Charming and Historical Lafayette Square in D.C.

One of the key sights in Washington, D.C. is the White House.  That symbol of the U.S. Presidency is indeed a big draw even if it is so inaccessible to most of us, the people.  One can be forgiven for losing sight of what is around the White House as the draw is too strong.  However, the square just across from its north side is an interesting place to explore.  The street that separates it from the White House’s north lawn used to allow for cars as recently as the late 1990s.  However, it is now pedestrian only which is quite alright with me – that allows tourists being absent-minded while taking photos without the risk of being hit by a car.

Enter, stage north, Lafayette Square

The square is known as Lafayette Square and is bounded by Madison Place and Jackson Place (on the east and west sides, respectively) and by Pennsylvania Ave. and H. St. (on the south and north sides, respectively).  I used to work a block down from it and enjoyed eating my lunch there a few times.

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The statue at the center of Lafayette Square is NOT Lafayette but, instead, Andrew Jackson

The buildings around the square were almost lost had it not been for some key people intervening, among them the First Lady at the time, Jacqueline Kennedy.  The federal government had bought the land and was planning to demolish all the beautiful buildings around the square to build, guess what, likely-monstrous government buildings.  As a lover of history and architecture, I am so thankful these buildings were preserved even if other work was done to adapt and “blend” them with the new buildings they were to connect to.  Their existence helps capture how the areas near the White House likely looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Needless to say, these buildings are mercifully protected now.

Jackson Place – on the western end of Lafayette Square

The buildings on the western side are owned mostly by White House for different purposes such as a place for former Presidents to stay when they visit.  But they have incredible pedigrees with past important and famous folks owning or visiting these places.  Their style is quite distinct from those across the square in Madison Place.

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The buildings at Jackson Place

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Looking across Lafayette Square from Jackson Place towards Madison Place (National Courts is the big red building)

Decatur House on Jackson Place

The Decatur House on the corner of Jackson Place and H Street does deserve special mention.  While it looks pretty “blah” from the outside, it is one of the oldest surviving homes in Washington, D.C. having been built in 1818.

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Decatur House on the corner of H St. and Jackson Place

It was built for a naval hero named Stephen Decatur (fought naval wars in North Africa, fought in the War of 1812, and others) but was subsequently home to other illustrious Americans like Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and others.  The structure behind it housed the slaves some owners had.  It is said to be one of the few examples of slave quarters in an urban area that remains.

Though I worked literally a short block away, I never visited it – crazy, huh?

Madison Place – on the eastern end of Lafayette Square

The buildings along Madison Place have more charming façades than those on Jackson Place.  These buildings were adapted to fit it with the new National Courts Building (the big red monster behind them in the photo).  Actually the National Courts Building was designed to not take attention away from the old buildings by being built tall and just pretty much red bricks.  I have to agree that it does meet that objective as it helps frame them.

The one on the corner with H Street, the Cutts-Madison mansion, was First Lady’s Dolley Madison’s residence until she died in 1849.  The house was built in 1819 and it has been changed by later owners (for instance, the front door used to face Madison Place but it was switched to H St. in the mid 1800s).

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Dolley Madison’s home with the National Courts Building behind it. To its right, the Cosmos Club Building.

Other buildings on this street include the Cosmos Club Building and the Benjamin Ogle Tayloe HouseThe latter was built in the 1820s back when this area was still mainly trees and shrubs.  It almost became the official residence of the Vice President of the U.S.  And for three years in the late 1950 and early 1960s, it was the headquarters of NASA.  Who knew.

H Street – the northern side of Lafayette Square

This side of the street, currently housing the U. S. Chamber of Commerce (built in the 1920s, government style) and the Hay-Adams Hotel, used to have houses as Madison Place and Jackson Place have.  Unfortunately those disappeared much earlier in the 20th century when, perhaps, people were not as inclined to think about heritage preservation.  Lost in that shuffle where the Corcoran House and the Hay-Adams Houses.

Chamber of Commerce, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, Olympus

The northern side of Lafayette Square

The good news on the northern side is that the “Church of Presidents,” St. John’s Episcopal Church, is still there.  It is nicknamed so since every President since Madison has attended service there, even if not regularly.  The church was built in 1816 and it is a gem.

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St. John’s is a neat reminder of the history of the U.S. capital

So next time you are in D.C. gawking at the White House, take a moment to stroll around Lafayette Square and take a peek at these buildings that take us back in the capital’s history.

D.C. has plenty of hotels but I was fortunate to stay at one very close to the square:  the aptly named Sofitel Lafayette.  It is just a block away on H St. and it is perfect as a base to visit the square and many other places in D.C.  Only the Hay-Adams Hotel is closer to the Square but the price difference is huge!  I sampled a couple of the specialty cocktails at Le Bar, where they have an incredible diversity of specialty cocktails – and a very nice wine list too!

