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Entries in NPS (35)

Wednesday
Oct072009

Knocking out the Monuments: Jefferson Memorial

Cherry Tree Blossoms & Jefferson Memorial

As we continue along our tour, we loop around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial. If you are making this walk in early spring, you might get a great shot of the Memorial nicely framed by the famous cherry trees of Washington, like the one above. Of course, you better be quick on the draw, because if you are here during peak cherry blossom season, you're likely to be trampled by hordes of other photographers trying for the same shot if you stop too long.

Those cherry trees for the basis for the story of the initial controversy surrounding the location of the Memorial. In order to build it, fifty or so of the trees would have to be bulldozed. The publisher of the Washington Times-Herald, Cissy Paterson, combined her love of the trees with her raw disgust at the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and organized a protest of several of the high society ladies of Washington, DC. As told by David Brinkley in Washington Goes to War:

Some of them tried to stop the construction by chaining themselves to the trees and defying the bulldozers. Michael Strauss, assistant secretary of the interior, countered by serving them lunch, with cup after cup of coffee until the women had to unlock their chains and leave for the rest rooms. When they did, the bulldozers moved in, and Jefferson was duly memorialized.
So, as you can see, the story of bathrooms IS the story of Washington. Or at least of the Jefferson Memorial.

Of all the Presidential Memorials, I think Jefferson falls the flattest. For the incredible complexity of the man, it captures little of it. It's simply a statue of him, inside a knock off of a Roman temple. Really, the highlight for me is the view from the front steps of the Memorial towards the White House. But if you're walking by, stop in and say hi to Tom.

The Memorial is open 24 hours a day, with Rangers available to yell at your kids from 9:30 am until 11:30 pm. Seriously though, Park Service Rangers, while occasionally ill-tempered, are almost uniformly knowledgeable about these sites. If you can get a conversation going with one of them, it can be quite rewarding. Many of them genuinely love being there and are happy to share it with you. And if you get a surly one, let it go, and let's move on to the FDR Memorial.

photo by cliff1066™'s

Tuesday
Oct062009

Knocking out the Monuments: Washington Monument

Let's start our tour of the Monuments with everyone's favorite land mark, the Washington Monument. Thanks to our height limit, the Monument continues to dominate the skyline around DC, and is the focal point to any trip to the Mall.

One of the first things you may notice about the Monument, besides of course it being very tall, is the color break about a third of the way up. While I have sent many an eighth grader back home believing this is a result of a giant flood, the truth is one of my favorite stories in all of DC.

Back in 1854, as construction was progressing on the Monument, a group of anti-immigration zealots, aptly named the "Know Nothings", mustered up some outrage that Pope Pius IX had the temerity to donate a stone to the Monument (the immigrants they despised were largely Irish Catholics). In 1849, the State of Alabama had donated a stone from Alabama, and it had become traditional for states, countries, groups of citizens, and other organizations to donate stones to line the walls along the staircase up.

Fortunately, the Know Nothing party saw through the Pope's transparent ruse to establish a Catholic theocracy in America via a hunk of rock. They stole the stone, broke it up, and threw it in the river; thereby preserving American democracy as we know it. Feeling that they must remain vigilant in preventing a return of Popery, the Know Nothings then took control of the Washington National Monument Society to keep an eye on things. Unfortunately, raising funds and overseeing a complex engineering program is more difficult than staging a drunken riot, and construction ground to a halt. It wasn't until 1876 that the Federal Government intervened, taking over the project and completing the Washington Monument in 1885. In the intervening three decades, the quarry outside Baltimore they had been using continued to dig stone out. As a result, the marble comes from a different stratum, and hence the slight, but noticeable color change.

There's a great little book about the Washington Monument that tells this story, and many others. The Flying Cat and Other Amazing Stories of the Washington Monument is well worth getting ahead of time to help you prepare for your visit. It's not a guide book (fortunately) but it's full of great stories and some background. For a Monument whose grandeur is not balanced with a whole lot of visual interest, these stories flesh out the monument a bit, adding a little depth to your visit. You know, the stuff a good guide is supposed to do. The Flying Cat is particularly nice in that it's quite readable and broken into little chunks. Think chicken nuggets, not a roast chicken, and is a fun read for an airplane ride to DC.

