Old Post Office

Though only three blocks away, I waited for more than half a year to visit the Old Post Office. Its clock tower is the third tallest building in Washington D.C. (after the Washington Monument and the National Shrine and before the National Cathedral) and certainly the tallest one tourists can enter downtown ever since the Washington Monument closed after the earthquake. I delayed seeing it because I wanted to go on a day with perfect light. I wanted the sun high in the sky (hence no trouble taking pictures either east or west) yet dimmed, so I'd get few shadows (no strong contrast between sunlit buildings and buildings in shadows, and no washing out the background). I also wanted the sky to not be overcast--I wanted long visibility and the sky to have character / not be monotone. Eventually that day arrived at time when I was free and the clock tower was open. I grabbed my camera and Di Yin and hopped over there before the weather had the opportunity to change.

Here are my pictures of both the clock tower and the pavilion (the lower level).

I learned about the building from a National Park ranger and the signs on the walls. Built in the 1870s and 1880s, it was the first skyscraper in D.C. Starting a couple decades into the twentieth century, there were plans to tear it down. These plans lasted for 75 years! After many delays and bouts of community opposition, they were eventually scraped. The building was restored.

Union Station

One day I had the time and motivation to fully explore Union Station. I took pictures. I'd previously explored parts of Union Station; here are those pictures. Those include some outdoor shots that I didn't get on this trip; on this trip I focused mainly on the indoors.

District Architecture Center

I went once to the District Architecture Center to see an exhibit in its Sigal Gallery, its only exhibition space. The exhibit I saw, Could Be: The AIA|DC Awards for Unbuilt Architecture (scroll down in the above linked page), was part of three exhibits organized by the National Building Museum related to unbuilt work. Incidentally, I visited the other two exhibits at the National Building Museum and the American Institute of Architects.

It's unusual to see an exhibit of unbuilt architecture awards--most architecture awards go to completed projects. Surprisingly (given the connection to the Unbuilt Washington exhibit), only about a fifth of the winners presented here were designs for the Washington D.C. area.; most were for other countries. My favorite Washington D.C. design was for a work of art, not in my opinion a work of architecture: a proposal to form a light pyramid above Washington D.C. using high-powered spotlights along D.C.'s borders that focus at a point in the sky above the Washington Monument.

My favorite design from any region was the Fellowship Bridge across Lake Beluthahatchee, Florida by KGP Design Studio. Check it out. I hope it eventually gets built.

Also, I was intrigued by the proposal for modern residential buildings in Suzhou, a city in China with many canals that I visited.

American Institute of Architects

I went once to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to see an exhibit in its lobby: Unbuilt -> Built: The Influence of the Progressive Architecture Awards. The exhibit was part of three exhibits organized by the National Building Museum related to unbuilt work. Incidentally, I visited the two related exhibits at the National Building Museum and the District Architecture Center.

AIA's annual award for a notable design of a building or complex often goes to projects in progress. This exhibit profiles twenty-five winning projects that were completed. It was neat to see the different styles and sensibilities en vogue over the years. Some awardees have aged well. Some have not. Some are fantastical such as a pair of hotels at Disney World (the Dolphin & Swan Hotels). Others are bland.

The pictures in the exhibit--which was mostly pictures--were large and vibrant and gave enough of a sense of the spaces that I don't feel a need to visit many of these in person.

I've been to only two winners: Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and Battery Park City in Manhattan.

By the way, AIA's building, in particular its crescent-moon-shaped glass-enclosed atrium, feels good inside.

National Building Museum

The National Building Museum was the first museum I visited in Washington D.C. It seemed like an appropriate way to introduce myself to the city. I liked it.

I took pictures of and around the building.

The museum's major permanent exhibit on Washington has details on how things were designed and built: famous buildings, monuments, memorials, parks, roads, bridges, aqueducts, waterfronts, rail stations, and neighborhoods. It includes models of the Mall and the Capitol. Sorry, I wasn't allow to take pictures.

I found most interesting how land uses changed: e.g., the West Building in the National Gallery of Art used to be D.C.'s main rail terminus; the National Archives used to be the site of the Central Market. I also enjoyed reading about the debate over the design of the White House, and the various debates/controversies about the designs of certain memorials. (Other memorials that I read about were uncontroversial.) I was a bit surprised I didn't see much discussion about funding, whether certain initiatives are funded by the district's revenues or by the federal government. Maybe it is (or has been) generally fungible.

Over the next few days, as I showed people around D.C. I found myself telling tales of various things I learned.

The headline special exhibit was on legos! In particular, it showed models, built with legos, of famous buildings. It was neat but not as amazing as I hoped. Remarkably, many buildings were from Chicago.

One special exhibit was on a mosaic & mural designer who worked less than a century ago. I imagine there aren't many of those! (The field has practically died out.) It included an interesting essay by the artist about the different goals of a mural painter versus an easel painter.

Another special exhibit showed the results of an interesting project that brought young adults (10-17 I'd guess) to off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods and got them to explore and get the vibe.

By the way, the Turner City Collection, which is shown in the museum, is a neat way of making an annual report. Here's a description:

In 1910, Turner hired accomplished illustrator Richard W. Rummell to fashion an innovative marketing tool that would showcase the young company's success. He asked for a composite cityscape featuring all of the firm's projects to date and stipulated that at least two sides of each building be visible, preferably with the front entrance clearly evident. The realistic aerial perspective Rummell created set a precedent for all subsequent Turner City drawings, as they came to be known. Commissioned annually since then, each rendering is essentially an illustrated annual report of the major works completed by the firm during the previous year.

Six months later I returned to the museum for the Unbuilt Washington special exhibit. This fascinating exhibit showed alternative designs for monuments, buildings, streets, parks, waterfronts, etc., designs that were for one reason or another not implemented. Some weren't built because a different design was picked. Many others were simply canceled due to lack of funds, usually caused by bad timing of an economic downturn. Some unimplemented designs boggle the mind because they're so different than what was actually constructed that it's hard to imagine the alternate design in its place. Again, I wish I could've taken pictures of the design proposals. Instead I took notes.

Many federal buildings are designed by selecting the best proposal in an open competition. Many displays in the exhibit covered some of the runner-up entries, such as the runner-ups in the competition to design the capitol and the various competitions to expand it. Incidentally, though the vast majority of designs displayed in the exhibit came through a formal call-for-proposals, some did not, such as the proposal for a new White House / presidential mansion, proposed by a socialite trying to make her neighborhood the most fashionable in the city.

I learned the original Washington Monument design included a portico. A runner-up proposal included an Egyptian pyramid. I also read about the 1870s proposals for completing the then-long-unfinished monument. Almost all the designs put an extravagant, grandiose casing around it, covering it, or put giant sculptures around it. Closer to the present, I read about the 2010 competition to redesign the Washington Monument's grounds.

One of the original Lincoln Memorial proposals was a statue atop a giant ziggurat.

I read about the drama surrounding the design of both the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial (complaints that it was too similar to the Lincoln Memorial, it required chopping down cherry trees that were a gift from Japan, etc.).

I saw a runner-up design for the Library of Congress: a crazy drawing of a Victorian Gothic building. This competition, by the way, lasted a decade and a half. The jury was never happy with the proposals and kept asking for alterations or redesigns, keeping the elements of the best-of-a-bad-bunch proposals they liked and discarding the features they didn't. Can you imagine how frustrating it must've been to participate in that competition?

I saw the winning plan for the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial, a plan that was never executed. A new design was built several decades later.

One front-running design for the National Galleries of History & Art had them cover the Mall from the White House (17th Street) all the way to the Potomac, some dozen blocks over. That would've been a huge complex!

I also read about a number of other proposals that involved the Mall including these:
  • an elevated highway along the Mall
  • the Mall as a giant sculpted garden park (a la formal French parks)
  • an earlier version of the Hirshhorn Museum that crossed the Mall
  • the entire SW district as part of the Mall
  • the Mall as a Venetian canal (proposed in 1984 as part of a redesign)
Closer to home, I read about proposals in the second half of the last century to redesign Pennsylvania Avenue. Happily, the many of these that would demolish historic buildings were denied.

In recent events, I read about the National Capital's long term plans and about the current leading proposal for the (undecided) reuse of the Arts & Industries Building (currently closed for historic restoration/preservation).

In addition to all these memorials and buildings I mentioned, there were lots about other buildings, some I've heard of (and actually seen what was built) (e.g., Memorial Bridge, the National Cathedral, the Kennedy Center) and some I haven't (e.g., the Mother's Memorial). Regarding the Kennedy Center, I like the renovation proposals for stairs connecting it to the waterfront. Its current location is isolated.

Meanwhile, the special exhibit on House & Homes ranged as widely as you'd expect something with that title to do. One part showed the various building techniques for houses used at different periods. Another described impressions of what makes a house a home. A small display for kids held lincoln logs and dollhouses. One section of the exhibit explored objects that normally appeared in houses at various times over the last few centuries. Some objects are now out-of-date/unnecessary and no longer appear in homes. Another display explored the different types of housing communities; an adjacent one presented the economics of housing, including law changes that affected housing policy. This last bit isn't something one normally learns in history class.

