Posts Tagged ‘White House’

A Secret Entrance to the White House

Anyone who has been near the White House when the president or visiting dignitaries were arriving or departing have seen the entrances to the White House in use.  Equipped with security gates, ram-proof physical barriers, armed personnel, electronic surveillance equipment, and other unseen security measures, the entrances are obvious.  But there is another entrance to the White House that few people know about.

Located two blocks away from the White House in the 1500 block of H Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown neighborhood, the secret entrance to the White House looks like almost any other alley in the city.  Thousands and thousands of pedestrians and vehicles pass by it every day, and I doubt any of them know what is hiding in plain site right in front of them.   About the only thing that distinguishes it from any other alley is a small, unobtrusive booth built into the wall of the building on the right side of alley.  I imagine most people who see it assume the booth is for an attendant collecting money for a public parking lot at the other end of the alley.  But it is actually a bullet-proof enclosure manned by Secret Service agents.

The alley leads south past the back of the Federal Claims Courthouse Building, before ending in an unassuming doorway at the rear of Freedman’s Bank, formerly known as the Treasury Department annex, on Pennsylvania Avenue.   From there, according to archival newspaper reports from before security concerns prevented the publishing of such information, the passageway to the White House passes through two subterranean tunnels.

The first tunnel was constructed in 1919 when the Treasury Department Annex was built, presumably to protect the Treasury and its employees from being robbed of the vast sums of cash with which they worked.  The second tunnel was contracted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, and lead from the East Wing of the White House to the first Presidential bomb shelter.  The tunnel and bomb shelter were to be a secret throughout the war, but was disclosed to the public in December of 1941 when Congressman Clare E. Hoffman complained about its expense in an open debate in the House of Representatives.

In later years, the tunnel has been used by persons who needed to exit or depart the White House without public or press attention. President Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia Nixon, and her husband, Edward F. Cox, departed the White House via the tunnel after their 1972 Rose Garden wedding.  President Lyndon Johnson also used the tunnel to avoid Vietnam War protesters when departing the White House.  Other uses of the tunnel have either been discredited or, like the stories of Marilyn Monroe using a tunnel to sneak into the White House as part of an affair with President John F. Kennedy, remain unproven.

Once the alley and tunnels were connected to provide for vehicular access to the White House, the passageway was modified to end in the parking garage in the White House basement.  And despite the general public’s lack of knowledge of the access way, or perhaps because of it, it remains in use to this day.

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Bloodstained Men Protest

On this lunchtime bike ride, as I was riding through Lafayette Square and past the plaza in front of the north portico of the White House (MAP), I noticed an unusual looking protest.  From a distance it caught my eye because the men protesting were dressed in all-white outfits with what appeared to be red stains on their crotches.  I also noticed that the demonstration was not only getting a lot of attention, but was also prompting double-takes or shudders from some of the tourists and other passersby.  So naturally I rode over to take a closer look and try to find out more.

It turned out that the protest was by a group called Bloodstained Men and Their Friends, which is traveling around the country to protest against infant male circumcision in the United States.  And they have more than 60 anti-circumcision protests scheduled throughout this year.  That includes this protest at the White House.

Two of the main Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, require that males be circumcised, while Christians and nonbelievers are mixed on the topic.  Others believe that circumcision has health advantages for men completely separate from religious belief.  Both the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have found that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, and that the benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it.

However, the organizers of the protest consider the procedure of infant male circumcision to be a violation of human rights, and want this country to follow the advice of the European medical community, which has condemned American doctors for infant circumcision.  They also contend that in the United States, the legality of the practice is a violation of the 14th Amendment.

Despite being practiced in many African and Middle Eastern countries as a cultural custom, the Federal government passed a law in 1996 against Female Genital Mutilation.  In fact, just this week the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which considers it an international human rights issue, announced on its web site that it is encouraging people to come forward and report cases so that it can proactively investigate this illegal practice.  Bloodstained Men contend inasmuch as the 14th Amendment says that the law has to be applied equally, infant boys should be entitled to the same respect of their bodies that girls are.

