Travels with Dick and Karen
Karen giving Congress What For

Washington DC 2013

Week 1

(go to Week 2)

Two years ago we drove across the US and had considered spending a week in Washington DC along the way. For a variety of reasons we didn't manage to wedge that detour into that trip. So this year we decided to make DC the focus of a trip... specifically the Smithsonian, a "bucket list" item for Karen. Karen had never been to DC. Dick had been there for 3 days in 1963 with his parents, and again in 1967 for a day or two (it snowed, and sight-seeing didn't happen unless you include the three trips around the Washington Monument trying to find the correct exit to return to the airport)

Our planning was moderately loose: "a week at the Smithsonian" plus "about a week" for everything else. Since we planned to be in-city for almost everything, we decided to not rent a car. We did order a DCMetro "SmarTrip" subway/bus card for Karen, and planned to pick up a Senior card for Dick (proof of age required) when we got there. We used to book a decently in-city apartment on a semi-side street a block from the U-Street Metro stop. We flew non-stop via Alaska Airlines to Reagan National Airport (DCA), which theoretically had a direct Metro connection to U Street on the Yellow Line. Rush hour scheduling and the need to pick up Dick's subway card dictated that we make a couple of transfers along the way to the apartment, but the return trip was indeed a "hop on train, exit at airport" at the end of our stay.


Our apartment was at the north end of a largely residential neighborhood. Each morning started with shouldering a small backpack with a few water bottles and whatever shirt/jacket the weather forecast suggested. Then we'd head out on foot a bit after 9am and not return until about 8pm.

Each day we picked a different street (13th, 14th, etc) to walk the mile-and-a-half south to the White House, Federal Triangle and then drift off towards destinations around the Mall. Those walks took us first through the classical narrow "Georgetown architecture" townhouses.  

The townhouses typically had tiny front yards, ornate metalwork fences and secondary entrances below the front stairs. 

On some streets they were set back a bit further and managed to squeeze in gardens and hardscaping 

Construction is booming (and clanking and growling and rumbling) throughout the city. Our apartment was at the moving edge of redevlopment.. this shot is one block west of us (on 14th), and a second construction crane appeared one day between us and the one pictured here. 
The prevelence of near-by construction led to bizarre implications by the signage 
Our morning routes took us past collections of churches (and one of the ubiquitous Public Bicycle rental racks (the first 30 minutes per trip are free)) 
There's a $7 per day through $75 per year membership fee, the bike borrowing is secured by a credit card, and Sprinter vans circulate through the 200+ stations refilling the emptied racks with bikes taken from the full-to-capacity racks. There are 1800 bicycles in the system. We saw lots of people using them for commuting. The second 30 minutes are $1.50, then $3 for the third. 
As we continued our march into the city, we'd hit the State-named Avenues, which frequently had interesting views.
The view looking southeast down Pennsylvania Ave from "Freedom Plaza" (at 14th and E street) with the Old Post Office Tower and Federal Triangle building complex on the right. 

Adding a bit of zoom could turn "interesting" into impressive 

The White House across the South Lawn 

The White House from the North Lawn 
Spinning about from the previous photo, we meet the 24 hour Peace Vigil tent on the edge of Lafayette Square 
The road on the north side only permits pedestrian and "official" traffic. Even the pedestrians are excluded when "things" are happening. We encountered one such blockage and hung around for 20-odd minutes waiting for "it" to happen. "It" never did, so we moved on. 
At times they allow the guided gaggle of Segway Tourists to cross the road 
Around the White House and at various places along the Mall, we'd frequently encounter small-to-huge groups of same-T-shirted people being led to and fro 
And then there's the architecture... this is the north face of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, located due west of the White House. 
The Old Post Office building in the Federal Triangle turned into our "first stop" for much of the trip... 
Inside it has a bustling Atrium, with touristy gift and fast-food shops 
Plus a 16-person glass elevator that "wisks" you to the 9th floor, where we transferred to an 8-person elder elevator that continued up... the top of the Post Office Tower... from which one could march around to broad views of the Capitol, 
...the clad-in-scaffolding Washington Monument (more on that later), the Potomac and Alexandria Virginia 
Karen in the Post Office Tower's viewing area. By being early, we're avoiding later crowding.

Now for the confession: as mentioned, we hit the Old Post Office building almost every day after our first visit.
Not for the tower, but for the Ben & Jerry's in the Atrium. Karen became addicted to their coffee shakes.
Dick would start his day with a cup of instant coffee in the apartment, and Karen would start hers two miles later at the Post Office. 

