foggy Bottom but also because the astronomers were subject to malaria and other maladies endemic to the swampy area. The present observatory sits atop the site of an estate appropriately named Pretty Prospect, at 34th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, 283- feet above sea level. The observatory dome itself is on the fifth floor of the main building, or about 330 feet above sea level. (For tour information, call 653-1543.) The vice president's house shares the hill with the observatory, which elevates the veep to about 280 feet above the president.
TAKING THE HIGH GROUND: A house on high ground is great to have in case of a flood but bad luck in time of war. Take the case of Mrs. Mary Ann Randolph Custis Lee, who was living in her ancestral home, Arlington House, when the Civil War broke out. When Federal troops crossed the Potomac, one of the first positions they occupied was Arlington House -- elevation 210 -- deemed vital in the defense of the city. Mrs. Lee, with her seven children and what possessions she could carry, fled to friends in Fairfax, her husband having already joined the Confederate forces. No Lee ever lived in Arlington House again, although after the war the Supreme Court ruled that the house had been confiscated illegally and ordered it returned to its rightful heir, George Washington Custis Lee. This Lee sold it to the government for $150,000. On the grounds of Arlington Cemetery, the house is now open to the public -- one more place where even the lowliest of us can feel high and mighty.