Archive for November, 2015


The White House Gingerbread House Exhibit

I don’t like it when retailers start focusing on Christmas well before Thanksgiving.  And if it were up to me, I would have all stores be closed on Thanksgiving to allow employees to spend the day with their families.  I’d even be okay with stores staying closed on Black Friday.  However, I don’t mind when some early signs of the holiday, such as the many Christmas decorations that adorn the city during the holiday season, start appearing in November.  For example, as I was riding through Lafayette Square Park on this lunchtime bike ride, I was happy to see a sign advertising a Christmas exhibit of gingerbread houses was already open.  So I decided to stop and check into itWhen I asked the very helpful lady at the entrance about the exhibit, she told me no one else was currently there.  So with the place all to myself, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take the self-guided tour right then.

The holiday exhibit is sponsored by The White House Historical Association, and is entitled “White House Gingerbread: Holiday Traditions.”  The exhibit celebrates the official national gingerbread house created each year by the White House’s executive chef, and explores the tradition of gingerbread at the White House dating back to the Nixon administration.  The main display features the largest gingerbread White House ever designed by the chef.  And surrounding it are gingerbread panels illustrating many of the White House’s neighboring buildings, such as the Old Executive Office Building, the U.S. Treasury Department Building, and St. John’s Episcopal Church, to name just a few.  The exhibit also incorporates examples of marzipan figures and sugar sculptures that have accompanied and accented many of the gingerbread houses over the years.

The exhibit also features photographs of the various types of gingerbread houses of different presidential administrations, including the Obama Administration’s version from last year, with historical information of each.  Along with the wide variety of gingerbread houses, many of the photographs also feature the inhabitants of the White House.  While I enjoyed each of the houses, I guess I am somewhat of a gingerbread house traditionalist, because I did not favor the more recent creations.  Dating back to the George W. Bush Administration, the most recent houses have been made out of white chocolate rather than gingerbread.  I hope this trend ends soon and they return to the old-fashioned gingerbread.

The “White House Gingerbread: Holiday Traditions” exhibit is on display at Decatur House on Lafayette Square, which is  located at 1610 H Street in northwest D.C. (MAP).  It is open from 10:00am – 3:00pm, Monday through Saturday, and will remain open and free to the public through December 22nd.  I highly recommend stopping by if you’re in the area, or even planning a specific trip to see it and the many other Christmas decorations throughout the national capital city during the upcoming holiday season.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]


Little Free Library

During today’s lunchtime bike ride I ran across a “Little Free Library.” It is located in the 400 block of 13th Street, near the intersection with D Street (MAP), in the southeast section of D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and is part of a burgeoning global literary movement which began in 2009 in Hudson, Wisconsin, when  a man named Todd Bol built a model of a one room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former school teacher who loved reading.  He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard.  Everyone loved it so much that he built several more and gave them away.  And thus, a movement began.

Little Free Libraries first began popping up in the D.C. metro area a couple of years ago. It has since spread throughout the city and to the suburbs. There are currently 31 Little Libraries in the city, 140 in Maryland, and an additional 180 in Virginia. Worldwide there are over 30,000 Little Free Libraries. In addition to the United States, these little libraries are also providing access to free literature all around the globe, in such countries as Tanzania, India, Brazil, Italy, Ghana, Spain Vietnam, and Guatemala, to name just a few.

Little Free Libraries relies on people to build and fill their own little libraries so that the movement continues to expand. Library creators are called Stewards, and it’s up to them to choose what their libraries look like. Some look like fancy mailboxes, while others look like birdhouses, or even doll houses. The creativity is limited only be the imagination of the Stewards. Stewards also choose what initially goes in them. But that can quickly change as people add and subtract from the offerings available. Stewards can also register their Little Library on the website and add it to the online Interactive World Map of libraries.

The libraries don’t require membership cards, nor do they have late fees or time limits on the books that anyone can “check out.” In fact, if you like the book, it’s okay to keep it. So next time you’re going down the street, keep an eye out for a Little Free Library. You may just find a great novel waiting for you there.

