"OH, THAT'S GORGEOUS," says Archie Childs, five, puffing a little in the middle of his climb up the 81 steps to the Frederick Douglass Home in Anacostia.
Like Archie, most kids are impressed first with the size of the big white Victorian house named Cedar Hill, home to the famed black orator and civil rights leader from 1877 to his death in 1895. But what's inside makes a more lasting impression on youngsters who've grown up with every modern convenience. For instance, there are no light switches in the late 19th-century house -- and no indoor plumbing.
On a rainy day, when the house is dark, kids really get a glimpse of what life without electric lights is all about. And there are other hard realities to life without conveniences, as Park Ranger Service Ken Brodie points out in his tours. "I like to key in on the differences; you can have so much fun with them," he says.
For example, in the work rooms at the back of the house, kids get a chance to see how food was stored and cooked in the 19th century and how the laundry was done.
Clustered around a wooden ice-cream maker in a back room, kids are usually intrigued to hear that the sweet, cold stuff was not always plucked out of the supermarket freezer. And speaking of frozen things, the icebox -- just big enough to hold a half-gallon of milk and a large jar of Skippy -- raises the eyebrows of adults as well as children.
In the brick-floored laundry room, a pump, two wash buckets and seven irons offer mute testimony to the most important washday ingredient -- old-fashioned elbow grease.
In the west parlor, where the Douglasses would assemble en famille in the evenings, Brodie points out the absence of television, stereo and tape deck. Rather than tuning in, Douglass skillfully sawed the strings of a Stradivarius. For visual excitement, the family looked at pictures through a stereopticon -- a Viewmaster-like device for seeing photos in three dimensions -- which was a big hit in the home entertainment market in Douglass' day.
Upstairs, five bedrooms hold more novelties. The porcelain chamber pots are always a source of great amusement among toilet- trained youngsters, and kids seem positively aghast to learn that husband and wife slept in separate bedrooms. "How did they have kids?" a few of the more precocious children ask. And why are the beds so short? The second question is a lot easier for guides to answer than the first: It was the fashion to sleep sitting up because people believed that good air drifted upward while bad air lurked near the floor.
There seems to be no one favorite room among the younger visitors. Eight-year-old Deirdra Fuller says Douglass' library is her favorite " 'cause it has a whole bunch of books and you can study them." Malik Owens, also eight, likes the way Douglass arranged the dining room, with the table set for guests and a shiny tea service gleaming on the sideboard. Other kids just seem to enjoy a house that contrasts so much with their own.
But Cedar Hill is more than just a house; it's a home, too. Douglass used most of these objects, and his presence lingers among the shells and walking sticks he collected. In his bedroom, where gloves, a Panama hat and a dress shirt are arranged as if waiting to be donned, you almost believe that Douglass will return at any moment and ask what you're doing looking into his sleeping chamber.
And there are the events of Douglass' life, too, detailed in a 30-minute film at the Visitors Center, where the tour begins. A former slave, Douglass was a man of wit and fire. He wrote three autobiographies, edited a newspaper, held government positions and became wealthy from his work as a professional orator, using his silver tongue in fervid promotion of civil rights for all.
Tenacious and driven, Douglass was also approachable, gracious and generous. The house seems to contain the memory of these qualities, an illusion that causes at least one visitor to return periodically.
"Something pulls me to this house every so often," says Tauhidah Omar of the District. "This house really stirs me." A YEAR-ROUND OPEN HOUSE
The National Park Service operates Cedar Hill, which is open every day of the year except Christmas and New Year's Day. Alongside the historic home at 1411 W Street SE is a long hill kids can romp and roll on, and picnic tables out back encourage visitors to hang around after the tour in fairer weather. Admission is free. Hours are 9 to 5 from mid-April to mid-October, 8 to 4 the rest of the year. "An American Life," a film about Douglass, airs every hour on the hour starting at 9; tours are given following each showing. The last show begins one hour before closing. Groups larger than 10 should call 426-5960 for reservations.
ANACOSTIA NEIGHBORHOOD MUSEUM -- 2405 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. 287-3369. While you're in the neighborhood, you can also drop in here, 10 to 6 weekdays, 1 to 6 weekends and holidays, every day except Christmas. Displays concern black history and culture. "The Renaissance: Black Arts of the '20s" is the current exhibit. From the Douglass Home, go to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and turn left. The museum is three blocks down on the right.