January 16, 2009

A Pre-Inauguration Visit to Washington D.C.

The Capitol adorned with bunting and flags

Last week I learned that Washington D.C. was the very first city in the world specifically created and planned as a national capital. Pierre Charles L'Enfant's design for a splendid city to govern the newly created United States of America provided the basis for what has become a profusion of historic monuments, majestic buildings and fabulous museums boasting major collections in every field.

Things are not "business as usual" in Washington D.C. at the moment as the nation readies to inaugurate its 44th President and the city plans to host an anticipated crowd of 6 million people. I was not in town for these festivities - rather to attend an opening at the National Gallery of Art - but the preparations and the attendant excitement were everywhere and it was impossible not to get caught up in the hoopla.

Washington D.C. is not just a great walking city, it also features a superb metro system and "Circulator" bus service that can take you just about anywhere you want to go at a reasonable fare. I loaded up my camera and notebook and took off looking for what makes this capital so great and why it attracts hoards of visitors, both American and foreign.

Preparations for a concert at The Lincoln Memorial

First stop, The Lincoln Memorial. Modeled after the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, this monument houses a huge statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln, the country's 16th President and the issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation, looking pensively over the National Mall. I have driven by this structure many times, but never actually climbed the steps for a visit. This time, despite the beehive of activity as workmen assembled a stage for Sunday's free concert, I joined the procession and paid homage, finally realizing, through first hand experience, the power of the shrine.

Now I was really psyched to continue my tour and headed West along the Mall toward The Capitol. I stopped at the somber gray granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with its 58,260 engraved names. I chatted with the souvenir vendor, a veteran himself, who sold badges and pins from all the units and was anticipating big business in the next week. Continuing along the nearly frozen Reflecting Pool, I passed the flag-encircled Washington Monument, and ended up at the National Museum of American History. Here one can see objects ranging from Dorothy's red shoes to Julia Child's kitchen. Newly restored and on permanent view is the original Star Spangled Banner - the massive (30' x 42') flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill that flew over Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814 and inspired the national anthem.

The next day called for a visit to the National Archives and some research into the Civil War records of a member of the family who fought for the Union Army. It is amazing what documents are held there and are available to the public at no charge. But even more amazing is what's on view in The Rotunda. For over 50 years visitors have come to this site to view the signed, original documents that are known as "The Charters of Freedom". On display is the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights and the 4-page Constitution of the United States. Pretty impressive stuff! To gild the lily even more, through the generosity of philanthropist David Rubenstein, the National Archives is now home to the Magna Carta (left). One of only 4 examples extant, and the only one on U.S. soil, this is the document on which our entire legal system is based and one of the most important manuscripts in the world.

Time for lunch and then a walk across the Mall, past the laborers setting up barricades, chain link fences, television broadcast booths, and countless Porta-Potties, to the National Gallery of Art. Beside their superb permanent collection of European and American works of art, the museum is offering a couple of excellent special exhibitions. "Pompeii and the Roman Villa" looks at art and culture, especially decoration, around the Bay of Naples before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D. More contemporary is "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of this seminal photography book by presenting all 83 photographs as well as fascinating documentary and supplementary material.

I saved the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum for the last morning. Housed together in an exceptional Greek Revival building that was one of the first public structures constructed in early Washington, this combination allows the visitor to experience the history of the country through both portraiture and more general art. The National Portrait Gallery showcases great American writers, performers, artists, visionaries, heroes, activists and of course Presidents through painted, photographic and sculptural portraits. The Smithsonian American Art Museum offers a range of works spanning three centuries and includes Folk Art through Contemporary. Surprisingly interesting was the Luce Foundation Center that features public storage areas with over 3,000 items on display in glass cases. The two museums share a newly enclosed courtyard designed by Sir Norman Foster, who also recently covered The British Museum with a similar glass canopy, which allows year round use of the space for performances and events.

It's time to head to the airport and back to New York. It's been an exciting few days here in Washington D.C. - totally different from prior visits. While I'm glad to leave before the masses of people arrive, it was fun to experience some of the fervor that will only increase as January 20th and the Inauguration approaches. I wish the country's new President the vision and fortitude to build on history and guide this great nation forward into the future.

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