In this exhibit, I most enjoyed the various sections that showed models, pictures, and videos of notable or iconic houses. I especially liked this feature because it let my mind wander about whether I'd enjoy living in those places. For some I said, "heck, yes!"

Octagon House

The Octagon House is a famous old house in Washington D.C., one of the first built when the upper crust moved to help get the federal city started. It even housed the president (Madison) after the White House burned in 1814.

Recently reopened after renovation, it doesn't have much to see inside. There's a handful of furniture and a few informative panels (dating pre-renovation) but not many other decorations. Some rooms are occupied by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which owns the building. According to the person at the door, the AIA is supposed to be moving out so every room would be on display but the architects haven't yet gotten around to moving. Apparently they like this building better than AIA's modern, block, glass-and-metal headquarters next door.

I took a few pictures.

Incidentally, the house has only six sides. Apparently, at the time the house was built, round foyers were known as octagons, and the name for that room in the house stuck to the whole house.

Ford's Theater, Lincoln's Cottage, and more Lincoln Stuff

Aside from the Lincoln Memorial, there are four other sites in D.C. directly associated with President Lincoln.

Ford's Theater
Ford's Theater is the place President Lincoln was shot. It's around the corner from our apartment; I walked by it everyday.

One day Di Yin and I attended a ranger talk in the restored theater. (I say restored because the theater was previously gutted.) The talk was fun: an energetic and engaging narration of the action that night.

I took pictures when I visited the theater as well as when I visited the Petersen House and Ford's Center, both mentioned below.

There's a good museum on Lincoln in the basement below the theater. It made me feel like I know him. One cause of the feeling is the whole museum is populated with quotes from Lincoln. Also, one display covers his day-to-day life in the White House including his open-door policy and his frequent theater outings. He was a lover of theater. I also read some hilarious stories about how he put off job-seekers. Another exhibit describes his family. Yet more exhibits describe his presidency: his politics, the Civil War (this section was mostly about his contribution to military strategy; I ignored this because of the overwhelming detail). I was intrigued to learn that he chose his cabinet after his reelection--a divisive election--to include members from all opposing political parties.

Much of the museum is devoted to items and stories relating to Lincoln's assassination. It has the weapons used (or planned to be used) by Booth and his conspirators in the assassination plots ("plots" because they also wanted to kill the Secretary of State), plus other items of theirs such as Booth's diary. The gun used could chamber only a single shot. One of these what-I-called "items of theirs" is big: the museum has inside it the Surratt boarding house, the house where the planning took place. (Yes, they moved the house.) Finally, there are tons of details about the assassination, the planning for it, and its aftermath, including an hour-by-hour breakdown of the day leading up to the event and the days afterward. Each conspirator is described in detail, both around this time and personality-wise in general. Somehow the museum even found glamorous, professional photos of each of them!

I spent about about 45 minutes in the museum.

On Lincoln's Birthday, Ford's Theater had a number of special events. I went to one: a showing of One Destiny. This short play (40 minutes) has only two actors: one playing a man who was acting on stage the night Lincoln was shot and another playing the owner of the theater. To deal with the trauma, they discuss the events of the day that led up to the assassination. In doing so, they each take on roles of other characters, re-living/re-enacting the events to illustrate their discussion. This rapid character change is quite impressive; both the actors did a very good job. Plus, I learned a lot. For instance, Booth was a down-and-out actor from a famous acting family.

Petersen House
Petersen House is the place Lincoln was taken after being shot. It's across the street from the theater and now open for tours. It's decorated with period furnishings. Disturbingly, the room in the back with the bed Lincoln died in is called the "death room."

Ford's Center for Education & Leadership
Ford's Center for Education & Leadership, a new museum- and advocacy- place adjacent to Petersen House opened while we lived in D.C. It has exhibits on both Lincoln and leadership.

One exhibit explores what happened after Lincoln's death. It includes a quote from his mother that when he left from the last time he saw her (I think this was to return to the White House for his second term), she knew he wouldn't return home alive. Yeah, the exhibit is morbid. It covers the pursuit of Lincoln's killers as well as Lincoln's funeral and the conspirators' funerals. I learned that one conspirator who decided not to act, not to do his part of the plan, nonetheless was hung. One who was in Canada at the time went to Europe, joined the papal guard, was captured in Egypt, extradited to the United States, tried once, acquitted, and tried again. Before the second trial finished the statute of limitations for his crime expired. I guess his flight from justice delayed justice enough so that he could escape it.

Lincoln, by the way, has no living descendants.

Another exhibit examines Lincoln in popular culture (ads, movies, etc.).

A third looks at how various presidents identified with Lincoln. I found this exhibit interesting and thoughtful.

The final large exhibit is on leadership and the qualities that leaders should possess.

I spent about 45 minutes in the Center.

One more random fact before I switch to a different Lincoln destination: Lincoln is the only president with a patent.

Lincoln's Cottage
One day I took a bus for twenty-five minutes north to see Lincoln's Cottage. Lincoln lived in this cottage during the summer while he was president to escape Washington D.C.'s heat. Meanwhile, I visited it on an unseasonably warm winter day that hit 70 degrees.

I took pictures on this excursion.

The bus ride was nice; I liked passing through parts of D.C. that I'd have no other chance to see.

Lincoln's Cottage is on the Soldiers' Home ground. Established 1851, it was the first veterans retirement community. It's still an armed forces retirement home. In order to build support for the community, in the grounds' early days administrators regularly invited high-level government officials to use it as a retreat.

The one-hour tour of the cottage focused on Lincoln's life during his presidency. The stories were illustrated by readings of letters by Lincoln and documents by other people recounting their encounters with him. The readings also explored how Lincoln made his decisions, what factors came into play, and how his stays at the cottage may have influenced them. There's nothing to see in the home; the information could've easily been conveyed elsewhere.

Regardless, I found the tour quite interesting. I learned about Lincoln's priorities (maintaining the Union first, abolishing slavery a distant second), about the strategic timing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and about his occasional testiness and later regrets about it.

Near the cottage is a museum with five small rooms with informational signs and photograph reproductions. It has no artifacts. The house doesn't have artifacts either.

Some interesting stories I heard:

  • Lincoln enjoyed reading aloud, and often read Shakespeare to his secretary for hours. Personally, I think that's an unusual relationship.
  • Lincoln, when asked about the progress of the war and whether God was on his side, said, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."

Woodrow Wilson House

I visited the Woodrow Wilson House, the house he retired to after the presidency. The house and furnishings and decorations are as he left them.

I took pictures.

Once there, I first watched a short video biography on Woodrow Wilson. I learned he was an intellectual academic who became president. There aren't many of those. He wanted to concentrate on domestic policies but, due to World War I, he ended up doing a lot of foreign policy. Ah, how external circumstances can determine the agenda.

I took a guided tour. It's a respectable house, nowhere near as extravagant as the Anderson house (which I also visited), though both were decorated at around the same time. They just have different tastes.

My tour guide was enthusiastic (despite there being only two of us on the tour) and knowledgeable. I learned a lot during the tour.

The president used to be allowed to keep gifts he received. This isn't true anymore. Lots of these gifts are decorations in the house, including a micro-mosaic (gift from the pope), a French tapestry (a Gobelins tapestry) (the Wilsons really didn't want it but had to accept it for diplomatic reasons), a kangaroo coat (from Australia), and painted plates (from Belgium).

Mrs. Wilson had an important role when the president was recovering from his stroke. No one's sure what power she had, though many hypothesize it might be like a chief of staff.

Woodrow founded a law firm after retiring from the presidency. He refused to take any cases that involved federal courts to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. He couldn't find enough acceptable cases and a year later dissolved the partnership.

Mrs. Wilson outlived Woodrow Wilson by 37 years. She never remarried. One of her activities during this time was going to all the openings of schools, post offices, etc. named in his honor.

Pretty much everything in the home is original. Partially this is because Mrs. Wilson saved everything, including, for example, the empty bottle of the wine she shared with Jacqueline Kennedy.

I can tell from the closet that Mrs. Wilson was a fashionable woman. She especially liked Chinese fans.

The house has some Pocahontas imagery. Mrs. Wilson is a direct descendant of hers.

After the tour, I stuck my head in a text-heavy exhibit about the second industrial revolution (which occurred around the time of Wilson's presidency). The exhibit wasn't much connected to Wilson, my brain was full, and the house was closing soon, so I didn't spend much time there.

Tudor Place

Tudor Place is an early eighteenth-century house in Georgetown. (Incidentally, the architect is the same one who designed the Octagon House.) The house remained in the same family's hands from when it was built to when it was converted into a house museum in the late twentieth century. That's a long time. One family member lived here for nearly her entire life. Can you imagine living in only one place for your entire life?

Di Yin and I took a tour.

