Adams Morgan is a neighborhood of Washington DC that has a lot of hidden history. Today, it is known as one of the best places to go out on weekends for the college crowd both for late night bars and karaoke. Join us on a self-guided Adams Morgan walking tour to learn more about its history on your way to brunch!
From our DC Tourism Guide, with budget advice, travel guides, and information about local Washington DC attractions.
Adams Morgan has a particular vibe for its nightlife. 18th Street is one of the main thoroughfares of Adams Morgan and of D.C. night life. Today, AdMo has a certain demographic. It’s abundance of bars and nightlife entertainment and its proximity to the universities, make it a very popular place to hang out for college kids and congressional staffers who want to pretend they are still in college. It has a distinct nightlife population. But some more of it’s famous bars and late night eats will be on this street: Amsterdam Falafal (Address: 2425 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009 – www.falafelshop.com) which is one of the top eats for tourists in DC, and the cash-only Jumbo Slice (Address: 2341 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009) – the largest slice of pizza I’ve ever seen or Julia’s Empanadas (Address: 2452 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009 – www.juliasempanadas.com) for a true flavor of the multi cultural vibe of the neighborhood.
Muzette is a Korean-style karaoke bar (norabang) where you and your friends rent a private room complete with large screen TV to read along and drinks delivered to you. This is a favorite location of ours. No more sharing the mic or listening to strangers belt out your favorite song before you could claim it! (Address: 2305 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009 – www.muzette.com)
If you’re in the mood for something warm, Sakuramen is easy to miss but delicious. It was started in a basement unit by two guys who “just love ramen.” (Address: 2441 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009- www.sakuramen.info)
Mintwood Place is where to go if you’re feeling presidential. Obamas have dined here as part of the “Dinner with Barack” campaign fundraiser. It was named one of the 100 Very Best Restaurants in 2015. They are known for their escargot hushpuppies. (Address: 1813 Columbia Rd. NW, WDC 20009 – http://mintwoodplace.com/)
The executive chef Marjorie Meeks-Bradley from Roofer’s Union is on this season of Top Chef (and doing really well!) and the food there is phenomenal! Incredible craft beer selection and favored for their sausages on a pretzel roll. It’s best for sitting at the bar, drinking beer and grazing on all the good apps.
The Diner is good for 24/7 food (not always easy to find in D.C.!) Good classic diner vibe and they had boozy milkshakes before it became a staple on DC bar menus. Also, quality people watching.
If you’re still up for brunch on Sunday, La Boum at L’Enfant Cafe is more of a brunch day party so its more suited to the younger crowd of 20-somethings or young at heart. And definitely not for a romantic meal for two – in fact they suggest not bringing a date, they’ll “find one for you.” It was just named one of BRAVO’s top Raging Brunches. (Address: 2000 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009 – www.laboumbrunch.com)
Adams Morgan, nicknamed AdMo for short, is an area that is proud of itself today for being an anti-suburb: its diverse, ethnic, and an integral part of the city, but it started as a suburb. It has gone from rich to poor and back to rich again. In the 1800s, rich Washingtonians moved from city center up the hill to get fresh air. In the eastern part of AdMo, where we end the tour, they was even a movement to move the White House there for the presidents health and the health of his family – because if his family were to get ill he would undoubtedly become distracted.
Adams Morgan is the name of four different neighborhoods: Washington Heights, Kalorama Triangle, Lenier Heights and Reed-Cook. It was originally known by various names or as these separate neighborhoods. When new boundaries were laid out, this neighborhood covered bits of the four listed above. A new name was developed for the community, The Adams-Morgan Community Council, when the two local schools were desegregated in 1955. It was named after the schools, John Q. Adams (which was reserved as the local white school) and Thomas P. Morgan (and older school reserved as a the local school for black children).