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Le Bar offers nice spaces to enjoy its offerings

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The entrance to the Sofitel

On the day of departure, I splurged and got an incredible breakfast of smoked salmon pair with a café au lait, and a side of a pain au chocolat 🙂smoked salmon, pain au chocolat, breakfast, SofitelThat was a great way to wrap up my visit to one of my favorite cities in the world!

Have you visited D.C. and explored Lafayette Square?  Are there similar places in your hometown that help portray its history? 

The Power Capitals: Washington, D.C., Beijing and London

When I was a kid (some would argue I am still one), I was fascinated with knowing capital cities and flags.  Not really sure why, perhaps it was an early predictor of future sanity.  I was pondering the other day that there are countries that I have visited whose capital cities I have not than I thought.  So I started thinking which capital cities have I visited and could there be some common thread to some of them.  That led me to think of a new series to briefly chat about the capital cities I have visited.

White House, Washington D.C., DC, center of power, President's residence, US flag, photo

The White House, literally and/or figuratively, the world’s center of power

In this group, I’d thought I’d include some capitals that represent power centers.  While I could add a few others, those fit better within future categories I will be sharing.  For this post of power centers, I have chosen to include:  Beijing, Washington, D.C., and London.

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Entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing just north of Tiananmen Square

These are certainly global power centers for financial and political reasons.  But they could not be any more different from each other.  The following statements, of course, are up for discussion and challenge but they sort of indicate how I “feel” these power centers:

  • Whereas London exudes history, D.C. has it but as a secondary or tertiary theme to its power center persona, whereas Beijing seems hell-bent on destroying its fascinating history.
  • Whereas Beijing is exotic to me, D.C. exudes a vibrancy that is uncommon for me and that thrills me, and London exhibits a self-assured calm that almost makes it familiar, yet not exotic nor vibrant.
  • While London feels cozy as you spend time in its neighborhoods (despite its incredible size), Beijing feels large and cold.  And D.C. … well at times it feels just like a large political amusement park until you explore what’s behind “public D.C.”.
  • All three can feel impersonal, but I think once you get to know London and D.C.  that changes with the only difference being that D.C. seems more transient than London does, making London more of a place where one can grow deep roots.

Where I would live?  I would say D.C. hands down.  In fact, in any list, this would be on my top three places to live.  I feel the energy and it transcends the political activity-related energy.  I love walking the treed streets of the city, admiring architecture new and old, and discovering places to hang out (London does offer some of this.)

Where I would learn the most?  I would say Beijing with its long history and fascinating culture.

Where I felt people warmth?  London would have an edge on D.C. but, in reality, none, I’d venture say, excel at people warmth.  Not sure if that is related to the power center nature of the city, the culture of the country/city, or some other factor (like it just takes time to feel it).

Any big gripe on any of these?  The pollution in Beijing is about the worst I’ve experienced.  I got sick from it, putting a big damper on my time there.  And no “nearby Rio de Janeiro” (as Sao Paulo has) for me to go “heal.”  🙂

Where would I love to return?  Sure, I’d enjoy going back to London but D.C. would be it.  Beijing… Been there, done that.  I’d rather learn about China through other places.

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London is a power center, especially in global finance

Of course, different strokes for different folks – what’s delicious to me may be bland to another so take it all with a grain of salt and share your impressions of any of these cities if you have visited them!  Regardless, these are fascinating cities to explore.

2013: Oh, The Places I Stayed At

OK, ending with a preposition is not proper but to make it sound Dr. Seuss-ish I hardly could have made it “Oh, the places at which I stayed.”

In any case, I shared my year in food and beverages in an earlier post.  But 2013 was also a good year in terms of exploring places to stay.  Here are the highlights of my year in accommodations!

Moshi, Tanzania

While in Moshi working with the Kili Centre orphanage, we stayed at two different hotels:  one before climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and one after.  Each is special for different reasons.

The Honey Badger Lodge had a great feel in the grounds and other public areas (bar and pool area) as well as spacious rooms / cabanas.  The owners and staff were incredible.  It was amazing to be greeted by the friendly wait staff by name every day!

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Notice the monkey out for a walk in the beautiful gardens of the Honey Badger Lodge

After coming down from the mountain, we went to the Springlands Hotel.  This place was special because it is where we got to celebrate our success in climbing the mountain (100% of our group of 16 summitted!).

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The ground of the Springlands Hotel

Mt. Kilimanjaro

One of the biggest pulls on me to consider doing Kili again are some of the great views afforded by some of the camps in which we stayed.  Shira Camp on day 2 and Karanga Camp on day 4 were just stunning for me.  Tell me what you think!

