DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood is eclectic. Its architecture spans the robber baron Gilded Age to trendy 21st condo renovations. It’s a little like visiting your eccentric Great Aunt Matilda. Some things seem a tad outdated and moldy. But it’s also a real community—home to independent retailers, restaurants, bookstores, tea stores, galleries, Tarot card spiritualists, and a farmers market.
If you are looking for a whirlwind DC weekend, and your budget doesn’t stretch to a stay at the Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown, consider Dupont Circle. It’s a personality-plus type of place. DCist describes it as:
” . . one of DC’s signature neighborhoods, a beacon of internationalism even in a famously international city.”
Many of the neighborhood’s elegant homes and former apartment buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These residences have been converted into condos, inns and galleries. You will see some of the most distinguished edifices. The late 19th century architectural styles, such as Queen Anne and Romanesque, dominate along with 20th century Revival.
Dupont Circle is also a walker’s dream. You simply get off the Dupont Circle Metro Station and are plunged into city life. There is nothing better than to be a flaneur. Wander aimlessly down Q Street NW and marvel at regal row houses.
Dupont (Traffic) Circle
Dupont Circle is the name of this DC neighborhood as well as its main traffic circle. The latter connects three major arteries: Connecticut Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, and New Hampshire Avenue. Driving its traffic circle is one of the most horrifying endeavors to be endured as a resident or tourist. You may have to drive around the circle at least three times before you manage to get in the correct lane to exit.
But the circle is also a park. Dominating this green space is a fountain, formally known as the Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont Memorial Fountain. It replaced a much-maligned Admiral Dupont sculpture known as “Old Whiskers.” The fountain was dedicated in 1921. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
On any day when the sun is shining, you will find people gathered on benches or walking across the grass. So grab some takeout from a nearby restaurant or cafe and stretch out on the lawn. Dupont Circle is more than just a traffic circle. It is metaphorically the neighborhood’s beehive.
Sunday Farmers Market
You definitely need to stay through Sunday during a stay in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. You can meet neighborhood residents when you shop at this open-air market. Established in 1997, the Farmers Market operates year-round. (Shoppers are required to wear masks during the pandemic.)
Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market is one of nearly 30 markets that FRESHFARM operates in DC, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV). FRESHFARM is a nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture and improves food access and equity in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Opened only on Sunday, the Farmers Market’s hours of operation are 8:30 am-1:30 pm. It is located on 20th Street NW between Connecticut and Massachusetts avenues. You could spend a morning at the market shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, pastries, honey, soap, beeswax candles, flowers, art and takeaway food.
Actually, I suspect a lot of locals head up from their rowhouses and apartments by 9 am to buy their first cup of coffee at Zeke’s. Or maybe you prefer Kombucha.
You also will not be able to resist buying a loaf of fresh bread sold at Seylou Bakery. Chef Jonathan named his establishment after the “seylou,” a majestic bird seen flying overhead during his trip to Senegal. This bakery also flies high with aspirational whole grain recipes.
My suggestion is to get into lines (quickly) to buy: 1) a breakfast sandwich; 2) coffee or juice; and 3) seasonal fruit. (Vegetarian? Vegan? No problem. Head to the Sexie Vegie booth.) Then try to grab a bench at the adjacent park to eat your breakfast and read the Washington Post.
This is where dogs meet and neighbors gossip.
Currently gaining admission to the Philips art museum is ridiculously hard due to the pandemic. But if you can plan your visit to DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood far enough in advance, you might be able to get a timed ticket to visit this art gallery. (Insider’s Note: If you can’t get a ticket, you should still walk over to the Phillips as the museum displays several of its sculptures on the lawn outside the building. It is a mini DC outdoor sculpture garden.)
The museum was founded by art collector Duncan Phillips and American impressionist painter Marjorie Acker Phillips in 1921. Like the neighborhood where it resides, Phillips is eclectic with a Capital E. The museum is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021. It is hosting “Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects For A Century” as its centennial exhibition.
The Phillips Collection building comprises the original Phillips House built in 1897 and two major additions. The museum is an intimate space where you can view a painting in a living room. Phillips wanted to choreograph a different dance for patrons visiting an art museum. Instead of roaming “miles of chairless spaces” in a sterile museum, the Phillips stages its arts collection in “rooms small or at least livable, and of such an intimate, attractive atmosphere as we associate with a beautiful home.”
“Instead of the academic grandeur of marble halls … we plan to try the effect of domestic architecture.”—Duncan Phillips
A ticket costs $16. (Most locals buy the $60 individual annual member pass which offers unlimited visits during the year.) You get art & architecture when you visit this museum.
Like visiting the Phillips Collection, you can experience 1890s life in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood when you visit the “Brewmaster’s Castle” on New Hampshire Avenue. Currently, the Heurich House Museum is closed due to the pandemic, although its garden is open at select afternoon hours (Tuesday-Thursday). Also, call ahead to check whether the “1921 Happy Hour” is held Thursdays from 5-8 pm.
The museum bills itself as the “Historic Dupont Circle brewmaster’s castle.” You can take a 5-minute virtual tour of the museum to learn about its original owner German immigrant Christian Heurich.
