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Answer Man's quiz: the teacher's guide

Did you take the Second Annual John Kelly's Washington D.C. Trivia Quiz? I'll admit that most of the questions were pretty arcane. A few of them I knew the answers to ahead of time; most I had to dive into the archives to write. Here is background info on these strange bits of local lore:

1. The Washington Monument is topped with a tiny pyramid made of:
b. aluminum
When the Washington Monument was completed, aluminum was a much more expensive metal than it is today, trading at about the same price as silver. The aluminum pyramid at the top of the obelisk serves as a lightning rod. Here is everything you ever wanted to know about that little metal pyramid. And here is a great
photo of the tippy top

2. Who described Washington, D.C., as "the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva"?
b. Charles Dickens
It's always Dickens, isn't it? The famous English novelist didn't enjoy the time he spent in Washington during his 1842 tour of the United States. Besides the spitting he encountered in Washington--there were spittoons everywhere, he noted--he was waited on by slaves. He found that experience unsettling. He called Washington a city of "magnificent intentions"--it hadn't yet grown into its clothes. You can find the text of Dickens's book online. Here's the relevant tobacco chapter.

3. The construction of this building in 1894 so alarmed District officials that strict height limits were set for the city:
a. The Cairo
At 160 feet, the Cairo was the city's largest privately-owned building when it opened in 1894. Outrage over its height--it blotted out the sun!--led Congress to pass a height limit. There had been earlier limits, including one in the 1790s that seemed designed to make sure no building was too high for fire companies to save.

4. The maximum height of buildings in Washington is determined by a formula that takes into account:
c. the width of the street the building is on
Answer Man addressed this issue in a stellar column in 2004: "Answer Man: Wary of Heights." After the Cairo was built, a law was passed:

limiting a building's height to the width of the street it was on, and no higher than 90 feet on a residential street or 110 feet on a business street. The law was amended in 1910 to allow buildings to be the width of the street plus 20 feet, with a maximum of 130 feet. A special exception was made for buildings on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue NW between First and 15th streets, which could be 160 feet high.

5. What does this statue commemorate:
c. the heroes of the Titanic
Its official name is the Women's Titanic Memorial, but it doesn't honor the women who died when the great ship sank, but the men who gave up their seats on the lifeboats so the women could be saved. It was first erected at the foot of New Hampshire Avenue but had to be moved in 1966 to make way for the Kennedy Center.

6. Where did pop star Jackson Browne record his 1977 song "Running on Empty"?
d. Merriweather Post Pavilion
I remember being impressed by this in high school. Wow! Merriweather Post Pavilion is famous! (A budding drummer, I think I was also impressed by that massive drum set on the cover.) The whole album is "live," in the sense that it wasn't recorded in a studio. Were you at Merriweather on Aug. 27, 1977? Maybe that's you clapping at the end of the song.

7. Which Washington go-go act saw its song "Da'Butt" included on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's 1988 film "School Daze"?
a. Experience Unlimited
Go-go always seems to be on the verge of breaking big and moving beyond Washington. It never does. Somewhere I have my copy of the "Good to Go" soundtrack. (Art Garfunkel?) E.U. still does "Da'Butt." Here they are performing it at the 930 club.

8. The District used to ring in the New Year by dropping a huge what from the tower of the Old Post Office?
d. "Love" stamp
The tradition started in 1984. By 1990 the tradition was over.

9. Not every Washington memorial was beloved when it was first unveiled. Match the criticism to the monument:
i. "Orwellian glop" a. Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That's what the National Review said, anyway.
ii. "ponderous, a bureaucrat's idea of classical grandeur . . . . at once fussy and desolate." b. National World War II Memorial. At least, according to Paul Goldberger of the New Yorker.
iii. a "gangrene of sentimentality" c. Jefferson Memorial. Would you believe that Frank Lloyd Wright made that catty comment?
iv. "weak and pompous" d. John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts. It's that nasty Paul Goldberger again.

10. This bridge across the Potomac River was planned for years but popular opposition kept it from ever being built:
b. The Three Sisters Bridge
The bridge would have been named after three islands in the Potomac over which it would have passed.

11. Match the notable District building with the sad manner in which its architect died:
i. Old Executive Office Building. a. shot himself in the head after asking his wife for a bowl of beef tea. Poor Alfred B. Mullett. He was accused of impropriety in a building project. The beef tea detail comes from The Post story that appeared after his 1890 suicide.
ii. Library of Congress Jefferson Building. b. died in debt because the U.S. government refused to pay him adequately for his signature work. Poor John L. Smithmeyer. He and Paul J. Pelz designed the beautiful building. It was a struggle every step of the way to get it built--and for the architects to get proper credit and full payment. The latter never happened. After Smithmeyer died, Pelz raised money from fellow architects to bury him.
iii. The Kennedy-Warren. c. shot himself in the heart after placing a Bible verse on his drawing table. Poor Joseph Younger. He was 37 years old and living in Tilden Gardens. According to The Post story, "A series of financial reverses are believed by friends to be the reason for the act."
iv. National War College at Fort McNair. d. shot by the eccentric millionaire husband of the woman he deflowered in a mirrored bedroom. I don't feel so sorry for Standford White of McKim, Mead and White, probably the most famous U.S. architectural firm at the turn of the century. White turned out to be a bit of a sicko, seducing chorus girls and hosting orgies in various love nests he had around New York City. The assignation that cost him his life was with actress Evelyn Nesbit, whose jealous husband, Harry Thaw, gunned White down at Madison Square Garden.

12. In the early 1800s Bladensburg was notorious as the site for numerous duels, including one in 1836 that claimed the life of Daniel Key, 20-year-old son of Francis Scott Key. What had Key and the man who shot him, John Sherburne, been arguing over?
c. The relative speed of two steamships
Yep, the speed of steamships. But Sherburne and Key seem to have been friends who had fallen out. They might have dueled each over just about anything. Naval hero Stephen Decatur also bought the farm in Bladensburg. It was episodes such as these that prompted authorities to prohibit the barbaric practice.

13. The Virginia town of Herndon takes its name from:
a. William Lewis Herndon, a sea captain who in 1857 died with 425 of his passengers
The ship was the S.S. Central America. Herndon was a bona fide hero who had commanded warships and explored the Amazon. A storm off Hatteras ended his life.

I hope you enjoyed the quiz. If there's a bit of Washington history you've always been captivated by, let me know. Maybe I'll include it in next year's quiz.

By John Kelly  |  January 2, 2010; 5:14 PM ET
Categories:  Washington history  
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Next: Zorn free, or: Bye-bye Jim


Is tourmaline your "rosebud"?

Thanks for the list. I do have a correction. The lead architect of the National War College (formerly the Army War College) and much of Fort McNair was not Stanford White but his partner, Charles McKim. White does have an extant building in DC, the Washington Club. This was built for a newspaper heiress, so there is a tie to journalism for you.

Posted by: DJMurphy | January 3, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Re #5: Unfortunately the photo for this item that appeared in the print edition included the statue's base and its inscription. (That's one of the few that I knew the answer to.)

Posted by: sburban | January 4, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

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