Travel

Washington, D. C.

 ... it ain't what it used to be

by James Tierney

It is mind boggling trying to compare how things were in the early years with our presidents and how things are today. In the days of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and many subsequent presidents, you could walk in the door of the White House or the Capitol and talk one on one with the president or legislators. Today, you can't get within a couple of hundred yards of either place. When you go to Washington, a must see is the White House. However, you see it from quite a distance looking over(not overlooking) the twelve foot wall surrounding it or through screened-in peep holes, like a construction site. It is a sad commentary for such a beautiful edifice. Although it is far from a personal visit, there IS a White House Visitors Center a few blocks from the White House that features a film, pictorials, historical data and souvenirs. Maybe the day will come again when we can just walk up and ring the bell.

Do you know how many secret service people cover the president, past presidents, and their families today? Without knowing, you can certainly guess that the number is huge. George Washington had NO security and Abraham Lincoln had one and he gave him the night off when he went to Ford's Theatre. There is more security at Ford's Theatre today than there was in government back then.

Although there are some negatives and inconveniences which are unavoidable since 9/11, visiting Washington is still a memorable experience. "Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm", JFK said, an opinion that will ring true to anyone caught in a mob of Cherry Blossom admirers or in a line outside the Air and Space Museum. Standing in the middle of the National Mall at the Washington Monument, with the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial at either end is very moving. The west front of the Capitol (see picture below} makes a graceful transition down to the Mall in a series of arcades, steps, and terraces. At its base is the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial with its Reflecting Pool.

Our timing to visit Washington was perfect, Cherry Blossom time, which is recognized every year with a weekend festival and a big parade. The trees were in full bloom and presented a picture perfect setting surrounding the Tidal Basin. The trees were given to President Taft in 1912 by Japan and it was his wife Helen Herron Taft's idea to plant them on the Tidal Basin surrounding the Jefferson Memorial, which proved to be the ideal place. She probably could never imagine they would attract so many people to Washington each year.

We visited the Arlington National Cemetery, where 300,000 servicemen and family members are buried, across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. There are 24 burials each weekday. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has an unknown soldier from World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Korean War. The Changing of the Guard occurs every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and the sentry walks 21 steps and stops for 21 seconds before walking again. A funeral with full military honors is a dignified and moving occasion. An honor guard accompanies the American flag-draped coffin drawn by matched horses. A band plays solemn marches while muffled drums beat the slow cadence for the procession. Before the remains are lowered, a squad fires three rifle volleys and the bugler blows the long notes of "Taps". Finally, the guard folds the flag and presents it to the next of kin.

The Kennedy gravesite and the eternal flame, inspired by France's eternal flame at THEIR Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Arch of Triumph, has JFK, Jacqueline, Patrick (days old), and a stillborn daughter. Robert Kennedy is buried nearby with a plaque and a simple wooden cross (his wish) and is the only wooden cross in the cemetery. A small pond of Cape Cod water was installed nearby, fulfilling another of his wishes of being buried near water.

Although we couldn't visit the White House, we did learn a great deal at the White House Visitors Center. As arranged by Thomas Jefferson, the City of Washington was laid out and designed by the infamous engineer Pierre Charles L'enfant, exemplified by Versailles, France. When the location on the White House was decided, Ireland Architect James Hoban designed it in the style of an 18th century manor house. In 1789, President-elect Washington and his wife Martha moved into the FIRST executive mansion, the Franklin House, in New York, and later in his presidency moved into the SECOND executive mansion in Philadelphia. John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House but only for a few months, before his term was finished. George Washington planned for the White House but never lived to see it finished. His Presidential home was in Philadelphia.

