WHAT IS IT? Hilltop Anacostia mansion and, from 1877 to 1895, home of famed African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
BEAUTY (4/10) Cedar Hill is located at what might be the highest point in Southeast Washington, D.C. The wide vista from the porch offers a direct and downward-angled perspective on the U.S. Capitol and the entire city to northwest. The Douglass house locale portrays the extraordinary heights and prominence he achieved in our nation and its government center.
The views, the stature and even Cedar Hill's unexpectedly immense size are ironically reminiscent of the Robert E. Lee family home, Arlington House, located a short distance to the west in Virginia. The freed slave abolitionist and the slave-owning Confederate general, born just a few years apart, both iconic symbols of their American century, both such disparate human beings are both honored by the National Park Service in similar houses separated by just a few miles.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman are the most celebrated African Americans of the 19th century. Ms. Tubman's exploits as a supernaturally courageous Underground Railroad conductor are indelibly etched in the collective American consciousness. Her actions speak volumes.
Frederick Douglass spoke, wrote powerful narratives and worked alongside some of the most powerful people of the era, including Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and William Lloyd Garrison for civil and human rights causes. Our understanding of Douglass' standing amongst his peers as well as his historical influence is decidedly lacking. Our visit here hindered and negatively impacted our prior knowledge. More on that later.
CROWDS (6/10) There were a few others touring the Site but they did not affect our visit.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The Site is located in the heart of historic downtown Anacostia at the corner of W Street SE and 14th Street SE. Washington, D.C. is geographically broken into four quadrants: NW, NE, SE and SW. Both NW and NE also have a W and 14th Street. So be aware, the Douglass Site is in Southeast D.C.
There are many different paths to the Site, most of them involving Interstate 295 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. We had no trouble finding the Site; there are plenty of signs. The Site has a large parking lot so, unlike most D.C. sites, you don't have to worry about street parking.
For those without car, the nearest D.C. Metro (subway) stop to the Douglass House is Anacostia, located on the green line. It is a 0.62-mile uphill hike to the Site.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) The Site carries a sparse but representative selection of Douglass and abolitionist texts. We always enjoy seeing the affordably priced Dover Thrift Editions of classic works but are a little leery when they dominate a store's racks.
COSTS (4/5) The Site is free with two free Ranger tours of the grounds daily. There may be a house tour fee in the future when Cedar Hill reopens.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) One Ranger interrupted her personal phone call to say “good bye.” It was just as well. The video had put us in a sour mood and our questions would have been too numerous and too surly.
TOURS/CLASSES (2/10) Cedar Hill's doors shut in 2004 as a part of an extensive refurbishment project. The tentative grand reopening is spring of 2007. In the meantime, what a Park volunteer told us were “very short” Ranger-led tours of the grounds leave daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. We arrived at noon and the volunteer's half-hearted tour pitch did not inspire our confidence. Our only educational choice was the “17-minute” film which was at least a half-hour long.
The abstract film consisted only of first-person historical reenactments told through the memories of an aged Douglass. There is no third-person narrator. You are there. We enjoyed this immersion style at Tumacácori NHP because the events recounted were common everyday occurrences. Douglass' story is about singular events with historic significance. We wanted to learn about these incidents, we wanted some outside perspective and we wanted to know their historic influence and lasting legacy. We didn't want speculative dialogue, dubious acting and no commentary.
At the very least, a superimposed date indicating when the memory was occurring would have helped. Instead, the viewer is forced to deduce the time via Douglass' percentage of gray hair. We learned nothing about Douglass via the film; in fact, we lost knowledge. The film even led us to irrationally dislike Douglass, not because of his historic actions but because of his creepy and pompous portrayal by the film's lead actor.
No educational result can be worse. Unfortunately the Site's “museum” consists only of a few poorly placed, dimly lit and tinily written panels. So any counter education is impossible. As for the “very short” tour, (even though we missed it) we are confident in saying it is the Site's best learning opportunity.
FUN (2/10) The Frederick Douglass NHS was a huge disappointment. One of the main purposes of our two- (now three) year trip was to intensively learn about the small number of great people that our country has honored with National Park sites. Learning about someone at their home or place of accomplishment is usually more memorable and more meaningful than sitting at home and reading a book. Not so here.
Note: We are getting depressed just writing this review. We apologize if we've brought you down.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10) If you must go before spring 2007 when the home tours ostensibly begin again, come at either 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. Skip the film. Please. Skip the film.
Because Cedar Hill is closed, there is little you can learn about Douglass at the Site. If you have an interest in the man, read his famous slave narrative and even some of his speeches. His National Park Site does not do his words or his actions justice.
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