Posts Tagged ‘Lafayette Park’

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Blair House

On this lunch time bike ride I stopped by a late-Federal style, buff-colored limestone townhouse known as “Blair House.” Located across from the White House at 1651–1653 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C., it is directly opposite the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and near the southwest corner of Lafayette Park.

The original townhouse at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue was built in 1824 as the private residence of Dr. Joseph Lovell, who was a member of the Continental Congress and the first Surgeon General of the United States.  After Dr. Lovell’s death in 1836, the house was sold for $6,500.  It was purchased by Francis Blair, who had previously moved to the nation’s capitol at the urging of President Andrew Jackson. It soon became known as Blair House, and has retained the moniker ever since.

Francis Preston Blair, Sr. was born in April of 1792 in Abingdon, Virginia. In 1811, after graduating from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, he moved to nearby Frankfort, where he worked as a circuit court clerk and a journalist who frequently contributed articles and editorials to a local newspaper. Blair became an ardent follower of President Jackson, and his writings and editorials eventually garnered the attention of the President, who invited Blair to move to D.C. and take over a failing newspaper named The Globe. Blair turned the paper into a pro-administration publication, and became a successful newspaper publisher. He was also an influential advisor to President Jackson as a member of what became known as his “Kitchen Cabinet.”  Blair also continued to be an insider in the administrations of Presidents Martin van Buren and Abraham Lincoln.

Beginning in 1837, seven years after moving to D.C., Blair and his wife Eliza and their three children took up residence in the townhouse, which would remain in the family for over a century. In 1859, Blair built a red brick townhouse next door, to the left of to Blair House, at 1653 Pennsylvania Avenue, for his daughter, Elizabeth Blair Lee, and her husband, Samuel Phillips Lee, a third cousin of Robert E. Lee. In 1942, after being purchased by the U.S. government, the houses were combined, along with two other adjacent townhouses. The complex is sometimes referred to as the Blair-Lee House, though Blair House remains the official name.

Blair House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is now managed by the U.S. State Department and serves as the President of the United State;s official guest house.  However, one President, Harry Truman, actually resided there during an extensive renovation of the White House.  As a side note, during President Truman’s time in residence at Blair House it was also the scene of an assassination attempt in which the first Secret Service Officer killed in the line of duty, and to date the only Secret Service member to be killed while defending the President, occurred.

Today Blair House is primarily used to house foreign heads of state and their delegations, and flies their countries’ flags when foreign leaders stay there. It is also occasionally used for domestic guests, which has included several presidents-elect and their families prior to their initial inauguration.

During the 1980s, Blair House underwent significant restorations, with a new wing added on the north. The combined square footage of the entire complex now exceeds 70,000 square feet, making it more massive than its famous neighbor, The White House, which is approximately 55,000 square feet. And what started as a simple private residence has now expanded to consist of 110 rooms, including several conference rooms and sitting rooms, 23 bedrooms, 35 bathrooms, and 4 dining rooms, as well as several kitchens, laundry and dry cleaning facilities, and an exercise room. It even has a hair salon and a florist shop.

As I visited this house that has long been associated with important events in American history, and in recent times, world history, I couldn’t help but wonder what Francis Preston Blair, Sr. would think if he could see his former residence today.

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The National Menorah

The National Menorah

The National Menorah, which is considered the world’s largest, is located on The Ellipse in President’s Park (MAP), near The National Christmas Tree just south of the White House. Because tonight is the 35th-annual White House lighting ceremony of the National Menorah, I decided to make it the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

The lighting of the Menorah marks the first of the eight nights of Chanukah. Perhaps the most prominent public Chanukah program in the world, the National Menorah lighting ceremony is attended by thousands of people every year. It is also seen via television newscasts, live internet feeds and through other media by tens of millions of people across the nation and around the world. And since many of them are not near any Jewish community, it makes it possible for them to properly celebrate and enjoy Chanukah in a way that they might not otherwise be able to do.

