Date of Trip: January 2011
My wife and I had planned a DC weekend several months in advance, hoping the weather would cooperate and remembering the huge blizzard that I’d witnessed in that area one year before. It did – DC was largely paralyzed a day before we got there, but was quickly cleared up.
There are two things I especially like about DC – a near-perfect swift and clean subway system (the Metro) which, unlike NY’s, is totally supplied with escalators and elevators, and endless museums, mostly partof the Smithsonian, and all free – no, not pay-what-you-wish free, but FREE, period. Even the National Zoo is free – probably the last free zoo left in the world.
We landed at National Airport shortly before 10 AM on Saturday, Jan. 29, and took the blue line metro to Farragut West station and the Renwick Gallery, which is associated with the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art and is literally around the corner from the White House. (The Renwich is 1671 Pennsylvania Avenue; the White Housem, as everyone knows, is 1600) It was cold (30s) and cloudy, but a least there was no wind.
The Renwick’s specialty is decorative art, but it also holds much contemporary art and painting, and is well worth a visit. Several of its odd-ball items invited picture-taking, which was permitted. After several hours there, we walked past the White House, which always startles me because of the relatively small size of both the buildig and the grounds, and its being totally surrounded by office and other buildings. There was little activity visible, but I did spot a man on its roof who quickly disappeared – a Secret Service sharpshooter, perhaps! Or maybe he was just fixing the roof! Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicle traffic during Clinton’s time and remains so, but is freely accessible on foot, and contained one lonely shouting demonstrator. I had no idea what he was shouting, because it wasn’t in English. Numerous cops watched him impassively; none interfered.
We also passed Blair House, a sort of row house which is used as a guest house for VIPs. However, President Harry Truman lived there with his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, for about two years while the White House, portions of which were literally rotting away, was being renovated. One day, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists attacked Blair House, trying to kill the president. They missed, but a police office, Leslie Coffelt, was shot to death,and a plaque on the building honors his memory. Truman commuted the resulting death sentences to life.
We hiked uphill to and through the foot of the Mall, passing close by the Washington Monument. Even on this freezing, cloudy day, there was a line of people waiting to get into it. The Monument, begun in the 1840s, was left only about one-third finished when funds ran out; the resulting stump of a monument witnessed Civil War Washington. It was finally finished in the 1880s, and the line marking the “stub” construction and the post-Civil War construction is clearly distinguishable.
Our next stop was the Freer Gallery, also part of the Smithsonian. It’s connected to the Sackler Gallery, and both are repositories of Asian art. If you are into finely-detailed old Chinese bronze and ceramics, that is the place for you. Our particular goal was the exhibit of bronzes from the famed Angkor Wat site in Cambodia, which had been loaned by the Cambodian National Museum. A brochure said it would run only until January 23, but, to our pleasant surprise, it was still there. These bronzes featured deities with multiple arms, and heads with 4 or 5 faces on them. A sign explained that the museum and its collection had, amazingly enough, been left undisturbed by the murderous Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.
Our final stop of the day was the National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery, which have been combined into one museum; it’s several blacks from the mall, on F Street between 7th and 9th streets. Walking in DC can be confusing – the city is laid out on a sort of grid, but inccorporated into the grid are also countless traffic circles and diagonal avenues. Think of how Broadway cuts diagonally through otherwise perfectly gridded north-of-Greenwich-Village Manhattan. Now, imagine if there was a Broadway every two blocks or so!
The American Art museum is, quite simply, an amazing place. It’s huge, with four floors and numerous exhibition balcony-type area and a large interior courtyard. Portions of the art museum and also portions of the portrait gallery are on each floor. It is, of course, also part of the Smithsonian. The portraits – of countless historical, political and popular culture figures – are all in different styles and often different media, including photographs and paintings, and come with thorough educational explanatory signs. The art collection is mostly from the late 1800s to the present, and includes some startling contemporary and video art.
When you get up to the top of the museum, you come across two balcony levels, with aisles leading off of them, and in these aisles are endless displays of all sorts of American art, including folk art – one could spend days just in those aisles, because so much is on display. Most museums rotate constantly and display only a small portion of their collections at any one time. But I have come across only three museums that take most of what they have and pack it closely into dense, endless displays that go on and on. The first two I saw that did that were the Anthropological Museum at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and the N.Y. Historical Society – this was the third. The folk art alone – which I happen to love – could fill a small museum by itself.
We picked this for the last stop on the day’s agenda because it’s one of the only two museums open until 7 PM. Next time, I hope to spend a day there!
We walked up to our hotel, The Morrison-Clark, on L and 10th. This hotel is a charming piece of old DC architecture, dating from just after the Civil War, although it did not become a hotel until fairly recently. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, which is one reason I chose it, and it is a lovely place. I bought a supply of delicious sandwiches and also drinks at a nearby grocery at 11th and L, and we rested our tired selves and had a good night’s sleep.
There was limited time available for sightseeing on Sunday, as our flight home left at 4:45 PM. The weather was a bit warmer and th sun was out – much more pleasant then the day before. After breakfast, we headed for the National Museum of American History – again, part of the Smithsonian. Their exhibits encompass both political and popular history and culture, and feature everything from an exquisitely designed 1948 car to the desk and chairs used by Grant and Lee at the surrenderat Appomattox to the broken-into filing cabinet from Democratic headquarters in Watergate to the Star Spangled Banner – yes, THE Star Spangled Banner – laid out for constant display in a special low-lit cabinet – to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz- to Archie Bunker’s chair from “All in the Family.” There are endless interactive and sound and video displays – this museum gives new meaning to the term “educational.” You could spend half a day just in the Hall of Transportation. Unfortunately, we didn’t have even that much time.
We came upon a live interactive presentation involving a piece of the actual Greensboro, NC lunch counter (along withj several of the original stools) which was the site of the very first Civil Rights “sit-in” in 1960. The presentation was given by a young African-American man to a thoroughly mixed seated audience, who then led everyone in singing “I’m on my way / To Freedom land” (“And if I see anyone not singing, I’m going to come over and embarrass you!”) (Yeah, I sang)
I recalled the exhibit of the First Ladies’ inaugural dresses as having all the original dresses starting with Martha Washington, in cases in chronological order. This has been totally changed. No dress on display predates that worn by Mrs. William Howard (Hellen, yes, with two L’s) Taft, although there are photos and drawings of earlier dresses, leading me to think that perhaos the earlier ones I saw were replicas – does anyone know? It is explained that Mrs. Taft was the first president’s wife (I’ve never cared for the royal-like title First Lady, and I’ve read that Mrs. Kennedy didn’t like it, either) to actually donate her inaugural dress. There are also numerou original bits of clothing, dresses worn at other occasions, and objects dating back to Martha Washington’s needle-box. Michelle Obama’s dress and shoes are accompanied by a video of her talking about the exhibit, and there are also videos of other presidents’ wives discussing their dresses. All of the dresses are now displayed on dummy forms to help preserve their shape.
My final stop there was the rare coin exhibit. I’ve collected coins since age 9, and when I visited the American History museum as a child, the entire collection was on display. Now it’s a much smaller selection, but the exhibit of “legendary coins” of the US still fascinates me – the unique 1849 $20 gold piece, the “private gold” gold rush era pieces, the doubtlessly illegally struck 1913 liberty head nickel, and the famous 1804 silver collars, all struck inthe 1830s and 1850s.
We took the blue line from the nearby Federal Triangle stop back to National Airport,and were back home in Miami Beach in time for a
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