Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Presidents are “in” again, and that means Washington is a hot spot.

With Barack Obama moving into the White House next month and the ongoing celebration of Abraham Lincoln‘s life, the nation’s capital and its many tourism sites have been thrust into the spotlight.

As the nation installs its first black president, dozens of exhibits and attractions early next year are touching on the inauguration, the nation’s political and social history and its progress from the struggle for civil rights.

Mr. Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th president one day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and a few weeks before the 200-year anniversary of Honest Abe’s birth on Feb. 12, 1809. The symbolism and power of history could draw millions of people to the inaugural and in the weeks that follow. For the city’s museums and memorials, this is a key moment.

Some unique sites are in the middle of Washington yet off the beaten path for most tourists. One example, the Decatur House museum, was the first neighbor of the White House built on Lafayette Square in 1818. The house, once an unofficial residence for secretaries of state, includes slave quarters within steps of the White House - though they usually go unnoticed amid the hustle of the city.

“It’s a sensitive subject. It’s an important subject, though,” museum director Cindi Malinick said of an exhibit on black history in the White House neighborhood. “The more we discuss it and discuss … how these people lived and worked and got through their lives, I think the better off we all will be as a society.”

Decatur House, now administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, holds one of the few remaining examples of urban slavery in the United States, Ms. Malinick said.

It was there that 15 members of the King and Williams families lived together in three rooms on the second floor of a building located behind the red-brick house. They were considered the property of John Gadsby, owner of the National Hotel in the 1800s. Mr. Gadsby was said to have made a fortune in the slave trade.

A 2002 renovation uncovered the original floor, walls and fireplaces of the slave quarters, which are on view in the exhibit. Reservations are recommended for the $5 tour. “Certainly, given the magnitude of the new president that’s coming, this is a really special place,” Ms. Malinick said.

Mr. Obama visited the home in February to film a campaign commercial during the primaries held in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Access on Inauguration Day will likely be limited due to security, but public tours will continue the weekend before and in the days after Mr. Obama is sworn in.

Here are some highlights of other fresh sites to see in Washington.

New attractions: The National Museum of American History, recently reopened after a two-year renovation, features a dramatic display of the flag that inspired the national anthem. The museum also features exhibits on the presidency and the first ladies, and it has costumed historic characters wandering through the halls every weekend.

Visitors can also get their first look at the new Capitol Visitor Center, an underground museum that’s now the first stop for people touring Congress.

Lincoln bicentennial: A citywide celebration of the 200th anniversary of Honest Abe’s birth begins in January and will feature more than 80 exhibits and programs. The Smithsonian Institution will feature five exhibits on the 16th president.

In February, Ford’s Theatre - where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 - will reopen for tours and performances after an extensive renovation. There will be an open house Feb. 12 to mark Lincoln’s birthday, and tours resume Feb. 17.

Civil rights: Visitors can “walk in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr.” and others who fought for equality along the Civil War to Civil Rights heritage trail that winds through downtown Washington. Stops along the way include the alley where John Wilkes Booth fled after shooting Lincoln and the hotel where King finished his “I Have a Dream” speech.

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