Washington's lesser-known attractions make for a capital time

November 17, 2014

WASHINGTON — If you’ve visited our nation’s capital, chances are you’ve glimpsed the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian, watched primates play at the National Zoo, had your picture taken in front of the White House and searched for a relative’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But if you’ve already made it to those must-sees, there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path sights, sounds and flavors to enjoy.

This is a guide for those who want to march to the beat of a different drummer — make that a hundred different drummers — who converge for a weekly jam.



You feel the rhythm in your bones before you hear it, long before you glimpse the spirited percussionists on the hill as you approach.

People of all ages, faiths and skin colors come here to fill their hearts in this 12-acre urban oasis in a weekly ritual as sacred to some as church. This is more than a cacophony of bongos, snares, tambourines and washboards.

"To beat a drum is to just make noise, but to stroke a drum is to make it come alive. You find your place in the music and you transform the music," said longtime drum circle member William H. Taft, who holds the city permit that allows the weekly convergence.

This isn’t a place to observe but to participate. If the rhythm itself isn’t enough to draw you in there are the old-timers who reach out their arms like snake charmers leading newcomers into the circle where there’s always a willing dance partner.

Hafez Harris, a transplant from Pittsburgh, has been coming since he was 5.

"I would come and listen to the men play. I wanted to learn from all those guys," said Harris, 50, a freelance stage hand for D.C.-area theaters.

Now he is a regular who wraps surgical tape around his fingers to stave off blisters while he beats a djembe to set a steady tempo for the ever-changing group of players. Drummers come and drummers go throughout the afternoon and into the night. Sometimes they are briefly joined by a saxophonist or even a bagpiper, whose skirls are barely audible over the visceral rhythms.

After a while Harris sounds a whistle to signal the end of one jam and — after a few moments’ rest — the start of another.

The drum circle is a nod to the freeing of Washington, D.C.’s slaves in 1862, a year ahead of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Taft said.

They left their masters’ plantations with nothing but their clothes, religious artifacts and the drums that their owners had prohibited them from playing for fear they would use them to communicate secret messages and escape plans, Taft said. Once emancipated, they "played all day and they played all night and then they played some more."

No one is sure just when the modern drum circle started, but some point to a precise date: Feb. 21, 1965, when Malcolm X was killed. The assassination drew throngs of African-Americans to the park to mourn, drum and rally, said Taft, who remembers being there that night.

"Everybody came, and we drummed all night long, and our spirit still wasn’t full enough, so we came back again and again," he said. "Since then we’ve kept it alive to transform our community and make this — the highest point in D.C. — an urban village of peace to celebrate freedom and liberty for all."

16th Street & Euclid Street NW, Washington, DC; www.nps.gov/mehi/index.htm.



If your idea of peace is a little more … uh … peaceful, stop by the Summerhouse.

Even if you’ve walked the Capitol grounds before, you probably missed the red brick walls nestled into the side of the hill and partly concealed by ivy.

Inside the hexagonal walls is an open-air oasis. There’s a fountain in the middle and stone benches around the sides that provide shelter from the beating sun while the open top and three archways channel cool breezes.

The brass-fountain centerpiece used to be fed by a spring, and passers-by would sip from ladles attached by chains. For health reasons, the ladles are gone and city water now streams through the fountain, said Eugene Poole, who manages the Summerhouse and other projects for the Architect of the Capitol’s Office.

"This symbolizes our American ingenuity. This symbolizes our stick-to-itiveness in going forward with an ingenious design. This shows the coming together of people to show a complete vision," he said.

Some of the structure’s brickwork came from Pittsburgh’s Peerless Brick Co., the fountain came from the Fischer Co. in New York City, and the blue stone edging was imported from Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

Capitol landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the small outbuilding on the Senate side of the Capitol in 1879 and planned a second one for the House side that was never built.

"Visitors and members alike, when they were coming up Capitol Hill, didn’t have a place to rest. They didn’t have a place to sit down," Poole said. "The Summerhouse gave them a place to come get a cool drink of water, sit back and enjoy the breeze and take in some of the sights."

1673 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007; www.aoc.gov/capitol-grounds/summerhouse.



Few would blame you for choosing to see the Wright brothers’ Flyer and the Apollo 11’s command module over the Aymara tribe’s reed boat or the Ojibwe’s birch bark canoe. Just don’t choose the Air & Space Museum’s McDonald’s over the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe.

Mitsitam is an unexpected pleasure on the National Mall, a short walk from the Summerhouse. Here, hungry tourists and Hill staffers with discerning palates indulge in foods made with Native American cooking techniques and fresh, seasonal ingredients in flavorful combinations. During peak tourist season it may serve 2,000 customers a day.

Where else can you find cherry and herb-braised rabbit, fiddlehead fern salad, duck burgers, octopus salad, cedar-planked wild salmon or maple-brined turkey?

The menu changes frequently depending on what tribes across the country are growing. Most grow only enough to feed their own community, but if there is any surplus, chef Richard Hetzler will frequently buy it and incorporate it into his recipes.

Bumper crops of North American acorns and chola buds last year meant new additions to the menu — an acorn-foam soup garnish and a zingy asparagus-and-chola salad.

