With COVID-19 still a concern in much of the United States, including the DC area, I had to suspend my series of Radical DC historic walking tours that I had been leading for the past several years. Shepherding the 10 to 20 people who usually participated in the tours couldn’t be done while enforcing proper social distancing.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t throw on your mask and take an educational walk by yourself in the summer sunshine. Follow this guide as well as this interactive map and learn a little about how ideologies have clashed in a compact enclave in Northwest Washington. Depending on your walking pace, the self-guided tour should take about two-and-a-half to three hours. Wear comfortable shoes, bring water and stay inside that six-foot bubble!
Dupont and Kalorama are two northwest DC neighborhoods that, despite their physical proximity, couldn’t be further apart in spirit and culture. Funky Dupont has a long history of attracting rebels, outsiders, people looking for a neighborhood tolerant of those bucking conformity. Kalorama, sitting just to its northwest, is an enclave of the wealthy and privileged. Dupont is a neighborhood of rowhouse and apartment dwellers, Kalorama of multimillion-dollar mansions. The two neighborhoods can be toured in three hours or less for a visual immersion in the struggle between the wealthy and those of modest means, the status quo and social change, conformity and diversity.
That said, it must be emphasized that living in the Dupont Circle area today is not cheap. The wave of gentrification that enveloped much of DC washed over Dupont decades ago. Dupont still has its share of institutions and businesses that reflect its funky, rebel history, but today even modest condos there go for a million dollars and up. Nevertheless, a walk through Dupont reveals its rebellious history as well as some of the contrarian spirit that remains. Kalorama, on the other hand, never experienced true gentrification; it was built for the fabulously rich from the beginning.
1. Dupont Circle
Begin here at the confluence of New Hampshire and Massachusetts Avenues and 19th and P Sts. Don’t drive; parking is nigh-impossible – use the convenient Metro station across from the circle (use the south exit). Make your way to the fountain in the middle of the circle.
Dupont Circle, originally called Pacific Circle, was first laid out in 1871 and in 1882 was renamed in honor of Civil War naval hero Samuel Francis DuPont. The fountain in the middle of the circle, dating from 1921 and designed by Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French – the architect/sculptor team that created the Lincoln Memorial – replaced a statue of DuPont that originally occupied the circle, partly at the request of members of the DuPont family, who never cared for the statue’s depiction of their ancestor.
The circle quickly became the centerpiece of a fashionable neighborhood and a popular gathering spot, and in recent decades has seen not only countless political demonstrations and rallies but has been also the center of a neighborhood that has been a focal point of the District’s LGBTQ community since at least the 1960s. During a time of rampant discrimination and sometimes violence against non-straights, Dupont Circle was a welcoming and tolerant oasis. The circle has been the focus of the annual celebration that started as Gay Pride in 1975 and is now known as Capital Pride.
One of the more dramatic political demonstrations that occurred at Dupont Circle was a May 3, 1971 protest against the Vietnam War. There were demonstrations at various venues around the city, but at Dupont Circle, as reported in the New York Times, “small groups dashed into the circle and out again to draw off the police, while others abandoned trash on a side street to jam up traffic. Along 21st Street, just west of the circle, traffic was blocked for more than an hour by youths who found a supply of cinderblocks and lumber and placed them in the street along with two automobiles.”
The most notable building on the circle is the white Beaux-Arts mansion to the northeast. Completed in 1903, it was originally the Washington home of Robert Wilson Patterson, editor of the Chicago Tribune. President Calvin Coolidge and his family briefly lived there when the White House was extensively renovated in 1927. From 1951 to 2013 it housed the Washington Club, an exclusive club for women, after which it was sold and converted to condominiums.
2. 1300 Block of Connecticut Ave.
This block, just south of the circle, was a hub of DC’s left community in the 1980s and early 1990s, before gentrification overwhelmed the neighborhood. The local chapter of DSA occupied an office in the now-redeveloped building at 1350 Connecticut, above the Metro station on the south end of the circle. Just to the south, the stately white office building at 1300 Connecticut (at the corner of N) was the headquarters of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) prior to the union’s move to Upper Marlboro, MD in 1992. IAM was one of the most radical American unions, especially under the leadership of William Winpisinger, a prominent member of DSA, from 1977 to 1989. The IAM’s auditorium was the site of numerous DSA-sponsored public meetings and forums that featured the likes of DSA co-founder Michael Harrington, Salvadoran opposition leader Ruben Zamora, and maverick journalist Christopher Hitchens.