Dick on Pennsylvania Ave in front of the US Navy Memorial Plaza, with the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the center distance. 
The first week we were in DC, Congress was recessed. This meant things were noticably less crowded and busy than it could be. Sunday afternoon also seemed to lower the crowds, as can be seen on our approach to the Capitol building.
We were aiming for the Library of Congress located behind it. 
Walking around towards the north (Senate) end of the Capitol, we came across what can only be called a little red-brick folly... a semi-buried hexagon called the Summer House 
The Summer House has shady brick benches, and backs onto a sheltered waterfall and pool, originally intended for visitors to get a drink. The sheparded hordes of tourists avoided this quiet spot... we didn't. 
Continuing around to the east side of the Capitol, ... 
We then turned to see the Supreme Court building's columnated face ... but closer inspection revealed that it was really a painted cloth wrapping hiding yet another DC construction/maintenance project. 
Next door was the Thomas Jefferson Building of the National Library of Congress, a Mecca for us book lovers 
The Court of Neptune fountain in front of the Jefferson Building 
The Library has a wildly ornate interior full of statues, murals and painted ceilings 
With names of famous American (to 1896) artists, scientists, scholars and authors painted on the walls, it's a flamboyant example of "triumphant cultural nationalism in the Beaux-Arts style." 
Various fields of endeavor are lauded in the alcoves 

Now turning our footsteps back towards "home" we came to the arched roof of the Union Station behind the Christopher Columbus monument.  

Union Station is another building of grand design. 
With (typical in DC) arch-ceilinged columnades on the outside 
...and a curved-ceiling (like the railroad platforms a storey above) food court in the basement 
Walking back up Massachusetts Avenue in the early evening discovered buildings that mixes the old styles and the new... 
...even encountering modern all-glass examples, framing the Cavalry Baptist Church and the north face of the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art 
Many buildings had style, such as these panels of bas-relief 
Another morning, another street... and we chanced upon (before actively trying to find it) the National Geographic Society Buildings 

They were delightful, and easily had the second best cafeteria of all those we sampled during our stay

