Although Foggy Bottom sounds a tad risqué, the popular neighborhood is logically named. The topography of the area was perfectly shaped to hold the fog that used to roll in from the Potomac. This and the preponderance of smoke-spewing factories in this blue-collar neighborhood are thought to have led to the colorful name.
Foggy Bottom is tucked just west of the White House and just north of the National Mall, bordered to the north by Pennsylvania Ave and the west by the Potomac River. Its prime location led to its transformation from lower-middle class neighborhood to desirable address for government bigwigs. Today, much of it is consumed by George Washington University, but its history still remains as long as you know where to look.
The Foggy Bottom Metro station (Orange, Blue, Silver) is the easiest entry point into the neighborhood, so start your tour of the area at its northern border one block north of the station – the lovely Washington Circle. A wide park at the center of a traffic circle with a statue of George Washington riding a horse at the midpoint, Washington Circle has seen its share of history. The south side of the circle (now part of George Washington University) was once Camp Fry, a Civil War union army camp used for the recuperation of the wounded.
Walking along K Street and left onto 25th Street takes you right into the center of the working class past of Foggy Bottom. Halfway down 25th St you will see alleys on either side: Snows Court to the east and Queen Anne’s Lane leading to the delightfully named Hughes Mews to the west. In Pierre L’Enfant’s original city plan each block of housing contained open spaces in their centers. The industries of the area – the gas works and brewery in particular – drew many immigrants looking for work. The flood of Irish and German workers, later expanded by freed slaves, meant that Foggy Bottom needed more houses. Alleyways such as these became strings of simple, inexpensive row houses, many of which still exist in one form or another. Our recommendation is to take a stroll into Hughes Mews, where the row houses still look simple, although are definitely no longer inexpensive.
Continuing down 25th Street and curving towards Virginia Avenue brings you face to face with one of the most infamous names in Washington: Watergate. Specifically, the Watergate Complex is the name of a group of five buildings containing apartments, offices, and a hotel. The curvilinear design of the buildings is refreshing, yet a bit shocking after seeing so many square, stone structures. The building you will likely be most interested in is the office building at 2600 Virginia Ave. This office is where, in 1972, the Democratic National Committee headquarters was broken into. The ensuing investigation pointed to members of President Richard Nixon’s own administration, which ultimately led to the President’s resignation in 1974. The name “Watergate” has been synonymous with that scandal ever since.
Just south of the Watergate Complex, also along the Potomac River, is where you will find the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Historically, this area was also the home of some of this neighborhood’s past industry. The Watergate Complex was the former site of the Washington Gas and Light Company (aka the gas works) while the Kennedy Center sits on the plot of land that was once the Heurich Brewery.
While we’re still talking history, now is a good time to mosey onto the campus of George Washington University. The University itself has been in this location since 1912, but we’re looking for something a little older and more obscure. On the southeast corner of H Street and 24th Street NW lies the American Meridian. A strip of grey stone in the sidewalk shows the line where the United States marked the convergence of the eastern and western hemisphere from 1848 to 1884 (before the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England was accepted worldwide). This line was also used to calculate the straight borders of several western states as a nearby plaque spells out.
Also found on the George Washington University campus – at 701 21st Street, at the intersection of G Street – is the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum. The bulky name is a result of the 2011 combination of multiple museums under one roof. The University Museum displays items related, not just to the history of George Washington University, but to the history of Washington itself. Its Washingtonia collection contains rare maps, books, and other documents concerning the city’s history. The Textile Museum, moved from its former location in the Kalorama neighborhood, displays many of the 19,000 objects in its collection. The joint museum is open Monday and Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 am to 6:00 pm, Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and Sunday from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm, an $8 donation is suggested.
A few blocks due south down 21st Street, you can’t help but see the massive U.S. Department of State building, which takes up all the area between 21st and 23rd Streets and C and D Streets. Moving further east on C Street (you’ll have to make a quick right, then left on Virginia Ave to stay on C St) you’ll find yet another massive government building, the U.S. Department of the Interior. C and E Streets border the huge structure to the north and south, and 18th and 19th Streets to the east and west, respectively.
A quick transportation note: the Department of the Interior is almost equidistant from the Foggy Bottom Metro station and the Farragut West Metro station (Orange, Blue, Silver). All sights that follow are closer to Farragut West or the nearby Farragut North Metro station (Red).
Directly across 18th Street, between C and D Streets, is the Daughters of the American Revolution complex consisting of Constitution Hall and Memorial Continental Hall, which contains a museum and a library. Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) is a women’s organization dedicated to promoting patriotism through non-political volunteerism. All members must prove lineal descent from a Revolutionary patriot.
To the south of Constitution Hall, across C Street, is the small Art Museum of the Americas (201 18th St, near Virginia Ave) with the related Organization of American States behind it (200 17th St). The Organization of American States is committed to regional solidarity and cooperation among the 35 independent states of the Americas. Tours are technically available of the impressive marble building, but are apparently discouraged since the price is, frankly, outrageous at $100 for ½ hour.
Walking up 17th Street you are on the eastern border of Foggy Bottom with the Ellipse – and soon the White House – on your right. After you cross D Street, you may want to stop to admire the headquarters of the American National Red Cross at 430 17th Street. The building was constructed between 1915 and 1917 and not only does it mimic the neoclassic style of the White House, it also houses art and artifacts that have been collected by the Red Cross since its inception in 1881. Free guided tours are offered that include their central exhibit, 3 stained-glass Tiffany windows. Tours are Wednesday and Friday and 10:00 am and 2:00 pm; for reservations email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (202) 303-4233.
Another small, yet intriguing museum – the Octagon Museum – is found at the intersection of 18th Street and New York Ave NW. As you make your way toward the White House by going east on New York Ave you will be facing one of the most staggering buildings in what is a city of staggering buildings. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building is officially at 1650 Pennsylvania Ave NW, but in reality it’s where New York Ave and 17th Street meet.
This colossus was built between 1871 and 1888 to house the Departments of State, War, and the Navy, and is one of the finest examples of French Second Empire architecture (mostly baroque, but with mansard roofs). The building is now the location of most of the White House staff, including a secondary office for the Vice President. A picturesque view of the Eisenhower Building is found by standing just south in President’s Park, where it will be framed by trees, flowers, and the First Division Monument, a 78 foot tall memorial to the first division soldiers in all wars since World War I. The monument consists of a massive, single-piece, granite column topped by a gilded bronze statue of Victory. As you look towards the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, think about this: there are 900 columns and 1,572 windows on its exterior.
We will end our tour of Foggy Bottom by leaving it ever so slightly. Just north of the White House on Pennsylvania Ave between 15th and 17th Streets sits Lafayette Square, a charming park dotted by inspiring statues. It was originally planned as part of the White House complex until, in 1804, President Jefferson separated it from the White House grounds by allowing Pennsylvania Avenue to continue through it. In 1824 the name was changed from “President’s Park” in order to honor General Lafayette, the French officer who fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War. Lafayette Park has been used as a racetrack, a graveyard, a zoo, an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812, and the site of many political protests and celebrations.