Because the house remained in one family for so many years, it has items from many eras. It's hard to imagine living in a place with so many family heirloom/antiques. Lots of items were purchased from Martha Washington's estate sale. The original builder/owner was the grand-daughter of Martha Washington, so she got first dibs. Estate sales are handy for stocking a house quickly and cheaply.

I enjoyed seeing/hearing about the evolution of the house, at least as it relates to lighting technologies. We saw hanging candle fixtures, hanging gas fixtures, and electric chandeliers. The former two types of fixtures were converted to take electric bulbs but the hanging structure, vases, and design remained the same.

I also saw my first (I think) partners desk: a desk with drawers on both sides.

Sorry I have no pictures. Pictures weren't allowed inside, and my camera was acting up so I didn't take any pictures on Tudor Place's nicely landscaped five acre estate. The estate, by the way, is half formal garden and half wide, sloping lawn. Di Yin took some pictures of the garden; I'll link to them if they appear online.

The estate's a pleasant place to wander; the house tour it turns out in retrospect we needn't have done.

Anderson House

One day I visited the Anderson House in Dupont Circle. Anderson was a former diplomat so it makes sense his home is in the neighborhood known as Embassy Row (but I think it's more likely that the neighborhood was the fashionable address at the time).

The Anderson House is now the headquarters for the Society of the Cincinnati, a group established at the time of the Revolutionary War as a society for veterans (officers only). It's dedicated to preserving the rights and liberties motivating the revolution. The Society is named after Cincinnatus, a Roman senator who led the military to victory, then refused to keep his power, refused any reward, and returned to his farm. Anderson was a member. He gave the house to the society in 1937.

The house is in the style of the grand homes of European royalty. It's extravagant.

It has a big emphasis on symmetry, with many doors that don't open/go anywhere--they're just there for appearance.

The Society displays the art the Andersons collected. They had eclectic taste. Their art comes from all over. In addition to paintings from all over Europe and European tapestries, I spotted statues from India (Buddhist), China, Rome, Greece, and Europe (Christian), and also Chinese boxes.

I took pictures on this excursion.

Kreeger Museum

One rainy day Di Yin and I took a bus past Georgetown, then walked into the hills farther up where even buses don't go. We walked past mansions or at least large houses.

Our destination was the Kreeger Musuem. David Kreeger, a former GEICO exec, was a big man in D.C., a cultured supporter of many arts projects. During the latter half of the twentieth century he also collected art. The museum is in what was his home. Although houses in this area are generally well separated, Kreeger's house was more so: built on a forested hillside, other houses were a few hundred meters away and barely visible.

I took pictures while at the museum.

The Kreeger Museum's collection consists mainly of impressionists, though it has some modern art and some African masks also. Regarding the impressionists, almost all are names you'd recognize. (I did.) There are lots of Picasso, Braque, Sisley, Gorky, Monet, and van Gogh, along with a few paintings by Bonnard, Cezanne, and Pisarro. For more modern works, the museum has tons of pieces by Miro, plus pieces from Kandinsky, Klee, and Gene Davis.

It's a small, pretty place; we spent less than an hour in the museum.

Corcoran Gallery of Art

I found the Corcoran Gallery of Art blah. From what I heard, I somehow placed it in my mind as being the same caliber as the Phillips Collection. It was not. Also, the two special exhibits on view (one about modern African American artwork and one a collection of food an astronaut would take on a long space journey) were mostly too edgy for me. In all, I spent about eighty minutes in the museum.

I took pictures.

As for the permanent collection, which covers Western art from the last few hundred years, I most enjoyed the historic American Art landscape painting room. It contains two large Bierstadts and two Thomas Coles. I also spotted a few other artists that, even if I don't enjoy all their work, I prefer their works more than other artists. I spotted three Corots, a small Guardi, a Renoir, and a small Picasso. In the modern art wing, the artists I recognized were Gene Davis and Ellsworth Kelly, neither of whom I'd say I definitely like, but I like them more than anyone else I saw in that wing, so that's saying something about the gallery.

The Phillips Collection

One day Di Yin and I went to The Phillips Collection. I visited it four years earlier and enjoyed it. I remembered my visit; I found many paintings and some rooms in the gallery were familiar. The Phillips has some great paintings; see my earlier commentary and photographs. This visit was mainly to see its new/special exhibits.

The headline special exhibit was on Degas and particularly his repeated motifs of dancers. He really was obsessed with dancers--he drew them a lot. In this exhibit there was a neat sign explaining how, using infrared reflectography or x-radiography, art analysts could determine how the first draft of certain paintings looked and how Degas revised them over time.

We also explored the rest of the museum, including the special exhibits celebrating The Phillips Collection's 90th anniversary. Of these, I liked the neat little exhibit outside the library about Duncan Phillips, the museum's founder & first director. Also, Di Yin and I were amused and delighted by the giant roses in the Phillips' front yard. In addition, we noted the large exhibit of Joseph Marioni. He's known for his big paintings consisting of entirely one color. I can sometime be okay with such abstract art (usually if the color is luminous enough), but this time it didn't excite me.

As for the other displays, I like how some paintings in the permanent collection have labels that explain how and why Duncan Phillips acquired the painting in 1910s-1960s (mainly 1910s-1930s when the museum was first getting started). These tales are really interesting.

Also, Di Yin and I found Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series engaging. It's a series of narrative paintings (a la cartoons) that tell the story of African American migration from the South to the North after WWI.

I took only two pictures in the Phillips during this visit.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is another in the series of museums established primarily due to a collector donating his or her large collection. This museum is unusual in that its founders are still alive, still collecting, and still donating. The idea for this collection and museum is relatively recent--the founders began collecting in the 1960s.

The museum covers art by women from the sixteenth century to modern day. There are fewer pieces from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries than later ones, a testament to the limited opportunities of women. Indeed, many rooms have wall labels explaining the difficulties of being a female artist in the time of the work shown in the room. Some items' labels elaborate on how particular women overcame these difficulties. For what it's worth, an example of a difficulty only overcome in the twentieth century: artists traditionally learn to paint figures realistically by studying nudes. For women this was not considered an option.

The museum is pretty much exclusively Western art (i.e., art from women in American and Europe). I'm not sure if it's due to the preferences/knowledge of the original founder/collectors or if it's an implicit statement about the art opportunities available to women in the rest of the world.

It's small; I explored it in under an hour.

I took pictures in the museum.

Many months later I returned for its new special exhibits. It took about an hour to see them--about half the museum's space is allocated to special exhibits. (There were none when I visited during the winter; that space was simply closed off.)

I saw the large special exhibit, Royalists to Romantics, of French women artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It had rooms of paintings of family scenes and of still life (both socially acceptable subjects for women painters) as well as of portraits (slightly less acceptable) and of historical scenes (mostly unacceptable). The historical paintings were lavish color paintings in the Troubadour style. Many paintings in this exhibit were displayed at the time of their painting in French salons.

As in the permanent collection, many plaques explained women's difficulty in advancing as artists because, for one, they were ineligible for most contests and fellowships.

There was also a special exhibit of unusually designed or illustrated books, including pop-ups and books that unfold to be meters long. Some didn't look like books at all except that somewhere in the piece of art is paper with words or drawings.

A tiny special exhibit showed objects by women silversmiths, mostly items one sees on dinner tables.

The special exhibit of letters by Diego Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo (also an independent painter) to and from her mother, tell the story of a woman making a life in a land far from home.

Another special exhibit had art by the nun Mary Corita. She made graphic art in a similar pop-art style as Andy Warhol using stencils and silkscreening techniques.

Art Museum of the Americas

On a rainy Saturday morning, I trotted over the Art Museum of the Americas. Though I arrived at 10:20am--twenty minutes after opening--I was the first visitor.

It is a small museum, more like a gallery, comprising six rooms displaying recent work by South American artists. I spent less than fifteen minutes there. Then, with much more time than I expected, I planned what to do next. I decided to spend a while exploring some of the memorials on the mall, as reported in another post.

At another time, I went to an Art-Museum-of-the-America's-sponsored exhibit at the Organization of American States building. The exhibit, Lost Worlds: Ruins of the Americas, showed black-and-white photographs of ruins from North, Central, and South America. The photographs were a nice reminder of the number of and diversity of civilizations on the American continent. One often hears about ruins in Europe; these American ruins are no less numerous, varied, or impressive. Incidentally, as with the main museum's exhibit, I took less than fifteen minutes to see it.

Many months later, I returned to the Art Museum of the Americas to see its newest exhibit, New York: Latin American and Spanish artists in New York. I re-learned that contemporary art isn't really my thing. One series of work in this museum, however, is worth mentioning: The Real Story of the Superheroes by Dulce Pinzon. It's both creative and sweet. He photographs immigrants who send money back home (to Mexico) in superhero costumes. How apropos: they're probably superheroes to their families. The thumbnail at the top of the linked exhibit page shows one of his pieces: a window-washer dressed as spiderman.

S. Dillon Ripley Center

The Ripley Center is a small museum located underground between the Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art. It has room for three decent-sized exhibits.