However, the Bloodstained Men philosophy is not strictly anti-circumcision.  Although they do not advocate the process for anyone, the group believes the decision on whether to be circumcised should be left to the individual once he is an adult.  They also believe that protesting isn’t their main mission.  Rather, protesting is a means by which they seek to start a dialogue about the subject in hopes of educating people.  By this measure, I think their protest was a success.

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German-American Friendship Garden

The German-American Friendship Garden, where I went on this lunchtime bike ride, is located on a direct line of sight between the White House and The Washington Monument on the National Mall, at 1600 Constitution Avenue (MAP) between 15th and 17th Streets in northwest D.C. The ornamental garden’s design, developed by landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, features plants indigenous to both Germany and the United States, and contains benches on which visitors can rest while enjoying the gardens.

The garden was commissioned in 1982 after a visit to D.C. by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After the Chancellor’s visit, President Ronald Reagan created a Presidential commission to design and construct a garden to commemorate the tricentennial anniversary of the first German immigration to America, and celebrate 300 years of friendship between the United States and Germany. Later, the garden was dedicated at a ceremony in November of 1988, which was attended by both President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl during their last meeting together.

During his speech at the dedication ceremony President Reagan stated, “In a few months, I’ll be leaving the White House, but the garden, and all it represents, will remain, to be nurtured and sustained by the friendship between Germans and Americans.” Chancellor Kohl agreed in his response, calling the garden a symbol “of friendship and of solidarity which will have validity for the future.”

Eventually, the garden was in need of extensive restoration, so in 2013 an initiative was jointly launched by the German Embassy, the National Park Service, and the Association of German-American Societies of Greater Washington D.C.  Subsequently, new flower beds and other native plants were planted and revitalized in the fall of that year.  A new irrigation system was also installed, and the central square panel of the garden’s plaza was restored in keeping with Oehme’s original design.

The garden has been the site of annual celebrations on German-American Day, a holiday in the United States which began in 1883. The custom, observed each year on October 6th, died out during World War I as a result of the anti-German sentiment that prevailed at the time, but was revived during Reagan’s presidency in 1983 on the 100th anniversary of the first celebration.

Today, the German-American Friendship Garden’s ideal location in one of the city’s most well-travelled tourist areas provides it with an estimated seven million visitors passing by each year.  Unfortunately, most overlook the garden as they walk by it on their way to another destination.  So my recommendation is to make the garden a specific  destination so you don’t also miss out on all that it has to offer.

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The National Christmas Tree

The National Christmas Tree

On this bike ride I went by the Ellipse in President’s Park (MAP), just south of the White House.  It was at this location that the first National Christmas Tree was placed in December of 1923.  The tree was a 48-foot Balsam fir donated by the President of Middlebury College in Vermont, and was decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green, donated by the Electric League of Washington.  At 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse to light the tree from his native state.  Music for this first lighting ceremony was provided by a local choir and a “quartet” from the U.S. Marine Band.

It has now been almost a century since that first National Christmas Tree was illuminated, and the American holiday tradition will continue later today. This evening President Obama and his family will flip the switch for the 92nd annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree. This year’s ceremony is sponsored by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks, and will be hosted by actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson. Scheduled performers for tonight’s lighting ceremony include multi Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter NE-YO, multiplatinum-selling artist Steve Miller, and country star Chely Wright along with pop phenomenon Fifth Harmony, Grammy-winning legend Patti LaBelle, pop world duo Nico & Vinz, and award-winning vocal group The Tenors, who will all be performing a collection of holiday favorites.

Santa Claus, who has been known to drop by for past Christmas tree lightings, just might make another appearance this year as well. However, if you don’t see him this evening, he and his elves will be at his workshop near the tree on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 12.30 – 9.30 pm through December 21.  After that, he and his elves will return to the North Pole to finish getting ready for the big day.

