The translucent stream of water glides over the fountain’s edge, and from the fountain’s center a gush of water bubbles up. A summer breeze whispers in the trees. Birds twitter. You are forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported to a forest retreat.
You are, in fact, still in Washington. This is the Kahlil Gibran Commemorative Garden directly across from the British Embassy — on a 2-acre wooded site within shouting distance of the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue.
It is just one of many quiet oases of Washington hidden in plain view, small gardens and parks where harried urbanites can go for a stroll, read a book, eat a sandwich, watch people, enjoy the company of their families — and generally emerge lighter in soul and spirit.
Built with private funds as a tribute to the Lebanese-born writer, poet, artist and philosopher Kahlil Gibran in the early 1990s, this garden’s setting embodies the peacefulness that permeates his work.
“Life without freedom is like a body without a soul and freedom without thought is confusion,” reads one of several excerpts from Gibran’s 1923 book, “The Prophet,” engraved on the stone wall surrounding the fountain. Stone benches ring the wall and the granite patio is patterned with an Islamic star motif.
The centerpiece fountain drips into an eight-pointed star pool. It is cool and comforting to sit here and look out to the street yet feel apart from it.
“Even though Kahlil Gibran is long gone, his spirit and works live on in the hearts and minds of people everywhere,” says George T. Cody, executive director of the American Task Force for Lebanon, who was a frequent visitor to the tranquil spot when he lived nearby.
Nooks like the Gibran garden can be found all over Washington if one knows where to look. Just a block west of bustling Dupont Circle and across from the Embassy of India at 2107 Massachusetts Ave., for example, is Gandhi Park, a tiny triangular piece of land presided over by an elegant Mohandas Gandhi — the mahatma — in mid-stride.
The familiar figure — bald, dressed in a plain garment, walking stick in hand — is shown leading the 1930 Salt March, a quietly defiant 24-day, 240-mile walk to protest the British government’s ban on Indians’ making or selling salt.
The statue was dedicated just five years ago.
“It seems appropriate that there should be a monument to Gandhi in Washington, as his campaigns were an inspiration to the civil rights movement,” says Bethesda historian Kathryn Tidrick, author of the forthcoming biography “Gandhi and the Power of Good.”
“His name has come to be a symbol of nonviolent resistance to oppression,” she says.
The striking bronze statue, pointedly facing north toward the British Embassy, stands on a mound of red granite bordered on the ground by circular granite slabs edged with bright yellow and purple marigolds.
Walk away from your office at lunchtime and sit on the cool stone bench in Gandhi’s shadow or under the graceful cascading branches of the weeping beech tree on the surrounding lawn. You will be replenished with a calm stillness and renewed purpose that matches his expression of quiet determination.
Another hidden treasure, this one literally tucked between two streets of different elevation, is a staircase. Yes, a stone stairway, albeit a spacious one bounded by towering trees and adorned with a fountain. A rushing stream of water flows from a granite lion’s open mouth.
Find the base of this staircase where 22nd Street NW dead-ends into Decatur Place NW. Climb the steps, and at the top you’ll find yourself on S Street NW.
The Decatur Terrace Steps and Fountain — constructed in 1911, restored in 1999 and commonly called the Spanish Steps — are well known to their neighbors but not to most Washingtonians. Some, like a fiftyish woman in a wide-brimmed bronze straw hat who was walking around the neighborhood, find them almost by accident.
“I asked if there was a nearby place to sit and was pointed here,” she says.
Private and tranquil, this is an urban forest high up in the hills of downtown, where one can sit on the steps and look down toward Massachusetts Avenue as it approaches Dupont Circle.
Cars whiz by in the distance but the fountain waters drown the city noise, and on a recent afternoon whose heat presaged the Washington summer, several solitary souls sat on the cool stone in deep serenity.
An escape can be steps from where you live or work or shop, yet light years away in mood.
Go to Sunderland Place NW one block south of Dupont Circle. Find the black wrought-iron entrance gate and look up. There, sitting atop a rectangular column, is a proud red sandstone lion with a wild mane, its mouth open wide in awe or perhaps greeting.
Pull open the gate and step into paradise.
“It’s absolutely delightful,” says Charles Krauthammer, the syndicated columnist whose office is nearby and who has been spotted sunning himself in the park.