I feel one exhibit will stick with me. In Fabric of Survival, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz tells her personal experience of the Holocaust through fabric art that portrays scenes from her life. It's a stark tale about Nazi brutality and her family's move to a concentration camp while she stayed behind and traveled from village to village hiding. I examined every scene and read every caption.

Obviously she survived and made it to America and in her old age made this art. I wonder what made her do it? Was it to capture a memory? A method of coping?

National Museum of African Art

The National Museum of African Art, architecturally almost a mirror of the Sackler, is small but visually interesting. I took pictures. I'm sorry it appears I didn't take any pictures of the typical statues, masks, etc. in the museum. (None are things I want in my home, and I forgot to photograph them for documentary purposes.)

I liked that every item has a description/explanation.

Though the museum supposedly has a large collection, only a little is on continuous display; most of the display space is devoted to special exhibits.

The Nigerian special exhibit had a few video displays, some of rare, old footage of ceremonies, some documentary. I appreciated that there was no talking in these films--whatever language there was was displayed on the screen. The only sound was African music, music that added a nice soundtrack to walking around the exhibit.

Inside this exhibit was an interesting sign with a discussion about the difficulty in determining provenance and origin of many of these pieces. Many of the items go into more detail about this issue, explaining how an item was collected in W and attributed to X (because that was where the person who sold it to a collector at W acquired it), and then thought to be from Y, but now historians think it's from Z because of ... Meanwhile, for some objects other labels admit that they cannot describe how the native peoples used them because no one has ever seen those objects in situ.

Months later, I returned for a special exhibit on the photographer Lalla Essaydi. A Moroccan by birth, many of her photographs are self-portraits of herself posed by Islamic architecture. Her clothes' pattern copy the building's pattern, making her part of / integrated with the scene. Sometimes she even paints her skin with henna script, accentuating the effect when there is similarly flowing writing nearby. It's a creative idea and the results are strangely fascinating.

In other photographs (and two paintings), she composed scenes modeled off famous paintings by Western artists, yet her composition includes Moroccan women and North African decorations. I also like this strategy, making art that comments on others' art.

Freer & Sackler Galleries

I visited the Freer & Sackler Galleries twice for their special exhibits. I saw their permanent collections when I visited them four years earlier. My impression of these museums hasn't changed: they're filled mostly with Asian artifacts which generally aren't my thing, and the collections aren't impressive or significant enough to make up for my diminished interest. I liked marginally more the two rooms of American at in the Freer, most filled with paintings by Whistler.

In the regular collection, I enjoyed the handful of Japanese screens and scrolls that show everyday people and everyday life. The best example of this is Autumn at Asakusa and Cherry Blossoms at Ueno Park by Hishikawa Moronobu.

In the museums I also noted again that Japanese do a great job with scary sculptures of strong warriors who guard the Buddha and defeat demons.

None of the special exhibits I saw on my first visit to these museums this year are worth describing in particular.

On the second visit, at the Sackler I saw the special exhibit of Hokusai's series of color woodblock prints involving Mount Fuji. (Usually Mount Fuji is merely in the background.) He's a Japanese artist famous for his "Great Wave" print (a.k.a. Under the Wave of Kanagawa) that everyone has seen. His works aren't my style, but I thought the variety of the scenes--all with one common theme--was neat.

But the scale of that exhibit was nothing compared with the scope of the special exhibit of Buddhist scroll paintings by Kano Kazunobu. In this series of more than fifty large scrolls from his series of a hundred, many scrolls have such vibrant colors and elegant composition that they could be used to convince people that Japanese art can rival the best of Western religious art. Again, not that these are things I particularly like, but I appreciate the quality.

On this second visit to the Sackler, I saw other new exhibits that aren't worth mentioning.

The Freer had two small special exhibits of Hokusai's art: one a series of long painted folding screens and the other a handful of scroll paintings. In both I appreciated the crispness of the painting and the depths of the colors. I'm surprised how much more I like his screens and scrolls than his woodblock work--I guess the medium is important.

In the Freer's exhibit on birds in Chinese painting, I enjoyed learning the symbolism involved in some paintings, where the birds and plants are homonyms in Chinese to a message the artist wished to convey.

Renwick Gallery

I visited the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the American Art Museum (which I also visited, naturally). The Renwick Gallery is supposedly meant to focus on the crafts and decorative arts. When I visited, the displays from the permanent collection included many oil paintings, plus things made from clay, glass, wood, fabric, plastic, mixed media (the term museums use to mean none- or many-of-the-above, including electronics). Most of the non-paintings are recent works. It felt like a haphazard collection, like overflow from the main museum of things that didn't go in any of the exhibits there but the curators felt ought to be on display somewhere.

It's a small museum. I took a bit over an hour to see it all and take all the notes I wanted.

The special exhibit on decorative art objects from the White House showcased furniture, tableware, and more. I wish I could have taken pictures in this exhibit because some of the objects were stunning. Each item's history was described. Some of these labels told neat stories, explaining when/where/how the object was made/acquired, what various presidents thought of it, and (possibly consequently) if it was later sold or put in the attic (and, if so, when it was re-acquired).

This exhibit included a cool short film, At Home in the White House, which interviewed people who grew up in the White House (and a few first ladies as well) and explored what it was like living in such a historic space. I enjoyed hearing their recollections about how they made the White House their home and what they and their parents thought of particular furnishings and decorations.

I took pictures elsewhere in the museum.

National Portrait Gallery & American Art Museum

Over the course of many months, I visited the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, both co-located in the Old Patent Office, now known as the Reynolds Center. Because the museums stayed open to 7pm--later than most--I usually visited these museums in the evening.

I took pictures on these excursions.

The old building is splendid, both inside and out, as you see in the pictures. I especially like its covered interior modern courtyard.

National Portrait Gallery
I found the exhibit on American Origins, of portraits of historic figures, surprisingly interesting. I usually find portrait galleries boring. This time, as usual, I found the paintings boring. But, however, the text beside each painting tells interesting stories of the people and why they are important. It turned out to be more like a history lesson than an art museum. I read most of the labels because of the tales they told. Di Yin, meanwhile, thought they were boring.

I had a similar reaction to the other exhibits in the permanent collection, which holds portraits through the modern day. For instance, in the exhibit on twentieth-century sports stars (even though I hadn't heard of the majority of them), I enjoyed reading the blurbs about why they were famous (and some color about their personalities). Likewise, in an exhibit of presidential portraits, I read every item because each has a good summary of the subject and how he was viewed. These summaries are often better than the discussions I remember in my high school history books.

Di Yin says this is one of those rare museums that's "unabashedly about people."

Like the biographies in the portraits, the room descriptions are good too. For instance, the summaries of changes that occurred in 1900-1930, 1930-1950, etc. in each of these rooms are remarkably detailed, colorful, and, as I understand it, accurate.

The special exhibit on modern Asian-American portraitists was alright, with one major and one minor exception. The minor exception is Shizu Saldamando, who achieved a neat look by painting portraits directly on wood (with no background behind the faces), not canvas.

The major exception is an artist who goes by the name CYJO. I found her KYOPO Project fascinating. Kyopo comprises photos of Korean-Americans, all in the same neutral pose and with the same background. Each person wears his or her normal clothes. Accompanying each photograph is a few sentence statement from each about what being Korean-American means to them. The project's an engrossing ethnographic study. Di Yin and I looked at every photograph and read every statement.

In the special exhibit on Gertrude Stein, I relearned that I don't have the same fascination with her that many other people have. I learned--perhaps incorrectly--from her that "punctuation is necessary only for the feeble-minded." Perhaps more usefully, I learned the term Boston marriage refers to two highly educated unmarried women living together.

I felt that The Black List, the special exhibit of large-format photographs of highly accomplished African Americans (all vivid images with their subjects gazing directly at the camera), was a perfect use of the Portrait Gallery space. I enjoyed looking at the photographs, recognizing certain people I'd heard of and reading about the people I hadn't.

I was surprised to enjoy the special exhibit on Ronald Reagan. I learned stuff about his personality and his background and about his many careers before the presidency that I didn't know before.

American Art Museum
The American Art Museum seems to be about art made in America. For some reason I'd expected American Art to refer to a coherent style, not an assortment of styles joined by loose geographical ties. While I was still getting attuned to the museum's collection, I was surprised to see paintings of American Indians. They make sense in retrospect, but it didn't occur to me that they'd be there.

Most pieces in this museum don't have commentary.

Oddly (in terms of overlap), the American Art Museum has some portraits. The lack of explanations on these was particularly disconcerting given the full coverage in the portrait gallery.

In the impressionist section, I noticed there are a lot of works by two people I never heard of before: Childe Hassam and Thomas Dewing.

To the modern art collection (which included video art) as a whole, I say bleh.

One day I went with E and Di Yin to the special exhibit on The Art of Video Games. It was a small exhibit that used lots of videos both of games and of interviews with game designers. I enjoyed seeing how it broke down the evolution of video games into eras; it turns out I mostly played games from era 3: bit wars. I also liked seeing the classification of various types of games (action, target, adventure, tactics) along with examples of every type for every game system from every era.

