The DC Grand Tour

There are too many things to see in Washington DC. It is just too big with too many important, interesting and/or historical sights. I mean maybe if you lived there or were visiting for weeks you could see it all, but a 5 day visit is not sufficient to see all of the worthwhile attractions. Obviously the Smithsonian Museums were most important to me and I have run through the more memorable of the memorials, but there are an abundance of other hot spots around the city. In order to pack as many touristy “must-sees” in the shortest amount of time Mom & I hopped on board a Hop-On/Hop-Off City Bus Tour. I’ve done a few of these before in other cities, although mainly in Europe when I was an extreme tourist. They may be a bit cheesy, but then again so am I… They also offer great views of sites worth seeing but that don’t really have anything you do with them. Here are a few of the more exciting activities:

The White House: home of the President of the United States. It’s a pretty big deal…a big enough deal that you’re not allowed anywhere near the place. You can peer through the bars of an 18 feet tall distant fence though and catch a glimpse of Michelle Obama’s garden and the famous Truman balcony. You may also be able to pick out the snipers othe rooftop. No joke, there is always a sniper up there waiting for someone to try to climb the fence and sprint. If the president is home there you might be able to spot 3 or 4 of them camped out on the rooftop.
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Fun Fact: The White House only got its name after the entire facade had to be painted with white pain. And why was it painted you ask? Well the Canadians & British burned it down and left the exterior (and interior I assume) stained black. Go Canada!…I now apologize to all American readers, it’s just that Canada doesn’t really have many other international acts of aggression in its past.

Embassy Row is located north of Mall…like quite north…more north than we would have wanted to walk. Thankfully our bus tour had a northern loop that travelled by trolley taking the illustrious Massachusetts Avenue. The Embassies aren’t all in a row along this road but they are all located very close together and flying their flags proudly. I found it a fun game to yell out what country each flag was for. Luckily there wasn’t anyone else on our trolley so it was only annoying to Mom. The Canadian Embassy isn’t in this area…it is actually much closer to the Capitol than any other. When we passed it on the bus and we identified ourselves as Canadians our guide stated that he wouldn’t have guessed that we were Canadian…we looked American. What that supposed to be a compliment? Because I am proud of my country and don’t really want to be assumed to be one of my neighbors from the south. Also, what would a typical Canadian look like? Were we unidentifiable because we weren’t in parkas? Or Mounties uniforms? Or carrying a beaver? Or riding a moose? Or dressed as a backwoods hick lumberjack? Geez guide, Canadians can be stylish, modern people too!
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The Ford Theater is an exciting yet tragic location. It was at this theater, while sitting in the box pictured below, that on April 12, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot. John Wilkes Booth the leaped from the balcony, which is quite a feet…not pun intended, but Booth ended up injuring his foot on the way down. He then took off down an alley on horse back. 14 days later he was tracked down to a barn in Virginia. Wen he refused to surrender the barn was lit on fire. But he still refused to come out and was eventually shot by a very green police officer….or was he? Many conspiracy theorists (and some academics actually) believe that Booth actually escaped and lived out his life incognito.
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PS Check out this stack of Lincoln-centric books! I found a couple in there that I have!
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While in the theater Mom was texting my sister. When she heard what we were up to she replied, “How exciting for Kris…or sad…I’m not sure what the proper response is.” Mom texted back, “Well Lincoln would be dead by now anyways so it’s not like she could have met him.” I know, I have the world’s most sensitive mother…but the comment did make it hilarious when we could send sister this photo at our next stop (along with the caption “Or not…”):
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That picture is of course from Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. The museum is full of wax figures of famous folks that are creepily realistic. Justine & I had visited the original Madame Tussaud’s in London and snapped photos with a multitude of pop culture icons. Mom and I were less entertained by this area and more focused on the presidential floor. were able to “meet” all 43 US Presidents! And it was way more fun than it should have been…
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The most hilarious moment though had to be while we were leaving. Before you enter the gift shop there is one last wax figure. To be honest I don’t even remember who the figure was but there was a young Asian woman taking a picture of it. Being the polite Canadians we are we stopped to wait for her to be done. We waited and waited and waited…until I realized she was made of wax too… We were halting our progress to be courteous to a wax figure…it’s a whole new level of nice…and stupid…