A. The Treaty Tree Washington Hilton Hotel
1919 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20009
Before this area was called D.C., it was farm estates of the rich and before that it was land of various Native American tribes. Legend tells the story of a grand oak tree that once stood here. Underneath this tree was where George Washington stood to sign a treaty with the natives, ceding the land here of 100 square miles to build a federal district. There was a house built here in the 1800s which belonged to Thomas P Morgan, namesake of an area school and the neighborhood. The land was eventually sold to the Freemasons with the intention of building a masonic temple, this area is still called Temple Heights. They never fully paid for it. The land was then earmarked to be the location of a Frank Lloyd Wright building – 200′ tall and made of glass. It was never built. In 1945 they gave up and cleared the entire lot, including the oak tree! In the 1950s the land was bought by Hilton and turned into a hotel. This has been the site of every official inauguration ball since 1969 and where Reagan was shot in 1981. In 2010, they added this tree here – the “Scarlet Oak” as a tribute to the original “Treaty Oak” that was chopped down.
Continue north up the hill on Connecticut Ave NW until you reach Wyoming St NW.
B. The Bates Warren Apartment House
2029 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20009
As we walk down this road, the area is Kalorama Heights and these were some of the nicest houses in the area. Kalorama is Greek for “fine view” and was named before the high rises and tall trees. The original owner of most of this part of northwest DC was Joel Barlow, the poet known for The Hasty-Pudding. As the capital city expanded with the ease of transportation thanks to streetcars and a bridge across the river, more and more people moved up this way and the estate was divided again and again. In the early twentieth century, mansions and later large condominiums were built. At 2029 Connecticutt Ave NW, the Bates Warren Apartment House condos were lived in by Dwight D. Eisenhower, William Howard Taft, Lena Horne and General John J. Pershing. Built in the early 1900s, these were the first luxury apartments in the city.
The Kalorama Park on the left is part of what was once the beautiful Kalorama 30 acre estate of Barlow – well before the suburbs crawled this way. He purchased the land in 1807 after recommendations by his friend, Thomas Jefferson.
Continue east along Wyoming Street to 19th St NW and turn right, down the hill of 19th St NW.
C. John Quincy Adams School
2020 19th St NW, Washington DC 20009
This is the John Q. Adams school, one of the schools that lends its name to the neighborhood. The Morgan school is no longer standing. The main outcome of the community organization that was founded after desegregation was the Mary H Reed Elementary School. This was not only a school but a recreational facility and community center. The Adams school here was built in the the 1930s. After the Reed Elementary school was built to serve all the neighborhood children, this became an “Americanization school” for immigrant adults. Adams Morgan was, and still is today, the destination of many newly arrived immigrants moving to the city.
Look across the street for the Old Chinese Embassy Condos
D. Old Chinese Embassy
2001 19th St NW, Washington DC 20009
This building was designed by Waddy B.Wood, the same architect who designed Woodrow Wilson’s house not far from here. This was built in 1903 as the Imperial Chinese Legation and housed the embassy until 1944. It is now condos and an excellent example of this type of architecture, Georgian Revival. The building still has the grand entry foyer, limestone blocked windows and the original reception hall.
Go back up 19th St NW just a bit to reach California Rd NW. to take it to 18th St NW. Turn left up 18th St NW. You have a few blocks of 18th St until the next stop, read Stop E for more about the street and some ideas for where to stop for a snack!
E. 18th Street Northwest
18th Street is one of the main thoroughfares of Adams Morgan and of D.C. night life. Today, AdMo has a certain demographic. It’s abundance of bars and nightlife entertainment and its proximity to the universities, make it a very popular place to hang out for college kids and congressional staffers who want to pretend they are still in college. It has a distinct nightlife population. But some more of it’s famous bars and late night eats will be on this street: Amsterdam Falafal which is one of the top eats for tourists in DC, and Jumbo Slice – the largest slice of pizza I’ve ever seen.
You’ll have no problem finding Madam’s Organ. It’s a tall purple building with a mural.
F. Madam’s Organ
2461 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Madam’s Organ, a play on words, is a blues club. A pretty awesome one at that, but what used to be here was a little store, Children’s Supermart. The store started out by selling baby furniture, but then customers wanted baby toys, then toys for older kids as their children grew. In 1957, it started focusing on toys. Can you name a famous toy store? Toys R Us.