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[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]


The Pretzel Bakery

It seemed like an unusually long morning at work, so despite the fact that it was pouring down rain by the time I was ready for my lunch break, I went for a bike ride anyway.  After the first few minutes I was thoroughly soaked.  So I quickly got past worrying about getting wet, and was able to enjoy the ride. In fact, it was so much fun that I used a little vacation time and took a longer than usual ride.

Near the end of the ride I stopped at a new place, or at least one that was new to me, named The Pretzel Bakery.  It is located at 340 15th Street, Southeast (MAP), in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, on a block of small but tidy row houses, and across the street from Payne Elementary School.  The Pretzel Bakery serves hand-rolled, Philadelphia-style soft pretzels, and they make them in small batches so you can get them fresh-out-of-the-oven throughout the day.

The Pretzel Bakery is owned and run by Sean Haney, who opened the small neighborhood shop after he got frustrated with the lack of the quality pretzels he had grown up enjoying in Philadelphia.  After years of perfecting his Pennsylvania Dutch-style recipe, he began providing Washingtonians with a quality alternative to the mass-produced pretzels available at mall chain stores and the heated up frozen pretzels served by some local restaurants.  What distinguishes pretzels at The Pretzel Bakery from others is that they don’t coat the dough with butter before browning them in an oven.  Instead, The Pretzel Bakery briefly boils the made-from-scratch dough, much like an authentic New York bagel, resulting in a chewy texture and a more flavorful pretzel.

The menu includes the original Salted pretzel; the Everything, which is topped with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, onion, garlic, and salt, as well as; a cinnamon-glazed pretzel with a kiss of salt, named the Sweet. They also have something called Pretzel Bombs, which are Nutella-filled Sweet pretzel rolls.  And for breakfast, they offer a Breakfast Slider, a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on an Everything pretzel roll, which was recently voted “Best Breakfast Sandwich” in D.C. by The City Paper.  I haven’t had one yet, but you can bet I’ll going back in the morning sometime soon to try one (or more).

Today, however, I was fortunate enough to be able to get one of their limited seasonal offerings.  I got a couple of fresh-baked and still warm Pumpkin IPA Pretzels, and ate one with some ice tea under one of the large umbrellas on the patio in front.  I took the second one back to the office with me and enjoyed it there.  They offer mustards and dips, including Gulden’s Spicy Brown and French’s Yellow, as well as Caramel Mustard, Whole Grain Mustard, Nutella, and Philadelphia Cream Cheese. But my pretzel was so good that I decided it didn’t need anything added to it that might take away from its flavorful goodness.

I haven’t done a restaurant review here on this blog in a while.  And when I do a restaurant review, it is usually at the end of the month. But as a fan of soft pretzels, and an even bigger fan of pumpkin anything, I just couldn’t wait until the end of the month to give this place a try.  And I’m glad I didn’t.  Their pretzels are so good they’re worth getting soaking wet while riding on a bike in the rain just to get there.  But, of course, you can get there any way you choose.

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UPDATE:   The bad news is that On March 2, 2016, The Pretzel Bakery moved.  The good news is that they only moved down the street, to 257 15th Street.  And you can still enjoy their full menu, along with intermittently added special offerings such as Pretzel Dog Saturdays, in their new, larger location. 


The New Pretzel Bakery

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]


The U.S. Capitol Gatehouses and Gateposts

In addition to the U.S. Capitol Building itself, there are a number of other buildings, memorials and other attractions on the building’s grounds.  But during this lunchtime bike ride I went to see some that are no longer there.  They are no longer on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building because they were moved just over a dozen blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, and are now located in President’s Park on The Ellipse, just south of The White House.

The U.S. Capitol Gatehouses and Gateposts were designed circa 1828 as part of the original Capitol design by then-Architect of the Capitol Charles Bulfinch. Thus they are also often referred to as the Bullfinch Gatehouses. The first gatehouse, known as the East Gatehouse, and three gateposts, now stand at the corner of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue (MAP) in the Downtown neighborhood of northwest D.C.  The other, the West Gatehouse, is two blocks further up the street, at 17th Street and Constitution.