There was a major Birds of Paradise exhibit featuring 8 years of work by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology scientist Edwin Scholes and field biologist and National Geographic photographer Tim Laman documenting the existence, behaviours and lives of all 39 known species. 
Karen took dozens of pictures in the exhibit... which somehow her camera failed to actually save. Dick knew she was shooting up a storm, so he only took these two of an artist's recreation of one of the mating displays. 
Coming down 17th Street brought us in front of the American Red Cross headquarters 
...and thence to the Mall. There was an earthquake in August 2011 that shifted the marble blocks, cracked one or two and created gaps that allowed water to enter during a later hurricane. Scaffolding was surrounding it when we arrived. 
So we started in the center of the Mall's length and visted the sights as we walked west. First, the new World War II memorial. 
Then onward to the Lincoln Memorial 
...with its (slightly scaffolded) classic view along the reflecting pool 
...its majestic central statue and inspiring quotes from and about Lincoln on the walls. 
Walking around the building kept revealing glorious views 
Then we walked around the Tidal Basin to visit other memorials. The first we encountered was the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial. 
The FDR Memorial is arranged as four "rooms," one for each term of office. Each has a major waterfall and sculptures focusing upon a signature aspect of that period. This first term shows a breadline...  
... followed by the New Deal, and then the Second World War...  
... then an area with a still pool commemorating his death.
Finally this fifth area with a combination of the styles of the water features of the previous areas. 
We continued around the Tidal Pool to the Jefferson Memorial. 
Once again, heroic statues and inspriing quotations. 
From the relative calm and quiet of the memorials we returned through the hubbub of official Washington near the end of a working day. 
The next morning we set out to explore some of the out-of-the-way attractions of the area. Churches' stained glass windows always drew our attention. 
After a bit of a hike over to Georgetown, we visited Dumbarton Oaks, an estate, museum and 53 acre 90-year-old maintained and whimsical garden 
Ornate statuary competed with full-blown spring floral displays. 
Garden areas and pools hung with light netting festooned with dangling crystals casting multitudes of rainbows into our eyes. 
Pathways leading to decorated panels and gateways 
Mexican stones forming the Pebble Garden, surrounded by thyme and sedum. 
The Ellipse Provencal fountain and pool... with a host of frogs and interesting water plants 
Cascades of wysteria  
Niches near a swimming pool held mosaics depicting the fable of Diana and Actaeon. 
Following Dumbarton, we marched down Wisconsin Ave through Georgetown, sought out lunch (and a coffee shake), and eventually managed to get to Washington's Trader Joe's to stock up on vital foodstuffs (certain crackers and cheeses). From there we staggered home. Another 10+ mile day accomplished. 
The next dawn was Saturday, and a chance reading of a bus stop's advertisement informed us of an only-in-DC opportunity: an "Around the World Embassy Open House Tour". Over 40 embassies threw open their doors for simple wander-in-and-visit activities. Some countries were very popular with lines stretching around the block, others less so. We considered the twenty people outside Chile's embassy as "a line" (little did we know of the future...). 
Nicaragua was the first one we encountered as we walked from our apartment. It had no line... so in we went. We were given a bag full of tourist information and a small carved bird. There were tables with examples of the country's produce and industrial output. We were greeted by various members of the diplomatic staff. There were tables set (or the back yards filled) with typical examples of the country's food and beverages. 
Karen was captured by the beat of Trinidad and Tobago's steel drums... 
as provided by a local community group. 
The accidental (?) juxtaposition of Peru next to T&T meant that a strolling Andean band lured Dick to next door.  
Where he met a few of the four-legged examples of indigenous populations. 
Across the street, Australia's embassy had a line stretching around the block. They had an example of "we're with you in Afghanistan" hardware stationed out front, and a digger-hatted staff member working the line with a plate full of "cheerios"... small sausages on toothpicks.  
Trinidad & Tobago had the shortest line, so in we went. Karen liked the flamboyant Festival costumes on display. 
Since this was "Embassy Row", we walked by a number of Embassies that were not participating in the Open House Tour, Kenya's was one such. (Harambee means "all pull together") 
We followed the crowds up Massachusetts Ave, bypassing this line queuing for the Turkish Embassy. 
We wandered through back streets to cut from Mass Ave towards Wyoming, where we fell into the Embassy of Afghanistan (misplaced on the map). 
..and across the street was Sri Lanka... 
In the Haitian Embassy, Karen encountered a bouquet of proteas .. which both thrilled her and puzzled Dick. To see Proteas bloom in their native South Africa is a driving goal of here, and Dick was wondering why they were on display "in Haiti".  
Speaking of South Africa, they were on the Tour, too. But not at their Embassy ("remodelling"), but in the borrowed space of the lobby of the Intelsat communication satellite organization's office building. The floor had tables featuring tourist inducements, exhausted spreads of local foods (pictured), videos of things commercial, scientific and cultural, all under the bizzare canopy of full-sized models of Intelsat's communication satellites.  
We passed by the colorful artwork decorating the grounds of the Ethiopian Embassy 
..and dropped into Ghana's, where a drummer had some children's rapt attention. 
The U.A.R. was not on the tour, but we passed it on the way to ... 
Egypt... with their historically-inspired lobby... 
... leading to their recreation of an Arab street market. 
Just up the street from Egypt was Malaysia... ranging from this subdued display of older heritage ... this over-the-top "have your photo taken in a throne" reception hall. 
Some of the Embassies had had free home-cooked spreads of food, some (like this) brought restaurant and street-vendors in to provide the flavors are reasonable prices. 
The first weekend's Tour had been "Around the World".. but the second weekend was the European Union's Open House... So we did it again: trooped, tromped (and occasionally shuttle-bussed) all over Georgetown and a dash of Foggy Bottom. These are the gardens and back of the British, pardon, United Kingdom Embassy... 
...with Winston Churchill standing out front. 
The first Embassy Tour finished at 4pm, leaving us "stranded" in the Van Ness neighborhood out on Connecticut Avenue. We walked back through the zoo (details later) down to Rock Creek, then the steep climb back up to this Adams Morgan neighborhood. 
As the sun dipped low, we staggered our weary way back down past the dense townhouses to U street. 
Sunday, things started late, so so did we. A cycle of laundry in the apartment's basement, then the usual stroll to catch the opens-at-noon coffee shake in the Post Office building.
Then the puzzle: where to have lunch?
We decided to try the cafeteria in the basement of the National Gallery of Art.
Getting there took us through the outdoors National Sculpture Garden.
We were charmed by this silver tree, Graft by Roxy Paine. 
We were surprised to see this 19 foot high Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, a copy of which is in Seattle's Sculpture Park. (a third copy is in Paradise, Nevada) 
Sol LeWitt's Four-Sided Pyramid served as a fine perch for an intrepid squirrel. 
Kenneth Snelson's 60-foot high Needle Tower graces the Hirshhorn Museum's grounds. 
It was a lovely Sunday afternoon... the Mall was filling with people enjoying themselves. Busses were disgorging tour groups. we took another walk behind (east of) the Capitol to seek out the Eastern Market and its weekend arts, crafts and flea market show. There were about 40 art booths and a similar number in a fenced-off lot serving as a flea market. Karen chatted with this artist who used to do west coast shows. 
Then we trooped back up Massachusetts Ave, detouring to visit the ornate Chinese Friendship Gate in Washington's Chinatown district. Extensive redevelopment and high-rise glass towers have pretty much replaced most vestiges of obvious Asian heritage save a couple of Asian grocery stores. 
Heading back "home", we passed through one of the many "circles" formed when multiple diagonal avenues intersected a pair of rectangular-gridded streets.
Here Rhode Island and Vermont Ave meet 13th and P Streets at Logan Circle.

In a couple of hours, our friends Mary Ennis and Jeremy Keller would arrive to share a few days with us. 

Next Stop: Week 2

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all text and images copyright Karen and Dick Seymour 2013,
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