Visit to DC – Part I – Arrival through Alexandria9 September, 2012
Our journey to the Washington DC-area was uneventful, though it was our first time flying Southwest Airlines and we were quite happy with them. Arriving late on Sunday, my mother and her husband drove us in from BWI and we settled in for the days ahead.
Monday, Labor Day, was our first expedition into DC using the METRO (subway) system which now wants you to have plastic SmarTrip cards, rather than the old paper farecards but makes it very difficult to obtain them (more on that later). It was Labor Day, so DC was nearly deserted apart from foreign tourists, there was a stretch of about 90 minutes where the only English I heard spoken was between Laura and I.
Our first destination was the Renwick Gallery (part of the Smithsonian which I raved about from our last visit) which is focused on American artists and makers, specifically the art of crafting, practical arts as it were (however many of the object showcased are supremely impractical and are only useful as art). Though they have a lovely gallery which is just a collection of paintings as well. The Renwick was hosting a fascinating show called 40 Under 40 showcasing contemporary artists and many of the works are simply amazing (though some of other works are just strange). A lovely start to our visit.
From there, a nice walk past the massive Eisenhower Executive Office Building (yes, a building just for the president’s staff, it used to house the entire departments of State, War and the Navy!) and the First Division Monument to the National Museum of American History, which is again being remodeled.
The American History Museum is just that, the history of the United States and its people told through artifacts from Julia Child’s kitchen to the Revolutionary War-era gunboat Philadelphia (raised from Lake Champlain where it had lain since it was sunk during that war). To my, this museum is best when it is communicating the experience of the people who have made up the nation and all of the amazing things they have accomplished through items as diverse as surgical kits, street signs, books, clothes, even Kermit the Frog gets a place. While the museum has a pean to the presidents and first ladies in the forms of galleries to each, it tries to humanize them a bit as well.
After the American History Museum, Laura headed back while I went on a quest to buy us both SmarTrip cards. While every METRO station had multiple posters up telling you how great they were, none of the central stations (and I visited three, one of them checking 3 separate entrances) had them for sale, but I finally found them at Farragut West station from a machine that would not accept credit cards or $20 bills in payment . . . But acquired and used for the rest of the trip.
The next day started at the National Postal Museum by Union Station, a compact but impressive place, which show you how the US post office has evolved and the challenge of sorting, transporting and delivering mail. Lots of interesting historical pieces, quite inspirational and an exhibit called Fire & Ice tying the mail to the Titanic and the Hindenburg both which was quite interesting. And, of course, Owney, the Rail Mail Service mascot, stuffed and preserved. Recommended.
Then to the Air and Space Museum, which I have not visited in ages, but I was surprised how little has changed. There were some new additions, like a collection of drones -including the Predator that fired the first hellfire missile in combat- but several of the galleries such as the WW2, Golden Age of Flight and Jet Age were just as I remember them from over a decade ago. Kind of strange. But still a good time and always fun to touch a piece of the moon. One of the coolest things though was the original model of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek which is in a case in the lower level of the gift shop!
Wednesday, we spent exploring Alexandria, which we had not had time for last time after a stop at Fiber Space where Laura bought some lovely yarn, we started our touristing with the Torpedo Factory, which was that and is not an art gallery/studio space (gamers might find Susan Makara‘s art inspirational) and also houses the Alexandria Archaeological Museum which is small but very hands on. From there, we went off to the Carlyle House and took the tour there. Carlyle was a successful merchant who built an amazing stone house -when all around was wood- and was a major player in both politics and trade That was where I really began to appreciate that Alexandria was a major port and one of the doorways to trade throughout the Colonial and early American eras. It is amazing that the house survived and has been able to be restored to how it looked in the Colonial era.
From there we went to Gadsby’s Tavern, where the first five Presidents stayed and George Washington celebrated his birthday, which has some good information -and examples- of what travel and lodging was like in the Colonial and Revolutionary eras. Exceptional lacking in privacy for the first era and slightly better in the second. Fun to walk through places that have seen such history. Lastly, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum which was a working apothecary from the 1700s until the 1930s and much of the working materials were saved when it closed allowing the museum to be created. Fascinating stuff. I took lots of photos.