Similar in detail to the four Bulfinch Gatehouses, numerous gateposts were designed by Bullfinch and incorporated in the former fence around the Capitol grounds.  As part of major landscaping renovations of the Capitol grounds in 1887 by Frederick Law Olmsted, all of the gateposts were removed.  Seven survive today.  Three are located near the East Gatehouse.  The four other remaining gateposts were relocated to The United States National Arboretum, much like the National Capitol Columns, which also used to be located at the U.S. Capitol Building but now reside at the Arboretum in northeast D.C.  The gateposts there now flank the main entrance at New York Avenue and Springhouse Road.

The original use of the gatehouses and coordinating gateposts were described in a 1834 guide to the U.S. Capitol Building as “…four grand entrances to these grounds, two from the north and south for carriages, and two from the east and west for foot passengers. The western entrance at the foot of the hill is flanked by two stone lodges, highly ornamented for watch houses…”

In 1880 the gatehouses and gateposts were relocated to their present locations. And in 1938 – 1939, the relocated gatehouses were restored under the direction of National Park Service architect Thomas T. Waterman.  At that time they were given new roofs, doors and windows. The gatehouses are almost identical. One major difference, however, is that the East Gatehouse bears two high water marks carved into the stone to commemorate flooding in 1877 and 1881. The gatehouses are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places in their new locations.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

Lorton Correctional Facility Beehive Brick Kiln

As an employee of the government, I look forward to and enjoy the three-day weekends that Federal holidays often provide. I like to take advantage of these long weekends by venturing out from the city and visiting some of the places in the D.C. metro area which are not as easily travelled to during a short workday lunchtime bike ride. And even though today’s holiday comes during the middle of the week, it still provided a chance to go riding in a place different than the norm.  So for this morning’s ride, I went back to Occoquan Regional Park, located at 9751 Ox Road in Lorton, Virginia (MAP), to check out an area of the park that I saw but did not have time to explore in depth during the last time I visited there.

During this ride I stopped to see and learn more about the old round brick building with an adjacent brick smokestack chimney that is located up the road from the park’s administrative offices, near the soccer fields. It is known as the Lorton Correctional Facility Beehive Brick Kiln.  Fortunately, I found a plaque on the side of it that identified what it is, and explains its purpose and history.  It reads, “From the turn of the century until the late 1960’s nine kilns on this site were operated by inmates of the Lorton correctional facility.

The bricks stacked inside this kiln are ready to be baked. For 4 to 5 days coal fires in each of the hearths were stoked around the clock. Hot air rose along the inside of the vaulted walls but did not escape through the hole in the ceiling. Heat was sucked down through the bricks, between louvers in the floor, across the underground flue, and up the tall chimney which stands beside the kiln.

These kilns were a primary local source of the red brick used in constructing the historic durable buildings now seen throughout Northern Virginia. Today beehive kilns are little used.”

The nine brick kilns each had a capacity of about 12,000 bricks for each firing.  A batch of bricks would took approximately fourteen days from start to finish.  It would take a couple of days for loading or setting the green bricks, and then three days for curing.  Then two more days were required for heating the interior of the kiln to full temperature.  Each batch would then spend a day in the kiln at full heat.  The bricks and kiln then needed another three or four days at the end to cool down.   And lastly, it would take another day to unload or draw the finished bricks.

The sole remaining brick kiln is the oldest remaining building of the former Lorton Correctional Facility.  In fact, it not only predates the other buildings, it was utilized in the production of the bricks that were used to construct the facility’s other buildings.

The now-closed Lorton Correctional Facility used to be the prison for D.C., and was considered quite innovative when it first opened.  The prison was funded by Congress in 1910 and initially had no bars, fences or walls.  People at the time described it as being like a college campus. The reason for this is that it started off as a new approach to incarceration, with the intention of reforming and rehabilitating prisoners by teaching them vocational skills.  It was also meant to be totally self sufficient through income generated by the vocational programs, like the brick kilns.  Unfortunately, it failed to achieve the goals that were set for it and the prison closed in 2001 having become, much like the kilns, outdated and obsolete.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]



The Cannabis for Countrymen Rally

During today’s lunchtime bike ride as I was passing by the park at McPherson Square I noticed a lot of activity and tents being set up. So I stopped to find out what was happening. This is the same park where a few years ago demonstrators from the Occupy D.C. protest movement camped out for several months to protest against social and economic inequality around the world. And I thought they might be back. But it turned out that today’s demonstration, which is scheduled to continue through tomorrow’s Veteran’s Day holiday, was a very different kind of demonstration.

