In every city I travel to, I have a favorite building or place.
In New York City, I love the Morgan Library and Museum and the City Museum of New York.
In New Orleans, it’s Jackson Square.
In San Diego, it’s La Jolla.
In Washington D.C., it’s Arlington Cemetery and the Library of Congress. Books + historic architecture? Historic figures + cascading rolling hills on the estate of the step-grandson of the nation’s first president and later, the commanding general of the CSA? Yes, I visit these two places every time I visit DC.
I started making this trip during Memorial Day weekend in 2016 for the Memorial Day Concert, broadcast on PBS the Sunday before Memorial Day. I am not usually a fan of big crowds, but this concert is worth it.
Thursday: Arlington National Cemetery, Take One
My trip started rather ominously. I walked out of Reagan National airport and took the Metro to my hotel under blue skies and rolling clouds. By the time I made my way to Arlington National Cemetery around 3pm, a brisk wind settled in.
I watched the Army Honor Guard putting in the last of the American flags before every marker as I visited some of my usual stops: The Kennedys, William Howard Taft, Robert Todd Lincoln, Alexander Haig & Omar Bradley in what I call the Generals Corner.
I was headed to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when I looked south and saw these nasty dark clouds rolling by. I thought the clouds were too far away, but just a minute later, raindrops fell and the wind kicked up. I was nowhere near shelter since the closest building, Arlington House, was closed for renovations. Other shelters – the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Visitors Center, were easily a 10-15 minute walk. Within minutes, I was drenched. A Marine vet from Texas was walking near me, and we debated the merits of standing under shelter of a tree to escape the wind, or fear having a branch come down on us. I half expected to see cows and wicked witches flying past me screaming, “I’ll get you, my pretty!”
Fifteen minutes later, the storm was over. The sun came back out, and the birds came out, meekly wondering if the worst was over. Walking to the visitors center, I saw the police and landscape team trying to remove a fallen tree. I gave up trying to dry out, and did the best I could in the visitors center restroom. This consisted of wringing out my socks and dumping the water from my shoes.
It turned out we were under a tornado watch, and after seeing the damage around the rest of the Cemetery the next day, I am grateful I was stranded where I was. There were a lot more large branches and trees down throughout, closer to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
I’ll spare you pics of soaking wet self, rain-drenched hair and waterlogged, muddy sneakers which are now in my hotel trash.
Friday: Library of Congress & Arlington National Cemetery
The next day, Friday, I started at the Library of Congress before returning to Arlington National Cemetery. The tour included the history of the congressional library before this structure was built, Thomas Jefferson’s connection to the library, and the art and architectural details. The Library of Congress includes the John Adams Building, the Madison Building and the Thomas Jefferson Building, which is the one I visited.
The original library was located in the congressional building, which burned down in 1814 during the War of 1812. The next year, Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s library from Monticello, which included almost 6500 books, for almost $24,000 (1815 value). Almost two-thirds of those books were destroyed during another fire in the 1850s before the current structure was built.
The Library of Congress has been working to reconstruct Jefferson’s original library, and have only 200 books left to find. The original one-third of Jefferson’s collection that survived the fire are marked with green ribbons. The Library of Congress found copies of books that were in Jefferson’s collection in the library itself, and those are unmarked. Books that the library has acquired as gifts or through auction are marked with yellow ribbons.
The Jefferson Collection is displayed in an impressive circular library, which is what Jefferson intended for his library in Monticello. The circular room he designed to be the library was appropriated by his grandchildren as their nursery and playroom, so the Library of Congress is the only place Jefferson’s library exists as he intended.
The architecture of the Jefferson Building is impressive, ornate and meant to last forever (and survive fires). The Italian Renaissance style design was based on the Paris Opera House. Several architects, including John L. Smithmeyer, Paul J. Pelz and Edward Pearce Casey, were responsible for the design of the Library of Congress. Construction began in 1888 with the aid of 40 artisans to carve marble and moldings, paint murals, and create mosaics, and the new Library of Congress opened November 1, 1897.
My tour guide, Walt, was very knowledgeable about the building, and history in general. He spoke like an orator, which makes sense because he was a lawyer and a middle school teacher before he started volunteering as a docent at the Library of Congress. He shared information about the construction of the building, the stories behind the art in the building, and the Gutenberg Bible and the movable type Gutenberg introduced to the world.
After the tour ended, I visited an exhibit for Baseball in America, and then went to the basement where the Library of Congress had an exhibit for George and Ira Gershwin. As a fan of their musicals and songs, I was elated to see this exhibit and learn more about their youth and musical influences.
Arlington Cemetery, Take Two
They, and we, are the legacies of an unbroken chain of proud men and women who served their country with honor, who waged war so that we might know peace, who braved hardship so that we might know opportunity, who paid the ultimate price so that we might know freedom. ~ President Barack Obama
The second visit to Arlington Cemetery was much calmer. I visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Kennedy family grave site, and also saw the damage done by the previous day’s storm.
An obelisk looking at another obelisk. And tornado damage.
Saturday: Smithsonian American History Museum, National Archives, National Portrait Gallery
Saturday was all about museums: the Smithsonian American History Museum and The National Portrait Gallery. I started with the FOOD exhibit at the American History Museum. I had to see Julia Child’s kitchen, and check out HER cookbook collection, even though I don’t cook. I didn’t leave a stick of butter at the display like Julie Powell, but I am in awe of how she changed cooking and eating for Americans.
