It's too bad, really, because DC boasts of some of the world's most beautiful historic estates, intimate art galleries, and lush public gardens, many of which won't be seen by harried tourists with a checklist of attractions to power through but which are so worth a wander. One of my favorites, conveniently around the corner from my apartment, is Meridian Hill Park.
So named because a marker placed on the hill directly north of the White House established a longitudinal meridian for the city, Meridian Hill Park was acquired in 1816 by Commodore David Porter, a naval hero of the War of 1812. Porter built a grand mansion on his new estate, but the land was used as an army encampment during the Civil War and, shortly thereafter, the mansion was destroyed in a fire and the estate was parceled out into smaller plots of land to accommodate the post-war growth and prosperity that DC enjoyed. Meridian Hill was bought by a wealthy former senator named John Brooks Henderson, who built a castle on the west side of the park; his wife, Mary Foote Henderson, planned and built a succession of extravagant houses flanking the park on either side. (The castle no longer stands, though you can still see its retaining wall on 16th Street, but many of the mansions, now embassies, still do!)
In 1901, after much lobbying from Mrs. Henderson, the Senate Park Commission approved a national park on Meridian Hill and it was established by an Act of Congress on June 25, 1910. Designed by landscape architects George Burnap, Horace Peaslee, and Ferruccio Vitale, the 12-acre site was based on the formal gardens of an Italian aristocrat's private residence and boasts the largest cascading fountain in North America. It was dedicated in 1936 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994.
Meridian Hill Park has been used for political rallies and concerts over the decades, but I love it best on quiet Saturday mornings, when Charlie and I share the paths with joggers and the lawn is dotted here and there with yoga mats, and on Sunday afternoons, when the grass is crowded with picnicking friends and the whole park dances with the energy of the weekly drum circle.