[Note: This is a guest post contributed by JoAnn Hill, a DC area educator and author of the book “Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.” ]
The holidays are in full swing in the Washington, DC, area and there’s no better time to get out, explore, and embrace the holiday spirt! The National Cathedral’s stunning remarkable window that’s out of this world, DC’s original brewery and palatial castle, an engagement for the history books, cunning spies and egregious betrayals, and a naval munitions factory turned popular art center are just some of the incredible and lesser-known stories and sites just waiting to be explored this holiday season.
Check out local DC author JoAnn Hill’s book Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure to discover dozens of additional spots in and around the Washington, DC area. (KFDC Tip: Think holiday gifting — the book would be a perfect holiday present!)
National Cathedral: “To the Moon and Back”
As the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States, the Washington National Cathedral could be described as other-worldly. Perhaps no other feature further confirms this bold description than the fact that there is a small fragment of the moon in one of its windows, thanks to the three men who were the first to ever set foot on the moon. Five years after Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin made history, they personally delivered the seven-gram sample of stone to the cathedral on July 21, 1974.
In the four years leading up to the lunar rock arriving at the cathedral, NASA administrator Dr. Thomas Pain collaborated with St. Louis artist Rodney Winfield to design and build the window that contained the rock. The other-worldly stained glass, frequently dubbed the Space Window, portrays stars and orbiting planets in brilliant colors of blue, green, white, red, and orange. The vibrant creation was modeled after photos taken during the Apollo 11 mission.
Read all about it: Learn more about the National Cathedral window that contains a small fragment of the moon on pages 82-83 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and explore this holiday season: In-person holiday concerts, programs, and services at the National Cathedral are back! Visit their website to learn more.
Where: The National Cathedral is located at 3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW.
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Heurich House: “Prost! A Brewmaster and His Castle”
DC’s burgeoning craft beer and brewery scene has become a welcome mainstay of late. The art of brewing, however, is nothing new to the city. The palatial Christian Heurich House, better known as the Brewmaster’s Castle, is
the District’s original brewery, and arguably one of the most resplendent in the nation.
Situated on a tree-lined residential street in DC’s affluent Dupont Circle neighborhood, the chocolate- colored castle is often overlooked by passersby. Many are unaware of its rich and fascinating history tracing back to German beer brewer Christian Heurich. Heurich learned the art of brewing from his father as a child and immediately set out to build his beer-brewing empire upon arriving in the states in 1866. Later, in the 1890s, he built the gothic structure to be his grand palace. He created an enormous, incombustible brewery where the famous Kennedy Center stands today that could produce over half a million barrels a year. Heurich became the second largest employer in DC, surpassed only by the government. Heurich used his abundant wealth to build a palatial home with his second wife. The imposing Victorian home served as his home until his death in 1945 at the age of 102
Read all about it: Read more about the Heurich House and the brewmaster himself on pages 130-131 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and explore this holiday season: Christkindlmarkt is back in person this year from December 3-5. Check out the Heurich House’s calendar of events to learn more about their 1921 Garden Bar, public access to their garden, and more.
Where: The Heurich House is located on 1307 New Hampshire Avenue NW.
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Martin’s Tavern: “Ask and Say Yes”
As a cherished Georgetown institution dating back to 1933, Martin’s Tavern is the community’s oldest family-run restaurant. Its old-DC charm, neighborhood-friendly appeal, and warm and inviting ambience have drawn patrons for close to a century. Add that it also served as the location of John F. Kennedy Jr’s proposal to Jacqueline Bouvier, and it’s easy to see why Martin’s has been a perennial favorite among both locals and tourists.
