Downtown / Penn Quarter / Chinatown (November 20, 2020)
There is a mix of modern and traditional buildings in this part of the District which makes for some interesting juxtapositions.
One beautiful old building in the neighborhood is the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. The building was dedicated in 1908 by the Adas Israel Congregation. However, when the congregation moved to a larger space in 1951 the building was sold to the Turner Memorial A.M.E. Church. The church, in turn, moved fifty years later and three local Jewish developers purchased and restored the building to its original roots as a synagogue. It was rededicated and reopened in 2004. The synagogue offers Jewish programs but it is more well known in the District for its cultural events and live entertainment. Famous speakers, writers, musicians and comedians have all performed there. A while back we saw the Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk give a reading there followed by an interview. If you don’t know his work, we suggest you check it out. To our minds he is one of the world’s great living writers. The Swedish Academy obviously agree because they awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.
The synagogue at Sixth & I is not, in fact, the oldest synagogue in the city. That honor goes to a modest brick building that was constructed in 1876, and was the original home of the Adas Israel congregation. Much like the Jewish people, it has spent many years finding a permanent home. It was moved in 1969 from its original location to make way for the new Metro headquarters. Then in 2016 it was again moved to make way for a new development. Finally, in 2019, it was moved to its current position.
Over the years, the small synagogue has played a number of roles. As well as being a synagogue, it has been an African American church, a Greek Orthodox church, a deli, a barbershop, a barbecue restaurant, a bicycle store and a coffee shop. Next the synagogue will be encased by a new $34 million facility and reimagined as the Capital Jewish Museum, dedicated to Jewish life in Washington. It is slated to open in 2021.
We passed another red brick building, although one that was slightly larger than the synagogue. The National Building Museum is dedicated to “architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning. The building, completed in 1887, initially housed the United States Pension Bureau but was converted into a museum in the 1980s.
It is a massive building. Inside is an atrium so large (96×35 meters), that model planes have been flown around inside it. Over the years, it has been a popular place to host inaugural balls.
Another structure with a beautiful atrium is the building that houses the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum. The building was originally the Old Patent Office Building but was turned into museums in 1968. In 2000 the building closed for a massive renovation that included enclosing the central courtyard with a glass roof designed by Norman Foster, the famous British architect.
Every year, a holiday market springs up on F Street in front of the museum. It’s a great place to find holiday gifts.
There are a large number of residential buildings in the neighborhood. One of our favorites is this building. And it’s not just that our good friend Rob lives there, although it does help.
Passing through Chinatown, we noticed that the pedestrian crossings included the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac.
Aptly, in a year dominated by a pandemic that has extended to the four corners of the world, 2020 is the year of the rat, an animal forever linked with the Black plague, the deadliest pandemic in modern history.