- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Every day, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, 29 sleek new red-and-silver buses with wide, tall windows and three doors for quick loading roll around the District, ferrying some 5,000 people to work, play and cultural attractions on two interconnecting routes — one that links Union Station with Georgetown and another that runs from the Convention Center through downtown and across the Mall to the Southwest waterfront.

“The DC Circulator Bus is about connecting destinations that weren’t previously connected,” said Joe Sternlieb, deputy director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, a non-profit group that was the first to champion the idea.

The service, new since July, is a project of the District Department of Transportation, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and DC Surface Transit Inc.

For a $1 fare — with free transfers good for two hours — commuters and sightseers can use the Circulator to connect destinations and concoct their own around-town adventures across 52 stops. It’s the cheapest ride in town.

At or near the various Circulator stops, you can:

• Follow the route of the first mail carriers.

• Climb to the top of the Pension Building, whose football-field sized Great Hall has hosted inaugural balls since Grover Cleveland’s.

• Pay homage to more than 16,500 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

• See Washington’s oldest synagogue.

• Gather around the hearth of Washington’s oldest dwelling.

• Put your face on the cover of National Geographic.

• Walk beneath a token of the friendship between Washington and its sister city Beijing.

• Bowl a strike at the District’s sole bowling alley.

• Shudder at the tarantula prop used in the movie “Dr. No.”

• Buy freshly shucked oysters on the Southwest waterfront.

• Get a real feel for global warming.

• Ice skate against the backdrop of the National Archives building.

• See an authentic, art nouveau Paris Metro entrance.

• Tour one of the city’s first public schools for blacks.

• Browse a unique boutique named for a fabric made from Nepalese nettles.

• Learn about the 50,000-year history of beads.

• Board a boat and cruise the Potomac.

• • •

Here are just a few of the attractions at stops served by the Circulator:

Union Station stop

• Start your journey here; many Capitol Hill commuters do. But before you board, have a look at the National Postal Museum at 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE. There, among other exhibits, you can follow the route of the first mail carrier in what became the United States — who set off on horseback from New York one January day in 1673 and followed Indian trails 268 miles to Boston. The free museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Massachusetts Avenue and Fifth Street Northwest stop

• “Congress wanted a fireproof building to safeguard the records,” explains volunteer guide Frank Chalmers, leading a tour up the wide, low-rise stairs — built to accommodate the wooden legs of Civil War veterans — to the top floor of the Pension Building, opened in 1884 and since 1980 home to the National Building Museum at 401 F St. NW.

From here, visitors have a bird’s-eye view down into the Great Hall, a football-field expanse punctuated by 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns, where inaugural balls have been held since 1885.

Gen. Montgomery Meigs, the architect, installed steam heat, appreciated by ball attendees who had nearly frozen at previous outdoor inaugurations.

Not everyone loved the Pension Building, however. Gen. William T. Sherman reportedly said, “It’s too bad the damn thing is fireproof.”

Tours of the building start at 12:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and at 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Admission is by donation.

• At the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, across F Street from the Pension Building, a recent visitor encountered Craig Gardner, a police detective from Greenville, S.C. He was taking a rubbing of the name of a fallen colleague, James R. Sorrow, one of more than 16,500 police officers, prison guards, immigration officers and others killed in the line of duty.

The first name on the blue-gray marble walls is Isaac Smith, a New York City deputy sheriff who was shot and killed on May 17, 1792, while attempting to make an arrest.

• At the corner of Third and G streets Northwest, Washington’s oldest synagogue, Adas Israel, sits in a pleasant garden overlooking the freeway that displaced residents of this melting-pot neighborhood.

President Ulysses S. Grant attended the 1876 opening of the synagogue, which now houses the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum (open by appointment). The synagogue was built by 38 immigrant families, including that of Albert Small, who was born near here in 1902.

A Cultural Tourism DC placard quotes Mr. Small: “The neighborhood was our whole life. We went to school at Seaton and took our music lessons at St. Mary’s across the street from our house. We used to help in the family store two blocks away.”

16th and K Street stop

• Want to picture yourself on the cover of National Geographic? At the National Geographic Society’s Explorers’ Hall at 17th and M streets Northwest, you can put your face on the cover of the venerable, yellow-bordered magazine simply by entering a booth and inserting $5. You get to choose from among 12 different backdrops, from the White House to the Taj Mahal, or pose with a gorilla or a lion.

You can also browse changing interactive exhibits or shop for geography-related objects, such as cuddly emperor penguin hand puppets and pillows covered with kente cloth from Ghana. The museum and shop are open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

• Just across M Street stands the Charles Sumner School, built in 1872 as one of the first public schools for Washington’s black community and named for U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist. The restored school building now houses a museum.

The current exhibit (through Feb. 28) features Adolph Cluss, a German immigrant who designed the school as well as other Washington landmarks, including Eastern Market, Calvary Baptist Church and the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building.

M Street and Thomas Jefferson Street stop

• “This is an 18th century rotisserie — also called a tin kitchen,” says National Park Service ranger Ron Harvey, who is standing on the hearth of the Old Stone House at 3051 M St. NW, built in 1765 and the only pre-Revolution dwelling remaining in the nation’s capital.

Visitors can tour the two-story house to learn what life was like for ordinary Georgetown residents in the 18th century. The museum shop sells books, Colonial soaps, quill pens and other history-related goods. Hours and days of operation of the Old Stone House vary. Call 202/895-6070 for information.