The first public menorah on record in the United States was lit in 1974 at Independence Mall in Philadelphia as part of a campaign initiated by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson to raise awareness of the holiday and support for holding public menorah lightings. Five years later, a public Menorah appeared for the first time in D.C., helping it to become a premier national and even international symbol of the festival of Chanukah. It was attended in 1979 during the midst of the Iran hostage crisis by President Jimmy Carter, who shared greetings with the assembled crowd and then lit the shamash, which is the helper candle from which the others are kindled. Every president since has recognized Chanukah with a special menorah-lighting. And in 1982, the menorah lit in Lafayette Park was referred to by President Ronald Reagan as the “National Menorah,” and the moniker stuck.

Over time, the unifying initiative of public menorah lightings has become such a sensation that it has inspired many communities across the globe to sponsor more and greater public menorah lighting ceremonies of their own. Today, there are lighting ceremonies at such locations such as the Sydney Opera House, Moscow’s Red Square, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Hong Kong Harbor, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and, obviously, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

It has become a tradition for Cabinet-level Federal officials to assist in the lighting of the National Menorah. This year, however, Vice President Joe Biden will assist in the lighting. The ceremony will take place at 4 p.m., but attendees are encouraged to arrive as early as possible due to security measures.

If you can’t be there in person, you can not only watch it live, but you can participate in the annual celebration of Chanukah online through “Virtual Chanukah.” Through innovative concepts like Olive Drops, CyberDreidle, e-mitzvot, etc., Jews anywhere can illuminate their homes and lives with the special glow and meaning of the Chanukah lights, celebrating the victory of right over might, good over evil, and light over darkness.

Chag Sameach.

McPherson Square

McPherson Square

This month marks three years since a disillusioned band of protesters first pitched tents in a park in lower Manhattan, sparking a movement against corporate greed known as Occupy Wall Street. The New York protest initially garnered a significant amount of media attention and public awareness, thanks mainly to the involvement of the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine named Adbusters, which originally came up with the idea for the occupation. Adbusters began to promote the occupation, and then enlisted help from the Manhattan-based public relations firm Workhouse, who was well known for its successful work on client brands including Mercedes and Saks Fifth Avenue. It was their efforts that lead to media awareness, inspiring the initiation of other Occupy protests and movements around the world, including here in D.C.

Occupy D.C. was a protest in McPherson Square in D.C., and was connected to the other Occupy movements that were springing up across the U.S. in the fall of 2011. The group began occupying McPherson Square in October of that year. As a result of an inability to resolve internal differences and disputes, a number of protestors broke off from the original group, and began an occupation of Freedom Plaza several days later. That group called itself Occupy Washington. This squabble was an early indicator to me that the movement was destined to fade into obscurity.

The main issues raised by the Occupy movement were social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government – particularly from the financial services sector. The Occupy slogan, “We are the 99%”, referred to income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. However, without designated leaders or specific demands, Occupy eventually turned into an amorphous protest against everything that anyone perceived to be wrong in the world.

For its first two months, authorities largely adopted a tolerant approach toward the movement, but this began to change in mid-November of 2011 when they began forcibly removing protest camps. By the end of the year authorities had cleared most of the major camps, with the last remaining high profile sites – in D.C. and London – evicted a few weeks later. The movement’s end seemed to arrive almost as suddenly as it began.

The problem with the movement was that its mission was always intentionally vague. It was deliberately leaderless. It never sought to become a political party or even a label like the Tea Party. And because it was purposely open to taking in all comers, the assembly lost its sense of purpose as various intramural squabbles emerged about the group’s end game. The Occupy encampments, which began with a small band of passionate intellectuals, had been hijacked by misfits and vagabonds looking for food and shelter. And as the USA Today newspaper described it, “It will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.” Regardless of your support or opposition to the Occupy movement, I think it can be described as an interesting time that began full of idealism, but ended with unrealized potential.

I went to McPherson Square, as well as Freedom Plaza, several times back when the Occupy D.C.’s and Occupy Washington’s protests and occupations were ongoing. And to mark the third anniversary of the beginning of the Occupy movement, I rode back to the location where they began, McPherson Square.