If you don’t already have tickets for this evening, don’t even plan to go. Free tickets were given out weeks ago through a national lottery that closed on October 20th. But even if you can’t be there, you can experience it online live. The pre-show starts at 4:30 pm this afternoon, and along with the lighting ceremony can be viewed live online.  Following today’s online stream, the show will also be available anytime on-demand. The event will also air on public television throughout the month of December.  For broadcast times, check local listings or the National Christmas Tree Lighting website.

The National Tree and all of the state trees surrounding it will be lit from dusk until 10 p.m. through New Year’s Day. Plus there will be free musical performances each day from musical groups from D.C. and across the country. No tickets are required for the nightly entertainment.

Since the lighting ceremony takes place in the evening and my daily break for a lunchtime bike ride always comes during the day, I was not able to see the illuminated tree on this ride. However, one of the other features surrounding the National Christmas Tree can be seen during the day. That is the National Christmas Tree Railroad.  Celebrating it’s 21st year, the National Christmas Tree Railroad is a group of large-scale model trains which are sponsored, constructed and operated by a group of non-paid volunteers who operate the trains in a display around the base of the tree. It is one of my favorite aspects of the display, and makes a trip to see the National Christmas Tree worth it, even during the daytime.

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Woodrow Wilson House

Woodrow Wilson House

While most Presidents happily retire back to their home state after leaving office, Woodrow Wilson decided to remain in D.C.   In fact, he is the only American President to select D.C. to be his home following his final term in office.  So on a recent bike ride I chose to go by the Woodrow Wilson House in northwest D.C.   Sometimes referred to as “the other executive mansion,” the house is located at 2340 S Street (MAP) on Embassy Row in the city’s Kalorama Neighborhood.

Late in 1920 after leading the nation through the first World War, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and creating the League of Nations, the 28th President’s second and final term was nearing its end.  Needing a place to live after leaving the White House, his wife Edith Bolling Wilson began to search for an appropriate residence.  His second wife, she had lived in D.C. before they met and received a small fortune when her former husband, a prosperous local jeweler, passed away.  However, her husband made his own plans.  On December 14, Wilson insisted that his wife attend a concert.  When she returned he presented her with the deed to the Georgian style mansion on S Street.  He had bought the house despite having never even seen it.  The former President and his wife moved into the home on Inauguration Day in 1921.

The Wilsons moved into their new retirement haven, but it wasn’t an easy move.  Prohibition forbid the transportation of alcohol, and that presented a problem for Wilson, who did not want to leave his fine wine collection in the White House for his successor.  The recently elected Warren G. Harding was known to be a heavy drinker.  He appealed to Congress, and Congress granted an exception to Prohibition by passing a special law just for him, which allowed one person on one specific day “to transport alcohol from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to 2340 S Street.”

Wilson, partially paralyzed from a stroke he suffered in 1919, spent his few remaining years in partial seclusion at the house, under the continuous care of his wife and servants.  It was from the balcony of this house that Wilson addressed a crowd in November of 1923 as his last public appearance.  On February 3, 1924, he died in an upstairs bedroom.  He was laid to rest in Washington National Cathedral, becoming not just the only President to remain in D.C. after his presidency, but also the only President to be buried in D.C.   Mrs. Wilson continued to live in the residence until her death in 1961.   She bequeathed the property and all of its original furnishings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which designated it a National Historic Landmark in 1964.  The National Trust continues to own the house, and currently operates it as a museum.

I think President Wilson would have approved of my adventures biking around and exploring D.C.  He cycled regularly, including several cycling vacations.  However, as President he was unable to bike around D.C. for security reasons.  Unable to ride, he took to playing golf with equal enthusiasm.  In fact, Wilson holds the record among all U.S. Presidents for the most rounds of golf, having played over 1,000 rounds, or almost one every other day.

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