The bus tour was a very convenient way to see sights outside of the city center. There were two of these I was eager to see. The first was the Pentagon. I anticipated seeing it because it is (a) a major hub for the US Department of Defence, (b) the largest office building in the world for square footage and (c) in Virginia. I have officially crossed another state off my list! A neat Pentagon fact is that despite the building being 116,000 square meters corridors are set up so that someone can travel from one point to any other point within the building in 7 minutes or less.
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Arlington National Cemetery lies across the river from the Lincoln Memorial. It is the final resting place to countless members of the US military, including 2 presidents. William Taft (Mom’s new favorite president) and John F Kennedy are both buried here. Taft has a simple monument, while the Kennedy family has a large memorial area. Edward, Robert and Jackie are all laid close by JFK. There are many memorials, such as a Tomb of the Unknown Solider for each major military conflict the US has been involved in since WWI and a statue dedicated to those lost int he Challenger explosion. What I found impressive, in a sad way, were the rows and rows of simple crosses…so many people who have died in service to their country. We watched a changing of the guard and I felt sooooo sorry for those poor soldiers. It was so hot out I thought I might melt, but there they were standing perfectly still in fully covered, layered up clothing…including gloves!
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Thus concludes my tour of Washington DC…Thanks for coming along!
Love & Luck,
Kris

In Memorial in DC

One of the main sights in Washington DC are the monuments. Great Americans are honored not only by statues but by large buildings or complex carvings. The most well known would be the Washington Monument:
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This obelisk is the world’s tallest stone structure, standing at 555 feet 5-1/8 inches. Construction began in 1848 but wasn’t completed until 1884, mainly due to the civil war. It’s pretty cool to see in person not only because of its size but also its iconic nature. It’ impossible to miss when you are wandering about the Mall but I got a good look at it on our way to our monuments tour. We weren’t able to get a really up-close-and-personal look though because the monument was closed. It’s actually closed until the inexact date of 2014…when in 2014? January? December? Who knows… Anyway, the Nation Park Service closed the obelisk in July 2012 to allow for repairs needed after years of shifting ground and Hurricane Irene. I think it looks a bit like a spaceship with the scaffolding, especially when the scaffolding lights up at night.

The Tidal Basin is just south of the Washington Monument and houses a number of important honorary structures. The basin itself holds 250 million gallons of water and is filled by the Washington Channel on one side and the Potomac River on the other. The man-made lake wasn’t originally just for show. People used to be able to swim in it but when drama arose over segregation on its beaches it was deemed easier to ban entering the water than to argue with Civil Rights activists.
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We walked the Basin at night (when the temperature had dropped to slightly tolerable levels) with a DC By Foot walking tour. I love walking tours! Some light exercise while seeing the sights and learning fun facts! It’s the best way to travel. This tour was a “free” tour, which I also love. The guide is working entirely for tips, so you know they are going to put their all into keeping you entertained!

The first monument we visited was Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument. This is the newest off all of the 395 monuments the National Park Services maintain, having only opened in 2011. As you approach you see a large stone with a slice cut out & pushed forward, allowing you to enter. This symbolizes a key part of the civil rights leader’s most famous speech: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
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On the basin facing side of the ‘stone of hope’ is a carving on the man himself. The top is exceptionally detailed but as you get further down it becomes less and less defined until he fades into the rock. This was meant to represent Doctor King’s untimely death at age 39. Backing the monument are long walks listing some of Martin Luther King Jr’s best quotes…although none from the I Have a Dream speech. The designers felt the speech was exceptionally well known and wanted some of Doctor King’s lesser-known but equally influential words to be put on show.
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Fun fact: The monument actually featured one quote, “I was a drum major for justice, peace & righteousness” that our tour guide told us to make sure to snap a photo of because his family has ordered it’s removal. They think it makes him sound to conceited…plus it is taken out of context and misquoted…oops!
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As we travelled around the basin our tour guide pointed out the cherry blossom trees. They are far less noticeable when not in bloom (which only happens for a few weeks a year) but no less important. The trees were a gift of friendship from Japan, although 2000 original tree that arrived were so infested with insects that they had to be burned. 3020 trees were sent as replacements and were planted around the Tidal Basin & other important DC locations. I think I might plan my next visit to DC around these trees…it would be incredible to see them all in bloom!

