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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Feeling monumental

You know it, I know it, we all know it: the Washington Monument needs no introduction. Still, a few brief facts are in order: the cornerstone was first laid on July 4, 1848, but due to construction and political problems, it remained stuck at a mere 152 feet (46 meters) for more than two decades (Mark Twain called it a "factory chimney with the top broken off"). After the Civil War, Congress authorized funding to complete the monument, but it still took until the end of 1884 for the structure to reach completion. It's still the world's tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk, reaching a height of 555 feet (169 meters). The monument measures 55 feet (17 meters) wide at the base, tapers off to 34 feet (10 meters) at the top and is capped by a small aluminum pyramid. And until this Veterans Day, my family and I had never been inside it:

Thanks to damage from the magnitude 5.8 2011 Virginia Earthquake,  the monument was closed the first time we were in the Washington, D.C. area. Repairs were completed and the monument was reopened to visitors in May 2014, while we were in Shanghai. Ever since, riding the elevators to the top of the monument was at the top of our list of things to do once we returned to northern Virginia. I first looked into reserving tickets online more than a month ago, but due to high demand combined with our time constraints (we're pretty much only free on Saturdays and national holidays), the earliest available date I could find that fit our schedule was Veterans Day. Fortunately, November 11 turned out to be a beautiful day, with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-60's F (mid-to-late teens C). The views from the top (at 500 feet/152 meters) turned out to be well worth the long wait.

Looking east, we could look down the National Mall (currently undergoing renovations scheduled to last until December 2016) to the Capitol (itself undergoing renovation work). Visible on the left are the National Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art. On the right, you can see the Smithsonian Institution Building ("The Castle"), the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian:

A closer view of the Capitol Building, flanked by the Supreme Court Building on the left and the Library of Congress on the right (and RFK Stadium hovering in the background):

Zooming in on the Smithsonian Castle and the Freer Gallery of Art:

To the north, we could see the White House and the Ellipse:

Turning west, we had a great view of the National World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool and, of course, the Lincoln Memorial:

Finally, the southern windows expose the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial:

The floor below the observatory contains a few exhibits, giving you something to look while waiting for the elevator ride back to ground level:

If you could only choose one structure to symbolize Washington, D.C., a strong case could be made for the Washington Monument. Visiting it today was further proof (if any were needed) that Washington is an amazing city to experience. If you haven't seen the obelisk and would like to, do as we did and book your tickets online, for a small fee; free tickets are available at the Monument itself, but they go quickly.

Having crossed the Washington Monument off of our collective District of Columbia bucket list, it was time to find somewhere to have lunch. From past experience, the cafeterias inside the various museums along the National Mall are best avoided (mediocre food at high prices), so we strolled north to Pennsylvania Avenue. In a nod to this country's colonial beginnings, we settled on the British-themed Elephant & Castle pub and restaurant, where I lunched on stuffed Yorkshire pudding, washed down with a DC Brau Public Pale Ale:

Across the street from the restaurant stands the Old Post Office Pavilion, a magnificent Romanesque Revival structure that's unfortunately being redeveloped into a luxury hotel by none other than Donald Trump. We visited it three years ago

We returned to the Mall and the Sōtatsu: Making Waves exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Tawaraya Sōtatsu 俵屋宗達 was a 17th century Japanese artist and co-founder of the Rinpa 琳派 school of Japanese painting. The Sackler Gallery is currently showing the first retrospective of Sōtatsu's work outside of Japan. Noted for his painted folding screens, my daughter described the banner outside the gallery as being a "screen shot":

Photography wasn't permitted inside the Sōtatsu exhibit, but I did manage to surreptitiously take this screen shot:

Inspired by Sōtatsu, Amber created her own folding fan art:

On the way to the Making Waves exhibition, we passed through this deconstruction of James McNeill Whistler's The Peacock Room. Part of an immersive installation by painter Darren Waterston called Filthy Lucre, Peacock Room: REMIX features broken pottery pieces and paintings of peacocks eviscerating each other:

My daughter was simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the room, going in several times to have a look. She was relieved later when we went upstairs to the Freer Gallery to see the actual Peacock Room:

This ceiling-to-floor installation consists of the word "monkey" rendered in twenty-one languages:

Amber and I finished our afternoon on the Mall by going for a ride on historic Carousel on the Mall, while my wife took a break on a nearby bench. It was by far the fastest Merry Go Round I've ever experienced. A plaque on the gate explained its small role in the civil rights struggles of the Sixties:

Washington on a crisp, clear autumn afternoon - is there any better time to be in the District? OK, perhaps spring (when the cherry blossoms bloom), but at least now there are fewer people to cope with.


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