Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Georgian-style mansions open to the public in the DC area

Georgian-style homes date back to America’s beginnings. Symmetry is the basis of Georgian-style homes, along with classic proportions and decorative elements. As the wealthy arrived, many of them built grand homes in this style through the Revolutionary War period as was common during the eras of King George I, II and III. 

Over time, the popularity of this style waned over time in favor of other styles of grand homes, however, there are still some modern builds of Georgian architecture too. In the Washington D.C. area, there are several excellent examples of the beautiful Georgian architecture, many which are open to the public to see.

Gunston Hall

One of the finest examples of Georgian architecture is right here in Northern Virginia at Gunston Hall, about 20 miles south of the District off of Route 1 (Richmond Highway). George Mason, one of America's Founding Fathers, began construction of his home in 1755 and build was completed in 1759.

The caretakers of this home keep it in remarkable condition inside and out. Tours are daily, excepting Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. I've taken this tour numerous times and always learn something new either about the build, George Mason the man or some other interesting tidbit about that era. Gunston Hall is located at 10709 Gunston Rd, Lorton, Va. 

Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens

The grand home of Marjorie Merriweather Post is another fine example of Georgian architecture that is open to the public to enjoy. Originally built in the 1930s, Mrs. Post purchased the home in 1955 and lived there roughly 20 years, bringing her amazing art collection and improving on the home with lavish embellishments. 

Image credit: By Jllm06 - Own work, Public Domain,

Prior to her death, Mrs. Post decided she wanted to share her home and art collection with future generations. The estate opened to the public in 1977 and continues to offer ongoing tours. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens is located just a few miles from downtown D.C. at 4155 Linnean Avenue, NW Washington, DC.


Woodlawn, just a hop, skip and a jump, from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, was the home of Lawrence Lewis (Washington’s nephew) and Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s granddaughter). Washington had given the newlyweds some of the land from his own Mount Vernon property in 1799 for them to build their own home. 

The home is not a true Georgian, but it does have Georgian elements blended with the popular Federal style which was emerging in that era. Open seasonally, visitors can tour the home and property on Fridays through Mondays from April through fall (in 2017 it closed on Dec. 12). Woodlawn is located at 9000 Richmond Highway, Alexandria, Va. 

Chatham Manor

Chatham Manor is a bit off the beaten path from the District as it is located about an hour south of the District near Fredericksburg (however, it makes for a great day or weekend trip as there is much to do in the area). Chatham Manor is an excellent example of Georgian architecture that remains from the 18th century. Built between 1768 and 1771 by William Fitzhugh, the home was positioned to overlook the Rappahannock River. 

Over the centuries the property saw many important people pass through its doors; it also played a pivotal role in the Civil War serving as a hospital. Today, the property is run by the National Park Service and is open to the public. This tour is a little different than other tours since it’s not furnished or set up to interpret any one resident’s life but there are interesting exhibits located throughout the lower floor’s rooms; the grounds and gardens are also nice to tour. Chatham is located at 120 Chatham Ln, Fredericksburg, Va.

The Maples

The Maples, also known as The Friendship House or Duncanson House, is found in the heart of D.C. on D Street SE and stands as the oldest building in Capitol Hill. This house is not open to the public as it appears to have been converted to private residences but I wanted to include this one for those interested in the architecture who may want to take a look. Constructed in 1795-96 by William Mayne Duncanson, a local merchant, it was once a grand home in the earliest days of the city. Since its original build, the home has undergone many renovations and additions, and it appears much effort has been put into restoring the home to its 18th-century appearance (I haven’t seen this one).

If you head north to Annapolis, Maryland, you’ll also find several fine examples of Georgian architecture including the Hammond-Harwood House, William Paca House and the Brice House (all my list!), to name a few.

If you love architecture and history (most of these homes were built by notable residents who were Founding Fathers, governors, prosperous merchants or other prominent citizens), the fine Georgian examples in the greater D.C. area are excellent. I’m always amazed at the effort of preservation that takes place in this region.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Great places to see Christmas light displays in the Washington DC area

All the fun holiday and Christmas activity in the region has or is about to, begin. Looking to find the brightest and beautiful Christmas and holiday light displays in the Washington D.C. region? If so, there are plenty of places to see some festive holiday lights this season.

Entering Bull Run Park

Here are some events taking place in the area:

Bull Run Festival of Lights

Bull Run Regional Park, out in western Fairfax County, kicks off its annual Festival of Lights and carnival usually around Thanksgiving time. The drive through the lights takes about 30 minutes from the beginning of the festival to the end - at which point you arrive at the carnival where you’ll find plenty of parking. 

