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.