Posts Tagged ‘Key Bridge’

Francis Scott Key Park

Francis Scott Key Park

The small but formal park and memorial located at 34th and M Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood was the destination of this bike ride. It is named Francis Scott Key Park, and is adjacent to the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which traverses the Potomac River to connect Georgetown to the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington in Virginia. The park honors the man who wrote the poem about the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814 which was turned into a song called “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and in 1931 became our national anthem.

Francis Scott Key Park features gardens with floral and other plantings, a bronze bust of Francis Scott Key, and a a tall flagpole.  A flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes, a replica of the one that flew over Fort McHenry back on that fateful night in 1841, flies night and day in the park.  It opened in 1993, and was designed by Friedrich St. Florian, the same architect who designed The National World War II Memorial located downtown on the National Mall.

Key was originally from nearby Carroll County, Maryland, where he was born on August 1, 1779. While he spent a lot of time in Baltimore, Key lived a good number of years in Georgetown, where he and his family moved in 1803. They lived in a house at the corner of 34th and M Streets, where the park is now located. Unfortunately, the house was demolished in 1947.

While living in D.C., Key served in the Georgetown field artillery unit.  After the British burned Washington in 1814, Key traveled to Baltimore to help negotiate the release of American prisoners. It was during this trip that he wrote the Star Spangled Banner.

In addition to being an amateur poet, Francis Scott Key was an American lawyer and author. He was a successful as an attorney in D.C. for many years. Upon returning to D.C. after the war, Key assisted his prominent lawyer uncle Philip Barton Key, including in the sensational conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr, and the expulsion of Senator John Smith of Ohio. Key’s extensive trial practice flourished, as did his real estate practice as well. During his time as a lawyer he went on to help negotiate with Indian tribes, assist President Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general in a case in which he appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, and serve as the attorney for Sam Houston during his trial in the U.S. House of Representatives for assaulting another Congressman.

Key’s legal career culminating with his appointment as the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, serving from 1833 to 1841.  It was during this time as U.S. Attorney that he prosecuted Richard Lawrence, the person who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson.   He also handled private legal cases as well during this time.

It was also during his tenure as U.S. Attorney that Key, a slave-owner himself, used his position to suppress abolitionists.  Key purchased his first slave in 1800 or 1801, and owned at least six slaves by the time he became a U.S. Attorney.  Mostly in the 1830s, he represented several masters seeking return of their runaway human property.  However, Key also manumitted several enslaved persons, and throughout his career he also represented for free several slaves seeking their freedom in court. Key was also a founding member and active leader of the American Colonization Society, the primary goal of which was to send free African-Americans back to Africa.  However, he was later ousted from the board as its policies shifted toward abolitionist.

There is much more to Francis Scott Key than most people know, just like there is more to D.C. than most people realize. Francis Scott Key Park is an example of this. And just like the man, the park is worthwhile in getting to know better.

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The Custis Trail

The Custis Trail

There are a large number of bike trails in the D.C. metro area that are used for both recreational and commuting purposes.  Connecting two of the area’s longest and most popular trails is the Martha Custis Trail, which was named using the maiden name of the wife of George Washington, the first President of the United States.

The Custis Trail was built alongside Interstate 66, which is named the Custis Memorial Parkway in Virginia east of the Capital Beltway.  But concrete barriers provide a safety barrier and keep the traffic noise down for those on the trail.  The trail opened in the early 1980s at the same time that the highway did.

The Custis Trail is a point-to-point paved bike trail in Arlington, Virginia (MAP).  It is considered a difficult trail, containing a few winding curves and blind turns, as well as moderate climbs, more so if you are traveling east to west.  So it is not recommended for beginners.  The trail is 4 miles long, and connects at its east end to the 17-mile long Mount Vernon Trail, which continues east and south along the Potomac River to Mount Vernon.  At its west end it connects to the 45-mile long Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Trail, which continues northwest to Purcellville, Virginia.  It is in this area that you can also cross the W&OD to go to the Four Mile Run Trail.   All together, these linked trails providing a continuous 70-mile vehicle-free route through the Northern Virginia suburbs.

Used most popularly as a commuter route, the Custis Trail connects to the Key Bridge leading into D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, and to the Mount Vernon Trail, which provides access to three other Potomac River crossings into downtown D.C. – the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, the Arlington Memorial Bridge and the George Mason Memorial Bridge.

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The Exorcist Stairs

On M Street in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood of D.C., directly across the street from the Key Bridge, are what’s referred to as the “Exorcist Stairs” (MAP).  The base of the stairs is right next to the Exxon station across from the bridge.  Climb the 97 steps to the top and you’ll reach Prospect Street where you’ll find the red brick “Exorcist House” a few steps away at 3600 Prospect Street.

Made famous in “The Exorcist,” the 1973 classic horror movie about demonic possession written by Georgetown University alumnus William Peter Blatty, the dark, narrow stairs are a part of the movie’s climactic scene in which a Jesuit priest rids himself of the devil by hurling himself out the window of a house and down the steeply sloped stairs to his death.  The stone steps at the end of M Street, were padded with 1/2”-thick rubber to film the death of Father Karras. The stuntman tumbled down the stairs twice. And during filming, Georgetown University students charged people around $5 each to watch the stunt from the rooftops.

I rode to the spooky stairwell to see them for myself.  They’re not nearly as scary in the daylight as they are within the context of the movie.  But they’re worth a quick visit, if only to be able to say you’ve done it.

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UPDATE (3/13/2019)- The 36th Street stairway between M Street and Prospect Street in Georgetown, also known as the Exorcist Stairs, has now been designated as a D.C. Historic Landmark.  The city’s Historical Preservation Review Board (HPRB) granted the landmark status to the stairway, including the retaining wall on one side, and the old Capitol Traction Station building on the other.  The Board also recommended that the site be nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.  But oddly enough, it is not because of the attention and fame that the famous movie gave the stairway.  In fact, it may be in spite of it.

The Prospect Street Citizens Association, in partnership with the D.C. Preservation League, pushed for the designation to protect the stairway from demolition as part of the construction of a new five-story, 21-unit condo building, complete with a two-story underground parking garage, as well as a rooftop pool, yoga studio and communal wine cellar, that will soon be going up at the site of the iconic former Exxon station near the base of the stairway.

For the decision and recommendation, the HPRB based their actions on a report written by the city’s Historic Preservation Office, which cites the “historical significance of the station whose soaring clock tower and arched windows make it an example of Romanesque Revival architecture popular at the time of its construction. The steps and retaining wall, meanwhile, contribute to “the historical and architectural significance of the site,” the report reads.

I am glad the landmark status has been granted to the site by the city.  And I hope that it will eventually be listed on the National Registry as well.  But regardless of the city’s reasons for the 36th Street stairway’s designation, I will always seem them as the Exorcist Stairs.