A Walk through Georgetown’s History–From Francis Scott Key Memorial Park to Patisserie Poupon

In honor of Jeanne Pelletier, the amateur sleuth/belly dancer protagonist of my eponymous mystery series set in and around Georgetown, I’ve designed a wonderfully scenic and historic walk that starts at the Francis Scott Key Memorial Park (where the Key Bridge meets M Street), meanders through Georgetown University’s campus, ticks off a ton of fascinating off-the-beaten-path historic sites, and ends at Patisserie Poupon, one of my all-time favorite places to write (and savor French pastries!). The walk is approximately 2.5 miles and takes about 90 minutes with brief stops. (Note: A single asterisk indicates that the location was featured in the first Pelletier mystery, “Hagar’s Last Dance”; a double asterisk indicates that it was featured in the second book, “Graveside Reunion,” which is slated to be released January 2, 2018.)

Start at the Francis Scott Key Memorial Park (1), which commemorates the prominent lawyer, anti-slavery activist, and public education promoter who lived 100 yards west of here with his wife and 11 (!) children. By a twist of fate, the not particularly musical FSK wrote the lyrics to our national anthem: when the British burned DC in August 1814 and took a local doctor hostage, he galloped off to Baltimore, boarded a British warship to negotiate a prisoner exchange, and then was detained on board while the ship pummeled Ft. McHenry…and failed to destroy the 30 x 42 foot, 80-pound flag flying over it, the largest U.S. flag ever flown in battle.

Cross 34th Street and, past the ugly modern annex, admire the rose-colored brick façade of the Embassy of Ukraine/Marbury House (2). This was the home of Supreme Court Justice William Marbury, of Marbury v. Madison fame (which established the right of judicial review for congressional actions), and the birthplace of the District of Columbia: at a dinner here on March 29, 1791, with luminaries including George Washington in attendance, area landowners agreed to sell half of their land to create the new Federal District.

Backtrack to 34th and head uphill, past the imposing stone wall of Halcyon House (3), built in the 1780s and home to the first Secretary of the Navy. Turn left on Prospect and amble past the Car Barn (4), constructed as a garage for horse-drawn and later electric trolleys but now part of Georgetown University. Just beyond are the vertigo-inducing Exorcist stairs (5*).

Cross Prospect and belly up to the bar at The Tombs (6*, **), a student hangout tucked in the bowels of a Georgetown townhouse and marked with a blue paddle. On the next block is Holy Trinity Catholic Church (7*), where JFK once graced the pews.

Turn left on O Street and then head through the front gates of Georgetown University (8). For a taste of Oxford-esque Gothic architecture, head into Healy Hall and up the opulent staircase. If possible, time your visit for an event at Gaston Hall, which will make you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a medieval guildhall.

Head back out the university gate and turn left on 37th and then right on P. At the corner of 35th and P, you’ll notice train tracks running down the middle of the cobblestone street, a relic from the era when trolleys click-clacked through the neighborhood. Turn left on 35th, staying on the east side of the street (the right-hand side). At the corner of 35th and Volta (1527 35th Street) is the Victorian-era former home of Alexander Graham Bell’s parents (9). Turn right on Volta. Directly behind his parents’ house is a pink stucco house—the Bells’ former carriage house, which Alexander used as a workshop (10). If the gate is open, pass into the alley between the Bells’ house and the carriage house and turn around to admire a trompe l’oeil fresco, which makes it appear as through the blank wall has a window.

Across the street is the side of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (11). AGB was first and foremost an educator and advocate for the deaf. In fact, it was his experiences working with the hearing-impaired—including his wife and mother—that inspired him to experiment with transmitting sound waves via wire, which led to the development of the telephone! This polymath also invented a rudimentary metal detector, which was tested on bullet-riddled Civil War veterans and which he attempted to use to ascertain the location of the bullet lodged within President James Garfield following an 1881 assassination attempt. His invention likely would have worked and enabled a life-saving operation to remove the bullet, were it not for the fact that Garfield’s incompetent physician—who scorned the use of soap and repeatedly poked and prodded Garfield’s open wounds with his grubby fingers—insisted the bullet was on the right side and refused to let AGB use his detector on the president’s left side; after the president’s death, an autopsy indicated that the bullet was indeed on the left, as AGB had speculated.
At the corner of 34th and Volta, take a peek inside Volta Park (12), whose bucolic environs give no hint of its past as one of the city’s oldest graveyards.

Turn right on 34th Street and then left on P. When you come to the big white house at 3333 P Street, look up to see a medallion depicting an old-time fire engine: this was the nineteenth century version of an insurance policy. In the days before publicly-funded fire departments, residents contracted with private companies to provide fire protection, and the medallion was their proof that they were paid up.

Turn left on 33rd and try your hand at spotting all of the antique fire insurance medallions that cluster on the right side of the street. When you reach Q Street, turn right, cross Wisconsin Avenue, and then turn left. Head uphill and follow your nose to the heavenly Patisserie Poupon (13*, **). Salivate over the gleaming glass case of exquisite little pastries, select one (or two or three!), order a latte, and give yourself a well-earned rest!

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