In previous years the kids had fun coloring holiday sheets and roasting a couple of marshmallows over the fire. You’ll also find carnival rides, a photo-op with Santa tent, and camel rides but we’ve never taken part of these. The festival of lights usually ends the first week in the New Year.

Tip: If you’re able to go during the week, the lines are much shorter and you get a break on the price too. 


Zoolights was a lot of fun when we went two years ago. An annual tradition at the National Zoo, on our last visit we chose to go during the holiday break and, while it was a little chilly, there was enough to see and do to keep us moving around. Lots of lights and enough of the animals were awake to visit with. During the week between Christmas and New Year it’s likely to be a bit crowded (it was when we went), but is still a great time. Admission is free! Parking is not. The Metro is a good option, the red line has two stops that are relatively close to the zoo. Also, there are some attractions that do cost a fee. Dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes!

Winter Walk of Lights at Meadowlark

Meadowlark Botanical Garden’s annual Winter Walk of Lights begins in mid-November and ends in early January. Lit up in hundreds of thousands of LED lights and displays, wear comfortable shoes I’m told. I have heard great things about this event and it’s high on my list of places to visit.

Symphony of Lights Drive Through

This is one I’ve just learned about. This light festival, a 20-year tradition in Maryland’s Howard County, is a light festival consisting of approximately 300,000 lights, along with a laser light show, and 3D holiday video. Visitors drive through the lights and listen to holiday music as the lights twinkle to the beat. This is a fundraising event that benefits Howard County General Hospital: A Member of Johns Hopkins Medicine. The hospital is located in Columbia, Md. The festival begins just before Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s Day (open all holidays except New Year’s Eve). 

Annual Winter Festival of Lights at Watkins Park

This annual tradition in Prince George’s County kicks off on Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s Day. This one is also a drive-through event for visitors to enjoy the lights in the comfort of their cars. The park advertises over 1 million twinkling lights and themed displays. Located in Upper Marlboro, Md., the park also collects canned foods and non-perishable items to donate to local food banks.

Other festivals in Maryland include The Winter Lights Festival in Gaithersburg, Md., Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Arts Center in Dowell, Md. (check the website for dates) and the Winter Lights Festival at Seneca Creek State Park (Montgomery County), Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (right off the Beltway), and Lights on the Bay at Sandy Point State Park.

New for this year is Light Up the Wharf at D.C.'s newest spot for dining, entertainment, and more. The site isn't very descriptive but there will be a lighted Christmas tree other displays. 

Do you know of any other beautiful, tacky, or just plain old cool, light displays? If so, let me know in the comments section.

Have a wonderful holiday season full of light! 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Photos on Friday: Autumn sunrise in Shenandoah National Park

With October quickly slipping away, I realized we hadn't made our annual fall trip to the Shenandoah National Park. In recent years, we've been heading to the park more often during the summer months to see the butterflies and wildlife, however, we like to at least try to see the beautiful foliage at least once. We made what is likely to be our last trip of the year to the park last weekend. Decided the day before to make it an early day and get out there before sunrise.

We just about made it to Mary's Rock Tunnel (just past mile marker 32) when we began to see glimpses of daylight, which was perfect since I was hoping to stop at the overlooks between here and mile marker 36 for the day's trip. Here are some photos we captured in that stretch of Skyline Drive.

This was taken a few minutes after we arrived. That white spot next to the tree we believe is Venus after checking Google Sky. It was shining very brightly that morning.

We were the second car to arrive, within minutes several other cars pulled up to enjoy what looked like was going to be a spectacular show.
And here comes the sun! At this point we had moved a bit further south.
A few minutes later

Peaceful morning in the mountains. We parked in a lot across the street at one of the gaps and stood on a rock wall to watch the rest of the sun rise. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

15 interesting facts about the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Beautifully situated in the Northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception attracts thousands of people each day. The National Shrine is the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America. 

Interested to learn more? 

15 interesting facts about the National Shrine

1. In 1913 a national shrine was approved by Pope Pius X to be built in the United States. The cornerstone for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was laid in 1920. The Crypt Church was completed in 1926 and the rest of the Crypt Level was finished in 1931.

2. The Church is Romanesque-Byzantine style and is made entirely of stone, brick, tile and mortar. There are no steel structural beams, framework or columns found in this building. It was believed the Romanesque-Byzantine style fit in well with the other architecture found in Washington, D.C. 

