Washington DC is one of the most visited cities in the United States. Thousands of articles are written about what to do and see in Washington DC. There are stories on DC’s history and secrets. But, the city still has a shroud of mystery, especially Congress. How much do you really know about the city and the Congress that operates there? I’m sharing my insider knowledge on things you probably never knew about DC.
There is no J Street
DC roads are organized by letters and numbers. Lettered streets run horizontally and numbered streets run vertically. However, there is no J street in DC. There are many rumors surrounding why there is no J street. However, in 18th century English, the letters I and J were interchangeable, especially when hand written. The planners of the city likely left out J street to not confuse everyone.
The Senate Black Market
In the Senate buildings, most offices have food items from their states. Kentucky offices may have Kellogg’s pop tarts and nutri-grain bars. Georgia offers peanuts and Coke and New York offices have Chobani yogurt. In addition to showcasing foods from their state, the snacks become part of a black market of sorts between staff. Interns have mapped out which offices have what foods and trading snacks between staffers in different offices sometimes occurs. You can even make a decent breakfast with yogurt and craisins from New York and Massachusetts, coffee from Louisiana, granola from Connecticut and orange juice from Florida.
There are miles of tunnels underneath the Congressional buildings. The basements leading to the tunnels even have barber shops, shoe repairs and cafes. The tunnels connect the House and Senate office building to the main Capitol building. In the Capitol building, the tunnels run to the Supreme Court and Library of Congress. Between the senate office buildings and the Capitol building, there are mini subways. These trains are only accessible with a staff ID. If you followed my tip on taking a staff led tour of the Capitol, you’ll be able to go to the Capitol via these tunnels as well.
Center of the City
The streets of DC have a pristine order to them. However, they can appear confusing at first. One of the things you probably never knew about DC is that the US Capitol is the center of the city and all streets leave from the Capitol like a spoke on a wheel. A street and 1st street start right next to the Capitol. Letter streets run east-west and numbered streets run north-south. The further out from the capitol you are, the larger the streets are in letter or number. Lettered streets only go to W street because that was the end of the original city plans. After moving past the original city plans, lettered streets turn into two syllable word streets in alphabetical order and then three syllable streets. Streets named after states run diagonal.
In every office for both the House and Senate, there are seemingly normal clocks. One of the things you probably never knew about DC, and Congress, is that these clocks have a code system that allows staff and members to know what is happening in the chambers. All of the clocks have bells and lights to show what is happening. Signal bells have been in use since the first Congressional offices opened in 1909. Due to high frequency transmissions interfering with the signals, a new system started in the mid-2000s that includes the lights and bells that are used today.
A continuous red light signifies that the Senate is in session. There are six other lights and bells that go on and off throughout the day to signify what is happening on the floor. One light means there is a call to vote, while five lights mean that there are seven and a half minutes remaining to vote. When all six lights stay on, the Senate is in a brief recess during the daily session. There is also a countdown timer in the tunnels to show the Senators how much time remains to get to the Senate floor to vote.
There are a few unspoken rules in DC, mostly surrounding the metro system. The quickest way to get a Washingtonian testy with you is to stand on the left side of the escalator. The #1 rule of the metro is always stand on the right, walk on the left. The metro system legally can’t put signs up, it’s against safety codes. Trust me, stand on the right side, especially during commuting hours. The metro system also lays claim to the tallest escalators in the Western Hemisphere, so you’ll probably want to ride the escalator versus walk anyways.
Did you know that the Washington Monument is two different colors? The Washington National Monument Society formed in 1833, providing private funds to build a monument to George Washington and construction on the monument began in 1848. Stone was sourced from a quarry near Baltimore. However, by 1854 the funds ran out and construction on the monument came to a standstill. Soon after, the Civil War broke out. The monument stood 1/3 of the way built for over 20 years.
In 1876, the federal government decided to take on funding and completing the monument. When construction began again, stone from the original quarry was no longer available. A similar match in color was found from an alternative quarry. However, after time, the different sections weathered differently, giving the monument two different colors. You can go up inside the monument and look out over DC, Virginia and Maryland from the 500 foot observation deck.
Where do high-profile politicos go to eat? You can actually find them quite frequently at normal places, like the Senate CUPS coffee shop or burger joints. But when they need a break from being in the public eye, odds are they go to one of the nine restaurants in DC with secret entrances and exits. The famous Blue Duck Tavern has a side entrance on M street that doesn’t have any signage. Carmine’s in Penn Quarter also has a private entrance. However, Joe Biden comes through the main entrance when he dines there.
Mari Vanna, a Russian restaurant close to the White House, also has a special entrance and secret service stairwell. With all the high profile events that go on at the Kennedy Center, its natural that they will have a series of private entrances for VIPs (and not only politicos..Oprah has used the entrances as well). RIS, Weekend Bistro at the Ritz Carlton, Plume at the Jefferson Hotel and Fiola all have private entrances as well.
Another one of the things you probably never knew about DC is that there is a specific desk on the Senate floor that is stockpiled with candy. The tradition of a candy desk began in 1965 when Sen. George Murphy (CA) stored candy in his desk to satisfy his sweet tooth. Side note – food technically isn’t allowed on the Senate floor. In 1968 he moved to a desk that sat closest to the eastern door, one of the most used entrances to the chamber. Since then, Senators have taken turns manning the candy desk and filling it with sweets from their home states. Currently, Pat Toomey (PA) stocks the desk with Hersey chocolate, hot tamales, three musketeers and jelly bellys.
The Senate cloakrooms were originally used to hold Senators’ personal items when on the floor. However, since the early 1900s, when Senators received their own office spaces, the cloakrooms have been used less. They developed a reputation for being smoke filled rooms full of wheeling and dealing. The cloakrooms actually aren’t very glamorous. The room is shockingly small and isn’t ornately furnished. One of the nicest features are old, wooden phone booths remaining in the cloakroom.
Unlike the House cloakrooms, there is no food provided in the Senate cloakrooms. Although, Senate catering occasionally leaves leftovers. The Senate banned smoking on the floor in 1914 and in all areas (including the cloakroom) of the Senate wing since 1995 (although some Senators have been known to sneak into the phone booths for a few puffs).
Senators are rarely in the cloakrooms today. However, the cloakroom has it’s own small staff and they are crucial for keeping track of floor votes. They communicate with staffers for when votes will occur and keep track of floor activity. Cloakrooms are most frequently used by Senators when there are several votes back to back, like amendment votes to the budget bill when there can be continuous votes for well over 12 hours. If there’s time between each series of votes, Senators will duck into the cloakrooms to catch up on news, sporting events or email as opposed to going back to their offices.
While this is no where an exhaustive list, these are some of my favorite little know facts. While working in the Senate, these were also some of the most popular things you probably never knew about DC when talking with constituents. With a city steeped in tradition and a long history, there are bound to be many little known facts. The city is filled with things you probably never knew about DC. Make sure you visit DC to discover more of little know facts and stories.
Photo credits: Associated Press, Politico, POPVOX, iStock, Mark Kirk Senate Website
Did you know these little known facts about DC and Congress? What other little know facts do you know?