Smithsonian's Palm Court: A taste of history


WASHINGTON -- In most museums, you look at history inside glass-covered showcases and in displays designed to keep you just beyond arm's length. The rule is strictly 'don't touch.'

Now there's a museum exhibit in Washington that invites you to step inside, sit down, rest your feet and have a cup of coffee or an ice cream treat.


The Palm Court at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History just opened for business, and it offers both a place for weary tourists to rest and refresh themselves and experience the kind of establishment that offered the same services to Americans about 1900.

The Palm Court is located on the ground floor of the big modernistic museum -- second in popularity only to the Air and Space Museum -- next to one of its best-known exhibits, the two-story high Focault Pendulum that demonstrates the rotation of Earth.

Everything in the Palm Court dates back to the turn of the century or is a careful reproduction of the furniture, restaurant equipment and decorations of that period.

The entrance is formed by the cast-iron facade of Brock's Stores, a mid-19th Century Philadelphia retail establishment. Some of the detailed ironwork was reproduced, but it would take an expert to spot it.


Inside, in a setting of potted palms and white wicker chairs and sofas, the museum has provided a resting place for foot-weary visitors. To one side is an elegant player baby grand piano which will be in use during visiting hours.

To the right in the court is a full wall displaying an actual Horn and Hardart Automat, the self-service, coin-operated food service system that was the rage of New York and other Eastern cities before World War II.

This one is the genuine article that once served hungry Philadelphians, but the coin slots no longer deliver edibles. The pies and sandwiches behind the little glass doors are plastic models.

On the other side of the room is the counter, shelves, chairs and tables that once occupied Stohlman's Confectionary Store in the Georgetown section of Washington. It, too, is authentic and not in operating condition.

But back of the Palm Court is a real ice cream parlor and coffee shop. Its equipment is mostly reproductions in the style of 80 years ago, but it fits perfectly with the real thing. The tables are marble-topped, the chairs are bent wood and the waiters and waitresses are outfitted in period uniforms and actually wait on the customers sitting at the tables.


The prices are not low, but the quality is good. A super 'Star Spangled Banner' banana split goes for $3.95 and a cup of cappucino for 85 cents. For kids 10 or younger, there is a short menu of smaller and cheaper ice cream treats.

In all, there are 15 different ice cream dishes, seven ice cream drinks, four kinds of coffee and six kinds of tea. The ice cream parlor seats about 200 people, but it probably will have a waiting line once the hot weather and the tourist rush hit Washington.

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