Franklin D Roosevelt’s memorial is a creative marvel. Rather than raising a Greek-style building or simply putting up a statue, a landscape architect (Lawrence Halprin) was commissioned to design a full ‘park.’ The memorial divides 7.5 acres & 12 years into 4 rooms depicting the great reasons to remember FDR. First you come to a statue of him in his wheelchair. The 32nd president suffered from Polio and was confined to his chair. People thought it was important to depict him in such a way, not only for authenticity but also a statement that it could not stop him from accomplishing many things. As you snake your way though the rooms you see more images of issues he tackled during his presidency, such as a line of men simulate the breadlines of the Great Depression, as well as many of FDR’s best quotes, like “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” One alcove is dedicate to his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, not only for the work she did as the first lady but also for being the first US Delegate to the UN.
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But I have skipped one of the major elements of this memorial…the water. Water is everywhere, in every room. It cascades down at chaotic angles in the area depicting WWII, yet is almost nonexistent in the Great Depression space and lies still & stagnate at the end to represent FDRs death.
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It was about this time that I saw my first firefly. Our guide told us a story about how she had been giving a tour to a group of school children from up north (not as far north as us though). She had made sure they were out late enough for the fireflies to come out. The kids were apparently so thrilled that some burst into tears at the sight of them. I thought this story was so cute, but didn’t really get it until I caught my first glimpse. I was jumping around and pointing and telling my mom to look here…and there…and there…every time one lit up. They are the most magical things I have ever seen!

George Mason, often referred to as the “forgotten founder,” is a man any Canadians reading this have probably never heard of. I hadn’t heard of him…although now I think he’s awesome! This guy basically single-handedly wrote the Declaration of Independence, but then refused to sign it when the time came. Apparently Washington (and others…but mainly Washington) wouldn’t let him write in parts banning slavery and for him, that was a deal breaker. He and Washington had an epic falling out and are said to have never spoken again. Talk about sticking to your guns! Plus he is also placed in such a chill pose in him memorial that you can’t help but assume he was pretty gangster in life…
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The Jefferson Memorial sits right along the basin (where mosquitoes can eat you alive) looked very picturesque. The building is modeled after the Roman Parthenon and the Rotunda Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia. Inside stands a 19 ft tall bronze statue…it’s pretty big…until you see Lincoln, then he doesn’t seem quite as big anymore… The interior walls are carved with the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote with Mason, although he gets all the credit.
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The next day Mom & I made sure to see the monuments that rest between the Mall & the Basin. I’m glad we did because these were my favorites!
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists all members of the US Armed Forces from that conflict who were killed in action or were deemed missing in action. It overwhelming to see how many people that really is… The wall in 75m long and the font is not large. Interestingly the names are listed in chronological order starting on the far west end with the first confirmed casualty. The memorial was designed in 1981 by college student Maya Ying Lin. Her sketch was unanimously selected as both architecturally appealing and incredibly thoughtful. The wall is placed like cut in the land, as some East Asian countries believe that the land will always heal itself. This is why the monument is something referred to as the “wounded that is closed and healing.”
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The Korean War Veterans Memorial is just across the reflecting pool. It is incredibly powerful. Walking up you are immersed in the battlefield. 19 stainless steel soldiers walk through landscape meant to represent the rugged Korean terrain. They represent a variety of races, ages and military divisions but all have the same pained, scared and exhausted looks on their faces. You feels as if ghosts of the past are frozen there to honor their lost comrades. There are no names listed here, but I felt it was an amazing tribute.
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Last but not least is the Lincoln Memorial…what to say… I was so excited to get here! I love Lincoln! I could go on and on about him, but I’m pretty sure you already know what he accomplished. S ill stick to the memorial. The exterior is a Greek temple with 36 columns to represent the 36 states of the union when the 16th president was in office. On the interior walls are carved Lincoln’s second inaugural address and his most famous Gettysburg address. But the best part is the 19 foot statue of the man himself. We’re the statue standing it would have been 28 feet tall, but alas they scaled it down and made him seated. I basically had a photo shot here because I was sooooo excited:
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Love, Luck & Lincoln,
Kris

