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Postcards from the District

2007.10.22 — Culture | Postcards | Travel | by Derek Jensen

Washington DC

White House south face

Finding myself with still more time on my hands and access to air and hotel points, I decided a few weeks ago to book a trip to Washington, DC for a long weekend. It was too short of notice to get a ticket to the White House tour, but that's how my business trips to DC have been in the past too. I planned to knock around the town for a couple of days and make a more comprehensive trip with White House tour in a few months.


Washington DC

Washington Monument with Capitol dome

Of course, I had tried to plan a trip with WH tour for sometime in June, but as I researched it, I came to think that I wouldn't be able to get White House tickets. After talking to the local congressman's office, I found that, with advance notice, a small group could be accommodated in a larger group that is already going.



Made it to DC and went down to the White House before sunset and shot some pics. For some reason, there were terns flocking all over on the south side. Maybe the chefs ruined a big fish dinner and tossed the evidence out on the tennis court. White-soled shoes only, birds!


Washington DC

Lincoln Memorial at night

I also went around on the south side and shot the new structure there. It looks temporary to me, but certainly very solid. Perhaps it's meant to cover some extensive below-grade expansion about to begin. I also noticed some earth-moving equipment hidden in the trees on the east side, but I think there has been some work going on there for a while.

Washington DC

These are not the droids you're looking for

I went out again after dark and got some great photos of the memorials with a tripod and bracketed exposures. I shot the Lincoln, Washington, WW2, and Jefferson memorials.


Day 2

I toured the Capitol and the Air & Space Museum and took pictures of the Library of Congress and Supreme Court buildings.


Washington DC

Lunar lander

The Air & Space Museum had fascinating exhibits from the dawn of flight thru the space age, with Russian missiles and lunar landers. And it was all the real stuff. It was thrilling. Since the American History Museum was closed for remodeling, they also had a large exhibit of American History artifacts, like Kermit the Frog, Lincoln's hat, Washington's uniform, and the droids from Star Wars. Pretty cool.


Washington DC

Ceiling of the Rotunda

The Capitol was interesting; it was a weird combination of palace and rabbit warren. I took several pictures, but the best is the one everyone takes: the Apotheosis of Washington in the ceiling of the Rotunda. Man, I gotta get a rotunda.


Washington DC

Old House of Representatives meeting hall

The guide demonstrated a great effect in the old House of Representatives meeting hall; if you stand in a certain spot, you can hear a person whispering in another spot several yards away. That created a obvious problem for early legislators. The modern hall is much, much bigger and has much better acoustics.


Then I visited the White House Visitor Center, which was a real disappointment. I knew there wasn't much there, but really... I was shocked to find that it was barely more than a rather poor gift shop (altho it's in a beautiful space in the side of the Commerce building).


Washington DC

Bellange Bergere chair from the White House

There were a few pieces of White House furniture, a few pieces of old plaster moldings, one nice 1801 model of the White House, and lots of big photographs. In the corner, they had a couple of TVs playing one of the White House documentaries. Not bad, mind you; just disappointing.


It's unseasonably hot and humid this weekend and things are a little more spread out than I thought, so getting around is tiring. I haven't seen too many of the trolleys or tourmobiles, so I didn't get a pass for those. I've taken a few taxis, which are plentiful.


I'm too dumb to have brought a backpack to carry stuff, so I haven't bought much. What else? Umm, sodas are cheap on the street. It's a good-looking city, which frankly surprised me. There are a lot of German tourists. Cops are everywhere, and they seem to be attached to different departments. They all have their own metal barricades that say "Property of the Supreme Court Police" or whatever. Apparently, they're afraid that other cops are going to steal their barricades.


Washington DC

Vietnam Memorial at night

I went out after dark again and snapped the White House (tripods not allowed on the White House side of the Pennsylvania Avenue, by the way), the inside of the Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, and Vietnam memorial. Somehow I missed the Korean Memorial in the dark, but I did see the signpost from MASH in the American History temporary exhibit in the Air & Space Museum, so that's something.


I can't believe how dark it is around the memorials. Half the street lamps are out and the others are so dim you have to use the light from your cellphone to find them. Even at nearly midnight there was a crowd at the Vietnam Memorial; it was so dark that it took several tries before I got a nice pic, and the crowd had emptied out.


Washington DC

Washington Monument

Day 3: monumental error

Today I got up late and failed to get to the Washington Monument in time to get a ticket; they were all out by 10:30. So I went to the Natural History Museum, which was my plan anyway while I waited for my time to go the Washington Monument.


The Natural History Museum was a great experience of fossils and animals, minerals, and whatnot. For some reason, people seemed especially enthusiastic about the giant ground sloths. I preferred the bat exhibit.


Washington DC

Feed me mosquitos

After an exhausting couple of hours there seeing my fill of trilobites and buying the Hope Diamond for my mother, I walked over to the White House and shot it in full sun. By this time, my back was killing me because, over the past twelve years as a technology consultant, my back muscles have been replaced with Hostess cream filling (I can explain the process and cost benefit with a PowerPoint presentation and Excel spreadsheet).


Nevertheless, I stopped in and toured at the Latrobe-designed Stephen Decatur House. It's in the process of being restored to its early-19th-century origins; thankfully, the first thing they restored was Latrobe's kick-ass air-conditioning; you would have thought it was a meat locker.


Washington DC

Stephen Decatur house

It's an unusual house in that the kitchen is up front, as in a modern house, and the entertaining rooms are upstairs. It has the same in-frame shutters that the White House once had. And, authentic to its period, the front lamps are lit by gas and no photography is allowed inside—altho woodcuts and scrimshaw are presumably okay.


Then I cabbed it over to the Spy Museum, which was way better and more popular than I had imagined. It's built into a storefront and doesn't look like much from the outside (altho it seems to have a spy restaurant on one side and a big spy gift shop on the other side) but it's designed very compactly, so there is a lot to see (but no photography!). The tight space adds to the atmosphere of espionage (as does the rampant, surreptitious camera-phone use), and the exhibits are very well done.


Washington DC

Spy Museum

I thought it would be all about Cold War spying and it does start there, but it also covers everything from ancient Roman coded message to modern stuff. The World War 2 and Cold War era was the coolest, tho. See a cutaway of an East German mini-car carrying four stowaways. Step into an old phone booth and listen to a real secret agent relate her story.


Of course, at $16 a head and patrons streaming in and out for the full extended-hour day, they can afford to make it really cool. By the way, if anybody asks, my name is Billy Henderson; I'm a 14-year-old American student here in London on vacation for 9 days, and I have always had a mustache and a limp.


Washington DC

Madame Tussaud's

Oh, and Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum just opened with—I kid you not—lines around the block. I shot it after it had closed and the lines were only half-way around the block. It's a pretty cool exterior design, with all the glass, altho I think they missed an opportunity to do a Nighthawks/Boulevard of Broken Dreams take with JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and James Dean.


More Washington DC photos....


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