Offbeat American Treasures

Offbeat American Treasures photo

Washington is a capital bountifully supplied with grandiose equestrian statues of long-forgotten Yankee generals who lost Civil War battles to Confederate commanders. It's a city of monuments and museums, well over 100 at last count — more than you could possibly see in one visit.

First time visitors to this great city gravitate toward the most famous sights — the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian museums along the National Mall. But there are many sights most visitors never get to see.

Washington has more museums and galleries than most cities in the world, most of them accessible from the myriad of Washington hotels via the Washington Metro. Many are well known — the Air and Space Museum, National Gallery of Art, Museum of Natural History and National Portrait Gallery, to name a few. There are many others you probably don't know about and might never learn about even if you spent a several weeks in Washington museum hopping.

There are museums for history' buffs, art lovers, fanciers of Oriental artifacts, children, women, men politicians, gun collectors, explorers, military folk, horticulture lovers. There's something, literally, for everyone.

First among the lesser-known museums is the 33-room Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum. It's conveniently located on D Street, NW and it's free. Twenty-nine of the largest rooms have been decorated by the states for which they're named. Each is a gem, a period presentation carrying out the motif and tradition of the state. Historic furniture, paintings, silver, china, and clothing are numerous.

The National Geographic Society's Explorer's Hall, also in the NW section of the city and housed in a row of Washington's most beautiful buildings, is also free. Equipment used in famous expeditions is on permanent display, and every few weeks, the Society mounts temporary exhibits. Of special interest are large dioramas showing the development of mankind. National Geographic films run continuously throughout the day.

If you're interested in Shakespeare, you should visit the Folger Shakespeare Library in the southeast section of the city. It has the largest collection Shakespeare memorabilia in the world, including scripts marked by famous actors who have played parts in his plays. There's also a full-size replica of an Elizabethan theater much like the Globe and other theaters of the time.

At last count, there were more than 1,500 rifles and pistols on display in the National Rifle Association Museum in the heart of the city. These guns go back to Britain's Brown Bess of the American Revolutionary War and also include weapons of presidents, particularly those belonging to Teddy Roosevelt.

Still in the military line is the museum in the Washington Navy Yard in the southeast. More than 4,000 articles related to the history of the U.S. Navy are on display, including a collection of paintings and never-published photos of warfare, famous sailors and weapons. Admission is free.

Also within the Navy Yard is the free Marine Corps Museum, where the history of the corps since 1775 is on display. Included are uniforms, weapons, art, equipment, photographs, and other memorabilia.

The Octagon House, near the White House, is where the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was ratified in 1815. President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, lived here in 1814 after the invading British troops burned the White House. The house, built in the Federal style, derives its name from its shape. Many walls are curved, and so are some doors, making this one of Washington's most unusual structures. The owner, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), once had its headquarters here. The most interesting rooms are the Treaty Room and the kitchen, and most of the windows in the house look out into gardens with boxwood hedges and huge trees.

And for the more unusual, there's the International Spy Museum, a privately owned museum in the northwest section of the city, dedicated to the craft, history and contemporary role of espionage. It features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts currently on public display anywhere.