Now, for logistics. The Monument is open from 9 am to 10 pm in the Summer Season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) and 9 to 5 the rest of the year, with closings on the Fourth of July and Christmas. I most heartily recommend getting your tickets ahead of time. If you're a cheapskate and don't want to pay the $1.50 service charge, you can always wait in line the morning of. They start issuing tickets at 8:30 am, but if you're coming in the peak times of Spring and Summer, you're going to want to be in line no later than 7:30 (and maybe earlier). One of the many reasons I enjoy the Fall and Winter in DC, when you might even get lucky at 10 am (wouldn't plan on it though). Tickets are given out at the starting point of our little tour, the lovely bathrooms along 15th ST. No, not in the bathrooms; there's a will call booth there as well.

To get there, I'd take the Metro to Federal Triangle or Smithsonian stop. If you're planning to wait in line in the morning, I'd particularly recommend Fed Triangle, as you can get some not great coffee at the kiosk under the Reagan Building plaza (right by the Metro stop) to keep you company while you wait.

photo by Kevin Burkett

Monday
Sep212009

Wildlife of DC: the Grey Squirrel

Washington, DC: Squirrel


We spend so much time in DC talking about the accomplishments of humankind, that we often forget that we plopped this city down in an area once teaming with animal life. Some of those animals have managed to learn to coexist, and even thrive in an urban environment; some have of course been driven out of the area, and occasionally out of existence; and others have been introduced which are not native to this region. So let's discuss this week a few of the elements of nature found now, or in the past, in our Nation's Capital.

You can be the greatest tour guide ever to stroll the streets of Washington, captivating teachers and students alike, imparting nuggets of wisdom that will last decades in young mind, and it will all fall apart upon the sighting of one rodent. No, I am not talking about DC's famous rats, which have been known to grow to the size of house cats and carry off small children. I speak instead of the common Grey Squirrel, which overshadows even the White House in fascination to many of my school groups. Truth be told, I've in the course of my life paid little attention to squirrels, until I became a Guide. After a year or two of being interrupted in the midst of what I thought was an insightful and witty interpretation of a fascinating bit of American History by the cry of "Look! A Squirrel!", I decided to take a look at what all the fuss is about.

While other squirrels dwell in the DC area (more on that later), it's the Eastern Grey Squirrel that dominates the local landscape. Perhaps because they're so common, I couldn't get my mind around the fascination with them. Certainly, for my west coast groups, this is an animal they would not see outside of zoos or perhaps small pockets of introduced species. But even my east coast groups went nuts over them, to the point of one teacher composing a particularly bad song about them titled, unfortunately enough, "Presidential Squirrel". A feat for which no atonement would ever suffice.

"Presidential Squirrel" is fitting in one (and only one) sense though: the area around the White House, and Lafayette Square in particular, is the mothership of the squirrel invasion. While I can confirm this anecdotally, empirical evidence backs me up. In the early 1980's the National Park Service commissioned a study of the area (pdf) and found that Lafayette Park had a greater density of Eastern Grey Squirrels than had ever been seen. Ever. Anywhere. That's right, in a couple blocks we had more squirrels per square foot than anywhere else in the world, up to 140 squirrels sighted. In fact, from those peak numbers, the Park Service has steadily working to reduce the number of squirrels in the area. It turns out this is way more squirrels than can be supported, and in addition to the damage they cause, the squirrels themselves suffer from inadequate shelter in winter months, as well as disease and fighting worsened by overcrowding.

So maybe it's not just the sighting of the squirrel, but their abundance, and even over-abundance, that delights our visitors. Looking at it with new eyes, they are everywhere, and exceedingly tame. Being urban animals, they have long since become accustomed to relying on humans for their food supply and have lost anything approaching a wariness to us. From being virtually extinct in Washington, their planned replacement has succeeded overwhelmingly. Now the concern is how to control them, not bringing them back.

And, in fact, one of the greatest challenges the Park Service faced in the 1980s in Lafayette Square were well meaning "feeders" that provided approximately 75 pounds of peanuts for the squirrels per week. This allowed the extraordinary population boom, and the resultant crashes, as too many animals attempted to live in too crowded a space. Getting the feeders to stop their well meaning activities was critical to allowing a sustainable population to thrive. All which we should remember as we walk about Washington, DC today. Don't feed the wild animals. Because one plump squirrel is cute, fifteen scrawny squirrels with scratch marks and tufts of hair missing are not.

Thursday
Jul092009

Ford's Theater Museum to Re-open - Get your tickets now?