Across the street, the space now occupied by the restaurant/bar The Big Hunt at 1345 Connecticut simultaneously housed two beloved institutions: Common Concerns, DC’s flagship left bookstore; and the Dupont Villa, where DSA members and other leftists gathered for food and drink before and after meetings and events. On the east side of the street near the end of the block, at 1301 Connecticut, is an office building that houses the Institute for Policy Studies, one of the country’s leading progressive think tanks since its founding in 1963.
3. Massachusetts Ave. NW, 2000-2200 Blocks
A walk up this major thoroughfare northwest from Dupont Circle to Sheridan Circle reveals several points of interest. On your left, the Embassy of Indonesia at 2020 Massachusetts displays a statue of the Goddess Dewi Saraswati, a Buddhist deity, a recognition of the religious diversity in this majority-Muslim nation. Just across 21st Street is the elegant eight-story Fairfax Hotel (now known as the Fairfax at Embassy Row), which was opened in 1927 as a combination resident/transient hotel. Probably its most famous long-term residents were Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee and his family who lived at the hotel for 20 years, and it was where his son, future Vice President (and later climate-change activist) Al Gore, grew up. Other prominent people who made the Fairfax their home were Admiral Chester Nimitz and Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge. Future President George H.W. Bush was a short-term guest.
Across the street from the Fairfax, in a small triangular park across from the Embassy of India, stands a memorial to Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, who pioneered the techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience that were adopted by leaders of the American civil rights movement and other causes. Gandhi is depicted in the simple clothing that he wore during the 1930 march protesting the British salt tax. The monument, by Indian sculptor Gautam Pal, was dedicated in 2000 by India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a ceremony attended by U.S. President Bill Clinton. If you want to see the monument at close range, be careful – there are no crosswalks across Massachusetts Avenue from the south and traffic is heavy.
Just beyond the Gandhi monument, also on the north side of the street at 2121 Massachusetts, is the Cosmos Club. The club, one of Washington’s most exclusive, was founded in 1878 and moved into its current quarters, a vintage 1901 mansion, in 1952. Among its members over the years have been the elite of the Washington establishment, including presidents, Supreme Court justices, and Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners. The club was white-only until 1962, and did not admit women until pressured to do so by the DC government in 1988.
The elegant mansion at 2118 Massachusetts houses the Society of the Cincinnati, founded in the aftermath of the American Revolution to honor the ideals of those who fought in that conflict. Membership is limited to direct descendants of veterans of the Revolution. The building in which it is currently housed was built between 1902 and 1905 as the home of diplomat Larz Anderson.
4. Letelier-Moffitt Monument, Sheridan Circle NW (Massachusetts Ave. at 23rd St.)
This monument, on the east side of the circle on the curb (next to the Irish Embassy) stands near the spot where on September 21, 1976 a car bomb killed Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean ambassador to the United States, and Ronni Moffitt, who worked at IPS (described above). Letelier had served in a number of posts under Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende, and after a US-backed coup toppled Allende and installed dictator Augusto Pinochet in power he was imprisoned for over a year before being allowed to move to the United States. As a fellow at IPS, his writing and advocacy made him one of the most prominent figures in the resistance to Pinochet and a target of the Chilean government. Several people were eventually convicted of plotting and carrying out the bombing, including Michael Townley, a US expatriate living in Chile. According to John Dinges, author of The Condor Years, “the CIA had inside intelligence about the assassination alliance at least two months before Letelier was killed, but failed to act to stop the plans.” The memorial was created by local sculptor Ned Echeverria and installed in 1981. In 1978, IPS established the annual “Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards” in honor of the slain activists. The monument, a small bronze plaque mounted on a stone pedestal, bears the likenesses of Letelier and Moffitt and the words “Justice-Peace-Dignity.”
As you walk around Sheridan Circle to the right you are leaving the Dupont neighborhood and entering Kalorama. As locals will remind you, Kalorama comprises two separate neighborhoods: Kalorama Heights (also known as Sheridan-Kalorama) and, to its northeast, Kalorama Triangle. This tour will focus on sights in Kalorama Heights.
Kalorama emerged relatively late as central DC neighborhoods went and was not extensively developed until the very end of the 19th century. It quickly attracted the wealthy and well-connected who built or purchased lavish mansions or fashionable rowhouses. Among the neighborhood’s buildings are 28 embassies and a number of ambassadors’ residences.
5. Letelier Memorial, 2305 Massachusetts
A second, larger tribute to Letelier joined the 1981 memorial in 2018 on the opposite side of Sheridan Circle. The new monument by Baltimore sculptor Barry Johnston, in which a smiling Letelier looks confidently off into the distance, stands in front of the residence of the Chilean ambassador. While the older monument was a rebuke to the Chilean military regime that was very much in power when it was dedicated, the new one is a testament to a later Chilean government’s embrace of Letelier and his democratic vision.