His Gilded Age mansion was built in the 1894 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He chose Dupont Circle since it was just blocks away from his brewery. It was also becoming the “it neighborhood.” His widow gave the home to the Historical Society of Washington DC. It was later sold and turned into a museum.
One of best ways to learn about Dupont Circle’s revered architectural past is to book a walking tour. In non-pandemic times, Washington Walks offers a two-hour tour of “one of D.C.’s most vibrant neighborhoods.” It was considered one of the most fashionable addresses at the close of the 19th century. I learned the neighborhood also played a central role in the 20th century for DC’s LGBTQ community.
I took the tour with tour guide David. He displayed a wealth of information about the brewmaster’s castle, its wealthy residents. and a brutal murder involving one of the city’s most prolific architects. We even saw the street where the murder occurred. Scandalous stories are a hallmark of a good city tour!
Dupont Circle’s crown jewel is the Cairo Flats Building. Located at 1615 Q Street NW, the 12-floor Cairo opened in 1894. It cost $425,000 to build. There were apartments and hotel rooms. The dining room took over half of the top (12th) floor.
According to Best Addresses: A Century of Washington’s Distinguished Apartment Houses, the Cairo led—in 1894—to Washington’s present height limitation law. “No apartment house has had a more lasting impact on the development of the nation’s capital . . .” writes author James Goode. (Goode’s book chronicles a century of Washington’s distinguished apartment houses. The book weighs seven pounds. It is a who’s who guide to where Washington’s once aristocratic residents lived.)
Bowing to complaints of neighbors, the Board of Commissioners enacted a rule that limited future privately owned residences to 90 feet and commercial buildings to 110 feet in height. This ruling would have a unbelievable impact on how Washington DC developed in the 20th century. There are no skyscrapers in DC.
“. . . Washington has become the only major city in the United States to maintain a low skyline.”—James Goode
You can see the sky when you walk down any DC street. Sweeping skyscrapers do not block the light or turn major avenues into twilight corridors. No building is permitted to tower and dominate. The city’s revered monuments stand tallest. While a tourist typically doesn’t know this about city regulations on the height of buildings, you instinctively feel that DC is somehow special architecturally.
Murder on Q Street
Thomas Franklin (TF) Schneider is the architect who designed the Cairo. He worked in the office of Adolph Cluss, one of the city’s most renowned architects. Schneider designed more than 1,000 Romanesque Revival rowhouses throughout DC, including a block of stately houses on Q Street NW. His mansion stood on the corner of 18th St. and Q Street.
But Schneider was also thrust into the headlines when his brother Howard killed his wife Amanda (Amy) and his brother-in-law Frank on Q St. on January 30, 1892. He was found guilty and hung. TF apparently tried to pressure Q Street homeowners (and clients) who owned his houses not to testify against his brother. You can hear the dirty details on a WAMU radio show recorded in 2012.
Titled “The Location: Investigating Cairo Builder’s Chilling Connection, the show revealed “they all still testified against his brother, and his brother was still convicted of murdering both Amy and Frank.” In the end, Howard was hanged in 1893. And the Cairo was built just a block away from where the cold-blooded murder occurred.
It’s doubtful that Schneider could have guessed how the Cairo would radically transform DC’s architecture scene for more than a decade. But the Cairo is also a symbol of the societal changes that transformed Dupont Circle as well as DC. The building went from being the most fashionable address in town during DC’s Victorian age to a downtrodden building taken over by drug dealers by the mid-20th century.
But thankfully unlike other architectural masterpieces that fell to the ground under the wrecking ball, the Cairo avoided demolition. After its renovation, the apartment house was converted to a condo in 1979. Today condos range from $325,00 to $700,000 at the Cairo.
You will not be disappointed if you choose to stay in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood for your whirlwind weekend in Wsahington DC. You’ll also spend less than a night at the Ritz-Carlton or Fairmont in Georgetown. Several homes have been transformed into B&Bs and AirBnbs. You should also check Trip Advisor for independent reviews.
If you prefer an intimate abode, book The Ivy Mansion at Dupont Circle. It’s a brownstone B&B. It features three oversized guest suites with private baths, one spacious apartment and “gracious living.”
Conversely, if you prefer to go corporate, check if Renaissance Hotels is offering weekend discounted rates at the Mayflower Hotel. This landmark hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Mayflower deservedly owns its nickname as “hotel of presidents.” It opened in 1925 during the height of the Roaring Twenties. The venue hosted the inaugural ball of President Coolidge. President Harry Truman nicknamed it “Second Best Address” in DC (after the White House).
It has also served as the “home-away-from-home” for numerous dignitaries including Supreme Court justices, senators and representatives. After the pandemic ends, the hotel will hopefully resume its afternoon High Tea service. It is a coming-of-age tradition for many mother-daughter trips to the city.
Dupont Circle is a neighborhood that has thankfully been saved by out-of-control development due to city preservationists’ efforts. While some mansions were knocked down to make way for nondescript buildings, the neighborhood also preserved numerous 19th-century residences. Come wander and wonder in Dupont Circle!
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