3. Several architects were involved with this major project. From the 1919-36 construction, they were: Maginnis and Walsh of Boston, with associate Frederick V. Murphy, Professor of Architecture at CUA, Timothy F. Walsh of Massachusetts, and Frederick Vernon Murphy. Post-WWII, the architects from 1954-59 were, Maginnis and Walsh and Kennedy of Boston, Charles D. Maginnis of Massachusetts, and Eugene F. Kennedy, Jr., also of Massachusetts.

4. The first Mass was held in 1924, on Easter Sunday.

5. Construction for the National Shrine was ongoing but was temporarily put on hold during the Depression and World War II. Build for the Great Upper Church superstructure resumed in 1954 and was completed in 1959. Its dedication took place on November 20 of that year.

6. Pope John Paul II was the first reigning Pope to visit the National Shrine; this took place in 1979. He would later elevate the National Shrine to the status of minor basilica in 1990. Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008. He gave a rare bestowal of “a Golden Rose for Our Mother Mary”. This is an honor that dates back to the 11th century.

7. Every year about 1 million people visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to attend Mass, tour the church, or visit one of its many beautiful chapels. 

8. There are over 70 individual chapels to be found within the Basilica’s walls.

9. The National Shrine is more than 200 feet above sea level. Its exterior is 459 feet long, 240 feet wide, and the Great Dome’s diameter is 108 feet.

10. Seating capacity of the Basilica’s Upper Church is 3,500 people with a total capacity of about 6,000 people.

11. In addition to being the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America, did you know the National Shrine is also listed in the top 10 largest Roman Catholic Churches in the world?

12. The Great Dome features five Marian symbols: Fleur de lis, Cedar of Lebanon, Tower of Ivory, Star of the Sea, Intertwining Monograms of A and M (Ave and Maria).

13. The Knights Tower is 329 feet tall and has a 56-bell carillon

14. Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, the National Shrine’s founder, is buried in the Founder’s Chapel, located in the Crypt Level. He is the only person buried in the Shrine.

15. The Basilica is often referred to as “America’s Church”.

If you are Catholic or of another religion, this is a wonderful place to visit with its spirituality, no matter your beliefs. Several Masses and Confessions are held daily in the Basilica. However, even if you aren’t religious, the amazing architecture and artwork found in and out of the National Shrine are simply amazing; the interior is stunning. You can self-tour or take a guided one.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is located at 400 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20017. Parking is free and relatively easy to access. To take the Metro, use the Red line (Brookland/CUA station); it is a .04 mile walk according to Google Maps.


Visit to the Basilica
Links from the National Shrine websites, here and here [PDF]

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Taking a tour of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Did you know you can take a tour of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing during your visit to Washington, D.C. and see how money is made? Perhaps one of the lesser-known tours, it’s a really cool one if you get the chance to do it. 

How to get tickets

During the busy spring and summer months, you’ll need to get to get tickets ahead of time (same day distribution). They are on a first-come, first-serve basis and can be obtained at the ticket booth located at Raoul Wallenburg Place, just outside of the Bureau. The booth opens at 8 a.m. and closes after the day’s tickets have been distributed. The first tour is at 9 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m.

In the fall and winter months, which is September to February, tours are offered between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. and tickets are not required and you can head to the 14th St SW entrance for entry (check the Bureau’s website for exact dates/hours). In the event of inclement weather, delayed opening or early closure by the federal government, this does affect the facility’s tours.

Additionally, if you contact your Senator or Representative, you can also reserve tickets through their office. Contact your local Congressperson for details.

What to do

The entrance to the visitor’s center is located at 301 14th St SW. Plan to arrive about 15 minutes early. You’ll need to line up when your tour time is called. When your time slot is called, you’ll go through security. The usual items are prohibited like you’d find at the airport or other secured area. No food or drink is allowed inside. 

Gift shop
You are allowed to bring your camera and are free to use it in the visitor’s center and gift shop, but taking photos or videos of any kind are strictly prohibited during the tour itself. Don’t be tempted to take a quick photo with your cell, you will be escorted out of the facility. Also, if you have little ones, you can bring your stroller with you but not on the tour.

After you are finished going through security, you’ll be inside the Visitor’s Center. There are some exhibits to look at and some displays on the wall to read which highlight the history of U.S. currency. You’ll have a few minutes to take a look around before you head into the next section to watch a short video.

What you’ll see

The tour takes place above the production floor and you'll go through the different sections, seeing how the denominations of U.S. money are made each step of the way. 
  • See literally millions of dollars at once
  • Hear the whirring of the machines and watch the currency go through each process of the printing
  • Learn about the measures added into money to prevent counterfeiting 

The tour itself is about 45 minutes, so give yourself approximately an hour for the experience. After the tour, there is a gift shop you can peruse before you exit. You'll exit on Raoul Wallenburg Place facing the Tidal Basin.

