Beyond the Dome: A Walk Around D.C.’s Secret Capitol Hill

A Corgi and a Rottweillerish mutt weave between tombstones like X-wing fighters attacking the Death Star. Over by J. Edgar Hoover’s grave, which faces the city prison, two poodles slurp from a water bowl below an old-fashioned faucet. I’m learning this is just an average day at the capital’s Congressional Cemetery.

“We’ve been coming here since we came to D.C. seven years ago,” one woman says in an afternoon drizzle, referring to herself and her lab, who pay $275 each year to run about the 35-acre cemetery established in 1807. The owner of the poodles adds, “I think all cemeteries should be dog parks.”

So, apparently, do a lot of people around here. Only 770 dogs get memberships each year. The wait list is “over a year, if not more,” per its website.

This is part of Capitol Hill’s backstreet charm. Not Capitol Hill, that mound that holds up the U.S. Capitol for flurries of tourists and Congress folks. But what lies beyond, Capitol Hill the neighborhood: a leafy network of setback townhouses on little lawns filling the diagonal blocks of D.C.’s original layout. It’s closer to the National Mall than, say, Georgetown or Dupont Circle, yet it’s a sleepy secret to most visitors.

My first stop, over a couple of days in July heat, is Eastern Market. Built in 1873, the long Victorian hall—described as a “gravely eloquent brick building” by the Washington Post, after a fire nearly closed it in 2007—is mostly filled with goods to grab if you have a nearby kitchen: cheeses, sausages, fresh breads, fish.

But at the far end, Market Lunch is a popular counter food stand that— despite its name—is best known for its breakfasts: blueberry pancakes, egg sandwiches, cups of grits. On Saturdays, when a flea market envelops the exteriors, it’s nuts here. But this is Friday, and I have no problem finding a spot on the communal table aside locals lazily thumbing a paper while eating a late breakfast.

Across the street, I stop in Capitol Hill Books, a nook-and-cranny shop overflowing with stacks of old books and run by the most hilariously cantankerous book dealer I’ve seen. I hear her complaining about NPR, turning off her radio in a huff, then criticizing the author of a novel someone’s paying for. I wince as I hand her a 1976 Capitol Hill walking tour guide I picked out from the D.C. section.

“Oh, I don’t think much of that at all,” she tells me. I apologize, then buy it.

The guide leads me to some interesting areas. A couple of blocks south, the city’s first commercial district, Barracks Row, fills five blocks of Eighth Street. It gets its name from a nearby U.S. Marines base, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. I stand in the shade and ask a couple of uniformed Marines about their weekly parades and the July 4th parade they’re planning. “It fills the whole street. It’s quite an event, sir.”

I weave along the shadiest sidewalks, at one point passing a dog walker noting a neighbor’s tree admirably. “This is the biggest crop of apples you’ve had in years.”

Just north, I see more dogs at play at Lincoln Park, one of the planned squares that Pierre L’Enfant outlined for George Washington in his ambitious city plan (before getting himself fired). I’ve come to see the Emancipation Memorial, a statue paid for by former slaves and introduced by Frederick Douglass on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death in 1876. It’s a lovely spot, but the statue?

“I’ve never met anyone who said they liked it,” a director at the African American Civil War Museum told the Washington Post a couple years ago.

The reason is the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a chained sleeve kneeling at the feet of Lincoln, who probably would have disapproved of it too. (After the fall of Richmond in 1865, an elder African American knelt at Lincoln’s feet, prompting the president to say: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only.”)

Several blocks west, I take a photo of Douglass’ home and detour down an alley my walking guide points out at Library Court (between A and East Capitol Streets), where I find two horse carriage houses next to each other in a hidden nook. One’s been refashioned into a home; the other sits neglected. I want it.

A block away, I leave all the Federal, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival flourishes of 19th-century townhouses, and return to a more familiar D.C., where stark, neo-classical pillared buildings mark the home of American government. One such building has surprising interiors, though: enormous Tudor-style hallways and reading rooms.

It’s not a government building, but the Folger Shakespeare Library. Inside, I’m immediately whisked away to join two other visitors getting a tour with a guide reciting a Shakespearean verse. In Bulgarian. (He served in the foreign services overseas for 30 years.) He shows a few interesting things: one of 240 surviving Shakespeare folios published just after his death, and an authenticated portrait of Queen Elizabeth I..

I can’t leave Capitol Hill without fulfilling a dream to get a library card at the Library of Congress. After a look at the Jefferson Building’s exhibits (an early U.S. map shows Connecticut as a long rectangle extending toward the Mississippi), I make a tunnel walk or two between neighboring wings and find myself with a new Library of Congress Reader Card. I want to test it out.

I had read that Washington, D.C., was named by “three commissioners” in the early days of its creation. But I’ve found no account that offers their names. Who were these guys?

A fidgety librarian in the Madison Building’s newspaper department is delighted by the request. “Oh, they’ll be so pleased someone wants to know,” she says. “I’m certain no one has since 1791.”

I skim digitized files of 18th-century papers I can’t access from my home in Oregon and find compelling detours, like an October 1791 article in Maryland Journal that may qualify as the first-ever “travel article” of D.C.

Eventually I do get the commissioners’ names. Not from any newspapers or old journals, but a recent biography by Scott W. Berg of city planner L’Enfant called Grand Avenues.

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Turns out, “the City of Washington” was named by three friends and appointees of George Washington: Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll, and David Stuart, landowners in the present-day D.C. area.

Next time I’ll try to find out when the first dog made it to Capitol Hill.

To Do This Trip

Visit the Congressional Cemetery. The cemetery keeps several thematic self-guided tours of its site, including the graves of Hoover, local kid John Phillips Sousa, and Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.

Brunch on Barracks Row. Ted’s Bulletin, at 505 8th Street S.E., is a consciously 1920s-style restaurant/bar with black-and-white films playing beside a hand-drawn sign touting their “tots” on the chalkboard menu.

Take the bus. The best starting point into Capitol Hill is either from the Metro stops Capitol South (by the Library of Congress) or Eastern Market (in the heart of the neighborhood), but the best way to bridge gaps along the way is via a couple of routes on the (cheaper) Circulator bus.

Watch the Marines. The Marine Barracks holds its free night parades at 8:45 p.m. on Fridays, May through September.

Get a library card. Reader Cards are issued to those wanting to “do some research” only. And it’s the only way to get access to the Jefferson Building’s main reading room, seen in the film All the President’s Men. Easy: Go do some “research.” You get the card in 15 or 20 minutes from Room 140 in the Madison Building, reached by a fun tunnel system.

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