Our Trip to DC, Part Two
April 10, 2007
When I woke up Saturday morning, the first thing I saw was that the bushes outside were covered in snow! Until the day we left, the weather had been spring-like in the South, and the blooming Tidal Basin cherry trees were on the news. Roman of course has been missing snow all year- but when I woke him up, he was unhappy with THIS snow. His friends from Orenburg, Kristina and Roman, both got to spend warm days in Washington, and he brought snow! We contemplated the unfairness of it all during breakfast at Starbucks, and sat at an outside table just to encourage the sun to warm things up.
The wind, however, was the problem, not lack of sun. By the time we emerged from the Metro at Union Station, it was really breezy, and the walk around the Capital was pretty brisk. The new underground visitor’s center is nowhere near ready, and the entire East front of the Capital is fenced off. We got close, and walked past the Supreme Court and Library of Congress to the temporary Visitor’s Tent on the House side, where I found that visiting the Capitol is now like visiting the White House– wait forever in line without any guarantee, or get a note from your Congressman and make an appointment. I felt sad for the loss of access to the terraces and walkways around the building- my last trip, in June 2001, it was still possible to walk into the ground floor of the building, visit the gift shop, look at the crypt and old Supreme Court chamber, whether on a tour or not. Since 9/11, though, all that access has vanished. The West front terrace was packed with tourists taking photos, and here we eaves-dropped on a Russian tour group- our first of several.
From there we went to the new Museum of the American Indian, facing the Botanical Garden across the mall from the National Gallery. It’s made of western sandstone, very different in color and texture from the marble and limestone of all the other government buildings. (Roman said of Washington, “It’s like being in ancient Rome- they’ve used up all the marble in the world.”) The Indian museum was interesting, but the exhibits on the 3rd and 4th were self-guided and confusing. I liked the one on the Eastern Cherokees, which had info I didn’t know. The museum shop was really nice, too, and Roman bought presents to take home to his Mother and Sister.
“Next door” on the Mall is the Air and Space Museum, and that’s where we were blown next. That was the first place we had to wait in line to enter, while they searched bags and x-rayed, etc. The temperature when we started was about 26, and the wind was blowing at least 15 miles and hour- all the flags were snapping on the poles, and the wind does whip up and down the Mall. It was 10:30 or later by the time we got into Air and Space, and it was packed. The spring break high school tours were there in force, particularly since the Museum of American History is closed for renovations, and for some reason the Smithsonian management decided to put the “Treasures of American History” substitute exhibit in the corner gallery of the second floor of Air and Space. So there was a line to get into that, as well as lines for the observatory and the Imax theater. Chaos. We we bypassed by avoiding all of those things. Roman was really interested in the space exhibits, which included quite a lot of Russian space history, too. There’s a whole gallery devoted to the Wright Brothers, now, so the “Flyer” doesn’t hand from the ceiling any more. But plenty of other stuff does, and it’s still very impressive. There is a new branch of the museum now, out at Dulles airport, where the really big planes are- the space shuttle, the Enola Gay, the Concorde. A bus runs out there from the mall, so anybody could spend the day just on air and space. Another day, another time.
Outside there we got lunch from a Smithsonian kiosk- $18 for hot dogs and cokes, not such a good deal. But we were too hungry to back-track to the food court at Union Station, or forge on ahead to the food court at the Post Office Tower. From there we walked across the mall to the Archives building, and found the Mother of All Lines. Again, things are not as they once were, when we could walk right up the monumental staircase and into the rotunda to see the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. They have renovated, and now have security checkpoints, and if you don’t make an internet reservation the best you can do is stand in line. And the guard told us that it was probably about an hour and a half to wait. Since my master plan was to get down the length of the Mall, all the way to the Jefferson Memorial by day’s end, we couldn’t afford to wait. So we trudged on down Pennsylvania Avenue, which has really been upgraded since that summer 25 years ago I lived in Washington and researched in the Archives. That area was a squalid dive back then, and now it’s known as “Penn Quarter,” and has lots of bars and restaurants. All that happened, I think, when they built the Verizon Center basketball arena there, in the 90s. So we decided to skip the Archives, and trudge onward to Ford’s Theater. To another line, just to get into the basement museum, since there was a Saturday matinee of the current show playing at the theater. The little museum hasn’t changed, but is still impressive because of all the original stuff there- the clothes Lincoln was wearing, the blood-stained pillow, the hoods that the conspirators wore when they were hanged. It was macabre and historical enough that Roman and Greg both loved it. Sadly, the Peterson house across the street (where Lincoln died) is closed indefinitely, and it looks terribly run-down. The guide says the Park Service has had trouble finding the money to renovate, which is a scandal, I think.
We walked on up Pennsylvania, past the FBI building (now closed to the public, another 9/11 change), and I guided my troupe into the basement food court of the Post Office Tower, to sit and recover. Sadly, there is a security checkpoint here, too, with metal detectors, and the space that used to have half a dozen entrances and exits to the outside court yards, now has just one. The PO Tower is the headquarters of the National Endowments, so there was a really good guitarist playing on the stage, that Roman liked. We got coffee and cannolis, and planned the rest of the day.
So, we’re about halfway through the day. More Later …