To get to the next points of interest, continue up Massachusetts, veer right onto 24th Street past a small park and then take a hard right on S St.
6. Woodrow Wilson House, 2340 S St. NW
This Georgian Revival-style mansion, originally completed in 1915, was the home of the former 28th president of the United States from the time he left the White House in 1921 to his death in 1924. Wilson was the only president to have made Washington his permanent home after leaving office until Barack Obama, and he was in poor health during his years in Kalorama following a series of strokes in 1919. He was an invalid for the last year and a half of his term and many historians believe that his wife Edith Wilson was the de-facto president during that time. She continued to live in the Kalorama mansion until her death in 1961.
Standard histories generally focus on Wilson’s international activities, especially his leading the United States into World War I and his role in the postwar Treaty of Versailles which redrew the map of Europe and required Germany to make punishing reparations payments. Wilson also was the principal founder of the postwar League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, although despite Wilson’s vigorous lobbying Congress never ratified the treaty to allow the United States to join it. In addition to his internationalist image he is regarded as something of a “progressive” in domestic affairs for championing antitrust laws and founding the Federal Reserve Bank.
But Wilson’s career had a sprawling dark side as well. Many historians have pointed out that Wilson was a virulent racist, even for his time. Although he lived much of his adult life in New Jersey he was a native Southerner, born in Virginia and growing up in Georgia and South Carolina. According to Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove in their book Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, Wilson directed the resegregation of federal agencies that had been party integrated beginning in the Reconstruction period. As documented in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, his administration coincided with some of the highest incidences of lynching and riots against African Americans to which the federal government turned a blind eye.
Wilson, a prolific author during his years as an academic and president of Princeton University (which admitted exactly zero African Americans during his administration) in 1901 published a book entitled A History of the American People which reflected his racist views about African Americans. This quote about the period immediately following the Civil War typifies his racial thinking:
The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers . . .until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.
This language was adapted into a card displayed in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation which glorified the Klan. Wilson screened the film at the White House and commented approvingly on it.
It should also be noted that after Wilson led the United States into World War I, despite considerable domestic opposition, he effectively suspended the First Amendment by criminalizing criticism of US involvement in the conflict. Many opponents of the war were jailed and imprisoned for speaking out, perhaps the most prominent being Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. Wilson also precipitated the “Red Scare” following the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, ordering his attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer to suppress radical organizations – which in Wilson’s eyes included labor unions. The last two years of Wilson’s administration featured thousands of arrests of real or suspected leftists, rampant nativism and deportations, and the suppression of union organizing, as documented in Eugene V. Debs: The Making of an American Radical by Ray Ginger.
The Wilson house, normally open to the public, is temporarily closed due to the pandemic.
7. Jeff Bezos Home, 2320-2330 S St. NW
Directly next door to the Wilson house is the Washington home of Jeff Bezos – CEO of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post and, at this writing, the richest person in the world with a net worth of over $ 164.5 billion. The two properties, which Bezos bought in 2016, previously housed the Textile Museum, dedicated to the study of woven or knitted products such as clothing, draperies and rugs. Built in 1912, 2320 S was originally the home of Textile Museum founder George Hewitt Myers and designed by John Russell Pope, architect of the Jefferson Memorial. The adjacent mansion was designed by noted architect Waddy Butler Wood. The Textile Museum is now located on the campus of George Washington University.
Bezos made his billions with the innovative approach to online commerce that he pioneered at Amazon starting in the mid -1990s – which some critics have labeled anti-competitive, even monopolistic. In addition, Bezos has never been a friend to unions. He has fought every attempt by Amazon workers to unionize, and since buying the Post in 2013 has taken an especially adversarial stance against that newspaper’s workers, members of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. Since Bezos acquired the paper from the Graham family, the union has fought back against Bezos’ efforts to squeeze pay, pensions and maternity leave, among other workplace concerns.
8. Friends Meeting of Washington, 2111 Florida Ave.
A two-block detour to the east brings one to the Friends Meeting of Washington, whose original gray stone main building was completed in 1930. Since then it has served as a meeting place not only for Washington’s Quaker community but also progressive, peace, civil-rights and other social change organizations. One of its earliest worshipers was President Herbert Hoover.
From the Bezos house, continue eastward to 23rd Street, take a left, walk three blocks and take another left on Tracy Place.
