Crack of dawn at Washington Harbor - Georgetown
I was standing in queue to take a Candle Light Tour of the White House. In front of me was a Japanese family of six (grandparents, parents and two daughters). The little fledglings were looking up at their parents and pulling sad expressions because the next day was their last day in DC and they had not seen anything at all.
I opened my big mouth and offered the family a tour of DC the next day, a Sunday. I discussed the itinerary for a while and they ultimately accepted my offer hesitantly.
(Thus began a relationship where over the years this family has visited us more than once and I have been a guest at their Tokyo residence).
We could see the Washington Monument from where we stood in line. It honors George Washington, is in the shape of an Egyptian Obelisk, stands 555 feet tall, and was completed in 1884.
Elevator story: An elevator was installed in the Washington Monument, the then tallest structure in America in 1889. The elevator was steam powered and small. At that time modesty dictated that men and women should not be in such close proximity as would be needed in the confines of the elevator. So the men went up in the elevator and the women climbed up 897 steps to get to the top.
Construction stopped twice because of lack of funds. This is reflected in three different colors of marble on the surface of the monument. The marble at the top and bottom came from different quarries in Maryland. The marble in the middle came from Massachusetts.
We almost had the Leaning Tower of Washington, but the tilt was addressed in 1896, when “…the builders discovered that the foundations were inadequate and the monument was sinking and tilting. To stabilize and straighten the monument, wider sub-foundations were constructed to a depth of nearly 37 feet.”
The height of buildings in Washington DC is restricted to the width of the adjoining street plus 20 feet. There are no high rise buildings. The Washington Monument is still the tallest structure in town.
Next day, I picked up this family from their hotel near the White House and we visited the Arlington Cemetery, Kennedy Center, Georgetown, Adam’s Morgan, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, the Capitol (drive by) and the Air and Space Museum.
At that time, Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima was housed in the Air and Space Museum at the mall. I will not forget the change in demeanor of my guests as we came upon this display. Prior to that, the family was cheerfully exploring enormous space crafts and airplanes, some suspended from ceilings, and enjoying the interactive displays. As we came upon this bomber, there was a video snippet of Paul Tibbets, the pilot, recalling his memories from August 6, 1945, playing alongside. The family fell silent.
The Smithsonian Museums are still free, unbelievably. (We paid a pretty penny to visit the Air and Space Museum in Munich). The National Zoo (a few miles away) is part of the Smithsonians and is also free to the public. Air and Space and Natural History appear to be the most popular museums in DC.
The places to visit today are Georgetown (Washington Harbor), Kennedy Center, Arlington Cemetery, National Harbor, Mount Vernon, Old Town Alexandria, Phillips Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Memorials to Jefferson, Roosevelt, Martin Luther, Lincoln, and the Vietnam and World War II Memorials. Of course, I am remiss not having mentioned the White House, the Capitol and a plethora of museums which potentially have a major impact on visitors. What I have listed here can be covered in about four days, perhaps five.
It is probably not beneficial to describe the tour with this family from Japan as the city has changed dramatically. Washington DC then was an African American city and now the Caucasian population is in the majority. Several parts of town have been gentrified and this is an actively ongoing process.
Vietnam Memorial: Be prepared to be emotionally stunned by the simplicity and impact of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a few feet away from the Lincoln Memorial. Architect Maya Lin competed in a public design competition, at the age of 21 in 1981, and won (among 1,441 entries). Seeing is believing! You may find a family or two trying to etch the name of their late loved one from the wall to a piece of paper. Keep your tissues handy.
Fiction?/Fact!: In 2016, the US Navy conducted joint exercises with their former nemesis Vietnam in Danang, because of growing tensions with China. Maya Lin was born in Athens, Ohio to immigrants from China.
Kennedy Center: When President Kennedy was laid to rest in 1963, I remember the spot where I stood when I read the news (in Calcutta, India). I’m sure millions of people do. There was an immense outpouring of grief and love from nations across the world. Extraordinary gifts from the governments of more than 60 countries culminated in the Kennedy Center on the banks of the Potomac River.
The Opera House crystal chandelier, a gift from Austria, measures 50 feet across. 3,700 tons of marble came from Italy and line the walls of the Hall of Nations. The red carpet in the main lobby is long enough for two jumbo jets to park nose to tail.
Your spirits will soar as you enter the Kennedy Center halls with ceilings almost 10 floors high, and proceed to view the river, Roosevelt Island and Washington Harbor from the terrace. Next to the Kennedy Center is the infamous and iconic piece of architecture known the world over as Watergate.