The event currently going on is called “Cannabis for Countrymen,” or D.O.P.E (Don’t Oppress People Ever) Festival, and is being sponsored by a number of groups and organizations, including Weed4Warriors, The Drug Policy Alliance, The People’s Champ, LLC, GreenTech Industries, the National Association for Concerned Veterans, DC NORML, and many others. The purpose of the event is to raise awareness about potential medical benefits of marijuana in treating veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and other illnesses related to war trauma. The event will include a protest at The Department of Veteran’s Affair Headquarters, which is only a block away from the park, as well as a march to The White House for a first amendment demonstration. In another corner of the park I watched as an artist was setting up an exhibit comprised of twenty-two American flags surrounded by pill bottles, which I was told symbolizes the number of veterans who commit suicide each day in this country. They also advised that tomorrow they will also be handing out free marijuana to military veterans. Today there were booths set up offering samples of different hemp products, including everything from clothing to skin care products to flavored teas. I stopped and talked with a number of people, and they advised their products are in compliance with local D.C. law. When I asked if the products violated any Federal laws, I found out that some didn’t but others did. I explained that I appreciated the information they were offering but because of my position with the Federal government, I would have to decline any of the free samples.   

I did stop on the bike ride back to work, however, and treated myself by picking up some Kung Pao chicken at Soho Café & Market to take back to the office. It was a good ride today, despite the fact that it was raining. And of course, it was interesting too. It just goes to show you that there’s always something going on in D.C., and it is often something unusual. 

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Million Mask March

Instead of a monument or statue or other identified attraction which is my usual destination, I instead rode to an event during yesterday’s lunchtime bike ride.  I attended the “Million Mask March” here in D.C., which was a protest organized by the hacktivist group Anonymous, scheduled to be held simultaneously “in 671 different cities” throughout the world.  I found out about the march about an hour and a half before it began when a security bulletin was sent to me at work, and since I was already here in D.C. and always open to new experiences, I grabbed one of the bikes that I keep in the parking garage of my office building and took an early lunch break to go check it out for myself.

According to the event’s Facebook page, the demonstration was intended to address a myriad of topics and issues, to include: “Major Corruption In Every Government; Education Reform; The Trans-Pacific Partnership; The National Defense Authorization Act; Militarized Police State; Police Brutality; Wars Of Aggression; Genetically Modified Organisms; Free Palestine; 911 Truth; Health Care Reform; Houselessness; Starvation; Human Rights; Alternative Energy; 2nd Amendment; Stop Paying Taxes; Fukushima; Bradley now Chelsea Manning; Jeremy Hammond; Aaron Schwartz; Barrett Brown, and; Freedom!”  But demonstrators also voiced concerns about additional topics as diverse as buying only locally-grown food, or not shopping on Black Friday.

The turnout wasn’t quite what was expected, with pre-event estimates ranging from one to twenty-five thousand local participants. In the end there were, at most, only a couple hundred people, many wearing the trademark Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the “V for Vendetta” movie, who marched in the event here.  While the diversity of issues may be an attraction for some, I think the lack of focus and specificity, much like the Occupy D.C. Movement that camped out in protest in McPhereson Square a few years ago, may ultimately be what kept the size of the crowd smaller than it might have been.  I think it also, for the most part, inhibited the group’s message from getting out to anyone outside the group of protestors themselves.

The group met at the Washington Monument, where I caught up with them, and then proceeded to march, under police escort, to The White House.  After conducting a demonstration in front of the north portico of the White House, the group later in the day marched to the U.S. Capitol Building, with stops along the way, such as at FBI Headquarters.  Although protesters were supposed to follow a specific route, they were characteristically unpredictable, and some broke off from the main group causing minor chaos with afternoon commuter traffic.  But despite some minor incidents, the demonstrators here in D.C. were for the most part law-abiding and non-violent,  which cannot be said of all the other groups in other cities yesterday.