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Shira Camp with the summit and a nice set of clouds behind it

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Looking at the top of Kili from Karanga Camp

Washington, D.C.

I stayed at a few different hotels over my two years of constant travel up there for work.  The Mayflower definitely was my number one choice though some of that is because it was the closest one to work.

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The newly renovated lobby and new restaurant bar: Edgar. A place I enjoyed hanging out at

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Elegant main corridor by the ballrooms

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Rooms were spacious and with the right amount of furnishings – not overdone

The Sofitel D.C. was not usually in range of my approved budget but even if I did not get to stay there, I loved trying the specialty cocktails of Le Bar.  I got to check out the W Hotel, right near The White House.  Though the room’s window did not close properly and it took a while to resolve the situation, the hotel was gracious in making it up to me.  It was a nice touch.  I love the modernity of the rooms (as with any Ws) and the great view from the room I finally got settled into!

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View towards the Dept of Treasury (right) looking towards the south lawn of The White House

W Hotel, Washington, D.C., lodging, accommodations, travel, photo, Olympus

Great lines and furnishings in the room. And the translucent shower wall.

Other mainstays of my time there were the Renaissance on 9th St NW, near Chinatown, and the Renaissance in New Hampshire.  Of the former, I really liked the lobby, a space where I would happily sit for happy hour or a Friday night out with friends.  It also had the nicest executive lounge in the U.S. properties of hotels affiliated with Marriott.  Of the latter, I loved its location: closer to Georgetown, right by residential areas, walking distance from the Kennedy Center, and easy access to running trails without having to deal with too many street crossings and heavy traffic.  Also, very close to Dupont Circle which was nice in terms of having a broad range of dining options – and watching the unique character of the area!

Jordan

In Jordan we stayed all over the country and in many different types of accommodations.  I wrote specifically about all these different type of accommodations experienced here so I will not duplicate here what I have already shared (but do check that post out!).  However, I will share here more about the Six Senses Spa where we stayed two nights because I don’t feel I shared how unique a place this is, in the middle of nowhere (it feels), nestled in a narrow canyon that hosts the hot springs the place is known for.

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The lower hot springs are behind the building on the picture (taken from the hotel)

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Looking at the hotel from the entrance to the area

While management’s attention to the guest needed a little bit of polishing, the staff itself made every effort possible to deliver a great experience.  The rooms’ use of wood panels instead of curtains on the balconies’ doors was very unique and provided a warmth to the room that I really liked.  But take a look at the spa area from behind the falls!

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The public hot springs

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From behind the waterfall in the public hot springs

Manila, The Philippines

In my short trip to Manila, I stayed at two hotels, The Bayleaf Hotel and The Manila Marriott.  I wrote previously about how the former provided the best location to explore the Intramuros district of Manila whereas the latter was a paradise of relaxation. While The Bayleaf had less glamour than the Manila Marriott, its convenience to learn about Manila’s history was great.  Both shone because of the incredible attention to service and the customer by their staffs.

Minneapolis

While visiting Minneapolis, I stayed at The Hotel Minneapolis, from Marriott’s Autograph Collection.  It was my first time trying a property from the Autograph Collection so I was curious how it would be.   I really liked its spacious lobby and its location, close to the river, the theater district, and the business district. I walked everywhere downtown from the hotel.  The rooms, though not huge, were well-enough sized.  The building dates from the earlier 20th century when it was built as a bank.  I was really impressed by how cleverly the time and function of the building were tapped and applied to create great public spaces in the hotel.  If I were there on a business trip, I would definitely enjoy lounging in the lobby spaces after working hours.  The friendliness of the staff topped off what was a great stay.

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The lobby is a comfortable space to lounge around after work or during a weekend stay

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Some original details of the bank, like this vault, are preserved

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Bar design takes advantage of the original architectural details

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High ceilings and marble columns add a lot of character to the lobby spaces

Hope everyone has a great holidays and I wish you the best in 2014!

I was hosted at the Jordan, Minneapolis and Manila hotels.  All opinions are my own based on my experiences and observations.

Photo of the Week – A Storm over Washington, D.C.

No, I am not referring to the government shutdown or any of the infinite number of incidences of stupidity that emanate from the politicians who make a career in DC at our expense and to our detriment (soap BOX!!!)…  This is a literal storm caught from my hotel in Arlington, Virginia looking towards Reagan-National airport and the Potomac River right behind it.  If it were not raining, you would see in the distance the silhouettes of the famous buildings around The Mall.  But that is not to be in this moment.

I love the clear outline of the core of the storm as it seems to hang over the Potomac.  Quite a sight!

Washington, DC, Potomac River, Reagan airport, National airport, storm, rain, weather, photo, grey

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