9. Trump/Kushner House, 2449 Tracy Place
President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner moved into this 7,000-square-foot mansion in early 2017, renting it for $15,000 a month. Their status as renters seemed not to move them to become advocates for tenants’ rights.
10. Obama House, 2446 Belmont St. NW
One block northwest of the Trump/Kushner house one can see the Secret Service barricades at the end of the block where the home of former president Barack Obama and his family is located. Similar barricades are at the other end of the block, allowing only residents of the block to enter. The Obamas chose to remain in Washington after leaving the White House so that their younger daughter Sasha could complete her high school studies at Sidwell Friends School.
From Tracy Place, follow Wyoming Avenue to the east until it meets Connecticut Avenue.
11. Wyoming Apartments, 2022 Columbia Road
This Beaux-Arts apartment building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was completed in two phases, with one wing opening in 1905 and the second in 1911. Among its notable residents have been radical journalist and “new atheist” Christopher Hitchens, early feminist pioneer Betty Friedan, President Clinton’s White House communications director and journalist George Stephanopolous, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
12. Washington Hilton, 1919 Connecticut Ave.
Unless you are staying there, this large modernist hotel with its curving front is mainly of interest as the site where in 1981 John Hinckley shot and wounded President Ronald Reagan and three other men at its T Street exit. You are now back in the Dupont neighborhood.
Follow T Street in front of the Hilton, bend left on Florida Avenue and right again on U Street until you reach 17th Street.
Today this enclave of gentrified homes is usually referred to as Dupont East or U Street West, but in the late 19th and early 20th century the area bounded by Swann Street on the south, Florida Avenue on the north and west, and 16th Street on the east was an African American neighborhood known at the “Strivers’ Section.” The name echoed that of Strivers’ Row in Harlem, New York, and like its northern counterpart was favored by African American professional and upper-middle-class residents in a segregated city where their housing options were limited. Frederick Douglass built three rowhouses just north of U Street – at 2000-2004 17th Street. His son, Lewis Henry Douglass, lived for many years at 2002 17th.
14. Langston Hughes home
Walk south on 17th Street and take a right on S St. until you reach 1749 S, a modest Strivers’ Section rowhouse that was the home of poet Langston Hughes during his sojourn in DC between 1924-26 – before he moved to New York and became a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance.
15. Wieb Playground, 1730 R. St.
Continue down S, take a left on 18th Street and take another left on R until you come to the Wieb Playground. This neighborhood playground was named for John Wiebenson, a local architect who was an ardent preservationist and did much of his work for nonprofit charities. He was a key figure in the preservation of historic buildings on Pennsylvania Ave., including the Old Post Office and the Willard Hotel, when that street was slated for widening in the early 1970s. According to the Washington Post’s architecture critic Benjamin Forgey, Wiebenson’s advocacy “helped create the climate for the much-improved avenue plan that emerged in the mid-1970s.” One of his surviving designs is the commercial building at 1629 Connecticut Ave. NW. Continue to 17th Street.
16. Frank Kameny Way, 17th Street between P and R Sts.
A signpost at the corner of 17th and R Streets marks the location of “Frank Kameny Way.” The designation honors Kameny (1925-2011), one of the pioneers of the LGBTQ movement. After he was fired in 1957 from his job as an astronomer for the Army Map Service for being gay, Kameny appealed his dismissal in court, the first known civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be filed in a U.S. court. His appeal was unsuccessful, but his case helped spark the nascent gay and lesbian rights movement. Kameny went on to lead some of the earliest LGBTQ protests in Washington and other cities. In 1971 he ran unsuccessfully in the race for DC’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, making him the first openly gay candidate for Congress. He later became a leader in the ultimately successful effort to eliminate the ban on gays and lesbians in the U.S. military.
17. Site of Lammas Bookstore
Turn right on 17th Street and walk south until you come to number 1607, the former site of Lammas. A pillar of the lesbian community, Lammas started as a jewelry store near Eastern Market in 1974, but became a bookstore and community gathering place and settled in the Dupont Circle area until it closed its doors in 2000. The site is now occupied by a property management company. Continue southward on 17th, take a right on Q St. and another right on Connecticut Ave.
18. Site of Lambda Rising Bookstore, 1625 Connecticut Ave.
One of the most important Dupont Circle institutions of years past was Lambda Rising, the gay bookstore that opened in 1974 at a time when books and periodicals serving the LGBTQ community were hard to find. The bookstore’s last and longest location was here, just north of the circle. In 2010 the store closed; the space is now occupied by a beauty supplies store.
You’re now back just north of Dupont Circle. I hope you learned something. If you feel like you can’t walk much farther don’t despair – the north entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro station is one block south and across the street.