The mural here on Madams’ Organ was commissioned as art work, but since it contains the name of the establishment, the DCRA says its advertisement and required it to be taken down. The owner refused, paid a fine and the case is still in the Court of Appeals.
Continue north on 18th St NW until the intersection of Columbia Rd NW and find the Suntrust Bank.
G. Knickerbocker Theatre
Southwest Corner of 18th and Columbia St NW, the site of the current Suntrust Bank
This was the Knickerbocker Theatre, a state of the art movie theatre built in 1915. The building had a curved, three-story facade of limestone on red brick in a Georgian Revival style and seated 1,700. In 1922, the theatre was filled with people watching Get Rich Quick, Wallingford – it had been a snowy winter, a snowy night. With the flat roof, and so much snow, the roof collapsed killing 98 persons and injuring 133. To date, this is still the largest snow storm in DC history at 27″ of snow and is still called the Knickerbocker Storm.
H. Ambassador Theatre
Southwest Corner of 18th and Columbia St NW, the site of the current Suntrust Bank
The year after the tragic events, a new theatre was built using the facade of the Knickerbocker Theatre. For about 6 months it was a dance hall. The original name was the Psychedelic Light and Electric Company, ran by three men who wanted to bring a taste of San Fran to DC. They were originally located on K Street but denied permits. When word got out that they wanted to come to this location – residents banded together for fear of drugs, long hair and loud music. The residents succeeded in postponing the opening, which mean the Grateful Dead who were booked, never played here. But a little known group did play here one night – you may have heard of the Jimi Hendrix Experience?
In Oct 1967, the night before the March on the Pentagon, an anti-war rally was held here with Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell.
The Ambassador Theatre was located here after for a while, but most people preferred the television at home and it was forced to close.
Continue east along Columbia Road NW.
I. Columbia Road NW
In the 1940s, this area was a little Park Avenue. Furs by Gautenhaus, hand cranked ice cream at Budds, and here was a french pastry shop: Avignon Freres, where Presidents Truman and Eisenhower used to have tea, though not together. The pastry shop made the cake for the Kennedy Inauguration and the famous Watergate Cake – a delicious cake in the shape of the hotel for its grand opening.
The area changed – during WWII, more people moved out of the city. As the buildings got older, they got less expensive and the area more diverse. After the riots in 1968, so many people fled the city and the area. It opened the way even more for immigrants looking for less expensive housing. This lead to the diverse nature AdMo holds today. Most of its immigrant residents come from El Salvador, Guatemala and other South American countries. It has a distinct Latino flavor as we continue down this road. The Festival Parade and now Fiesta, Latino festivals in the area, bring the various cultures of these countries neighborhood.
When you get to the corner of 17th and Columbia Rd NW, the southwest corner may be under construction. We’re talking about this location.
J. Ontario Theatre
1700 Columbia Rd NW, Washington DC 20002
This seems like a really uninteresting corner, just a building for lease or construction depending on when you visit – the building is threatened with demolition. This was the Ontario Theatre. It cost $600,000 to build and could hold 1,400 persons with one single screen with rocking chair seats. There was a separate room called the “cry room” – whether that was for babies crying or woman after an emotional film. There was also a party room to have birthday parties. In the foyer was a chandelier from the Paramount Theatre in NYC. It still exists, it’s just in storage. The longest running film here was the Sound of Music, which ran for 92 weeks! RFK visited and watched a film here. After its heydey, it became a Spanish language theatre, then a B horror theatre and back to a standard movie theatre.
In the 1970s, it was a concert hall. The Clash played here, the Police played here, too. And a little known band had the crowd on its feet as its lead singer Bono was dancing on stage – U2 had one of their earliest concerts here. Amazing to think this was the late 1970s since they are still going strong!
Go south on 17th St NW until the corner of Kalorama Rd NW.
