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Posted at 10:02 AM ET, 04/11/2006

History Hunting in the Nation's Capital

By Julia Beizer

News from the National Museum of American History was a shock to my inbox yesterday:

"The museum will begin closing some of its exhibition galleries this spring and summer, and the entire museum will close to the public in the fall."

That's right, folks; the museum that holds the ruby slippers, Seinfeld's puffy shirt and one of my favorite exhibits, "America On the Move," will be temporarily closed in several months. American History is just one of the Smithsonian museums suffering from aging facilities and this renovation is intended to update the building and make a new "state-of-the-art" gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the song. More details are forthcoming in a briefing tomorrow about precisely how long the museum will be closed, but I'm already wondering where D.C. visitors will go to find those factual tidbits about our nation's history. Here are a few suggestions:

- The National Archives: The nation's founding documents are obviously a big draw, but the Public Vaults exhibition gives a good sense of the breadth of the Archives holdings, which include photographs of Americans through the ages.
- The Library of Congress: Check out its rotating exhibition of American treasures. On view now are photographs and artifacts from the Willard Hotel.
- Local battlefields: Antietam, Gettysburg and Manassas top my list.
- Daughters of the American Revolution Headquarters: Yes, there's more here than just the concert venue. There are 31 period rooms in the huge estate on D Street.
- House museums: These are smaller than your average museum, but places like the Sewall-Belmont House, Woodrow Wilson House and Petersen House serve up specialized slices of history.
- And of course, no history tour in Washington is complete without a trip to the monuments, White House, Capitol and Supreme Court.

All of these places are loaded with history, but they don't have the quirky pop-culture charm of American History or the exhibits that tell about segregation, transportation and the office of the president all on the same floor. Since this popular spot to take out-of-town guests will be out of commission in a few months, anyone have other local suggestions for American history and culture seekers?

--Julia

By Julia Beizer  | April 11, 2006; 10:02 AM ET
Categories:  Museums  
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What's more American than George Washington's home, Mount Vernon?! It's a scenic drive down the GW Parkway, you can walk through Washington's home, take a sightseeing cruise on the Potomac River, see cute animals, and eat at the quaint Mount Vernon Inn. Check out www.mountvernon.org for more info.

Posted by: Emily | April 11, 2006 5:00 PM | Report abuse

If you don't mind a drive to Charlottesville you can check out Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

Posted by: Elizabeth | April 11, 2006 11:43 PM | Report abuse

For DC, how about the City Musuem or National Building Museum?
Along the lines of Mount Vernon, there is also Gunston Hall.
Fredericksburg is definitely one of the most historic towns around - Kenmore, Chatham, Ferry Farm, Fredericksburg and Chancelorsville battlefields.

Posted by: Jason | April 12, 2006 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Gee, first was the American Portrait Gallery closes for renovation and now American History Museum will be doing the same. Well, ok, the Portrait Galley will be reopening over the summer.
Frederick, MD, anyone? We've got some good stuff here too!!

Posted by: Elisa | April 12, 2006 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Jason, Building Museum is a great call -- they have some very cool exhibits, not to mention that the building itself is amazing. Unfortunately, the City Museum's exhibits are closed. There will be some music-themed events and exhibits coming to the space sometime this spring: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/30/AR2006033001938.html.

Posted by: Julia | April 12, 2006 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Between Mt. Vernon and Gunston Hall is Woodlawn Plantation, the home of President Washington's nephew Lawrence Lewis and Martha Washington's grand-daughter Nelly Custis. This National Trust property was built in 1805 on land that was formerly part of Mt. Vernon and is a wonderful example of Georgian architecture. On the same property is the 1940 Frank Lloyd Wright Pope-Leighey House, which was moved there in 1964 from East Falls Church to save it from Interstate 66. Pope-Leighey is one of the few Frank Lloyd Wright small "Usonian" houses open to the public, and the only public Wright building between Pennsylvania and Florida that I know of. It's also a National Trust property. Tours of both houses are offered daily except Monday.

It's not a building, but in the same general vicinity, Huntley Meadows Park is a rare and exotic wetlands meadow crisscrossed by boardwalks where visitors can observe many types of birds and water life, including beavers. It's a Fairfax County park that is free to the public.

Woodlawn, Pope-Leighey, and Huntley Meadows all lie on or near Richmond Highway/Route 1 between the Beltway and Fort Belvoir. Woodlawn is about three miles west of Mt. Vernon.

Posted by: Scott | April 12, 2006 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, wasnt pying attention. The National Music center has some potential though. Its a great building!

Posted by: Jason | April 12, 2006 1:48 PM | Report abuse

The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery (now, together, the Reynolds Center) are reopening July 1st and will, conveniently enough, stay open til 7 so you can grab drinks or dinner in Chinatown. They're both technically art museums, but they will be focusing on history. Check out www.reynoldscenter.org.

Posted by: CG | April 12, 2006 10:26 PM | Report abuse

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