The White House expanded over the years and now has 132 rooms, 4 dining rooms 1 dentist office, 28 fireplaces, 12 chimneys, 3 elevators, 4 floors, and 2 basements. You've heard of the various rooms in the White house, i.e., Blue Room, Red Room, Green Room, East Room, Yellow Room, and West Wing. Guests used to sleep in a room adjacent to the President's until Winston Churchill woke up FDR at 2AM one morning to continue discussions. From then on, guests stayed at the Blair House across the street. Lincoln never slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. He used it as his office where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. We WERE asked to stay over in the Lincoln Bedroom but respectfully declined. When Margaret Truman's piano fell through the floor, President Truman decided it was time to renovate. Over a four year period, the entire house was gutted and rebuilt with new beams from the foundation upward while the Truman's lived in the Blair House across Pennsylvania Avenue. About 150 people work for the President in the West Wing and for the First Lady in the East Wing. Since the White House is a family home and a museum, too, 100 additional people are needed to keep it operating day and night. For presidential personal time, there is a putting green, horseshoe pit, basketball court, swimming pool, tennis court, jogging path, and a bowling lane. The oldest item is a Gilbert Stuart's original portrait of George Washington which was the only item saved by Dolly Madison when the White House was set on fire by the British in the War of 1812.

Our next stop was Ford's Theatre where we had a presentation explaining the night of Lincoln's assassination. Originally, John Wilkes Booth, a southern sympathizer and several co-conspirators planned to kidnap Lincoln, along with presidential successions VP Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State Henry Seward to exchange for Confederate prisoners and to create political chaos. When Robert E. Lee surrendered, they decided to kill them but only succeeded with Lincoln. Lincoln and Mary Todd, with guests Clara Harris, daughter of Senator Ira Harris, and her escort Major Rathbone, replacing Mr. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant who were unavailable, were at the theatre watching the play "Our American Cousin". Booth, an actor who had full access to the theatre, shot Lincoln in the head and cut Rathbone with a knife before jumping to the stage and escaping before 1700 stunned people. This happened on April 14, 1865, 5 days after Lee surrendered and 4 months into his 2nd term presidency. On display in the museum on the premises are the clothes Lincoln wore that night, as well as the Booth's gun and knife.

We drove down Massachusetts Avenue, called Embassy Row, and viewed embassy after embassy which seemed never ending. Most of them were very lavish with vintage cars in the driveways, certainly not depicting the countries they represent, e.g. Haiti. Some have multiple buildings. Turkey has five. It is difficult to understand and accept the Ambassadors' lifestyle, in view of conditions in their countries, where the value of these properties could reduce their country's poverty considerably. While driving through the area, we were able to observe the very impressive and majestic National Cathedral.

Visiting the memorials was a moving experience. Each memorial flashed you back to a different time period and had you thinking about what it was like back then.

The Lincoln Memorial (see picture below)is in the style of a classic Greek Temple, with Lincoln seated facing the Capitol. His Gettysburg Address, "Fourscore and seven years ago". and part of his 2nd Inaugural Address, "With malice toward none, with charity for all", is carved in the walls on either side of him. There is nothing quite like this imposing shrine to give one patriotic goose bumps. The view from the steps across the Mall to the Washington Monument is spectacular.

The Jefferson Memorial (see picture below)was influenced by classical models typified by the colonnaded domed Pantheon in Rome, the inspiration for his Rotunda at the University of Virginia. An idyllic temple sitting along the Tidal Basin surrounded by cherry blossoms, this is the loveliest of all the monuments.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (see picture below)moves through four outdoor rooms, one for each of his terms in office. Sculptures, inscriptions, plantings, and flowing water make this a moving tribute.

The U.S. Marine Memorial(see picture below) depicting the moment the marines raised the flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II, was seen in the evening with reflecting lights on it and the Washington Monument and Capitol visible in the distance.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, "a long and winding wall" lists the names of the 58,209 service men and women who died in the conflict or who remain missing, inscribed in chronological order of the date of casualty. There is also a sculpture of three soldiers, in full combat gear, standing and looking straight ahead and another sculpture of three women coming to the aid of a fallen soldier, recalling the courage and sacrifice of all women who served. Eight servicewomen were killed in Vietnam.
Looking at this Memorial, one can't help but reflect on what these men and women endured. One of the basic criteria of the design was that it make no political statement about the war. By separating the issue of those who served in Vietnam from that of U.S. policy in the war, there was hope for a process of national reconciliation.

