Sunday, July 23, 2017


Just across the street from the U.S. Capitol is a building whose name I've always been familiar with, but which I knew little to nothing about: the Library of Congress.
U.S. Capitol as seen from the steps of the Library
The main building of the Library of Congress
The Library has an interesting history of stops and starts:

1783:  James Madison suggests creating a congressional library.

1800:  The Library of Congress is signed into existence by President John Adams when the capital moves from New York to Washington, D.C. A total of 740 books and 3 maps ordered from Europe constitute the first collection, which is housed in the capitol building and is meant to service the reference needs of Congress. 

1814:  Invading British troops destroy the Library of Congress and its collection, which has grown to 3,000 volumes. Thomas Jefferson almost immediately offers to sell Congress his personal library as the base for a new collection. (Why didn't he just give it to them?)

1815:  Congress designates $23,950 to purchase his 6,487 books. ($3.69/book is a pretty good deal for Jefferson in 1815.) The library continues to grow.

1851:  A disastrous fire destroys 35,000  of the library's 60,000 or so books, among which are two-thirds of Jefferson's collection. Congress replaces the number of lost books.

1865:  By the end of the Civil War, there are about 80,000 volumes in the library. The next decade sees tremendous growth, both in the number of books in the library and in the power of the organization itself when the library is given jurisdiction over all copyright registration.

1876:  The Library of Congress has over 300,000 volumes and begins construction of the present main library building. 

1897: With a collection of over 840,000 volumes, the Library moves into the Beaux Arts style Thomas Jefferson Building.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


George Washington was the son of wealthy planters in Virginia, but his father died when George was only eleven, and as a result the family experienced some financial hardship (which meant George couldn't go to England for his education). However, his father had owned some property he had named "Mount Vernon," and he deeded it to his oldest living son Lawrence (by his first wife--George was the oldest son born to his second wife). When Lawrence died of tuberculosis in 1752, 20-year-old George moved to the estate to help Lawrence's widow manage the place. When she died a few years later, George inherited it. Not long after that, he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow one year older than he, in 1759.

We didn't waste any time waiting to get to know George, Martha, and their two grandchildren:

Mt. Vernon consists of 500 acres of prime real estate on the banks of the Potomac River.

The house was built in stages by George himself between 1758 and 1778 in the same spot where the previous home had been since 1735. I'm sure Martha must have bankrolled some of the expenses.

I always thought Mount Vernon was painted white.

We got in a LONG line behind about 1.5 million children on school field trips. Luckily, a colonist had been resurrected so that he could lecture the young 'uns on their behavior (which was, actually, amazingly good):

Friday, July 14, 2017


We left the Jefferson Memorial and continued clockwise around the Tidal Basin.
Our next stop was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. It was dedicated in 1997 by President Bill Clinton. It's distinguishing feature for me was its sprawling layout. It covers 7.5 acres! I kept expecting to come to the end of it, but then there would be another section. Of course, it does have to cover the longest presidency in U.S. history--12 years. The basic format is four "rooms," one for each of FDR's terms.

One especially cool thing about the FDR Memorial is that it is completely wheelchair accessible--a nod to FDR's disabiity.

FDR was known for his pithy statements, and many of them are engraved on the walls of his memorial, such as this one that reads, "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."

This one states, "The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man or one party or one must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world."

Wow. That's an ideology that seems completely foreign in today's political climate.
Next to that quote is a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt--the only First Lady honored at a Presidential memorial. Eleanor stands next to the seal of the United Nations, to which she was the first delegate from the United States:

Sunday, July 9, 2017


After a few hours in the Smithsonian Art Museum, we made our way towards the Reflecting Pool and Tidal Basin. Bob had a long walk planned, and it was already mid-afternoon. I told him there was no way we could do all of this with what light we had left. He assured me that we could, and off we went.