Despite the low number of participants, however, it was an worthwhile event with an interesting group of people, as you will be able to see in these photographs that I took along the way.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]


Field Marshall Sir John Dill Statue and Gravesite

During this week in 1944, British Field Marshal Sir John Dill passed away here in D.C. A memorial service was subsequently held for him in Washington National Cathedral, and the route of the cortege was lined by thousands of troops, following which he was interred in Arlington National Cemetery. Later that year he was posthumously awarded the American Distinguished Service Medal. He also received an unprecedented joint resolution of Congress expressing appreciation for his services. So on this lunchtime bike ride, I set out to visit his grave (MAP), and then learn more about the British general who was so well thought of during his time here in this country.

John Greer Dill was born on Christmas Day, 1881, in County Armagh, Ireland. Always destined for a career in the military, Dill attended the Methodist College Belfast, Cheltenham College and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. At the age of 19, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and sent to South Africa to serve in the Second Boer War. He then served in World War I. Dill was promoted to the office of director of military operations and intelligence of the British War Office in 1934 and knighted for service to the empire three years later, in 1937. He would then go on to also serve during World War II.

From May of 1940 to December of 1941 he was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the professional head of the British Army. He subsequently was to the United States by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, where he became Chief of the British Joint Staff Mission and then Senior British Representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff. It was during this time that Dill developed a close personal friendship with George C. Marshall, the U.S. chief of staff, which resulted in the formation of the “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. This is evidenced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt description of Dill as “the most important figure in the remarkable accord which has been developed in the combined operations of our two countries.”

Upon Dill’s death, Marshall intervened to have Dill buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Dill’s plot is marked by one of only two equestrian statues in the cemetery (the other being of Major General Philip Kearny). The Dill statue is located in a prominent spot most visitors to the cemetery pass by en route from the Visitors Center to Arlington House or the The John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame and grave site. There, he is interred alongside his “American friends and associates,” and to this day remains the only foreigner to be so honored.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]


The American Meridian Memorial

As I was riding around the campus of George Washington University on this lunchtime bike ride, I happened upon a marker that I hadn’t seen before. As I would come to find out, it is The American Meridian Memorial.  Located on a small bluff near the corner of 24th and H Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Foggy Bottom Neighborhood, it was once considered by some to be the center of the world, establishing a geographical line that separated the Eastern and Western hemispheres. 

Prior to 1850, different countries measured longitude from different meridians. Because there was no agreement for a prime meridian, the way there is with latitude and the Equator, prime meridians and associated maps were identified in Greenwich, Paris, Rome, and various other European centers. American navigators tended to use either the French meridian at Paris or the British meridian at Greenwich.

Beginning in 1850, the United States established and began to measure distance from the American Meridian. The Federal government officially used this line, which ran along 24th Street, to measure distances on land, survey the West, coordinate the nation’s clocks, and record the start of new days.

However, few navigators at that time adopted the American Meridian, as they owned charts that gave distances relative to Paris or London, rather than 24th Street in D.C.  In fact, the United States continued to utilize the Greenwich Meridian for longitude at sea. But land surveyors welcomed the ability to measure from the new American Meridian rather that a line that lay across a broad ocean.  So as teams of American surveyors and mapmakers ventured steadily westward, those square boundaries of the Western states were all measured in appealing round numbers from the American Meridian.

Oregon would be the first to use the American Meridian in 1859 when it became a state. The southeastern border of the new state would be exactly 42 degrees West of the American Meridian. Colorado Territory in 1861 would be next to use the Meridian, establishing it’s eastern (27°W, Am) and western (34°W, Am) borders with the newly established meridian. The eastern border of Wyoming is exactly 27 degrees west of 24th Street, Arizona is 32 degrees west, and the Utah-Nevada border is 36 degrees west

The United States, via an act of Congress, officially abandoned the American Meridian in 1912, when it accepted the meridian at Greenwich as the international standard. Thus, the American Meridian was relegated to history. Today, the meridian marker is one of three reminders in D.C. of the evolution of cartography in this country. Meridian Hill Park was named for a stone obelisk that was erected there along the original prime meridian in 1804.  The stone marker there is long gone, but the park named after it remains.  And the third remnant of the pre-Greenwich Meridian age is The Zero Milestone, which is located on The Ellipse directly south of The White House.  With the advancement of technology, one day the Greenwich Meridian may be a thing of the past as well.

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