The other museums of Washington

UP FRONT

January 08, 1998|By Clyde Linsley | Clyde Linsley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

January is, let's face it, a lousy month. The holiday festivities are all in the past. There are no colored lights and tinsel, no more carols on the radio, and the weather's crummy. January's biggest event is the white sale.

If ever a month were made for museum-hopping, it is January. And if ever a city were made for museum-hopping, it is Washington. You can find museums on nearly every corner -- downtown, DuPont Circle, even in Anacostia. Some are part of the Smithsonian Institution; many more are not connected with it in any way. Many, if not most, are free.

There are, in fact, so many museums in Washington that some of the most interesting go virtually unknown. But it's January again, so here's your chance. Following, in no particular order, are 15 examples of museums that you may have heard of but probably haven't visited:

Anderson House, the Society of the Cincinnati

DuPont Circle was once one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in Washington, and at Anderson House you can get a feel for what it must have been like in those days.

Built in 1906 for diplomat Larz Anderson III, the elegant mansion now serves as museum and headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization founded by French and American citizen-soldiers who modeled themselves after Cincinnatus, the Roman patrician who left his farm to lead an army against the enemies of the republic. The exhibitions in the public area are a hodgepodge of Revolutionary War displays, portraits of Revolutionary War officers, their wives and descendants, and turn-of-the-century gimcracks. Medieval woodcarving, Renaissance art, Victorian furnishings, classical and pseudo-classical statuary and Society of the Cincinnati artifacts. Much of it is labeled; much is not.

But the house itself is the real star of the show, particularly the ornate two-story ballroom that, outside of Newport, is the nearest thing to Versailles you're likely to see in the United States.

If the house is open to the public, a small sign to that effect will be seen on the front lawn. Even so, you'll have to ring the bell and talk to the doorkeeper to get in. They're not being unfriendly; just cautious. Once you see the goodies inside, you'll understand.

Anderson House, 2118 Massachusetts Ave. N.W. 202-785-2040. Open 1 p.m.-4 p.m Tuesdays through Saturdays except national holidays. Free.

National Postal Museum

You're not a stamp collector? No matter. The postal museum is only peripherally about stamps. Mostly it's about the role of the mails in binding the nation together. The museum makes the curious but compelling argument that the development of reliable mail service throughout the American colonies -- which, in turn, permitted newspapers to learn of developments outside their circulation areas -- gave the revolutionaries a significant advantage over their British adversaries.

The Smithsonian Institution, which operates the postal museum as a branch of its National Museum of American History, has done its usual superb job. An early mail plane is suspended from the ceiling, and an old rail car permits kids to experience the thrill of sorting mail on the run, the way it used to be. The museum is located inside Washington's former main post office, immediately across the street from Union Station, which made speedy mail delivery possible back in the day when intercity mail moved primarily by train.

And, of course, the museum also houses the world's largest stamp collection, for those who do collect stamps.

National Postal Museum. 2 Massachusetts Ave. N.E. 202-357-2700. Union Station Metro stop. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Free.

Woodrow Wilson House

In 1921, broken in spirit and suffering the effects of a massive stroke that had left him an invalid, Woodrow Wilson left the presidency and retired to this comfortable house in the Kalorama area. He lived here with his second wife for not quite three years, rising late, retiring early, seeing only a few close friends. In the evening, he watched movies on a Graphoscope projector given him by Douglas Fairbanks. Occasionally he would be driven to Griffith Stadium, where he would watch a baseball game from his car, parked on the outfield grass.

The house is now the property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has preserved it about the way Wilson left it. Although his books were given away (to the Library of Congress), nearly everything else in the house is original -- Wilson's own clothing still hangs in his dressing room.

Woodrow Wilson House, 2340 S St. N.W. 202-387-4062. DuPont Circle Metro stop. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission $5, children and students $2.50, seniors $4.

The Octagon

Two things distinguish The Octagon from other houses in Washington: its shape, designed to fit onto one of the most curious building lots in the city, and the fact that it served for six months as the nation's executive mansion.

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