Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, the 45th President will begin their administration in the Capitol with extensive challenges. As the history of the republic and D.C. suggest, they won’t be the first to govern through an era of deep partisan divide. With the hope that lessons from the past can help prepare leaders for the present, we asked scholars to help assemble a list of helpful sites for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to visit to gain some perspective on politics and power in the nation’s capital.
Doubtless the two candidates have plenty of familiarity with Washington, D.C. and the popular landmarks; Hillary spent quite a considerable time living and working here, and Trump owns a prominent hotel downtown. This tour offers something different: sites with instructive lessons for an incoming head of state, as well as brief sketches of the under-appreciated history of their new hometown. With suggestions from professor and historian Tom Lewis, who teaches at Skidmore and wrote Washington: A History of Our National City, and J.D. Dickey, journalist and author of Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, D.C., we assembled this unique tour of D.C. history.
Washington Monument (2 15th Street NW)
Yes, the obelisk is a tourist cliche, but the memorial to our first President also represents an object lesson in government dysfunction. In 1855, during the structure’s construction, a group of nativist protestors with the Know-Nothing party took over the site, and purposely delayed construction, making sure a memorial meant to show the strength of the young democracy would remain an embarrassing stump (the surrounding fields were even used to graze cattle for the U.S. Army, which eventually led to the construction of slaughterhouses). Foreign visitors pointed to it as a monument to our country’s dysfunction and an eyesore, until it was finally completed in 1885, more than a half-century after the Washington National Monument Society began work in 1833. In an era of bipartisan gridlock, it might be cold comfort knowing that these kind of skirmishes and delays aren’t anything new. But at least a masterful public work eventually came out of the obstructions and disagreements.
Lockkeeper’s House (17th Street SW and Constitution Avenue)
This small stone cottage represents one of the few surviving structures from the early days of the city, when the swamp nickname that still survives to this day. When it was built in the early 19th century for the lockkeeper overlooking the C & O Canal Extension, the city was a dirty mud pit for much of the year, according to Dickey. The canal was effectively an “open sewer,” and the city didn’t ditch its reputation for grit and grime until decades later. For portions of the 19th century, the city boasted such colorful neighborhoods as Murder Bay, known for numerous homes of ill-repute. Diplomats given an assignment in D.C. during previous eras were given hardship pay. The lesson here: for all the current talk about draining the swamp, and the city’s unsavory reputation, it can get worse.
Space Window at the Washington National Cathedral (3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW)
Within this grand, traditional house of worship sits an unlikely space age monument, a small sample of the moon, taken from the Sea of Tranquility by NASA astronauts, embedded within a nitrogen-filled capsule set inside a special piece of stained glass. Added to the magnificent church during the fifth anniversary of the first lunar landing, this colored glass at the south end of the structure represent one of the nation’s proudest technological achievements, and a source of shared pride.
The Old Ebbit Grill (675 15th St NW)
While it’s not as much of a seen-and-be-seen space as it used to be, this saloon, which has moved between numerous locations, used to be a place for congenial meeting, bipartisan collaboration, and general cocktailing with notable lawmakers from both parties held court inside, wheeling and dealing to keep the gears of government grinding. Like the famous Mayflower Hotel, this spot represented a more freewheeling, reach-across-the-aisle era in D.C. history.
Sewall-Belmont House (144 B Constitution Avenue NE)
This site will have extra resonance if a certain candidate wins, but either way, the latest national monument in D.C. represents the political power of women and citizen activists. Named after two key players in the early days of the National Woman's Party—Alva Belmont, who was a major benefactor, and Alice Paul, who founded the Party and was the chief strategist—the house is one of the oldest historic mansions in the capital, located near the Supreme Court and Senate office building. Robert Sewall constructed the first home on this site around 1800; the building was the only site of resistance to the British invasion of D.C. in 1812 and was burned down, after which Sewell subsequently rebuilt it.
Decatur House (1610 H Street, NW)
The house of renowned early American Naval hero Stephen Decatur represents many things throughout its lifetime, including a home to lawmakers and cabinet members. But it also represents the tragic death of its namesake, who lost his life in 1820, shortly after moving it, due to a duel with a rival naval officer. The dueling death was a shock to D.C. society, despite the fact that violence had become a regular part of political life in the nation’s capitol. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by fellow legislator Preston Brooks with a cane during an argument over slavery and the admission of Kansas as a free state. Texas legend Sam Houston visited D.C. in 1832 and beat Congressman William Stanbery, who had criticized him during a debate about Indian Policy, with a wooden cane on a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. While political debate is vital, D.C. history suggests any talk of violence among politicians quickly causes trouble.
Former site of the Yellow House (8th and B Streets SW)
As dramatized in the movie 12 Years a Slave, the slave trade in our nation’s capitol was much bigger and more involved than many would like to think. A number of prominent slave traders were located in and near the capitol and the White House, one of a number of famous U.S. landmarks build with slave labor. This is one of the sites historian believe this infamous slave pen, owned by William Williams, stood, but it’s far from the only one. After reflecting on the history and meaning of this site, it’s fitting to journey to the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
It’s not lesser known—it sits across from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—but this living monument to our 26th president offers instructive and timely lessons on the environment and conservation. The 88.5-acre park, with winding hiking trails and forest canopy overhead, also offers a fitting place to reflect about this political maverick, whose populist message, anti-corruption campaigns, and third-party run for office seem particularly relevant to today’s politics.
Eisenhower Executive Office Building (1650 Pennsylvania Avenue NW)
Built during a federal building spree after the Civil War, this block-long suite of office buildings was done up in a grand French Second Empire style by than-Supervising Architect of the Treasury Alfred Mullett. It also took 17 years and cost a then-astounding $10 million to complete, a lesson in itself about federal budgeting. Mullett’s masterpiece was a beauty composed of granite, slate, and cast iron, or at least, was considered as such by locals. Critics and government officials despised the structure; President Truman called it the country's "greatest monstrosity," and generations of architects and officials tried to redesign the building. At certain points in its long history, plans were made and money was authorized to tear it down. However, by 1971, the building’s historical significance had won it a place on the National Register of Historic Buildings. It’s a grand, striking design, and a lesson that perhaps certain things the federal government tries to improve (and spend vast sums of money on) aren’t always worth improving.