Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Virtual Tour of the Capitol

One of the services provided by congressional offices is giving tours to their constituents, a job that often falls to the interns. I absolutely love making connections with people from Northwest Washington and sharing a little knowledge about the capitol itself. For all of you who can't visit the beautiful capitol, here is a digital version of the tour I often give...

We start in the house office buildings, which are connected to the capitol and the senate buildings by a series of tunnels. It took me a few weeks to get used to the maze!

After passing through a security check, we walk past the national high school art competition winners. The representative from each district can select one piece of art from their district. Some of the paintings and photographs are incredible!

Next, we walk to the Capitol Visitors' Center, added in 2008, that serves as the welcoming center for the thousands of daily visitors to the capitol. When the cornerstone of the capitol was laid by George Washington in 1793, the building planned was much smaller than what we see today. In addition to being rebuilt after partially burning in 1814, the capitol has expanded with the needs of Congress and the inclusion of more states.

The crowning glory of the Capitol Visitors' Center is Emancipation Hall, a massive underground hall with views of the capitol dome in the skylights. Emancipation Hall features an overflow of the national statuary hall collection, including one of Washington State's statues (Mother Joseph, the namesake of St. Joseph's Hospital). Emancipation Hall also houses the plaster model of the bronze Statue of Freedom that tops the dome. At 19 feet, she is the tallest standing statue in the capital city (Lincoln would be taller if he was standing in his memorial).

From Emancipation Hall, we go back above ground level to the Crypt. Originally meant to be the final resting place of George Washington, it now houses some of the national statuary hall collection statues (including a replica of the magna carta and a statue of Robert E. Lee, something I always chuckle at). In the crypt, 40 columns hold up the Rotunda above and surround a marble stone in the center of the room that serves as the symbolic center of the D.C. street system, which radiates from that spot like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It is also said that touching the star brings good luck!

Next, we head to the Senate Vestibule. The original entrance the senate side of the capitol, the room that now serves as the entrance to the old Supreme Court chambers. The characteristic corn capitals on the columns were a deliberate attempts to demarcate American architecture from European.

The Senate Vestibule leads to the room that served as the Senate chambers before becoming the Supreme Court chambers in 1810. Thomas Jefferson made his inaugural address here.  Roger Taney, the fifth Chief Justice, presided in this room for many years and the clock at the back of the room is kept five minutes fast to honor his love of punctuality. Also famous for his Marbury v. Madison case, Taney handed down the Dred Scott Decision in this room.  The room was originally lit by whale oil, which is honored today by the low lighting.

Just outside the old Supreme Court Chamber is one of my favorite rooms. The enormous chandelier hanging above the circular space was purchased from a Methodist church in D.C. that was being demolished in the 1950s. Samuel Morse also sent the first Morse code in this space.

Next, we ascend to the Rotunda and to one of the most iconic spaces in history. The artwork of Constantino Brumidi dominates the inside of the dome with The Apotheosis of Washington  and the Frieze. Brumidi actually fell from his scaffolding when he was painting the Frieze and hung there until he was rescued. Already an old man at that point, he decided to retire and the Frieze was eventually finished by a series of artists commissioned by Congress.

Around the circumference of the Rotunda are paintings that depict early American history and the conquering of the Americas. Four Trumbull paintings include the famous Declaration of Independence and four others depict events ranging from the discovery of the Mississippi to the baptism of Pocahontas.

The statues in the Rotunda, where dignitaries are allowed to lie in state after their death, are all of Presidents with the exception of the bust of MLK, Jr. and a statue of early feminists. Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are joined by an unfinished piece of stone signifying the ongoing effort toward equality.


The old Senate chamber, where the Missouri Compromise was decided and Charles Sumner was caned by Preston Brooks, is the next stop. The room was used until we had 64 Senators and outgrew the cramped space. The balcony above was where women could sit and hear the debates (with a modesty curtain to cover their exposed ankles, of course).

And finally, to National Statuary Hall, the original home of the House of Representatives. Tiles on the floor mark the original locations of the desks of future presidents. In 1864 the hall welcomed a collection of statues, and each state was invited to submit two. The second of Washington's statues (of missionary Marcus Whitman, a physician who served the tribes of SE Washington and was later massacred) is in this room as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rhett Was Here!

Another epic weekend in D.C., but this time I got to enjoy it with Rhett! He definitely brought the Pacific Northwest weather with him on his journey to the East Coast... it was 70 and raining for most of his trip.  (Though I think both of us were relieved that we didn't have to deal with any scorchers!)

Rhett and I went with our typical modus operandi: explore everything and cover as much ground as possible! Over the course of three days we tasted Salvadorian, Indian, Italian, Southern BBQ, and Mexican cuisine. We saw national monuments, pastimes, museums, statues, markets, artwork, and even the zoo. We criss-crossed the city on each of the five metro lines and explored many of the pockets and neighborhoods in the District.