K. Harris Teeter
Citadel, The Cidadel, 1631 Kalorama Rd NW #100,
We all know Harris Teeter as just a grocery store. And yet again, an unassuming building has a cool history. This was built as a National Guard Amory. There isn’t much you can do with that type of building because it has no windows and basically it’s just thick walls. After WWII, we didn’t need an armory here so it became a roller rink, a roller derby, a boxing arena, a wrestling arena and bowling alley. During its time as a boxing arena, an 11 year old fought here – his name was Ray Leonard. It was also a movie studio with Peggy Sue and Pelican Brief shot here. Did any one see the MTV Q&A with Bill Clinton where he was asked if he wears boxers or briefs? That was shot here. It was a concert hall, a gogo club. The band GWAR played here. It was abandoned for about 10 years before it became Harris Teeter.
L. Kalorama Road NW
This area was zoned as “colored” meaning there was no requirement for foundations for the buildings. This is where the servants of the mansions lived. As the city grew and the neighborhood gentrified, that changed.
John F. Kennedy lived down the street at the Dorchester in 1941 with his sister Kathleen when he was in the Navy. Kathleen was the 4th child, 2nd daughter and married into British royalty. Unlike the Kennedys, the British royalty are not Catholic. Only one brother attended the wedding in 1944. Her husband was killed a few months later in WWII and she was killed in a plane crash in 1948. Only her father attended the funeral, her mother was still mad that she married a protestant.
Continue down 17th St NW until Crescent Place St NW and turn left. As you walk along the high brick wall, if the gates at 1624 are open, have a look at this grand house.
M. White-Meyer House
1624 Crescent Place, NW, Washington, DC 20002
Henry White, a retired diplomat and signer of the Treaty of Versailles, had this forty room house built in 1912. It was designed by John Russell Pope, the same architect of the Jefferson Memorial. In 1934, Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post, purchased the house. It has seen the likes of Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt, many of the Kennedys, including JFK, President Johnson and earlier President Harding.
Continue on Crescent Place NW until 16th St NW and turn right. You’ll be following along a large brick wall again. Stop at the corner of 16th and Florida Ave NW.
M. Henderson Castle
Northwest Corner of 16th and Florida Ave NW
Mary Henderson, a senator’s wife, lived in this neighborhood. She thought that 16th and Florida Ave was the key artery of D.C. Florida was originally called Boundary Street since this was as far as DC was meant to go. South of Florida was the city of Washington and north was Washington County – which makes Adam Morgan, as well as many other D.C. neighborhoods technically suburbs! Mary Henderson did not mind that this was outside the city limits – that was all changing anyways as Washington City grew. She wanted more important buildings here. Eventually 16th become known as the Avenue of the Presidents, and there enormous busts of all the presidents. No one really ever called it that and the name was only named such for 1.5 years. She thought the White House was too small, and as I said before, downhill, so they wanted a new house built here. The Lincoln Memorial was almost built here. The Vice Presidents House was built here originally.
US Zero Mile continues up 16th street, which is why it’s called Meridian Hill.
16th Street has the French, Polish, Lithuanin, Cuban/Swiss Embassies. The Guatemalan, Mexican and El Salvadoran were here due to the large number of its populations in the area. The Cuban Interest Section has a Hemingway Daq Bar that is invite only.
On the northwest corner was Henderson Castle, Mary’s home and her effort to make this neighborhood great. It was eventually abandoned and became the sites of raves and loud music. The owners of the houses behind it complained of raves and the house was demolished. They’ve left the wall surrounding the house and you can see the red brick wall along the sidewalk. It’s now a very ugly apartment building.
N. Meridian Park
Meridian Park is behind those walls across the street. It’s known for a drum circle on Sunday afternoons which has been taking place since the 1950s. They are still happening today so if you find yourself nearby on a Sunday afternoon, just follow the beat.
This was originally the site of a mansion in the early 1800s, then become a park, then during the Civil War an encampment for Union soldiers. After the war, Columbian College was here located here. This was the predecessor for GWU, which moved to Foggy Bottom. After the college left, Mary Henderson started her lobbying and she finally got approval for a park. The main feature is a cascading water fall, a statue of Joan of Arc, and a presidential memorial that no one remembers: James Buchanan. Fun Fact: He was the first President to wear jeans in the Oval Office.