But if an ingredient doesn’t fit, it can’t be used. That’s a challenge, said Hetzler, who employs 35 cooks and sous chefs who all want to influence the menu with their creativity but also keep to tradition.

That goal is the driving force behind the restaurant — although sometimes tradition has to be sacrificed for modern cultural norms. For example, he considered putting guinea pig on the menu — a Bolivian delicacy — but didn’t think he could market it to museum tourists who may have pet guinea pigs at home.

Still, he said, many museumgoers are adventurous eaters, opting for raccoon, turtle, alligator and frog legs when they’re on the ever-changing menu.

Entrees range from about $12 to $30. Save room for dessert — Cherokee bean bread with candied squash, anyone? For something less savory, try the banana cake with blackberry sauce wrapped in banana leaves.

Bonus: They serve beer and wine.

Fourth Street & Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20560; www.mitsitamcafe.com.



Secret societies meet here, presidents dine here, rockers play here, artists exhibit here, weary travelers rest here, antique collectors find treasures here, Rosa Parks lived here — and for $10 you, too, can indulge your senses and your curiosities within the walls of five connected brownstones that form the district’s most eclectic residence.

There are 100 rooms, but don’t be surprised if you only see a few dozen on your visit. The most fascinating parts — including a gorgeous stone wine cellar and a two-story log cabin — are hidden behind secret doors that are yours for the finding. Is that a hinge in that bookcase? Is there something behind that mirror? You’re welcome to check.

Most visitors are lucky to find four or five secret doors. Only two people know where all 70 of them are — mansion founder H.H. Leonards Spero and husband Ted Spero — but don’t ask them where they are.

"It’s not about finding the secret doors; it’s about the journey. You’re walking through this house and there’s a possibility that that thing might open up and lead to something else," Spero said.

And almost everything inside — from the furniture to the knickknacks piled on every surface — is for sale. You can pick up a pewter coffee urn for $75, a chandelier for $2,000, an 18th century dresser for $15,000, a fainting sofa for $125, an ornate birdcage for $1,800, a hand-carved walking stick for $225 or a book for just a buck or two.

Change your mind about an item you’ve picked up? Put it back anywhere you think it belongs.

The mansion comprises five connected brownstones that Leonards Spero began acquiring in 1980. Since then she’s made the mansion her home, but it also serves as a boutique hotel, a virtual flea market, a meeting space and a hall for wedding receptions. It’s also a venue for public concerts by artists from Vanilla Ice to Wilco’s Pat Sansone and exclusive parties including one whose host required staff to wear live boa constrictors around their necks.

For $10 you can explore for an afternoon, for a few hundred you can rent a hotel room, or for about $35,000 you can rent the whole mansion and have access to its 14 kitchens, 23 themed guest rooms, 32 bathrooms with deep and inviting bathtubs, billiard room, 1920s-style barroom, backyard swimming pool and antique barber chair.

Don’t worry if you can’t easily find your way back out. That’s sort of the point.

"We like people to get lost because that’s how they really find themselves, and that’s the whole purpose," Leonards Spero said.

2020 O St. NW, Washington, DC 20036; omansion.com.



Treat yourself to a feast for the senses at Dupont Circle’s year-round FRESHFARM Sunday market.

Take in the wafting scent of pizza baking on a wood grill and the sounds of street musicians’ tunes blending into one another as you walk among dozens of vendors peddling everything from gourmet popsicles to tomatoes in shades of yellow, orange, red and purple.

There are tall orchids at one stand, curvy cucuzza squash at another, and at the next a skein of hand-spun wool. Nearby, you can pick up some handmade soap, a taste of strawberry tarragon gelato, a bowl of Soupergirl’s broccoli apple soup or a jar of green garlic pesto — all produced by the vendors selling them.

The Lusty family of the nearby Cleveland Park neighborhood visits so often that 9-year-old Mercy and 10-year-old Ella can tell you just where to find the market’s best treats — apple cider and handmade yogurt. One morning this past summer, they brought along family friends from Rhode Island who are used to locally grown produce back home. They were surprised to find it in the middle of a densely populated urban center.

"I’m used to farmers markets being out in the country, but this is something to see," said Scott Sullivan of Coventry, R.I., as his children, 15-year-old Ian and 12-year-old Avery, helped the Lusty sisters survey the day’s purchases that overflowed from a straw basket. There were chives, mushrooms, eggs, pork chops, peaches and more — all ingredients for that evening’s backyard barbecue.

Unlike a lot of other markets, Dupont’s prohibits vendors from selling anything they don’t grow or make themselves.

That’s what makes it special, said Emily Best, 30, an apprentice farmer at New Morning Farm in Huntingdon County, Pa., which sells produce there year-round.

"At other markets you don’t necessarily know where the produce is coming from," said Best.

The market is a haven for healthy eaters, but those who don’t mind some extra calories can find plenty to tantalize. At The Red Zebra’s stand, Susan Painter prepares an ever-changing menu of wood-fired pizzas available with quail eggs, goat cheese, chorizo and other unique toppings she buys almost exclusively from other vendors at the market.

For the precocious Ella Lusty, the food isn’t the best reason to come to market.

"I love the scene and the music and the people watching," she said.

1500 20th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036; www.freshfarmmarkets.org.




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