Washington, DC part one

United States 2005

Washington is different from other cities in the US. Usually as you drive through the outlying towns and suburbs the skyscrapers of downtown tower up in front of you, exerting a masculine dominance over the area. But in the early twentieth century some forward-thinking politicians realised the historic buildings and monuments would be overwhelmed by the new architecture of skyscrapers, so they limited the height of new buildings to about 150 metres. Thus we found ourselves in downtown Washington without realising it.

It was dark by the time we were driving around the Mall, the heart of Washington that stretches from east to west and is framed by the White House to the north, Smithsonian Castle to the south, US Capitol to the east, and the Lincoln Memorial to the west. In the darkness this new city disorientated me: the streets were jammed with traffic; almost every building was lit up producing a bright maze of federal, beaux arts, and neo-classical offices; and the largest police presence in any city I’ve seen blocking roads, directing traffic, and checking identification. We must have passed some of the places I’d been waiting to see but I had no idea what was what. Fortunately Brian was on the ball and he navigated us out of there. We found a distinctly average hotel which suited us because it was cheap and it offered a free bus in to and out of downtown.

The Supreme Court

On our first full day in Washington I was excited to see the Supreme Court and especially the Library of Congress (yes, I know this screams geek). The weather was appalling though: it had been raining but now it had turned cold enough to snow, and a fog had descended so visibility was low. I did the USA Today crossword while on the bus into town. It dropped us at Union Station, the clinging fog meaning I had no idea where we were in relation to anything else — or indeed, where anything else was. But put Brian together with a map and you’ll soon end up in the right place.

We stood in front of the Supreme Court and looked up at it; a sole police-woman huddled in the portico forty metres away the only sign of life. Brian and Paula weren’t sure we could get in but my guide-book said yes we could so I strode towards the police-woman to get the definitive answer. She was disinterested in us enough to turn her back before we got to her, so instead I tried the front door (if in doubt, always try the front door). Lo and behold, it opened, and we were inside the grand hall of the Supreme Court of the United States. Designed to look like a ancient Greek temple it was entirely made of veined marble, stretching fourteen metres into the air and held up by thick Doric columns. Gold lanterns hung down from the ornate red and gold ceiling, throwing a bright light onto the scene. It was ruined somewhat by the hastily erected security machines dumped unceremoniously inside the doors, but the modern world often values practicalities over aesthetics. (By the way, metal detectors and bag checks are two things you get tired of very quickly in DC.)

The Supreme Court has lots of interesting corridors and stairwells leading off to interesting places — some you can go down, some you can’t. The centre-piece is the court room itself, where nine judges nominated by the incumbent president for life ultimately decide what laws are or are not constitutional. A small exhibition gives an insight in to the fascinating history and work of the court. At least, fascinating to me; I’m sure some are reading this thinking I’m a complete numpty.

The Library of Congress

This won’t do my non-geek credentials any good, but our next destination took us left out the Supreme Court and along to America’s national library, the Library of Congress. Being a big fan of libraries and books I was very excited to see this place — and I wasn’t disappointed. Another architectural gem, the library was filled with stunning carvings, sculptures, and murals. The entrance hall was on the right side of gaudy and far more colourful than the Supreme Court. I always feel incredibly content in libraries, and this was no exception.

We tagged onto a tour that showed us an early copy of the Gutenberg bible along with another early printed book, and the beautiful Reading Room — on a slightly larger and more decorative scale than (my favourite) the Reading Room in the British Museum. An off-the-cuff remark started us on a mission: she mentioned that anyone from any country could get a Library of Congress access card by going through a simple registration process. This I had to do! The three of us went off on a trek through underground passages and past secret rooms to get to the registration room. In front of me in the queue was a Chinese-American high school student in — bizarrely — full military regalia.

In theory the library card is for people doing research and I though my story — a postgraduate student from Edinburgh, Scotland with a temporary address 500 miles away in Missouri and a permanent address in the Midlands of England — was pretty flimsy. However, they bought it, and ten minutes and a photograph later I was the proud owner of a Library of Congress card. I have access to a huge library and reading room in a city I’ll probably never visit again.

First visits to the Smithsonian

Created with an endowment from an Englishman who never visited the United States, the Smithsonian Institution is one of America’s crown jewels. After the library we took our first steps inside one of it’s many museums, the National Museum of the American Indian. This superb building was a little short of exhibits, but it had only just opened so I’m sure it’ll fill up given time. What they had was good though, focussing on the art and culture of American Indians (including all of America, not just the States) rather than a cutesy, politically-correct history. And then on to the National Air and Space Museum which houses, among many things, the original Sputnik satellite (of interest to you MercuryTiders) and the Wright Brothers’ first flying machine. This wasn’t as interesting as I thought since it’s been re-canvassed a few times, not leaving to much of the original (America has a habit of removing original features from historic items).

Charters of Freedom

Our last stop of the day was the National Archives, home to original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights, the three most important documents in the founding of the country. I’ve been a fan of Thomas Jefferson and some of his contemporaries for a while; when travelling to the north-east states you get hit with a lot of colonial and early national history, which builds up a huge respect for the Founding Fathers. The documents and the men that wrote them are held in great reverence by Americans so I was looking forward to seeing them.

We only queued for half-an-hour or so to get into the low-lit neo-classical rotunda that houses them, but I can imagine the queues stretch for hours in the summer. The documents themselves are endlessly fascinating and deserve far more space than I can give them here. I could have stared at the faded but beautiful inks for hours, but my concentration was repeatedly broken by the silly Americans coming up to the documents and saying ‘This is the Declaration of Independence’ etc as if the sign as eye-level didn’t tell you that, that they were first to realise this, and that their friends would thank them for their incisive commentary. I wanted to turn around and say ‘Shit! Are you serious? The Declaration of Independence? Really, this? I thought it was today’s newspaper! Is this… is it… really? Well, thank you — no thanks really — thanks. Really.’ A lot of people were here to say they’d seen them rather than to give them the thought and consideration they deserved.

To the future

And there ends day one in Washington. A far longer entry than I wanted, so apologies for that if you’ve come this far. More soon! I’m in danger of loosing control of this travelogue given I still have plenty to write about, including a trip to the Deep South I took this last weekend, so I promise myself to get this up-to-date tout suite.