There were also places to play games from each era on big screens. Other screens played videos of people's faces as they played games. (These videos were pre-recorded; they weren't a loop from the other section of the exhibit.) It's neat to see the different expressions: stoned, zoned out, engaged, calm, etc.

The exhibit felt like a stroll down memory lane. Nevertheless, I was disappointed. It felt lightweight. Not only was there not much about the art but in general there wasn't much about any of the main themes--art, science, and storytelling--described in the introduction. The exhibit was predominately composed of examples of games and a classification system around them.

Luce Foundation Center for American Art
The Luce Foundation Center is also housed in the upper three stories in one of the building's wings. It's an open-storage area, meaning a high density of items are displayed with little or no information. Many items are labeled only with an accession number. You can look up what an item is electronically but there are no explanatory labels. Basically, the Center is a feast for the eyes; reading about items isn't made easy.

This open-storage area is the most beautiful of any I've seen. The space is great. Even if the objects aren't worth examining--most are worth no more than a passing glance--it's worth wandering around the area. Look at the pictures.

The Center has some nice paintings.

Also, I enjoyed how the drawers open smoothly with the sound of pressurized air.

Finally, although I didn't try any, I appreciate that the Luce Foundation has a series of scavenger hunts in addition to its audio tours. I wonder why more museums don't do this.

Lunder Conservation Center
The Lunder Conservation Center is also in the same building. It's next to the Luce Center. The Conservation Center is a series of labs (devoted to either objects, paintings, paper, frames) with floor-to-ceiling glass walls so visitors can watch the conservators at work. It's also neat to see the machines in each lab. Too bad photography is prohibited there.

All the labs have a machine with a twelve-inch-wide stretchable bendable pipe. I couldn't figure out what it is for. Venting? If so, why?

Elsewhere in the Building
In a part of the building not part of either museum, there was a display that I liked of models of inventions; the exhibit is called Building a Better Mousetrap. In early days, the patent office required models in addition to description and diagrams. These models are displayed in the exhibit by courtesy of a collector; the patent office sold/returned/donated all its models in 1924. They're all scattered by now.


I visited the Hirshhorn on an earlier trip to Washington D.C. I returned twice during this stay in D.C.

On my first trip, I saw a few special exhibits but none that I feel like mentioning here. My impression of the Hirshhorn remains the same as from my earlier visit: the collection in general is too abstract for my tastes. There was very little commentary. Maybe I'd be more accepting of these works if there were more commentary to explain the pieces, their meaning, and their significance in the evolution of art.

Later I returned to the Hirshhorn to see new exhibits, including one by light artists that was fun and a feast for the eyes.

I took pictures on both trips.

National Gallery of Art

Years ago, I visited National Gallery of Art fairly comprehensively over two visits (one, two). Hence, during this stint in the National Gallery I focused on the special exhibits. Here I mention a few that were remarkable in some way (though not necessarily up my alley).

The special exhibit on Andy Warhol focused on his work as a headline painter--making paintings that look like the front page of newspapers (often tabloids)--and as a television producer, both aspects of Warhol's work I wasn't aware of.

The special exhibit on Antico displayed his finely sculpted bronzes. He did an especially good job with hair and with fabrics.

The Pastrana Tapestries are incredible. I can believe the introductory text that claims they're "among the finest gothic tapestries in existence." These large tapestries, appropriate for a great hall, are engaging despite it being a bit hard to make out specifically what's going on. Di Yin says it may be because the inanimate objects (shields, flags, etc.) are brightly colored, not the animate ones. It's thus hard to spot individual people such as the King.

The conservators did a great job conserving the tapestries. (The exhibit had some before and after shots of the preservation process.) The tapestries' wavy surface reminded me of this story published in The New Yorker about digitally preserving a different set of famous tapestries.

The Chester Dale Collection was on display. Chester Dale had a great collection of paintings (mostly French), including Picasso, Renoir, rare blue van Goghs, Matisse, Degas, Modigliani, Cassatt, Cezanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and a number of top-notch Monets. Wow. I took a ton of pictures.

One special exhibit contained only one painting: Samuel Morse's painting Gallery of the Louvre. It belongs in my photographic collection of paintings of paintings.

In the special exhibit on photographer Harry Callahan, I found this rather shocking label attached to one piece:

Immensely supportive of her husband and his work, Eleanor Callahan regarded his photographing her as simply a part of their daily lives. She later recalled that she might be cooking or cleaning when Callahan, seeing something of potential interest, would say, "'Take off your clothes. And that would be that!"
Wow. For what it's worth, Callahan photographed a wide variety of subjects--animate and inanimate--over his fifty-year career.

I liked the I Spy photography special exhibit for its voyeuristic qualities. Walker Evans photographed random people on the subway or on the street. Robert Frank took pictures from a moving bus. Philip-Lorca diCorcia managed to take celebrity/glamour shots of unsuspecting people by manipulating or adding and positioning lights on the street so that if a person walked through the right spot the lighting would be perfect. He has some amazing results.

There was a special exhibit devoted to George Bellows. He painted a variety of subjects. I tend to like his landscapes, both rural and urban.

I liked the Miro special exhibit. I enjoyed seeing how his style evolved before (and after) his switch to weird symbolism. Also, I especially liked the busy patterns in Miro's Constellations group paintings on display (scroll down to second-to-last section for an example). In addition to presenting his work, the exhibit also explained how Miro's life was tossed and turned by Spain's and Catalonia's troubles in the twentieth century, especially with the Fascists.

I took pictures in the few special exhibits that permitted photography and also of some items that struck me in the permanent collection that I hadn't photographed in earlier years.

National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is a mere two blocks from my apartment. I dropped into it sporadically for short visits; science museums aren't really my thing. It's exactly as I remember: filled with fossils and skeletons and more oh my! It covers land, sea, and sky. The fossils are neat and often impressive though not something that I want to stare at for long or read much about.

Sometimes I took pictures on these visits.

One Tuesday when my parents were in town we visited the live butterfly pavilion. (We picked Tuesday because entry is free on Tuesdays.) It was great! See the pictures. The pavilion contains many species of butterflies, no two alike. They have exquisite patterns, all works of art. "I love it," said my mom. "Wonderful." I like the fact that they have to check you for butterflies before you leave--sometimes the butterflies hitch a ride on your clothing or your hat without you knowing it.

Also during this visit we stopped by the special exhibit More Than Meets The Eye on visualizing things that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

We also explored part of (before we ran out of time) the engrossing special exhibit Written in Bone on making anthropologic inferences from bones. It focused mainly on bones found in the Chesapeake Bay region. The exhibit showed how bones can indicate what profession people were (tailor, shoemaker, etc.). It also discussed how bones can show the difference between the upper and lower classes. For instance, upper class people had worse teeth (because they could eat more sugar) and upper class people more often had lead poisoning (because they used metal utensils, often lead, while the lower classes used wooden ones). I guess it's sometimes better to be a member of the lower classes.

I learned what bones are more useful for identification and how anthropologists read them.

The exhibit also showed examples of how bones look after different types of injuries, and how the results depends on whether the damage occurred before, at, or after death. It's fascinating but also a bit disturbing seeing how bones can change in response to normal harms like osteoporosis, lack of exercise, etc.

Elsewhere, the gemstone/jewelry collection is incredible. So pretty!

The Evolving Universe special exhibit showed awesome pictures of nebulas and galaxies.

The special exhibit on 2011 award-winning nature photograph was pretty amazing. Some photography makes it incredibly easy to anthropomorphize animals. Also, many landscape scenes are majestic, especially the winner in the Plant Life category. You can view it and all the photographs. Of course, the feeling is different when the photos are shown as prints the size of posters.

One special exhibit, Titanoboa, simply showed a model of a recently-discovered giant snake. The model is of a 48-foot-long snake eating a crocodile! And this is all based on fossil evidence and hypotheses. The exhibit consisted mainly of informative signs explaining what they've inferred about the snake.

National Museum of American History

Sporadically, I stole time to drop in the National Museum of American History, seeing a couple of exhibits each time. This was easy because it was near my apartment; I often visited it before work.

The museum is huge. I like how it conveys information, especially in the displays in the main halls. It shows objects that are not important in themselves but explains (in three sentences) how each represents its time and reflects a broad societal situation.

I took only a few pictures in the museum, mainly of displays that struck me.

The museum has some singularly important artifacts such as the flag that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner. The flag is large, much bigger than any flag you see nowadays. Also, it has fifteen stars. Incidentally, I learned that Francis Scott Key wrote the song to the tune of a British song (!), To Anacreon in Heaven. I also learned that the base commander's descendants kept the flag for a century and gave clippings of it to friends.

Another important artifact is the original Washington monument/memorial. It's nothing like the current one.

The exhibit on first ladies, their role, and especially their gowns/dresses, is interesting if only for the section of the exhibit that explains that this exhibit existed in one form or another for nearly a hundred years and describes how it has evolved. The exhibit was renovated while I lived in Washington D.C. I saw the new version and liked reading about what causes the first ladies championed in their public lives. This was in the earlier exhibit; I simply noticed it more/paid more attention to it in the new iteration.