Admission to Kennedy Center is intentionally free, as it is an institution for the public. Free tours are offered. Free concerts are held at the Millennium Stage. There are plans afoot to expand the grandeur of Kennedy Center to reach out over the Potomac river.
Georgetown: The waterfront at nearby Georgetown has come a long way. Actual industrial mills with tall smoke stacks we saw at the turn of the century have been converted to condos and movie halls. (At least one landmark chimney has been preserved and is still in place). An enormous nondescript parking lot next to the water has been converted into a beautiful lush green surface with walkways along the river, punctuated by new age fountains and architecture.
The Swedes have established their embassy with its discordant (just kidding) architecture close to the waterfront and it is open to the public. Thompson Boathouse, an ancient institution, encourages sculling and rowing from pre-dawn darkness, each day. Washington Harbor now boasts of fountains in the summer and an ice skating rink in winter.
Sequoia, a restaurant which has been around for decades, turns thousands of tiny lights on at dusk (winter through summer through winter) and provides terrace dining overlooking the Potomac river. In summer, the crowds on the boardwalk grow past mid night through 2am.
On most summer weekends, boats, some simple, some fancy, (some unfortunately blaring loud music), are tied to the dock and the bigger ones host parties. With the number of boats growing dramatically from summer to summer, I wonder what this place will look like five years from now.
Memorials: I was sitting in my dentist’s chair one day and my dental hygienist, an affable African American woman from the islands, was talking to me about DC while working on my teeth. Her husband drove a trash pickup truck in DC and would go around the Memorials late at night to avoid traffic. He noticed that the Memorials (Jefferson, Roosevelt, Lincoln) were all open and tourists from different countries explored them throughout the night.
He started taking his family there. Their two little daughters would take notebooks and sketch pads and keep busy. Often tourists would come up and have a conversation with them in the middle of the night. This became a favorite activity for the children.
(Incidentally this is a quote from the walls of the Jefferson memorial: “as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered ……. institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors).”
I wanted to partake of this experience. I went online and then visited Jefferson Memorial one day and asked a resident Ranger if the Memorials were really open and safe at night. He said yes. (Bathrooms are available around the clock). I asked if I could have a picnic with friends. The answer was yes. I asked if I could bring beer. The answer was no.
Much to her chargin, I dragged my other half along after one midnight during summer and drove over to the Jefferson Memorial again. A full moon was out and the gleaming white Memorial looked absolutely enthralling. There was a sprinkling of tourists about. I’ve read the inscriptions on the walls of the Memorial several times but never cease to be astonished by the chronologically far reaching wisdom of Jefferson’s quotes. We spent time sitting on the steps bathed by the moon beams, gazing at the twinkling reflections from the tidal basin, as tourists came and went (on foot, on bicycles and on rides).
Next we drove over to the Lincoln Memorial. There were throngs of people there at 1:30am. An Indian bride dressed to the nines along with her entourage posed for pictures at different spots. Other models and tourists were also having their photographs snapped. Visitors sat on the steps in front of the reflecting pool where the image of the Washington Monument shimmered, providing an iconic backdrop. The dazzling reflection of the well-lit Monument in the dark water was perfect for photography.
Cars were lined up along the river bank and visitors walked back and forth to the memorials in droves. (Vehicles are ticketed after 2 am). Patrol officers went by on bikes and cars periodically.
One of the best times to visit Washington DC is early April. The pictures show some of the 3,750 cherry blossom trees in bloom around a tidal basin. For a few days in April there are only white and pink blossoms and no leaves on the trees. Walking under them feels like walking under a pinkish-white cloud which you can touch. It makes for a fleeting surreal experience. (Picking flowers or climbing trees is forbidden).
The cherry blossom trees were a gift from Japan in 1912. (A first batch of trees that came from Japan had to be destroyed because of infestation; the current crop was re-sent by Japan). Some of the trees grew later but most are more than 100 years old. Incidentally, Kamakura in Japan (near Tokyo) is famous for similar mass blossoms at around the same time (not around a lake but across a long road that leads to a giant Buddha touching the sky).
Around the tidal basin in DC are the Jefferson, Roosevelt and Martin Luther Memorials. Across Independence Avenue on the northern side of the basin are the Lincoln, Vietnam, Korean War and World War II Memorials. The Washington Monument is nearby. All the memorials in this paragraph are theoretically within walking (and visible) distance of each other, but it’s a long long walk, only for the fit. (All the Memorials are wheelchair accessible. For those who are able, it’s easier and faster to walk from one memorial to another than to park near each one. I would recommend that the walk be spaced over a couple of days for the benefit of intellectual and emotional absorption).