Washington beyond the monuments: A trip worth taking CAPITAL IDEAS

June 26, 1994|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Special to The Sun

No doubt about it, for folks who live in the Baltimore area, Washington is a wonderful destination for a day trip.

Visitors can gaze in awe at monuments to America's past, stroll the halls of world-class museums and listen to legislators debate the rights of men and women.

And Washington is only an hour away.

Yet summer day trips to Washington have their drawbacks. Throngs jamming the Mall and the city's other major attractions can easily wipe out a tourist's enthusiasm. But take heart: The nation's capital offers savvy visitors a range of lesser-known attractions that don't draw such big crowds as the Washington Monument, the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

In a wooded ravine near Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington, for example, the Hillwood Museum offers sophisticated tourists a peek into the lifestyle of a fabulously wealthy heiress, and a chance to view a treasure trove of Imperial Russian art.

The heiress was Marjorie Merriweather Post, who inherited two things from her father -- good taste and General Foods. She bought this Rock Creek Park estate in 1955, remodeled the mansion and filled it with exquisite 18th- and 19th-century French and Russian decorative art.

Post, who died in the early '70s, collected the artwork in the 1930s when she was married to the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. At the time, the communists were unloading "decadent" pre-Revolution art at bargain prices.

The food heiress bought warehouse-loads of stuff: jewels, dinner plates commissioned by Catherine the Great, Easter eggs by Carl Faberge, chalices and icons. Post then had the loot shipped home on her yacht. The best of the lot is on display in a beautiful mansion surrounded by formal gardens.

Advance reservations for the two-hour tour are required: Call (202) 686-8500 at least two weeks before your visit. Tickets for the house tour and the formal gardens are $10, and $2 to visit the formal gardens and auxiliary buildings only.

House tours begin at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The gardens are open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Children under 12 are not admitted on the house tour. Hillwood Museum is located at 4155 Linnean Ave. N.W., off Connecticut Avenue south of the Van Ness/UDC Metro station.

If it's a nice day, consider an easy, 20-minute stroll from the metro station to the Hillwood Museum that passes through a pleasant neighborhood. From the station, walk south on Connecticut Avenue past the "Star Trek"-y Intelsat complex on the right to Upton Street; turn left and continue to Linnean Avenue. The entrance to the estate is a block to the right.

Viewer-friendly

In most museums, the rule of thumb is "look, don't touch." But the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Reception Rooms are viewer-friendly. That's because this $65 million collection of Americana isn't housed in a museum. These are the rooms where the United States formally entertains visiting diplomats. As a result, there are no barriers between you and the art on display.

While the rooms are located in a building whose architecture is best described as "early airport," the eighth floor is something else entirely. A fabulous collection of 18th- and early 19th-century fine and decorative arts fills the stunning interior.

Chippendale settees, the chairs and a desk that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, tall-case clocks and silver created by Paul Revere are among the items in the collection. Visitors also get a peek at how diplomats and heads of state are entertained at the State Department.

The U.S. Department of State is located at 23rd and C streets N.W., in Foggy Bottom, a block or two north of the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. The closest Metro station is Foggy Bottom/GWU; walk down 23rd Street toward the Mall.

One-hour tours are given Monday through Friday at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. Reservations for the free tour must be made at least four weeks in advance; call (202) 647-3241. Be ready to supply birth dates and the social security numbers of the people on your tour when you call. Make sure everyone brings a photo ID (parents can vouch for children). Strollers are not permitted.

Dumbarton Oaks

While Georgetown is best known as a gorgeous residential district and a shopping destination full of trendy restaurants and bars, this hip neighborhood offers one attraction that should be on every visitor's list: Dumbarton Oaks and Gardens.

While most people associate Dumbarton Oaks with the conference held here in 1944 that led to the formation of the United Nations, today it's a research center for Byzantine and pre-Columbian studies and a museum owned by Harvard University.

The collection of Byzantine art features bronzes, ivories and jewelry. The pre-Columbian art collection (including a selection of gold jewelry) is housed in eight circular glass pavilions lighted by natural light and surrounded by trees. It's a knockout.

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