WASHINGTON - In the nation's capital, it's easy to take our presidents for granted. Here, presidents are Nationals mascots as well as national monuments. Their personal lives are late-night one-liners.
And most people know about George Washington's Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson's elegant Monticello, and James Madison's Montpelier. But they require several hours of your time to tour, and the last two are two hours away by car.
But there are some lesser-known presidential digs that will take only an hour or so of your time.
The most moving is the recently restored President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home. The most impressive is the Woodrow Wilson House, thanks to the determination of Wilson's widow to preserve his legacy. But all will remind you of one of Washington's firmest convictions: America's leaders are not kings, but ordinary people.
Some house museums are better than others for children or wheelchair users. And if you want to get into Lincoln's Cottage anytime soon, you'd do well to make a reservation; tours are limited to 15 at a time.
Now, get out there and vote with your feet.
President Lincoln's CottageHistorical importance. This Gothic Revival house (called a cottage, but with 34 rooms) is three miles north of the White House and about 300 feet higher, making it much cooler in the summer. (Several other presidents also used it.)
From 1862 to 1864, Abraham Lincoln, wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and son Tad lived here from June to November - nearly a quarter of the time Lincoln spent in office. It's where he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and met with generals, diplomats and Cabinet members. Lincoln always took the same route from the White House to the cottage, and one night as he rode home, a sniper put a bullet through his stovepipe hat.
Tour highlights. Ghostly marks of shelves line the paneled library, and there are copies of Lincoln's favorite books and a checkerboard on tables. (He used to play checkers with Tad.) The visitor center has four small rooms with exhibits and an introductory video, and a large mural shows Lincoln talking with a convalescing soldier and Tad in his miniature military uniform.
A signed copy of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the pen Lincoln used to sign it are on display. Furnishings are scant (some period, some reproduction). In seven of the 10 rooms on the tour, lighting effects and actors' recordings of anecdotes illustrate Lincoln's thoughts on the war and slavery.
Bring the kids? Recommended for ages 8 and older. The dramatic re-creations are effective. There are interactive exhibits, and the "Cabinet room" has writing-desk-like computers where kids take on the roles of Lincoln's staff. Strollers not allowed in the cottage.
Tour information. Regularly open for guided tours (about an hour) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the hour Monday-Saturday, and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Adults, $12; ages 6-12, $5. Reservations recommended.
Wheelchair access. Good.
While in the neighborhood. Just north of the main Eagle Gate is Rock Creek Cemetery, where many Cabinet members, congressmen, Supreme Court justices and presidential relatives Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Henry Adams are buried.
Fun facts. Lincoln was fond of Shakespeare and once put John Hay, then his private secretary, to sleep by reading from Richard III.
Information. Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street NW; 202-829-0436. www.lincolncottage.org.
Woodrow Wilson HouseHistorical importance. This Georgian Revival mansion near Embassy Row is where the 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, spent the last three years of his life and where he died Feb. 3, 1924. He never recovered from a stroke in 1919 that left him paralyzed on his left side and blind in that eye, so the house was fitted with an elevator and was otherwise adapted. His widow, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, lived there until her death in 1961, preserving as much as possible and leaving it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Wilson served two terms, from 1913 to 1921. He based his second campaign on having kept the United States out of World War I, the "war to end all wars," but a year later called on Congress to join the conflict to make the world "safe for democracy."
Tour highlights. Because Wilson liked Lincoln's seven-foot bed, his wife had a replica made for him. The people of France gave Wilson a wall-size tapestry, and Pope Benedict XV gave him a mosaic of St. Peter from the Vatican. The stove is half-gas-, half-coal-fired, and has an early "slow cooker" on the side. The seven-piece desk set is Tiffany. The graphoscope is a kind of antique movie projector; a screen hangs over the bookcase in the study. The World War I artillery shell on the bedroom mantel is said to have been the first fired by American forces. Doctors used a "shock box" of glass instruments to try to strengthen Wilson's paralyzed muscles. His 1923 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost got six miles per gallon.
Bring the kids? There is plenty of odd stuff here to fascinate almost any age. Strollers are allowed.