The private garden is the back yard of the ornate Victorian mansion called the Brewmaster’s Castle. Built in the late 19th century by the German immigrant, local brewer and philanthropist Christian Heurich, it is open to the public today as the Christian Heurich House Museum.
The Christian Heurich Garden Park is beautifully laid out, a sanctuary of unparalleled peace and quiet in the commotion of downtown Washington.
In the smaller outer garden, old-fashioned wooden benches surround a tiered birdbath that attracts a multitude of flapping wings, especially after a rain.
The larger grass garden is popular with office workers, who tend to shed their shoes as soon as they plop themselves on the lawn, with tourists who picnic while sitting on cotton blankets, and with stroller pushers who keep an eye on their charges from filigreed wrought iron benches. Despite all the people, the space is intimate and conducive to catching one’s breath and even solitary repose.
“This is the only place in town one can sleep outdoors shamelessly,” says Mr. Krauthammer, who admits to catching a 20-minute nap there from time to time.
Wander across M Street from Barnes & Noble in Georgetown and through the white picket fence. Suddenly you’re in Thomas Hardy country, the Old Stone House Garden.
Technically considered a border garden because the expansive grassy area is bordered on three sides by shrubs and trees, it really is an English-style garden with abundant flowering perennials, 107 kinds of bushes and something always in bloom, says Beverly Magruder, 43, the National Park Service gardener in charge of the grounds.
“Visitors from England love it,” Ms. Magruder says.
She sustains native species (asters, goldenrods, Solomon’s seal) mixed in with ornamentals (coneflowers, peonies, sunflowers) and plants that attract birds and butterflies.
Along the side fence hang lilac-colored wisteria and the orange flowers of trumpet vine much beloved by hummingbirds. Overhead are crab apple trees, a weeping willow, a persimmon tree and a large black walnut tree that “keeps a lot of squirrels in the city happy,” she says with a laugh.
“I never have trouble with squirrels eating bulbs because they have a plentiful supply of natural food.”
The original plot of land, called “lot No. 31” on old maps, dates to the 1700s, when Georgetown was newly established. One Christopher Layman built the Old Stone House in 1765. Probably a vegetable and herb garden were set farther back on the lot along with a yard for a mule and chickens and a privy.
When the National Park Service bought the property in 1953 for $90,000, it was a used-car lot owned by Parkway Motors. The house was restored to its 18th-century Colonial state, the cars removed, the compacted soil broken up, topsoil brought in and a garden planted.
“Now it is a refuge to get away from the street,” Ms. Magruder says with pride. “People come in to read, relax or just look around.”
Continue down M Street toward Key Bridge and you’re on the way to Francis Scott Key Park, at the corner of 34th Street.
From across the street you see the American flag gloriously waving in the azure sky high above the leafy trees. Look carefully and you’ll count 15 white stars, three rows of five each.
The author of “The Star-Spangled Banner” lived here from 1804 to about 1833. When the bridge went up his house came down, but the plot was saved.
Today the landscaped park offers river breezes and a view of the Potomac and the Arlington skyline. A wooden trellis casts speckled shade over a comfortable stone wall that’s perfect for a stopover between shopping down the street or studying up the hill at Georgetown University.
Amanda Chase, from New Hampshire, and Caitie Fel, from Illinois, both 19-year-old freshmen at the university, were taking a break recently from classes while munching on sandwiches from Dean & DeLuca, the upscale mart on M Street.
“We have finals this week,” they say with a wide-eyed look that explains the need for a shot of nature.
For romance in the afternoon meander over to upper Georgetown to the red-brick walled enclosure that conceals the magnificent 10-acre formal Dumbarton Oaks Gardens on R Street NW, a private park that keeps restricted spring, summer and fall hours and asks a fee for entry.
Slip through the Swedish wrought-iron main gate and disappear into a luxuriant heaven on earth, no matter what the weather. On this day raindrops glisten like tiny pearls on the leaves and the brick pathways are luminescent.
“I think a rainy day is a perfect time to visit,” says Diana MacLeish, the garden gate attendant, to a visitor handing over moist bills.
Landscape architects in the 1920s and ‘30s created a vibrant mix of floral plantings, trees, walkways and semi-enclosed spaces that are maintained today by a full-time crew of dozens.
