East Side Story Washington: Instead of visiting the familiar tourist sites in the western quadrants, spend some time in the pretty neighborhoods and historic buildings on the city's other side.

June 30, 1996|By Ralph Vigoda | Ralph Vigoda,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and gaze out over the familiar vista: the Mall stretching in front of you, the magnificent museums of the Smithsonian, the monolithic Washington Monument pointing to the sky, the Lincoln Memorial in the distance.

Spend your time taking in -- and taking pictures of -- the inspiring view. And as you're doing that, linger on this sobering thought: You don't know what you're missing.

If you're like most visitors, the city's attractions begin for you on the west side of the Capitol and extend straight ahead to Virginia: the Air and Space Museum, the tour of the White House, the funky restaurants of Adams-Morgan, the world-class shopping of Georgetown, the handsome turn-of-the-century mansions in Dupont Circle, the embassies up Massachusetts Avenue.

There is, though, a wonderful, often overlooked, world of history, sights and monuments -- not to mention perhaps the finest breakfast spot in Washington -- to be found simply by pointing yourself in the other direction.

Go East, young man -- and woman -- and discover that there's a lot more on Capitol Hill than the Capitol. And it's more than enough to fill a weekend visit to the nation's capital.

Want to learn about the teen-age girl whose daring Revolutionary ride makes Paul Revere's jaunt seem like a leisurely canter? Feel like wandering through a marketplace that's been serving the city since 1803? Have a yen to visit places of juicy scandal, or see some of the most important sites in black history?

And avoid the crowds, too?

It's all outside the Capitol's back door.

Although calling it the "back door" doesn't quite seem fair. Or accurate. The fact is, the most imposing view of the building is from the east side, and that was by design -- the design of Pierre L'Enfant.

The Frenchman who planned the city expected the well-to-do to build their homes out toward the Anacostia River at the eastern edge of the city, and he wanted to give them something to look at.

Instead, the area turned working class, filling with pubs, boardinghouses and markets. When he was an Illinois congressman, Abraham Lincoln and his family lived in one of the long-gone homes on First Street.

During the Civil War, Capitol Hill took on the feel of a gigantic medical ward, with much of the available space turned into hospital rooms. By the late 19th century it had changed again, this time into a middle-class haven, which it remains today.

Straight to the park

To get a quick sense of the area, you can take the perfectly straight East Capitol Street exactly one mile from the Capitol to Lincoln Park, one of the many green oases planned by L'Enfant. This park, though, stands out from the others because of the two monuments within its borders. One is a large memorial to Mary McLeod Bethune, an early 20th-century educator, civil rights leader and the first black woman to head a federal office; in 1936, during President Franklin Roosevelt's first term, she was appointed director of Negro affairs in the National Youth Administration.

The other, older statue -- the Emancipation Memorial -- depicts a slave kneeling at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, who holds the Emancipation Proclamation. According to "The Guide to Black Washington," the kneeling figure was modeled on Archer Alexander, the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Law, who is shown breaking the chains of slavery. Fund-raising for the memorial, which was financed almost completely by freed men and women, began shortly after Lincoln's assassination; a plaque points out that the first donation of $5 was given by Charlotte Scott, a former slave in Virginia. The statue was the city's primary tribute to Lincoln until the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922.

In between the Capitol and Lincoln Park, the east-west streets are lettered and the north-south streets are numbered. Although it sounds simple, you have to keep in mind that the four quadrants of the district -- northwest and southwest, northeast and southeast -- meet at the Capitol. One block north of East Capitol Street is A Street Northeast, while one block south is A Street Southeast.

It doesn't help that North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts avenues all move through Capitol Hill at different angles. But it really doesn't take long to get your bearings.

The question is where to begin. One good spot is across the street from the Capitol, with two of the most important buildings in the country: the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court.

The Library of Congress was established in 1800. The early collection was burned by the British in 1814, and the beginnings of the present collection -- 6,487 volumes -- were purchased from Thomas Jefferson.

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