I enjoyed the special exhibit on Julia Child, especially the videos of interviews with her and her demonstrations. She's a hoot! Also, now I want to buy a buffalo iron to make it easier to blanch vegetables. I liked this exhibit so much that, every time I went to the museum, I stopped by it (until it closed) to watch more videos.

In one display in another exhibit, I learned that Cincinnati was a popular destination for Jewish immigrants in the nineteenth century. The extensive display explores the phenomenon and its effects.

A nearby, similarly extensive, display about the experience of African Americans in Charleston at the same time is poignant for its dramatic contrast.

The exhibit on invention and play was neat: I enjoyed reading about inventions, inventors, and their processes. There is some interactive stuff here, including a full-sized (mechanical) windsurfer/sailboat simulator. Cool!

One exhibit, by tracing the history of a house, tells a series of household cultural stories (slavery, immigration, and home life changes brought on by war).

Another exhibit presents a portrait of the life & events in a particular year (1939): media, music, radio, world's fair, WPA (Works Progress/Projects Administration), heroes (real and fictional).

The musical instruments exhibit includes four of the world's eleven decorated Stradivari. Why the museum has Italian instruments, I don't know. Nothing in this exhibit is presented in connection to everyday life; as such, the exhibit feels out of place in the museum.

The popular culture exhibit includes Michael Jackson's fedora hat and all the muppets created solely by Jim Henson. They look rather shabby, and there's only one whose name I recognize (Kermit). I'm glad Henson later got help.

The exhibit on the American Presidency has a fun and interesting video showing the various ways the president has been portrayed in popular culture. It uses clips from movies over the last hundred years. I also enjoyed in this exhibit the display about what presidents have done after their term (travel, advocacy, politics, and more). I connected with it because I frequently think about what to do after I stop working.

I was intrigued by the idea demonstrated in the exhibit on Jefferson's Bible. Basically, Jefferson took quotes he liked and made a book of them. I can imagine doing the same using many books.

By the way, although the length of this post may make it seem as if I wrote about every exhibit, I did not. I wrote what I felt like. Some days I wrote about everything I visited; other days I only referenced the exhibits I thought worthy of mentioning.

I didn't even manage to see all the permanent exhibits, let alone all the special exhibits that appeared during my stay in Washington D.C. I saw probably two-thirds of the permanent collection.

Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle, with its cafe and large information desk, is the central gathering spot for visitors to the Mall. It also has some exhibitions. I visited it on a few separate trips, all days on which I started my explorations before the museums opened at 10:00am. (The castle opens much earlier.)

I took a few pictures while at or in the castle.

Its West Wing has small displays with example items from every Smithsonian museum. It showed me I was more interested in the Air & Space Museum then I thought. Sadly, I never made it there.

The Pentagon

On Wednesday, October 16, 2011, Di Yin and I took a tour of the Pentagon. Though it required making reservations in advance, the only information requested was our names (no social security numbers or anything) so I can't imagine they did much of a security check other than perhaps looking to see if we were on the do-not-fly list.

It's definitely a high-security place. Two different people checked our IDs as we entered. This makes the "I Made It Inside" t-shirt for sale in the gift shop more humorous.

It's also not surprising that cell phones and cameras are prohibited for visitors. But it's interesting that these aren't allowed for anyone else either. Indeed, not only can one not take pictures inside (minor exception: within the visitors/press center it's okay), one cannot take pictures of the outside of the building either. There's even no photography allowed inside the nearby metro station!

In addition, visitors aren't allowed to use the bathroom or even dispose of garbage in a trash or recycling bin.

Furthermore, the Pentagon tries to limit the information one can acquire and transit to others. It prohibits note-taking on the tours! I think this is the first place I ever been that's done that. Thus, the majority of this entry comes from my memory with no assistance from notes.

Finally, a sign by the tour's starting location lists four rules, some of the aforementioned ones plus more. One rule is no translating allowed. I guess the Pentagon is worried about people coming on the tour and talking all the way through (under the pretense of translating) while plotting how to blow up the Pentagon. The sign listing rules was translated: it was posted in six languages.

But how about the tour and the Pentagon itself?

What struck me the most was how much more the Pentagon is than simply an office building. It's like a mall inside: a pharmacy, a bank, a chocolate store, a flower shop, a video rental shop, a cobbler, etc., and even something as large as a grocery store! All of these are only accessible to Pentagon employees. I asked the tour guide if I could buy something in the chocolate shop--I already knew what I wanted from the shop, and it's the only location of this chain in the Washington D.C. area--but the guide said no. The Pentagon also has restaurants, both fast-food and upscale. I glanced at a nicer restaurant we passed and the prices were reasonable. I guess all this support structure makes sense--twenty-five thousand employees work in the complex every day.

I glimpsed a map while walking around. It looks like the Pentagon has a complex address system. It's big enough to deserve one! I found a description of the system online.

Tidbit: despite its size, the Pentagon was built in about a year (in the early 1940s).

Many of the halls we walked through have exhibits. We didn't have time to read any of the displays, but the tour guides described each exhibit briefly as we walked. One hallway, for instance, honors General McArthur; another recognizes people missing in action.

Some hallways have paintings, including one with some by John Trumbull that have his self-portrait in them. Congress commissioned paintings of historic events but told the painter that he couldn't sign his paintings. Hence, he instead painted himself into the scenes in subtle ways. An example is Trumbell's Declaration of Independence. As the tour guide explained, Congress eventually got wise to this strategy and Trumbell's likeness became more camouflaged in his later works for Congress.

We spent the last third of the tour visiting the indoor Pentagon memorial. To get there, we walked down the corridor where the plane hit. Interestingly, although the plane damaged twenty percent of the building, it killed only about a hundred employees, not twenty percent of the building's population which would be several thousand. The hit section of the Pentagon was under renovation and most people had been moved elsewhere. Furthermore, the Pentagon was built originally without steel reinforcement, but this area under renovation fortuitously got steel reinforcement before the attack. Without the steel, the plane probably would've penetrated into the center of the building, not merely the outer three rings. This section was also the only area of the Pentagon with a sprinkler system.

By the way, the tour guides loved a story about the restaurant in center of the grassy area in the center of Pentagon. (They loved it so much that each of the two guides told the story, not realizing the other guide already did.) During the cold war, the Soviets, watching from their spy satellites, saw so many people entering and leaving the small central building that they assumed it must be the entrance to a secret underground part of the Pentagon and that the rest of the building was merely a distraction/cover for this section. In reality, the building was a hot dog stand.

Other interesting facts:

  • The Pentagon has a speed limit: brisk walk. I bet this becomes significant during a crisis. It probably also prevents military folks from running loops for exercise.
  • The Pentagon microwaves its incoming mail to eliminate pathogens.

The Library of Congress

I explored the Library of Congress in two trips. I took pictures.

On the first trip, I took a tour of the Jefferson Building and saw some exhibits. The Jefferson Building is said to be the most beautiful building in Washington D.C. I can believe it. The interior is richly packed with mosaics and sculptures and more, so many that they're impossible to digest. One is merely aware of their plentiful abundance.

My tour guide was excited, enthusiastic. After a professionally-made intro video, she showed us around, showing us the highlights of the exhibits as well as the famous, incredible, grand Reading Room that sadly we were not allowed to photograph.

I learned some odd facts. For instance, the Library of Congress's attic had a high school for congressional pages. (The pages needed their own school because the hours they work would preclude a normal school.) For budgetary reasons, it closed in 2011. Also, despite continually acquiring new buildings the Library of Congress doesn't have enough space. They get 22k new items a day. The Library is an omnivorous history-documenting machine.