The Korean Memorial depicts eerily lifelike figures of poncho-clad infantrymen on the move in various poses of battle, in front of a polished granite panel etched with soldier's faces. Very impressive.

The National WWII Memorial is almost completed and will be dedicated on Memorial Day 2004, paying tribute to the 16 million who served and the 400,000 who died. The memorial is designed with a ceremonial entrance and a Memorial Plaza and Rainbow Pool dominating the layout. Gracious ramps lead to the plaza, and the entrance is flanked by 24 bas relief panels paying homage to America's WWII experience. Surrounding the plaza are 56 17-foot pillars, symbolizing the states and territories that bonded together during that era. Two grand arches, representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of battle, mark the north and south end of the plaza. At the western side of the memorial, the Freedom Wall--a field of 4000 sculpted gold stars--remembers the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives. Along with the Rainbow Pool, other fountains "balance" the design and lend their serene sound to the somber memorial.

Don't expect to see the Smithsonian on one visit to Washington. It is virtually impossible. There are 14 separate buildings, 10 of which are located on either side of the National Mall. It is 4/5 of a mile from the National Air and Space Museum to the Holocaust Museum, one end of the mall to the other. Each building may require an entire day to see all in it. In the one day allowable time, we visited the Castle (called that because it looks like one), the original museum, financed by James Smithson, an Englishman, who is buried there and who left all his money to Washington, even though he was never there. We never got an answer to why he did this. The Castle now serves as the information building which provides all that is needed for planning visits to the other buildings, including lighted panels showing highlights of other museums and a film tour of the other museums, as well as very helpful personnel to guide you.

We were also able to spend time at the National Museum of American History which featured a new exhibit "America on the Move", depicting the United States shaped by transportation transforming us back in time to 1876. The exhibit had 300 objects, including a 1950 Chicago Mass Transit Car, a 260 ton 90 foot locomotive, and a 1903 Winston, the first car driven across the United States, from San Francisco to New York. It took 63 days. This exhibit included the history of the infamous Route 66, the People's Highway.  We visited the First Ladies Gown Gallery, showing them in period gowns, either in statue form or photographs. We saw Julia Child's original kitchen(see picture below) which was transported from her home and reassembled, and includes 1200 of her kitchen items. Also, there is the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to the Star Spangled Banner. Other exhibits included Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, a Babe Ruth autographed ball, Sonja Heine skates, Michael Jordan jersey, Ali boxing gloves, Arthur Ashe and Chris Evert tennis rackets, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, Judy Garland's ruby slippers, and Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones hat.

The other museums are Anacostia Museum (African American History and Culture),Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (extension of Air and Space Museum),National Museum of Natural History, Arthur M. Sackler Museum (Asian Art), Freer Gallery of Art (more Asian Art), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Modern and Contemporary Art), National Museum of African Art, RenwickGallery/American Art, National Postal Museum, National Zoological Park. There is no admission charge to any museum.

Another must see when visiting Washington is Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, a few short miles away in Virginia. The Mount Vernon site was a land grant to Washington's great-grandfather in 1654 and included 8000 acres. Over time the acreage reduced and the house expanded. A tour through the mansion reveals George Washington's creativity as an architect and designer. Washington acquired Mount Vernon in 1754, and over the next 45 years greatly expanded his home to reflect his status as a Virginia gentleman. He personally oversaw every detail of design, construction, and decoration, even when away at war. Washington died there 12/14/1799 and is buried on the premises with Martha and other family members. His former slaves are also buried on the property. Today, there are 200 acres and it is owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Our visit to Washington was a very satisfying and enlightening experience and so different from a previous visit 20 years ago in many respects, primarily the many, many changes and additions and, of course, the security. An unexpected highlight was the picture outside our hotel window overlooking the railroad which also brought us back to yesteryear. Freight trains were rolling along frequently and numbered up to 300 cars. We haven't seen this many cars since our childhood and they were much fewer than 300 at that time.




June 4, 2004


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