Monday, September 21, 2009

In the shadow of the dome

How will I ever do and see it all?  There are only about twenty quadrillion things to do in and around D.C., and seeing as how I'm about eight months in on this two-year gig, there are only sixteen-ish months left for all of these explorations.  I've reconciled myself to the fact that I really can't do it all (let's face it, all is a little overwhelming and unreasonable), but I'm going to knock out as much as I can. 

Two times a year Cultural Tourism D.C. offers a plethora of free walking/biking tours through various neighborhoods in the city, and what better way to enjoy the early fall temperatures than setting out on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy "In the Shadow of the Dome," offering the opportunity to "travel around Washington’s most famous architectural icon, the U.S. Capitol, and the buildings of America’s legislative and judicial branches of government. You will discover that “Capitol Hill” does indeed describe a rise above the city and that its leafy green setting features historic trees, fountains, outdoor sculpture, and even a grotto. The Library of Congress, U.S. Botanic Garden, and U.S. Supreme Court are all stops, as is the home of Alice Paul, who worked tirelessly to guarantee American women the right to vote."  Next time I'm going to try to grab a spot in "Spies of Georgetown" before the online reservations fill up, but for today I think some Capitol Hill explorations fit the bill.

Our group met up outside the Capitol South Metro stop at 1:30 (or closer to 1:35 for those of us who may have been running a tad bit late and decided to walk the mile and a half to the Metro stop instead of actually riding involved switching lines from my home Metro stop, and honestly, with their weekend schedule, it probably was faster to walk...I digress...), and the next two hours of our lives were placed in the capable hands of Andrew, a political communications student at George Washington University and afficionado of all things D.C., specifically the political scene.

Our first little bit of trivia included a brief glimpse at the rowhouses where young legislators cram themselves in four at a time while Congress is in session (former residence of Barack Obama!  suddenly a truly historic landmark!) and some tidbits about the Capitol Hill Club, a rather elite little establishment where I doubt I'll ever have the pleasure of having a drink or attending a lavish wedding.

Next viewing - Library of Congress.  Did you know that Thomas Jefferson offered up his personal collection of books after those darn British set fire to the Capitol building in 1814 and destroyed the original volumes held within the Library of Congress?  I mean, he didn't just hand them over - there was definitely payment involved.  Back to the library - there's a Gutenberg Bible in there!  Also, after this fire fiasco and the "we can't buy new books all the time!" revelation, all publishers are required to submit two complete copies of all of their published works, meaning that the Library of Congress holds a ridiculous number of books, housed in three separate buildings with this really cool cart/tunnel system thing that zooms books from one place to another as needed.  I still need to make it inside and check out the Reading Room.

I'm not sure why I keep forgetting which side of the Capitol houses the Senate or the House, but I'll definitely keep it straight now that I've gotten some background on the office buildings that line Independence and Constitution Avenues and which legislators reside where.  Oh, and the Rayburn House Office Building made pretty good use of the "additional sums as may be necessary" for its construction - those additional sums far exceeded the original appropriations and were put to use for, among other things, a swimming pool and basketball court.  As you can imagine, offices in the Rayburn building are in high demand. 

We made a quick stop outside the U.S. Botanic Garden, where I learned...well, not too much, but we did get a nice little break in the shade and learn that Congressional aides are a fan of the jungle's balmy 75 degree comfort in the midst of winter - take your lunch on over to the Botanic Garden, kids, while your powerful bosses take taxpayer dollars on over to Charlie Palmer for a nice steak.

We continued our circle around the Capitol with a stop at the James A. Garfield Monument, which is a really interesting statue depicting him at three stages of his life and unfortunately is having some issues with its bronze eroding.  Garfield was assassinated pretty early on in his presidency, but actually hung in there for quite a while after he was shot - turns out they were having trouble locating the bullet with this fancy new metal-detector device because of the metal bedsprings in the bed.  Oopsie.

Did you know the Capitol dome is actually made of cast iron and painted to look like marble?  The darn thing's heavy enough as is, and cast iron is quite a bit lighter than marble, so...there you have it, American innovation.  I've shared quite a few Capitol tidbits before from the tour with the Vaughns, so let's move on to the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial stationed directly in front of the Capitol.  It's very much an homage to his time in the military rather than his presidency, which I find pretty interesting, and I find it especially interesting that the sculptor, Henry Shrady, spent twenty years of his life working on the memorial and sadly died two weeks before its dedication in 1922 - this poor guy actually joined the Army to better understand Grant's dedication and really threw himself into the job.  The cavalry sculpture to Grant's right depicts Shrady moments from being trampled to death by horses.  Talk about a stressful job if that's the way you're going to memorialize yourself in a piece of your work.

I've walked past a couple of things many times before and had absolutely no idea what they were - well, now I know that a random stone structure provided some primitive air conditioning to the Capitol back in the day, and a lovely little red brick structure is known as the Summer House and served as a response to complaints in the late 1800s that visitors to the Capitol could find no water nor any place to rest on their journey.  That hill really does people in, you know.  Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in NYC, was hired to develop and improve the Capitol grounds and make it more hospitable to visitors...hence all the trees around that strategically provide some shade during the sweltering summer heat.  The benches installed in the Summer House also had very sturdy stone armrests installed to encourage visitors to...sit upright...and...avoid certain activities.  You should have heard the older ladies in the walking group giggle and gasp at that one.

Final stop?  Some tidbits on the Supreme Court and slavery's contribution to the building of the Capitol.  It was really interesting to spend a couple of hours walking around so many things I've seen before and never knew quite as much about.  Thank you, Washington Walks!  I'll be back for Memorials by Moonlight and possibly a few others.

Again, completely in love with all of the free things to do in this city.

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