“Everyone wants to get married here,” Ms. MacLeish says with the knowing smile of a long career at the gardens, “but we don’t allow it.”
The park doesn’t allow eating, either, but who needs food? Visitors get an annotated self-guided tour and are encouraged to explore the grounds as they would a castle — up and down narrow stone steps, along winding ribbon pathways, onto colorful terraces.
Stare at the gigantic Katsura tree, planted in the 1800s, with intertwined branches the size of tree trunks now sprawling along the ground.
Sit in the amphitheater overlooking an aqua-tiled pond fringed by a greenish wall of bamboo and five Romanesque columns.
Tiptoe on the blue, white and terra cotta-colored Mexican stones in the Pebble Garden and laugh at the cherubic angel boy sculptures playing with serpents.
Marvel at the 16-foot-high ironwood-tree aerial hedge framing an antique Provencal fountain.
Hide in a tiny alcove.
The gardens “calm you and lift your spirits,” Ms. MacLeish says. In rain or shine this is a magic place. “Everyone who comes leaves feeling better.”
And the children? Where will their senses be perked up? Try the koi pond across town at the National Arboretum between the Administration Building and the East Terrace.
Here 3-year-old Raynice Carter, her head bobbing with a dozen braids tipped in shiny silver beads, runs back and forth from a 25-cent fish-food dispenser to the pond’s edge, dropping tiny rust-colored food pellets into the open mouths of koi swarming toward her.
Koi are Japanese carp that look like huge goldfish but for a slight whisker at each corner of their mouths. They come in a rainbow of colors, and the black water of the pond is speckled with moving blobs of yellow, pink, tangerine-orange and chalky-white.
“Koi are very sociable and come up to the surface to be fed,” says Susan Burgess, coordinator of special events, a clipboard in hand and ringing cell phone on her belt. They hibernate at the pond’s bottom when it’s cold and come up a few months later.
“People think we take them away in winter, but we don’t,” Ms. Burgess says.
Human feeding is a bit more restricted. Coffee, bottled water and muffins are sold on weekends from a cart on the East Terrace of the Administration Building and can be enjoyed on the tables and chairs there. Picnicking is allowed only in the picnic area at the National Grove of State Trees near the Arboretum’s southern boundary.
So you see, there’s no shortage of special places in our beautiful Washington. Go then, pack a sandwich, bring a book, grab your children’s hands and revel in an intimacy with nature right outside your door. You’ll be glad you did.
Unwind at a park in D.C.
One word describes Washington’s nook-and-cranny parks: cool. Here’s a guide to the oases mentioned in the story:
1. The Kahlil Gibran Commemorative Garden: Directly across Massachusetts Avenue from the Embassy of Great Britain (at 3100 Massachusetts Ave. NW). Always open. Free.
2. Gandhi Park: Directly across from the Embassy of India (at 2107 Massachusetts Ave. NW) in a triangular plot bounded by Massachusetts Avenue, Q Street and 21st Street NW. Always open. Free.
3. Decatur Terrace Steps and Fountain (Spanish Steps): 22nd Street NW between S Street and Decatur Place NW. Always open. Free.
4. Christian Heurich Garden Park: 1921 Sunderland Place NW between 19th Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday from spring to fall, weather permitting. Free.
5. Christian Heurich House Museum (The Brewmaster’s Castle): 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW. Walk-in tours 12:15 and 1:15 p.m. Wednesdays. Suggested donation $5 per person. Group tours by reservation. Call 202/429-1894 or see https://heurichhouse.org.
6. Old Stone House and Garden: 3051 M St. NW. The Old Stone House itself is open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday through the summer. Free. Call 202/895-6070 or see www.nps.gov/olst. The garden is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Free.
7. Francis Scott Key Park: M Street NW at the corner of 34th Street NW. Always open. Free.
8. Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: 3101 R St. NW, 1½ blocks east of Wisconsin Avenue NW. 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday from March 15 to Oct. 31. $7 adults, $5 children 2 to 12, $5 seniors 60 and over. Food not allowed. Call 202/339-6401 or see www.doaks.org.
— Audrey Hoffer
U.S. National Arboretum:# 3501 New York Ave. NE. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Dec. 25. Light fare for purchase on the Administration Building’s East Terrace from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Picnicking at any time in the National Grove of State Trees. Call 202/245-2726 or see www.usna.usda.gov. Free.