On the second visit, I saw more exhibits in the Jefferson Building and also visited the Madison Building for yet more. Over the course of my visits, I saw:

  • The Bible exhibition.
    • It includes a Gutenberg Bible--yes another (as if I haven't seen enough)--but this one is special: it's one of only three complete ones on vellum.
    • It also has the Giant Bible of Mainz, another large, old bible. The draftsman has amazing handwriting--the text looks printed. Also interesting: the tour guide told stories about how the monk dropped words to stay within the lines. This was probably not the best thing for readability.
  • An exhibit on creating America. This exhibit shows rough drafts and final printed version of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It's also about important documents/events from the time (such as Thomas Paine's Common Sense and the peace treaty with the British), the first three presidents, and America's relationship with the French revolution.
  • Thomas Jefferson's Library, which he sold to the Library of Congress to re-jump-start its collection in 1815. I saw re-jump-start because the original Library of Congress collection was mostly burnt by the British in 1814. Though some of his books were lost to various later fires, the Library of Congress acquired replacements (identical editions) of the burnt books. The books are organized according to Jefferson's scheme. The Library of Congress hopes to complete the collection.
  • An exhibit on exploring the early Americas. It has books, paintings, and objects about explorers in America, focusing on indigenous people (including the Incas, Aztec, and Mayas), Columbus's voyages (with documents by and about him), the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and the fight over Florida.
  • An exhibit of old maps (technically part of the previous exhibit), including the first map that used the term America (1507) and the first map created in America of America after independence. Regarding the former, it's surprising that the cartographer's later map (1516) covering the same region is less accurate.
  • A fun exhibit of cartoons ("graphic arts") in a variety of styles from all ages. Technically this is composed of three small exhibits: on the history/growth of comic art, on Herbert L. Block's political cartoons, and on using cartoons to explore human nature or simply cause laughter. Regardless, the exhibits are done well, with detailed and intelligent commentary.
  • The Bob Hope gallery on entertainment and politics and the connections between them, with a video introduction by Stephen Colbert. Most of the displays cover people in and changes to the entertainment industry and news media before my time, but I connected with and enjoyed the recent clips in the video displays.
  • An exhibit on I Love Lucy.
  • An exhibit of false-color bird's-eye maps presented for their artistic effect. See the pictures. (This was the only exhibit where I was allowed to take pictures and wanted to.)
  • An exhibit on the Gershwins that I didn't find particularly interesting, probably because I don't know much of their work.
  • A display of drawings of Americans in Paris in the nineteenth century.
I spent three hours at the Library of Congress on my first visit and another two hours on my second visit.

Diplomatic Reception Rooms

The Diplomatic Reception Rooms are the fancy rooms the State Department uses when it wants to have formal meetings with foreign dignitaries. One day I arranged a tour. I took pictures on it.

The Diplomatic Reception Rooms are on the eighth floor of a nondescript State Department building that houses the diplomatic corps.

The rooms are lavishly decorated and meant to impress: America is important and can show off and we're honoring our guests by inviting them to such a place. They include a lot of antique furniture, paintings, and decorations from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although some items were made in America, many were made overseas because the quality at the time was better. For instance, the rooms include hand-made Persian, Turkish, and neoclassical French rugs, Chinese porcelain, British chandeliers, and various types of secretary desks including Bombay and Oxbow. In terms of paintings, most are portraits of early Americans. As for the landscapes, it felt like the majority were of Niagara Falls! I guess it's a quintessential American site that was often painted during the time period in question.

Interestingly, a security guy followed us around on the tour with the tour guide. This didn't happen at the Pentagon (but those guides worked in pairs and were both military). This didn't even happen at the White House.

The White House

Early one cold winter morning, Di Yin and I walked the six blocks or so from our apartment to the White House. I'd arranged a tour through my congresswoman's office a few months prior as required. As we walked, the sun's early glow rose above the Washington Monument.

I didn't take pictures because cameras weren't allowed in the complex, so I didn't have mine with me. On other days I took pictures of the outside of the White House.

Security is provided by the "uniformed division" of the Secret Service. They look and act much like regular police. We passed through three explicit checkpoints, two where they checked our IDs and one with an x-ray machine. We also passed by multiple spots where guards simply eyed us as we walked by. I think they watch every intersection, every place where someone can deviate from where he or she should be.

On the White House grounds, our constrained route passed by the General William Tecumseh Sherman Monument. I liked the monument not for its main statue but rather for the life-size statues of guards standing watch at each corner of its base. It seemed appropriate. Here are other people's pictures of the monument from a distance, a close-up of a guard, and more pictures of the monument.

We entered the White House through the East Wing. Its hallways are lined with photos of White House events. One set of pictures are of White House gingerbread houses!

Our tour guide explained the East Wing has a movie screening room because it makes life easier for the Secret Service than letting the president go to a public movie theater.

The tour mainly focused on five important rooms in the central wing.

My overall impression is that the White House is the American equivalent to European royal palaces, though on a much smaller scale. Its decor is old-fashioned, with ornate (sometimes Persian) carpets and furniture that looks uncomfortable. The rooms are usually in eighteenth-century or French-Empire style. They all have twenty-foot ceilings.

I'm sure part of the reason it's old-fashioned is for historic reasons and historic sentimentality. The President has little say in how the public rooms are decorated. He can redecorate the private rooms such as the Oval Office at will. He even has the right to borrow art from the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery of Art. Changes to the public room, on the other hand, have to be approved by committee (the Committee for the Preservation of the White House).

The East Room is a grand ballroom with reliefs on the ceiling and walls, three large hanging chandeliers, and many candelabras on columns and attached to walls. We noticed the windows have the old-style wavy type of glass.

The Green, Blue, and Red Rooms--all appropriately named--are smaller, more of a normal size. They all have surprisingly nice wall coverings (wallpaper, satin, or silk). When I read about the wallpaper, I assumed it would be ugly. I was wrong; these wall covers don't attract attention.

I like the artwork in the Green Room; it's a good variety from early American through the twentieth century. I liked a few paintings in this room, but the only one of those the tour guide mentioned the name of is Independence Hall in Philadelphia by Ferdinand Richardt. I also caught the name of two nice Red Room paintings: Rocky Mountain Landscape by Albert Bierstadt and The Indian's Vespers by Asher Durand. All these three rooms have fewer portraits than the East Room, though still at least half a dozen each.

In one of these rooms, Di Yin spotted a really nice looking paper quilled vase (as in quilling).

The State Dining Room, though the same size as the East Room, is, in terms of decorations, no East Room. It has one painting--of Abraham Lincoln--that was donated on condition that it hangs as the focal point in the room. Putting forth such a strong condition to the President of the United States takes chutzpah! Also, I was impressed in this room by the wooden tables with carved eagles as legs (picture).

We didn't get to go into the West Wing.

Curious fact I read in a guide book: in 1818, white lead paint replaced limestone whitewashing for the exterior of the White House. I think lead paint is still used. I can't find any evidence to the contrary despite extensive research on the web and in books.

At other times, I visited the White House Visitor Center. It houses a large display exploring many aspects of the house and life in it. Over the course of visits, I probably spent two and a half hours in it.

There I watched a good thirty minute video about the history of the White House and the many objects within it. Given the topics, you might be surprised to see me write that the video was interesting throughout.

The visitor center has large panels with pictures of the presidents' families and information about how they lived. It explores, for instance, what did their kids do in the White House, how do they make it their home, and what impact did they leave on it. There's lots of text here, but the stories are personal and interesting. I came back to read this stuff in depth.

There are also lots of panels on how the White House architecture and decorations have been renovated / redesigned over time. I thought it was neat to see before/after photos, as well as photos of the Oval Office under each president for the last fifty years. By the way, even if the White House decorations don't change much in style, much of the furniture is replaced regularly because it gets so much use.

The center has a display of large, vibrant paintings by Peter Waddell of his vision of White House interiors and exteriors at various points in time. They're both historic and artistic. They're lavishly painted with wonderful texture.

The Capitol

One day I visited the Capitol, taking pictures along the way.

I'd arranged a tour. After an introductory video, we walked around the complex. There are many statues around, mostly of presidents. Naturally, the highlight of the tour was the rotunda.

Our tour group peeked in the original Supreme Court chamber. The Supreme Court used this chamber for sixty years, and was housed in the Capitol building for over a hundred years. So much for supposedly temporary quarters.

We also stopped by the crypt room. Originally it was intended that George Washington be buried there in the center of the Capitol. However, it took too long to build the Capitol--by the time it was done, no one wanted to disinter him to move him there.

I learned a decent amount on the tour and liked the rotunda but overall found the tour none too exciting. I was disappointed that we didn't get to see the current House or Senate chambers. Also, I noticed lots of informative signs around. We didn't get to read them because we were shepherded around by our tour guide. I wonder who gets to read them beside legislators and staff. It's too bad, as judging by their number they must have more information than conveyed by the guide.

After the tour I explored the exhibition hall. It has exhibits on the Capitol and its history, as well as on the evolution of policies within the House and Senate. Some of the stories about debates, bills, compromises, amendments, parliamentary activities, investigations, corruption, and power brokering were quite interesting. For instance, the Senate was originally a closed-door body until the state legislatures--who at the time often directed how their senators should vote--protested the lack of visibility and accountability.

I also learned about the jobs of people in the building, and about the short subway connecting the Capitol to its associated office buildings.

In exhibition hall, there are lots of models showing details of parts of the Capitol building, and models of the building at various points in time. These latter models are smart because they also show the the buildings near the Capitol. For instance, one can see when Union Station and the Supreme Court Building showed up.

The exhibitions are well done. Because I read everything, I spent a long time in the exhibition hall.

Memorials and The Mall

I walked and biked across and around The Mall--Washington's long strip of grass from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial--many times. Sometimes it was to play host to visitors; sometimes it was to explore museums; sometimes it was to examine monuments; sometimes it was simply to walk or jog or run. The Mall was an easy destination because I lived so close to it.

I collected the pictures I took in various visits to the Mall. Some visits were short one-offs; others were day-long sight-seeing of memorials. The pictures are in chronological order, which means that often sites near each other are adjacent in the album but sometimes they're not if I visited them on separate days.