On June 24, 1953, the young senator from Massachusetts proposed to his beautiful girlfriend at the historic and intimate Georgetown tavern. Over the years, however, doubt began to arise about whether Martin’s was the site of the engagement. Alternate stories surfaced, including that Kennedy had proposed over the phone or by telegram, or at a restaurant in Boston. After years of skepticism and speculation, the story was finally corroborated in 2015, when then-98-year-old Marion Smoak confirmed that he was enjoying a martini at the bar on the same night that Kennedy proposed. Although the engagement took place in a public setting, the event was a quiet one, absent of any grand gestures or words, or bended knee.
Read all about it: Learn more about JFK’s proposal to Jackie and Martin’s Tavern famous “proposal booth” pages 44-45 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and explore this holiday season: Martin’s Tavern is open seven days a week. Visit their website for hours and to make a reservation.
Where: Martin’s Tavern is located on 1264 Wisconsin Avenue NW.
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Mr. Smith’s: “A Spy and a Soviet Walk into a Bar”
Those looking to grab a drink or nosh on some casual pub fare at Georgetown’s popular Mr. Smith’s restaurant and bar may be surprised to hear that this long-standing institution once played a major role in DC’s spy scene. The former home of Chadwicks, a long-time Georgetown favorite, was once the setting of one of the biggest betrayals in our country’s history.
On June 13, 1985, CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames met with Soviet chief Vikto Cherkashin at the restaurant, where he purportedly divulged the names of over one hundred CIA agents working undercover in the Soviet Union. Fluent in Russian, Ames was burdened with financial problems, and in addition he held the Soviet Union in high esteem. Both matters ultimately led to Ames disclosing the identities of undercover CIA operatives by jotting their names down on a notepad. The risky act of betrayal came with a hefty payout of $4.6 million. Ames’ sudden windfall, however, did not go unnoticed, as he began recklessly spending his new fortune on luxurious items. Many began to question his newly found wealth.
Read all about it: Read more about this egregious betrayal and the Georgetown institution on pages 118-119 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and explore this holiday season: Mr. Smith’s is open seven days a week. Visit their website for hours and to make a reservation.
Where: Mr. Smith’s is located on 3205 K Street NW, right across from Georgetown’s Waterfront Park.
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The Torpedo Factory Art Center: “From Arsenal to Art”
The Torpedo Art Factory Center is often recognized as one of Old Town Alexandria’s prized gems. From art studios and galleries to workshops and classes, the sprawling space has something for everyone, regardless of age. It quietly holds the country’s largest number of publicly accessible working artists’ studios in one collective space. The beloved art center is lovely to visit year-round, especially during the holiday season. The building, however, wasn’t always a creative and vibrant space. Quite the contrary. The Torpedo Art Factory used to be a real-life torpedo factory, where munitions were manufactured for wartime.
On the day following Armistice Day, November 12, 1918, which marked the official end of World War I, the US Navy began construction on the US Naval Torpedo Station. Upon completion, the station was responsible for the production and maintenance of Mark III torpedoes for the next five years. Manufacturing stopped in 1923, and the space was then transformed into a storage space for munitions until 1937, when the Mark XIV torpedo began being built to be used in World War II. This torpedo was painted green so that the Navy could locate it in the water when it was tested at Piney Point, Maryland. At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, the weaponry plant continued to produce parts for rocket engines before closing permanently in 1946.
Read all about it: Discover more about the Torpedo Factory’s remarkable transformation on pages 170-171 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and explore this holiday season: The Torpedo Factory is open Wednesdays – Sundays. They are hosting a holiday festival on December 4. Visit their website for more information regarding hours, events, artists, classes and more.
Where: The Torpedo Factory is located on 105 N. Union Street, Alexandria VA.
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JoAnn Hill has lived in Washington, DC, with her husband Thalamus and dog Jackson for over 19 years. An avid traveler and foodie, JoAnn writes about their DC living and dining experiences, as well as their global travel adventures, on her blog dcglobejotters.org. Her writing has been published in BELLA Magazine, Escape Artist, and Triptipedia. JoAnn served as a DC Public Schools teacher for 17 years before co-founding Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company servicing the greater DC area. Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure is her first book.