There's always something interesting to see while walking through the D.C. streets, like Colossal Head 4 in front of the National Museum of Natural History. It is a copy of the original Olmec stone carving on display in a museum in Xalapa, Mexico:

Bob had tried to get tickets to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which had just opened eight months before, but it was already sold out for the dates we were in D.C.

Walking past it really piqued our curiosity. This will be at the top of my list next time we are in D.C.:

The building looks like a giant slave ship:

We had seen the Washington Monument from a distance from several locations, but it was awe-inspiring to approach the actual structure. Too bad we couldn't climb the 897 stairs inside (which have been closed to tourists since 1971 anyway). The elevator is being renovated, and the building will be closed until at least 2019.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


Washington, D.C., is a great city for walking, and our typical day included driving in from our hotel in Alexandria, parking our car in a centrally located lot, and walking, walking, walking, walking.

On Day Two, we walked down F Street, noting all the attractions along the way that we might want to visit on another trip, such as the International Spy Museum. However, the museum's neighbor, the Shake Shack, required much closer inspection and caused about a 20 minute delay in our morning. It was well worth it:

Just down the road are The Smithsonian American Art Museum (commonly known as SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery, which is also a Smithsonian museum. The museums share space in the Old Patent Office Building. Collectively they are known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, although I don't think anyone really calls them that. The building takes up two city blocks, and while they really are two different museums, we experienced them as a single museum.

A dramatic sculpture on the outside is always a good sign that you've arrived at an art museum. This one, Modern Head (1989-1990) by Roy Lichtenstein, is the perfect piece to stand outside a portrait gallery. It is an impressive thirty-one feet tall and is made of steel:

Entry to the museums is free, and we were lucky to be there on a day that wasn't wall-to-wall people. The SAAM has over 7,000 pieces of art and we had limited time.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Cape Cod Morning by Edward Hopper, 1950

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Day two in Washington, D.C., was Mother's Day, and we decided to spend the morning in an unusual way--attending a service at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, more commonly known as the "National Cathedral." Since we had been running on empty on our first day, we decided to sleep in and catch the 11:15 service.

The National Cathedral isn't a non-denominational church as we had expected, but an Episcopalian Cathedral. It was granted a charter by Congress in 1891, was begun in 1907, and was completed in 1990. Congress has designated it as the "National House of Prayer." The funerals for Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford were held at the National Cathedral, which is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States, topped only by the St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City.

It's difficult to capture the size of the building (the central tower is 301 feet tall) with just one photo, but maybe five will convey its enormity:

Every December I attend a Christmas program at the local university that is basically an Episcopalian service (minus the eucharist), so the service at the National Cathedral felt familiar--lots of pageantry and processionals, lots of anthem singing, some reading and response, lots of up and down, etc.

Thursday, June 8, 2017


Like many Americans, I am fascinated by Abraham Lincoln. Lanky, sometimes awkward, often unkempt, uneducated in the traditional sense, he appeals to the Everyman in all of us. I am drawn to artistic portrayals of him, books about him, museums featuring him, and places where he lived or visited.

Therefore, of course, I was excited to visit Ford's Theater, the place where Lincoln was assassinated and which I hadn't seen since I was a kid and could hardly remember. But first, we had to go to the Peterson House across the street from the theater, which is where Lincoln "breathed his last" (as one of the helpful signs inside told us).

I'm not sure how Lincoln would have felt about the kitschy shop next door. I think he would have been embarrassed by both the shop's contents and the the misuse of the apostrophe in "souvenir's":

I'm also not sure Lincoln would have approved of the spectacle that "The House Where Lincoln Died" has become:

The National Park Service has carefully recreated the way the rooms of what was a boarding house would have looked on the night Lincoln was brought here after having been shot at close range in the head while watching a play across the street.  Most of the original furnishings, including the bed where Lincoln lay, were purchased by a Chicago collector and are now on display in the Chicago History Museum. Still, they've tried to be attentive to detail, and I'm sure they've done a good job reproducing what was once here.