Tour information. Open for guided tours (45 minutes to an hour) 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Adults, $7.50; 62 and older, $6.50; students, $3; 6 and younger, free.
Wheelchair access. Understandably good.
While in the neighborhood. The Textile Museum is up the street at 2320 S St. NW; the Phillips Collection art museum is at 1600 21st St. NW.
Fun fact. Wilson was a Washington Senators fan and often sat in his car beyond the outfield to avoid being a distraction.
Information. 2340 S St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle); 202-387-4062. www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org.
Dumbarton HouseHistorical importance. Dumbarton House is considered a particularly fine example of early Federal architecture and furnishings. Built on the Georgetown Heights, it had an unimpeded view south to the Potomac River and east to the President's House (the White House) and of the burning of the city in 1814. The house got its name from a homesick Scot who dubbed the land the "Rock of Dumbarton," after the promontory on which the ancient Dumbarton Castle stands.
On Aug. 24, 1814, as the British army advanced on the city, first lady Dolley Madison was evacuated from the White House to Dumbarton - after saving the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
Tour highlights. The collection includes a copy of the first printing of the 1777 Articles of Confederation, one of only five known to survive; a 100-piece dinner service belonging to Martha Washington's granddaughter Eliza; and one of George Washington's crested silver cups. The George III mahogany sofa with chairs in the music room is said to have come from the Monroe White House. In 1791, Charles Willson Peale painted a portrait of Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddard's three children with an early view of the Port of Georgetown and Mason's Island (Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the background; another Peale portrait depicts Phoebe Morris, one of Dolley Madison's protegees and the woman she hoped would be her daughter-in-law. The gentleman's wash stand with shaving mirror and bowl hides a bidet and a chamber pot in its lower drawers. The silver tea urn has a central tube where a heated rod fit.
Bring the kids? Strollers are not allowed. The staff considers the house best for ages 6 and older.
Tour information. Open for guided tours (about 45 minutes) at 10:15 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Museum doors open 15 minutes before tours. $5; students with IDs, free. Groups of 10 or more require reservations.
Wheelchair access. Good.
While in the neighborhood. The Old Stone House (3051 M St. NW), built in 1765, is one of the oldest structures in Washington (open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; free). George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among presidents who frequented the now-private City Tavern (3206 M St. NW).
Fun fact. Dumbarton House originally stood in the middle of what is now Q Street. In 1915, the two-story main building and basement were hauled 100 feet north for a bridge to be built over Rock Creek.
Information. 2715 Q St. NW. 202-337-2288. www.dumbartonhouse.org.
Tudor Place Historic House and GardenHistorical importance. Martha Washington's granddaughter, Martha Custis Peter, and her husband, Thomas Peter, began construction on Tudor Place in 1805 with $8,000 inherited from George Washington. The stucco, Neoclassical house, finished in 1816, with its circular, domed portico, was designed by William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol. Tudor Place has the largest collection of George and Martha Washington heirlooms and memorabilia, apart from Mount Vernon. Like Dumbarton House, it had a view of the burning of the capital in 1814. President Andrew Jackson visited in 1837 on the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. Robert E. Lee, whose father was one of Washington's top cavalry officers and whose wife was Martha Washington's great-granddaughter, often slept here.
Tour highlights. Martha Washington thought she had destroyed all of her husband's letters, but two were found in her desk at Tudor Place (the desk was given to Mount Vernon, but one of the letters remains). George Washington reluctantly sat for a miniature portrait on ivory that Martha Custis wanted as a wedding present; it's on display only on Presidents Day.
Bring the kids? Even kindergartners enjoy the house, staff members say, but strollers must be left outside, and all exhibits are strictly hands-off.
Tour information. Open for guided tours (about one hour) at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays; on the hour from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays. Adults, $6; 65 and older, $5; 13-21, $3, 6-12, $2. Groups of 10 or more require reservations.
Wheelchair access. Good.