If you’re shopping for more contemporary items, Kate Spade, Urban Outfitters and hundreds of other trendy shops are just a credit card’s throw away.

Ninth and F streets Northwest stop

• To exercise his license to kill, James Bond used his trusty Walther PKK handgun. Mr. Bond had some narrow escapes, however, including an attack by a tarantula planted by the fiendish Dr. No.

These are some of the hundreds of tools of espionage — real and fictional — you can see at the International Spy Museum at 801 F St. NW. You can also test your surveillance and code-breaking skills. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and admission is $14 for adults, $11 for children 5 to 11.

Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest stop

• A family of three is sitting on the polished granite chairs of sculptor Scott Burton’s work, “Six-Part Seating,” at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on the Mall at Seventh Street Northwest.

“Want to go see that big eraser again?” the mother asks the little boy, referring to “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X,” a stainless-steel-and-cement work by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. These are two of the whimsical and witty sculptures in the diverse collection, which also includes Barry Flanagan’s “Thinker on a Rock,” a giant bronze hare, and Hector Guimard’s art nouveau “An Entrance to the Paris Metropolitain.”

At the Sculpture Garden, you can exercise your legs as well as your imagination at the adjoining ice rink. Rink hours are Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Skate rental is $3, and admission is $7 for adults, $6 for children and students.

Seventh Street and Maine Avenue Southwest stop

• Buy a cup of steaming Maryland crab soup or a plate of freshly shucked oysters on the half shell from Jessie Taylor Seafood at the Maine Avenue Fish Market at 1100 Maine Ave. SW. Then enjoy your meal sitting on a bench with a gull’s-eye view of the marina filled with sailboats and fancy motor yachts and two-story houseboats a la “Sleepless in Seattle.”

• Not all sea stories have happy endings. According to a Cultural Tourism DC placard, this marks the spot where, in August 1848, the schooner Pearl took aboard 77 black men and women trying to escape from slavery, an attempt that was thwarted — possibly by a jilted suitor of one would-be escapee, who informed authorities.

• Another sad sea story is told by the Titanic Memorial, a short walk along the waterfront at P Street Southwest. The 18-foot-tall granite figure with outstretched arms, in a pose strikingly similar to the one popularized by the recent movie about the disaster, is a memorial to the men who gave up their seats in the lifeboats to women and children.

• If all this sea lore makes you want to take to the water, book a lunch or dinner cruise on either the Odyssey (800/946-7245) or the Spirit of Washington (866/211-3811). Both ships sail from piers at Sixth and Water streets Southwest.

Seventh Street and Indiana Avenue Northwest stop

• Beads have been around for 50,000 years, and a tiny jewel box of a museum called The Bead Museum at 400 Seventh St. NW documents the important roles of these fascinating objects. Some of the examples on display include Buddhist prayer beads from Tibet, a marriage necklace from Mauritania, and mourning beads from Bohemia. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is by donation.

• “The pua is a giant Himalayan nettle plant,” explains Zarmina Said, telling a visitor the story behind the name of her shop, Pua, at 444 Seventh St. NW. The fibers are boiled, spun into yarn and woven on back-strap looms strung from rooftops in a remote corner of Nepal. “The women manage the tension by moving their hips,” says Ms. Said, who is from Afghanistan.

In addition to pua cloth, the shop sells clothing and jewelry from Nepal, Afghanistan and India.

“We use only natural fibers and hand-woven fabrics, and we work with family-owned businesses,” Ms. Said says. Pua itself is a family enterprise. Ms. Said’s sister Homa works in the shop, and her mother, Sharifa, knits many of the garments.

• Everybody talks about global warming, but you can really get a feel for it at the Marian Koshland Science Museum at Sixth and E streets Northwest. On one side of an exhibit, you place your hand on a circle that represents natural warming (simulated by thin, heat-trapping plastic). Then you move your hand to a circle that represents the amplified greenhouse atmosphere (simulated by thicker heat-trapping plastic).

In other interactive exhibits, you can try to match a suspect’s DNA to evidence at a crime scene.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, and admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, students and children.

Seventh and H Street Northwest stop

• The world’s largest single-span Chinese arch, the Chinatown Gateway Arch, marks the entrance to Washington’s Chinatown, an enticing jumble of shops and restaurants. The seven-roofed wooden archway was a cooperative endeavor of Washington and its sister city Beijing.

• Chinatown’s new neighbor, the MCI Center at Seventh and F streets Northwest, has brought myriad dining and entertainment options to the area, including the only bowling alley in the District, Lucky Strike Lanes, at 701 Seventh St. NW. It has 14 lanes, all with large TV screens overhead showing sports clips, and bowling balls that glow in the dark. A full-service restaurant/bar is also available.

• This summer you can stroll over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum at Eighth and G streets Northwest and its associated National Portrait Gallery. Closed for renovations, they’ll reopen on July 4.

Meanwhile, reboard the bus and go to Mount Vernon Place, where you can transfer to the bus that goes back to Union Station. It’s full circle — and the wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round.

WHAT: DC Circulator Bus

WHERE: 52 stops from Union Station west to Georgetown and south to the Southwest waterfront

WHEN: Every 5 to 10 minutes, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

TICKETS: Prepay at any of 13 ticket machines on the route, or $1 exact change on the bus (50 cents for seniors and the disabled); transfers good for two hours

INFORMATION: www.dccirculator.com

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