My favorite thing about it all? Having Rhett by my side! It was nice to play tour guide for once, too. I feel like I've begun to understand the ins and outs of Capitol Hill, which sights to see and which to avoid, and was hopefully able to give Rhett a peek of each of the hats D.C. wears. In a city this diverse, with Hill lifers mixed with temporary interns, embassies next to churches, and universities sprinkled among global headquarters, getting a glimpse of everything is a tall task.

We began Friday examining the primary role of Washington, D.C.: symbol of national identity. Rhett and I walked past the White House, under the Washington Monument, and along the rest of the Mall. In addition to the sights I had already explored, we spent time at the WWII, Vietnam, and Korean war memorials.

In addition to the Vietnam Memorial, to which I am particularly drawn (I'll write more about that in another post), Rhett was drawn to the regal solemnity of the WWII memorial and I appreciated the subversive and haunted nature of the Korean War memorial.

We also explored D.C.'s role as political epicenter with a private tour (from yours truly) of the Capitol building. Magnificent enough for its own post, I'll save that summary for another day as well.

Finally, we enjoyed D.C.'s identity as a sports powerhouse at a Nats game. We even ignited our Natitude with the rest of the crowd! After arriving nearly three hours early and exploring the stadium (beautiful, and below street level), we got soaked in the sixth inning when the predicted storm arrived. Another stadium checked off Rhett's bucket list!

On day 2, we celebrated D.C.'s vibrant cultural and culinary scenes with trips to the U Street corridor, Smithsonian museums, and historic Georgetown.

We saw legendary Ben's Chili Bowl (their #1 fan is Bill Cosby, rumored to be the only person other than Michelle, Sasha, and Malia Obama worthy of bypassing the line). Love that dentist sign next door, too!

The Air and Space Museum and American History Museum were packed with kids, but we braved some lines to see the Wright brothers' first planes, first ladies' inaugural gowns, and mention of Rhett's ancestor Stonewall Jackson.

These are Michelle and Hillary's inaugural gowns:

 On Sunday, Rhett and I walked along the Potomac to the tidal basin, explored Eastern Market (an awesome farmer's and flea market near the Navy barracks), saw the pandas at the National Zoo, went to the National Gallery of Art, and stuffed ourselves on Italian food in Georgetown. Whew!

This weekend was perfect in every way... I can't believe I'm past the halfway point in my internship now! I'll be home in 10 days!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (by guest blogger Rhett Fenton)

Ever seen the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles starring John Candy and Steve Martin? Well, that title sums up my travel experience to D.C. An early start Thursday morning (2 am) was followed by a short delay on my first flight out of SeaTac. The flight to Newark was flawless, but the chaos began when we landed in NJ. The original delay caused my layover to be cut short and I had to hustle off the plane to make it to the other side of the unfamiliar airport and board my short connecting flight to D.C. I showed up just as a sweat began to form on my brow with plenty of time to board the plane... There was only one problem: no plane at the gate.

I patiently waited for updates on the situation while eavesdropping on the travelers around me, all of whom sounded displeased with the situation. Apparently, the airport hadn't sent any flights out of NJ in the last 24 hours because of thunderstorms. The outlook did not look promising and neither did the reader board. CANCELED, it read, followed by a short message over the loud speaker directing passengers to the already overflowing customer service line.

I was given three options at the service desk: stand by for another flight that evening and risk having it cancelled as well, stay in the airport overnight and catch another flight in the morning, or get on a bus to D.C. provided by the airline. I had no desire to stay in the airport overnight so I opted for the bus. At this point I didn't really care how long it would take, I just wanted to be at my final destination. The bus arrived an hour later than was expected, but the small group of us who had opted for the ride were relieved. The predicted storm had arrived and not only caused my original flight to be cancelled, but caused a two or three hour bus ride to take about five hours. While it wasn't the greatest travel experience, I finally arrived safely at my destination!

I tried to imagine what D.C. would look, feel, sound, and smell like before I made the trek. Though I had some idea from pictures of the famous sights, I really didn't know what to expect. Other than a small bit of time spent in Florida, I had also never been to the east coast. I was excited to take in everything and that's exactly what we did!

We wasted no time on my first full day visiting Halee's workplace. We had planned on taking a tour of the capitol building, but were alerted of a temporary evacuation. Nothing too crazy, however, thankfully just a fire alarm. We decided we would put the tour on hold and visit the sights of the National Mall starting at the Washington Monument. Arriving at the footsteps of each monument it was hard not to be overcome with a sense of pride and appreciation for what each stood for. Each was different from the next, yet evoked similar feelings of patriotism and wonder.

We concluded the day by catching a game of our national pastime. We arrived early to the stadium in hopes of doing some exploring, catching a little bp (batting practice), and enjoying a couple of cold beverages. The ball park and our seats (about four rows up) were extraordinary!

The next few days included a lot more sightseeing: museums, monuments, new restaurants, the metro (we went on every line), outdoor market, the national zoo, and more. We walked countless miles across the city and racked up many more on the metro transit system. I might not be able to pinpoint a single favorite part of the trip, but some of the highlights were: seeing Halee and getting a better understanding of what her internship is all about, watching the Nationals game, and the spectacular WWII monument. All in all, I had an amazing experience in D.C. with the best tour guide possible!