Then I headed upstairs to the Wizard of Oz room to check out Dorothy’s ruby slippers and other memorabilia from the movie. Because, you know, there’s no place like home.
I saw the American flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen The Star Spangled Banner, and an exhibit of the First Ladies’ inaugural dresses and formal wear. There was a lot more to see, but I just ran out of time. You know, because I read every placard and have to Google questions that come up after I read about the exhibit.
I visited the founding documents of the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives. No photos allowed. They also have a wonderful exhibit about the growth and history of the country in an adjacent gallery.
Next up was the National Portrait Gallery. I did visit the first floor in 2017, but I never got to the upper floors, and the Obama portraits were not there during my last visit either.
Sunday: Rolling Thunder, National Memorial Day Choral Festival & National Memorial Day Concert
Sunday was a rare day for me: no museums. Instead, I attended the 32nd Annual Rolling Thunder Ride, the National Memorial Day Choral Festival at the Kennedy Center, and the National Memorial Day Concert on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
The Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom was started by veterans to demand a full accounting of POWs and MIAs from government leaders. It started with 2500 riders in 1988, and ballooned to over 500,000 riders for the 32nd Annual (and last) Rolling Thunder. The perfect vantage point to watch is from the Lincoln Memorial, either facing the Key Bridge or facing Constitution Avenue.
Every time I visit a city I have been to before, I find a new attraction or event that I add to my list of “to dos”. This time, I attended the National Memorial Day Choral Festival, with the USAF Symphony Orchestra, at the Kennedy Center.
I had a couple of personal connections from this performance. Auburn United Methodist Church’s Chancel Choir sang with four other choirs from Pennsylvania, Utah, New Jersey and California. Summon the Heroes was the first song performed, written by John Williams for the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.
One of the conductors, Col. Arnald Gabriel conducted concerts in Paris and Omaha Beach during the 75th anniversary ceremonies. Gabriel was part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. At 94 years old, he is still traveling the world conducting orchestras.
I’m not a religious person, but I experienced a deep spiritual awakening hearing Amazing Grace with bagpipes, a symphony orchestra and choir. They ended with John Philip Sousa’s Stars & Stripes Forever, with Col. Gabriel encouraging audience participation.
I ended the evening at the PBS National Memorial Day Concert held on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. This is the third time (2016, 2017 & 2019) I attended the concert, and each one includes special stories and tributes to veterans and their support systems. Songs by celebrity artists are mixed in with stories of veterans as told by actors and actresses. Sam Elliot told the D-Day story of Sgt. Sam Lambert, and Dennis Haysbert and Joe Mantegna told the story of Vietnam veterans Brad Kennedy and Pete Peterson. I LOVE Sam Elliot’s voice.
My favorite song was Allison Kraus performing Amazing Grace (my second time hearing it that day). I enjoy seeing the members of each branch of the Armed Forces standing when they hear their song played by the National Symphony Orchestra during the Armed Forces Medley. I could do without hearing Patti LaBelle massacre Hero and God Bless America again though, so I will spare you as well.
Monday: National Postal Museum, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial and some beautiful random architecture
My last full day in DC was back to the basics: museums and monuments. I found the 16 foot Einstein, met a couple of puppies (one real one, and one in memoriam) visited the National Postal Museum and Lincoln Memorial, and admired the architecture of Washington D.C.
So yes, I go full on nerd when I’m in Washington D.C. I’ve been to the National Building Museum several times, but I couldn’t fit it into my schedule, plus no exhibits this go around that really interested me. This time, I couldn’t pass up a chance to further explore the National Postal Museum which I visited for a short time in 2017. The most interesting part of the museum is the different way that mail has been delivered since the colonies.
The National Postal Museum was once the main Post Office for Washington D.C. This location was deliberate, as it was next to Union Station, the main railroad station for Washington D.C. Union Station still functions as a rail station, in addition to being one of the junction points for the Metro.
Since we have the exact (smaller 12-foot tall) Einstein statue in Atlanta on the Georgia Tech campus, I had to visit the 24-foot tall version at the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to the Georgia Tech replica, another bronze statue is also located in Jerusalem at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
After I visited the national monuments, I walked back to my hotel, and passed some of the most beautiful architecture in Washington D.C., the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, more commonly known as the EEOB, and DAR Constitution Hall. I don’t have government clearance to enter the EEOB, but I did read about the history of the building, because, well, I love the ornate French architecture. It was originally built for the State, War and Navy Departments between 1871 and 1888. The 2 miles worth of black and white tile hallways is surrounded by mostly cast iron and plaster, and very little wood to thwart chances of fire. The building also houses eight curved granite staircases with over 4,000 individually cast bronze balusters, four skylight domes and two stained glass rotundas. I would tour the building just to see these things!
I also walked by the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, a neoclassical style similar to The White House. Mrs. Calvin Coolidge laid the cornerstone on October 30, 1928, using the trowel George Washington used to lay the cornerstone at the Capitol in 1793. Mrs. Herbert Hoover was the guest speaker at the formal dedication on April 19, 1929. Constitution Hall was designed to host the annual Daughters of the American Revolution convention. Like many buildings in D.C., it is designated a National Historic Landmark Building (1985).
You know me – I’m on vacation, and I’m already planning for my next trip to Washington D.C. For my next visit, I already have several places lined up:
D.C. Historical Society (in the old Carnegie Library)
Phillips Gallery – since some of their collection is currently in Atlanta at The High
DAR Constitution Hall (the interiors, and closer examination of the exterior)
On to the next adventure!