Annoyingly, the Mall gradually closed. When I arrived in Washington D.C., the area around the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial was entirely off-limits as it was being rebuilt. After I arrived, as winter approached the Park Service shut more and more grassy segments to do rebuilding or at least replanting over the winter. Though I laud the goals, I want to complain that these construction sites blighted the landscape. February became worse with more construction as building started for the African American Museum. The spring wasn't much better; if anything it was worse, with huge mounds of dirt of being dug up on the eastern half of the Mall in order to rebuild grounds for better drainage and more sustainable lawns.

Washington D.C. Neighborhoods

Here are several short descriptions of my impressions of neighborhoods in or near Washington D.C. Some neighborhoods deserved longer write-ups: Penn Quarter and Chinatown, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and Old Town Alexandria. Those neighborhoods are not included here. For general impressions of Washington D.C. as a whole, see my overview post.

Adams Morgan
Adams Morgan is quirky and eclectic. The commercial streets have some unusual shops. Residentially, the housing consists of densely packed row houses, mostly all individualized (i.e., different from their neighbors').

Cleveland Park
On a blustery, surprisingly warm (for being post-Thanksgiving) Sunday, I found myself wandering around Cleveland Park. It's an upscale neighborhood, perhaps even more so than Dupont Circle. Both these neighborhoods have embassies, but Cleveland Park consists of nice single-family homes and a relatively smaller number of apartment buildings whereas Dupont Circle is mostly townhouses. This means the majority of buildings in Cleveland Park are larger and more expensive. That said, Cleveland Park's commercial area isn't anything like Dupont Circle's.

Indeed, many months later, I had a reason to further explore Cleveland Park's commercial strip. I found it's a charming neighborhood center, several blocks long, filled with single-story, densely packed shops. Some of the charm comes from its older feel, including for instance an old-fashioned movie theater. The commercial area has everything you'd want; as such, it could be a small town's downtown. But, it actually has too much stuff for a small town--its density and variety could only be supported by having the density of a city around it.

After writing this section, I read more about Cleveland Park. I agree with its tagline: "A small town in the city." It has the feel of a small town center yet is more than a small town center.

U Street
U Street is an up-and-coming neighborhood. I understand it's been up-and-coming for a decade or two now. It seems a bit stagnant; there's no obvious new developments. It's fairly hip, at least judging by the restaurants, but it could use more, or at least more shops. There are occasional gloomy, closed buildings.

Di Yin and I liked the look of an modern apartment building nearby and its many big plate glass windows.

Further away from the main commercial section, U Street is edgy. For instance, off the eastern end (near the Shaw metro station), all businesses have bars in their windows. This area has lots of African stuff. For instance, one short block had three African (including Ethiopian) restaurants. I heard lots of a language I didn't recognize. There are also lots of fences in this neighborhood for construction/repair zones. We were in that east end for dinner (Ethiopian, naturally), but it's not really a destination. U Street itself is a destination for some people however, though not for us. Over the course of the year we didn't find ourselves there very often.

Columbia Heights
I stopped by this neighborhood twice, only briefly for pizzas. It seems like a nice, modern, yuppie neighborhood, with many upper-middle-class chain restaurants and big-box chain stores. Everything looks new. It reminded me of Clarendon except this neighborhood is built up. Around the metro station are high-rise residential buildings with commercial establishments in the first story. Meanwhile, Clarendon is relatively flat, with few buildings more than a couple of stories.

On my second trip (for pizza at a different place), we left the town center. The older residential section was mostly well-kept-up townhouses with deep, attractive front gardens. We found neighborhood restaurants and bars on some corners. They felt like community places. I could live in this area.

Indeed, the town felt like an integrated community. We saw evidence that whites, blacks, and hispanics all lived in the area (walking dogs, carrying groceries, etc.). Di Yin guessed that the white people are newer folk, gentrifying the neighborhood, and the big name retailers are coming with them.

H Street
H Street NE is a neighborhood we kept hearing about, the new up-and-coming neighborhood replacing U Street. On various bus and driving trips that passed through this area, we saw fast food joints and an intriguing restaurant or two but not much of anything overall. We weren't impressed.

It was only near the end of our stay in D.C. that we made it there in person, for a Japanese (ramen) restaurant. By this point, I had tips from various people for half a dozen restaurants in this neighborhood. We walked the eight or so blocks of the main commercial strip eying stores. It definitely seems like a hipster destination, certainly more so than U Street. It's funkier. I felt more comfortable on H Street than U Street. (Don't take that to mean I'm claiming to be a hipster.) I think it's that H Street shops tend to sell food or items that people became interested in over the last five years whereas U Street shops moved in years earlier and thus tend to be for things that interest me less at the moment.

The Mall
When friends visited, we'd take them on strolls around the Mall, sometimes at night. I wrote more about the Mall in a different post.

Not everything one hears generalizing about good and bad neighborhoods is true. For instance, one day I walked from the Capitol through SE D.C. to the Navy Yard / waterfront. (Some guides warn visitors against traveling outside NW D.C., saying the other sides are unsafe. For what it's worth, all the neighborhoods in D.C. listed above are in NW.) The southeast is a perfectly nice area. I first passed townhouses then, across the highway, perfectly respectable apartment buildings. Many people I saw wore suits and/or government badges. I spent another half an hour walking in SE circumnavigating the Navy Yard, and thought the neighborhood was fine.

Crystal City, Arlington (VA)
Crystal City is a neat place. We went to a restaurant there for dinner one evening and were impressed by the area's extensive underground malls and tunnels. Stretching more than half a mile in length, these passageways connect numerous apartment buildings, hotels, and office buildings with about two hundred shops (including several dozen restaurants covering a breadth of price points and cuisines), a metro station, and even a theater. One could get anything one needs without going outside, a great boon in cold weather. A bonus: the mall's/tunnel's walls were decorated with a huge photography exhibit. It was fun to gawk and walk. I'm led to believe that there's usually some sort of exhibit on display.

Clarendon, Arlington (VA)
I liked the feel of Clarendon on my first visit there years earlier and I still liked it on my first trip this year. It's a nice, walkable neighborhood center, filled with many shops, restaurants, and grocery stores. The architecture and especially the store selection reminded me more of California than another neighborhood in the Washington D.C. metro area. The Pinkberry shop perhaps drove that comment, but the area also has both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, two stores one doesn't tend to see close together except in California.

Eden Center, Falls Church (VA)
One day when we had a car, Di Yin and I stopped by Eden Center in Falls Church. Like San Jose's Little Saigon, it's the Vietnamese center of the metro region. In a couple small indoor malls and large strip malls, Eden Center has dozens of restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and bars. It's a panoply of Vietnamese dining. It's clear the landlord doesn't enforce any variety in types of shops; there are many places competing with identical business models. Besides these restaurants, there are many jewelry shops, a few salons, a grocery store, and a handful of other types of shops.

Interestingly, the parking lot flies the American flag and the flag that South Vietnam flew before the Vietnamese war (and lost to the communists).

Alexandria (VA)
I wrote about my impressions of Old Town Alexandria in another post. During another visit, this time in the evening between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we observed Old Town's main street was nicely decorated for the holidays with lights in every tree.

One day Di Yin and I met a friend with a car (E) for lunch in Del Ray. Del Ray was a town near Alexandria built mainly in 1895-1930. Annexed by the town of Alexandria, Del Ray is now considered a historic neighborhood within it. Although we didn't walk around Del Ray, I feel I got a good impression of the neighborhood from our drive through it.

Del Ray is a nice middle-/upper-middle- class town. Along Mount Vernon, the main street, are a selection of quirky, fun shops and restaurants. The coolest thing about the street, however, is its architecture. The stores are either in row-shops, small stand-alone buildings, or converted single-family houses. It's a nice medley of styles, and all have a built-a-while-ago historic feel (though all are well-maintained). Not as densely packed as a modern urban street, nor with large-scale shops like modern suburban streets, it feels like an old-fashioned main street. Meanwhile, the residential areas nearby are similarly low-scale, with small-ish, old-ish single-family houses and townhouses.

Bethesda (MD)
Bethesda's town center is large. I biked through the town on multiple occasions and took the metro there on other occasions (mostly to eat) and rarely went down the same street twice. On every trip, I discovered new streets with blocks of restaurants and shops. At every time of day, there were always people on the streets. Maybe not as many people as in Georgetown, but it was always happening. One evening we found a professional band performing in a square.

The buildings are relatively tall in this vicinity, many a dozen stories. They look residential. I'd guess Bethesda has a higher population density than the area around most other metro stations.

The whole area feels new/modern and clean. It's definitely one of the nicer suburban destinations compared to others around D.C. and around most other cities.

Rockville (MD)
I twice made the trek to Rockville for Chinese food. (It has a large Chinese population.) Rockville is definitely suburban. I visited its town center, which seems like a smaller version of Reston's town center, including the central plaza / performance area and nearby library. The analogy to Reston's town center stretches further, as the roads around Rockville's town center are likewise large, high-speed roads, sometimes traffic-clogged. Outside the town center, it's not a town meant for walking.