McPherson Square is named after James B. McPherson, a major general who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. It was identified as a park on the original 1791 design plan for the national capitol city created by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, and is a key element of the historic monumental core, along with Farragut Square and Lafayette Square.

McPherson Square is located in northwest D.C., and is bound by K Street to the north, Vermont Avenue on the East, I Street on the south, and 15th Street on the West (MAP). It is two blocks northeast of The White House, and one block from Lafayette Park. Located in the central downtown commercial and business district, today the square is frequented by area workers and street vendors during the day, and restaurant-goers and the homeless at night.

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

Vermont Avenue Farmers Market

Vermont Avenue Farmers Market

For my last springtime bike ride before summer officially begins this weekend, I leisurely rode around the downtown area for a while before going to a farmers market named Farmfresh Markets by the White House, located on Vermont Avenue between H and I Streets in northwest D.C. (MAP), just across from the northeast corner of Lafayette Park.  Every Thursday from April through October, the street is closed to traffic while it temporarily becomes an open-air market and street fair.  Although only a block long, a number of booths and vendors set up with a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other products like breads and baked goods, kettle corn, artisan cheeses, milk and yogurt, fresh-cut flowers, and jellies and jams. There were also some places serving lunch, and even a street musician providing background music.

But on this occasion it was one particular booth run by a Mennonite family that caught my attention. It was operated by Kinley and Rebecca Coulter and their family, from Coulter Farms of Honey Grove, Pennsylvania. They were selling a variety of products, including organic meat, free range eggs, raw milk cheeses, and a variety of flavors of raw honey.  What initially caught my eye was a display for their honey that included a large hive and a swarm of hundreds of live bees, which they had set up on a table in the front of their booth. It was all behind glass, so it was safe enough to get up close, and it was very interesting to stop and watch for a while.

The Coulters also had a large grill set up and were serving lunch, which consisted entirely of products from their farm. I had a certified organic 100% grass-fed beef sausage with fresh grilled peppers and onions on a homemade roll, and a big glass of iced tea flavored with raw honey and fresh-picked mint.  I then took my lunch across the street to eat it in Lafayette Park. I ate on a bench near a fountain in the park, and listened to the street musician as I watched an ongoing protest in front of the northern portico of the White House.

There are a number of farmers markets in the D.C. area during the warmer months, including one sponsored by the Department of Agriculture every Friday.  While I have visited a number of them, the one on Vermont Avenue remains my favorite.  And this ride and stopping by the market was a relaxing and enjoyable way to say goodbye to spring.  And it left me looking forward to many more rides during the coming summer.

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On one of my bike rides not too long ago I came across a 15-foot flatbed truck carrying what appeared to be the world’s largest roll of duct tape.  My first thought was one that many men would have, “Wow. I could fix just about anything with that.”  Unfortunately, however, what appeared to be an enormous roll of duct tape was just a prop.

The prop and truck were labeled “Emergency Bridge Repair Team” and it is a rolling protest by the Laborers International Union of North America.  The protest pertains to the House of Representatives delay and then subsequent failure to pass the highway bill that had been previously approved in the U.S. Senate.

The union is of the opinion that 2014 is a critical year for the U.S.’s infrastructure. As President Barack Obama alluded to in his State of the Union address, they believe there is an issue in D.C. that, if unaddressed, could bring the American economy to a halt: the expiration of the federal transportation bill and the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.

Last spring, the American Society of Civil Engineers released the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which awarded our nation’s infrastructure a GPA of D+. A grade of D+ is not a something any of us would be proud of our children for bringing home on their report cards.

Like with most issues in D.C., there is agreement that there is a problem.  The disagreement is in what to do about the problem, and how to pay for it.

There are protests of one type or another occurring in D.C. every single day.  From groups with signs marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, to crowds gathered in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, to more quiet and solemn protests like the White House Peace Vigil in Lafayette Park.  However, this is the first time I recall seeing a “rolling protest.”  And that’s one of the reasons it’s always so interesting to ride a bike around D.C. – you just never know what you’re going to see.