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Photo by Daniel Schreiber
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Photo by Tina Eshleman
Originally founded along the Potomac River in 1891 as a Chautauqua retreat to bring culture and education to the masses, Glen Echo, Md., transformed in the early 1900s into an art deco-style amusement park with bumper cars, roller coasters, arcade games, a swimming pool, dance hall and a glorious carousel. Reachable by trolley until 1960, Glen Echo Park was a source of entertainment for Washingtonians through two world wars before closing in 1968. After its purchase by the federal government, the park reopened in 1971 and continues to operate as a hub for arts, culture and recreation.
We checked into the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center (201 Waterfront St., 301-965-4000) in Oxon Hill, Md., a spectacular-looking place with access via water taxi to Alexandria. We'd have been happy lounging at the pool all day, but adventure called us forth.
Easily flummoxed by the District of Columbia's roads, my husband and I appreciated how easy it was to get to Glen Echo Park (7300 MacArthur Blvd., 301-634-2222 or glenechopark.org ), from Interstate 495. From the parking lot, we walked down the path over Minnehaha Creek, past the Living Classrooms for children and around the 1970s-era yurts that house calligraphy and pottery studios. We wandered through the Stone Tower Gallery, the only structure that remains from the Chautauqua retreat, where several artists were at work on paintings, and met J. Jordan Bruns ( jjbruns.com ), a resident artist and instructor who has a studio there. In what used to be a refreshment stand during the amusement park days, the Popcorn Gallery holds exhibits from artists working at Glen Echo and around the region. We admired the pottery on display, and I later regretted not buying one of the pieces as a gift.
The meticulously restored Dentzel Carousel, at the park since 1921, wasn't open for the season yet when we visited in April, but a park ranger allowed some visitors in and turned on the lights so we could see its grandeur. Rides, just $1.25, are accompanied by music from a 1926 Wurlitzer with 256 wooden pipes.
We stopped for coffee and ice cream in the park at the Brown Bag, also known as the Ballroom Café, where you also can buy a sandwich, salad or cheese plate. Picnic tables and a playground are close by.
Another option right next to the park is the popular Irish Inn at Glen Echo, (6119 Tulane Ave., 301-229-6600 or irishinnglenecho.com ), which made Washingtonian magazine's list of "Great Bars 2013." Patrons have their choice of atmosphere — formal dining rooms, casual pub or outdoor patio — in which to enjoy their shepherd's pie, fish and chips or lamb chops, along with a pint of Guinness.
The Puppet Co. ( thepuppetco.org ), at Glen Echo Park will be performing the 40-minute show Circus from Aug. 2 to Sept. 1. Tickets are $10, with showtimes in the morning or early afternoon Thursday to Sunday.
From May through October, Glen Echo also holds Art Walk in the Park from 6 to 8 p.m. on the second Friday of the month, when there are artist demonstrations and the various galleries and studios are open.
Through Sept. 2, the Adventure Theatre ( adventuretheatre-mtc.org ) at Glen Echo is featuring Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat. Tickets are $19, and three daytime performances are held on Saturdays and Sundays.
Free summer concerts are performed on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 29 in the park's Bumper Car Pavilion. A variety of dances — blues, contra, salsa, swing, tango, waltz and zydeco — are also held each week. Tickets to the dances are sold at the door for $5 to $20, and introductory lessons are offered beforehand.
The free 43rd Annual Labor Day Art Show, spotlighting works from more than 250 regional artists, opens Aug. 30 at the park and continues through Sept. 2. The 3rd Annual Friends of the Yellow Barn Drawing Exhibition is also set for Labor Day weekend.
The Clara Barton National Historic Site (301-320-1410), adjacent to Glen Echo Park, is where the American Red Cross founder lived during the last 15 years of her life. Built in connection with the Chautauqua retreat, the house also served as a warehouse and headquarters for the Red Cross. Ceilings were insulated with newspaper and covered with muslin, a bandage-making supply that was on hand, rather than plaster —a sign of Barton's frugality. The house was privately owned after her death in 1912, but a group called Friends of Clara Barton purchased the structure in 1963, and thus began an effort to preserve it in her honor. Free tours are offered on the hour, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.