Other things you should know

Tours are not offered on weekends, federal holidays, and is closed the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  In 2018, some of the process will be altered with construction going on. Check at the ticket booth or the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing website for the most up-to-date information.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Where to find Halloween and fall fun in the D.C. area

Hard to believe it’s already mid-October. That means the fall festivals, corn mazes, ghost tours, and other seasonal fun are already in full swing. It also means Halloween is right around the corner. Looking for something to do with the kids? Maybe some old-fashioned fun? Maybe something a little ghoulish? 

Here are some ideas of the many things there are to do in the D.C. area for Halloween celebrating.

District Wharf

Making its debut this week in D.C. is the District Wharf with new restaurants, shopping, entertainment, and one-stop family night out. It looks as if they’ll be offering various special events throughout the year. In 2017, “Pumpkin Palooza” is being held. See the headless horseman, enjoy pumpkin-themed activities, such as pumpkin bowling, pumpkin pie-eating contest, pets’ costume contest, live music, and more. It’s too early to say whether or not this will be an annual event, but chances are there will be some family-friendly event offered. Check the Wharf’s website to see what’s on their schedule. 

Boo at the Zoo

A perennial classic in the District, the National Zoo’s “Boo at the Zoo” event takes place one weekend every year. Featuring over 40 treat stations, pumpkin carving demos, “scary-oke”, and other entertainment. Kids get all sorts of goodies at the treat stations, but the zoo hasn’t forgotten the adults. They are offered food and craft beer tastings. Check the zoo’s website for dates, times, and admission prices.

Trick-or-Treat at Mount Vernon

A newer tradition at Mount Vernon is trick or treating with other “spook-tacular” activities. The kids can wear their costumes (there is a contest for best George and Martha costumes with prizes), participate in a parade around the mansion and go trick-or-treating. Other fun includes a wagon ride, special scavenger hunt, and crafts. Additionally, visitors can enjoy 18th-century entertainment and watch demonstrations highlighting life in Colonial days. See Mount Vernon's website for current dates and times. It looks like they’ve extended it to two days in 2017. 

Fall festivals at historic properties

Many of the area'
s historic properties offer family fun during October. I invite you to check out my post highlighting some of the perennial events you can find in the region. Celebrate the season and learn some history in the process.

Family fun on the local farms

Northern Virginia has many farms that convert their fields to fall family fun. Each farm offers something a little different but some of the attractions include pumpkin picking, hay rides, giant slides, corn mazes, and much more. I’ve explored several the farms (this post goes into far more detail about family fun on the local farms) but I know there are others and that’s without even looking into Maryland.

Looking for something else? Maybe a ghost tour? I have a post that outlines all sorts of cool events highlighting numerous family fun events (and some freakishly-scary stuff!)

See what's planned across the region. Additionally, the Fairfax County Park Authority offers numerous fall family fun events throughout the county (many of these events require registration).  

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Photos on Friday: Scouting out nature in Shenandoah National Park

Over the summer we took a few trips out to the beautiful Shenandoah National Park to do some hiking and try to scout out nature. Most of the time, we stay close to Skyline Drive, stopping at the overlooks and/or taking some short excursions. Today's photos on Friday highlights some of what we saw.

In the past, we've reserved these trips for the fall foliage, but last year discovered the summer beauty of the park. I was stunned by the number of butterflies. Literally dozens in one small area and this was throughout the park. Amazing!

Up until this summer, I'd only seen an owl in the wild, just once and that was during a 5:30 a.m. walk in the dark hours in my suburban neighborhood. However, this summer we were lucky enough to see three!

And, finally, this year I really (and I mean really!) wanted to see a bear. Last year I caught a glimpse of a big one as it ran away and didn't see his face. My wish was fulfilled on two separate trips. In July, we had the good fortune to see a bear high in a tree. On the second trip we spotted another bear in a tree and upon leaving Big Meadows we spotted one almost right on the side of the road, so we pulled over.

Had to scurry away from this guy, this photo is a zoom from across a road. 

This one has a story to it (you can read here). Moral of that story though, don't get too close. Even though the black bears in this region don't aggressively go after humans, you still need to be cautious. We didn't expect the bear to turn and come closer to us but that's what happened. A bear's huff is pretty scary. We had attended a ranger talk last year where we learned how to act in a bear encounter and I quietly got away and crossed the street.

In this bear photo we are at a distance. This fella is way up in a tree and more afraid of us than we are of him. He heard us, ran to the tree, and scampered up.