On a November forenoon so crisp that it crunches, the Big Box architecture along I Street in Foggy Bottom can make you feel as if you inhabit a city created from wooden blocks by some pathologically tidy child. But here and there, breaks in the tedious wall of power buildings seductively suggest refuge.

One such oasis that not only suggests, but also delivers, is the James Monroe House, a red-brick Colonial manse with black shutters and a white bay window on the north side of I between 20th and 21st streets NW. Speaking of refuge: Just inside the impressive front door is a framed article claiming that, as the British torched Washington in the War of 1812 (presumably following a Ryder Cup defeat), President James Monroe came riding through that self-same portal. On a horse.

Right. We believe that.

It is what they call an "actual fact," however, that Monroe lived here while the White House was a fixer-upper. Now, thankfully, it belongs to the Arts Club of Washington, which is in the midst of its free concert series. This Friday, for example, the Kirkwood Flute Ensemble will play at noon in the large salon downstairs, the one with the bay window facing the street, with the polished wood floor and two fireplaces. (There is no concert the following Friday, but the fall season concludes with the Coolidge String Quartet on Dec. 3 and soprano Millicent Scarlett on Dec. 10.)

The neighborhood is filled with restaurants, from expense-account-only deals to budget ethnic fare. The concert lasts a modest half-hour, then sends you on your way, replete with history and culture and ready to pig out.

Bonus Insider's Guide Tip: The Monroe house is midway between the Farragut West and Foggy Bottom Metro stations, which serve the Orange and Blue lines. For commuters heading home, this sometimes presents a dilemma: You enter the station on the upper platform, and a train is standing a level below on the tracks. Do you make a run for it, only to discover that it's the wrong line? No need to guess. Look up on the wall of the main station: Clearly visible from the upper platform, cast by the sunken lights, is the shadow of the train. Orange Line trains are almost always distinctly longer than Blue Line trains, and the shadows tell the tale.

Now, haul butt.

--Tom Shroder, Vienna

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