While in the neighborhood. Sen. John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy lived at 3307 N St. NW for three years. On June 24, 1953, he proposed as they had dinner in Booth 3 of Martin's Tavern (Wisconsin Avenue at N Street NW; 202-333-7370).
Fun fact. The Peter children were named America, Britannia Wellington, George Washington and Columbia.
Information. 1644 31st St. NW; 202-965-0400. www.tudorplace.org.
Carlyle House Historic ParkHistorical importance. George Washington really did sleep at this 1753 Georgian Palladian mansion in Alexandria, Va., and probably quite often (although it can't be proved that he used the bed that is on display). Several of the reenactments staged at Carlyle House throughout the year are based on details from Washington's diaries.
John Carlyle, a Scottish immigrant, was a highly successful merchant and one of the City of Alexandria's original trustees. The Carlyles and Washingtons were related by marriage, and they spent a lot of time at each others' homes. Gen. Edward Braddock, head of the British forces during the French and Indian War, used it as his headquarters.
Tour highlights. The cornices and molding in the ornate blue dining room are original; the vivid green canvas wallcovering in the parlor isn't, but it has been taken from Carlyle's description. In one of the smaller bedrooms, the architectural elements, including the dovetailed beams, are exposed.
Bring the kids? Probably best for middle-school students and older.
Tour information. Regularly open for guided tours (about 45 minutes) on the hour and half-hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; from noon to 4 Sundays. Adults, $4; ages 11-17, $2; 10 and younger, free.
Wheelchair access. Limited to the ground floor (unfurnished but with accessible restrooms and gift shop); there are a few steps to the first floor. The second floor is not accessible.
While in the neighborhood. Washington's pew at Christ Church (118 N. Washington St.), which he bought in 1773, has been preserved. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum (105-107 S. Fairfax St.; 703-838-3852) has receipts showing that Martha Washington and James Monroe were among the clients.
Fun fact. When John Carlyle bought the land to build the house, the Potomac River came up to what is now Lee Street; landfill extended the city, and Carlyle's property, two blocks.
Information. 121 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria, Va. 703-549-2997. www.carlylehouse.org.
WoodlawnHistorical importance. Woodlawn was built for Martha Washington's granddaughter, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis Lewis, and her husband, Lawrence Lewis, who was George Washington's nephew. The 2,000-acre property in suburban Alexandria, Va., was a wedding present from Washington. William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, designed the Georgian home, which has a view of Mount Vernon about three miles away. Nelly Lewis and her husband were among Washington's most fervent fans and acquired all things Washingtonian. She outfitted a whole room for the Marquis de Lafayette, who stayed there during his 1824 tour; his bed and writing desk are on display. When the house was sold in the 1840s, Lewis used the proceeds to have Hiram Powers, one of the most prominent sculptors of the day, carve a marble bust of Washington.
Tour highlights. Pieces of Nelly Lewis' needlework are around the house. A smaller oil version of Edward Savage's "Washington Family" portrait at the National Gallery of Art, showing a teenage Lewis and her brother with George and Martha Washington, hangs in the entrance. One of a pair of Lewis' American Empire sofas is in the hallway; in 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy bought the other one for the Red Room of the White House, where it remains. The Lewises' son Lorenzo carved his initials and a skull-and-bones into a beam, which was later turned into a table. Woodlawn is said to be haunted, and a portrait of a son-in-law whom Nelly Lewis disliked frequently falls off the wall.
Bring the kids? There's fun stuff for fourth-graders and older students. Strollers are allowed. There is no elevator to the second floor, but when parents need to take turns with the kids, docents will let them take alternating tours.
Tour information. Regularly open March-December for guided tours (about 45 minutes) every hour and half-hour from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Adults, $7.50; children grades K-12, $3.
Wheelchair access. Limited to the ground floor; restrooms accessible.
While in the neighborhood. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Pope-Leighey House is on the Woodlawn property.
Fun fact. The American press repeatedly speculated about a romance between Nelly Custis and Lafayette's son, but she said she loved him as a brother.
Information. 9000 Richmond Hwy. (Route 1) at Route 235, Alexandria, Va.; 703-780-4000. www.woodlawn1805.org.