Now this is my kind of Mall

Day 3 of Washington DC began with a metro ride to the National Mall. I was ready for the Smithsonian Museum tour….not an actual tour, just me wandering about on my own 🙂 I started in the south-east corner of the Mall. Here is the American Indian Museum. I didn’t have time to explore the exhibits, but the building itself is an architectural wonder. Some aboriginal cultures believe that evil hides in corners so the structure was designed with no right angles. As you can see the exterior is all soft curves, and the interior is much the same.
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If you travel around the Mall clockwise, which I did, next comes the National Air & Space Museum. I’m sure you don’t want to hear any more about that place after the last post. If I’m being honest I actually swung back inside as I went by. I pretended that I finished my day while finishing at the Air & Space Museum but in reality the 5 hours I got in yesterday (due to the museum’s late summer hours) was not enough. I started my day with another 2 hours of space exploration. But you’ve already heard about that so let’s move on to the rest of my day and more Smithsonian fun!

Next comes the Hirshhorn Gallery. This museum houses post-war era contemporary & modern art. Joseph H Hirshhorn originally donated the base collection in the 60’s, but obviously art is continuously being added or it could hardly be considered modern!
The building itself is a giant circle, like a donut! I love donuts. It’s architecturally interesting and very convenient for viewing the work. I like that you don’t have to weave through rooms and try to plot out the best path to make sure you see everything…or is that just me that always wants to draw out a plan on my museum map? I much prefer the logical arrangement of things in one big circle; one lap for the inside, one lap for the outside, and on to the next floor.
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Before going in I admired the exterior works of art. First there is the Sculpture Garden. I know what you’re thinking, “But Kristin, didn’t you go to the Sculpture Garden yesterday?” Yes, and no…that was for the National Gallery, which you might recall is not part of the Smithsonian museum group. This garden is full of modern pieces, such as a glass & mirror room that is very disorienting to stand inside. My favourite was Alexander Calder’s Sky Hooks. I think it’s the perfect name, both to befit the piece and inspire the imagination. There was also this great never-ending spiral staircase.
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The first thing I saw when getting off the escalator within the building was Peter Coffin’s Designs for Colby Poster Company. This consists of 80 3-color lithographs that are so simple, yet kind of overwhelming when all place together in one long line. The photo below isn’t even half of the collection.
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I was excited to see an original Andy Warhol (called Flowers) as my limited knowledge of artists actually encompasses him. My favourite were the installation pieces though. You can’t get photos that do them justice, but they are very effective in person. Ann Hamilton’s Palimpsest provides an interesting commentary on memory loss. A room is plaster with handwritten notes on yellowing paper. They each say something different, personal memories of over a hundred people. A fan makes the flutter and wave as if the memories are fleeting. In the center of the room is a glass terrarium with snails munching on heads of cabbage, symbolizing the brain’s deterioration.

The Smithsonian has a number of other smaller galleries. Being as art-inept as I am I dedicated my limited time to other institutions, but will definitely check out the African Art, Ripley (International Art) and Freer/Sackler (Asian Art) Galleries next time.

At the center of the mall is the Smithsonian Castle. What a breathtaking building!
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Aside from my desire to sit and stare, the Castle is a quick visit. Inside is simply a visitor center and cafeteria. I picked up a sandwich here and enjoyed the AC along with a mix of tourists & Smithsonian employees. I had the urge to steal someone’s ID badge and go on an adventure but behaved myself and headed back out to the Mall instead. On the way out I was able to pay my respects to Mr. James Smithsonian, who has his final resting place in an alcove by the main entrance.

Directly across from the Castle is the Natural History Museum. My biggest regret of this trip is that I did not have time to visit it. It’s supposed to be spectacular and I am prepares to make another trip to DC just to get to visit it & the Smithsonian Zoo.
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Running through the center of the Mall are long stretches of grass. During the day I watched Day Camp groups frolic and snack and walk in orderly hand-holding lines in these areas. Then in the evening I was surprised to emerge from a museum and find groups of adults spaced out along the grass playing different sports. Coming from a city with a smaller population and an abundance of sport complexes I had never really thought through how a big city would make room for rec sport leagues. This is how DC dealt with the space issue. I’m not a big softball fan, but I think I would enjoy it more if running to first base provided a view of the Capitol Building and running home had you heading for the Washington Monument.
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My last stop on the Mall was the American History Museum, but lets give that one it’s own post!

Love & Luck,
Kris