Next Wednesday, July 15th, Washington, DC, will welcome back one of our great cultural treasures, the Museum underneath Ford's Theater. Let me say right off the bat that the Theater has created a top notch museum. I was concerned that the Ford's Theater Society and the National Park Service would jump on board the trend for touch screens and interactive games; trying to out wii the wii generation. I was pleasantly surprised that they went for depth over breadth, building content rich displays that don't dumb down their subject matter. While I'll miss the old one, and question why they had to mess with perfection, the really have created an excellent overview of the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

I'm particularly excited that they choose to explore some of the complexity and the growth of Lincoln while President. So often, I get visitors that will tell me that "Lincoln didn't want to free the slaves" or "he wanted to ship them to Africa". While true, these views are snapshots in his life and fail to capture the ability of President Lincoln, perhaps more than any other President, to not let past views hinder him from new judgments. This museum does an excellent job of showing how Lincoln's views shifted and what a tremendous capacity for learning and growth he had. He's not a static character, so I guess it's fair that a museum dedicated to him doesn't have to be either.

The assassination is still discussed, if not necessarily with the depth it had before. The pistol Booth killed Lincoln with is still there naturally, if relegated to the sidelines. The assassination portion of the exhibit is, obviously, at the end and by necessity occupies a smaller portion of the floor space that it did in the previous museum. Most of the artifacts are still there, and they still cover the assassination and its aftermath fully, if not as detailed as in the past. I'll miss that portion of the museum, but they've done well with crafting a new exhibit, so there's no point in being churlish.

Theoretically, the new plan for visiting Ford's Theater consists of four parts. First you visit the museum, to get a sense of how Lincoln worked and lived in his time in Washington. Then you move to the Theater, where you watch either a presentation by a Park Service ranger or a one act play dealing with the assassination. Moving on to the "third act", as the theater folks like to say, you cross the street to the Peterson House, where you witness the site where the President died the next morning. Finally, you will end up next door in the planned Center for Education and Leadership, where they plan to more fully explore Lincoln's legacy. The idea is that the four parts form a coherent and chronologically appropriate path that fully discus Lincoln's Presidency, assassination, and their continuing legacy.

Wonderful, except that this is just going to heighten the logistical nightmare that a visit to Ford's Theater has been this spring. Since the Theater and the Peterson House have opened, this policy has created a feast or famine line at the Peterson House. Since you now need tickets to enter the House, as you will the Museum, the House goes from having no line, to one that stretches around the block, all in the space of sixty seconds. I particularly enjoy the portion of my day where tour guides are frantically trying to gather up their groups as they spill out of the theater to chivvy them in line, bowling over befuddled tourists and 3 for $10 sunglass salesmen, desperate to avoid a ten minute appointment from becoming an hour. Good times.

By requiring a ticket, I fear the new museum is going to be faced with the same issue, albeit in reverse. For the first half of every hour, tumbleweeds will blow by in the museum as everyone else is in the theater. Then the museum will start to fill to capacity, rising to a crescendo about forty five minutes after the hour, when everyone will "just pop down to the museum, to see what they have" before the presentation starts. Finally, as the theater opens, the cycle will repeat itself as the museum empties.

So what if you wish to skip the ranger talk, and just visit the Museum? Well, that would be my advice. And it's possible, but you will still need a ticket just to visit the Museum, as you do now for the Peterson House. If you've planned ahead and purchased them online, you will be all set. Or if you come in the off season when it's not to full, you're OK. But if you happen to be strolling by, want to duck into the Museum, and the Theater is full, you will be out of luck as all the tickets will be given away for that performance. So you will be in the interesting position of needing a ticket to a show you don't want to see which prevents you from visiting a Museum you do wish to see, which is virtually empty at that time. Fun, isn't it. Ford's tends to disagree with me, and maybe that won't be the case, but so far that scenario has played out repeatedly this spring with the Peterson House and the Theater.

By laying out the Museum, Theater, Peterson House, and, eventually, the Education Center in such a way; and especially by insisting on a ticket policy for each of the sites, Ford's Theater necessarily crowds a first rate museum and makes it more difficult for the casual visitor.

Wednesday
May272009

What is "On Time"?

A good dozen of us in the DC area have been watching the latest pseudo-controversy about White House access regarding the cancellation of a tour is elementary school kids attempting to visit the White House, supposedly for a photo op with the Steelers. On the surface, it appears as the story of a callous government bureaucracy not bending a bit to help out with kindergartners.

But, once you dig through the shoddy reporting of the local news, it turns out the kids were over an hour late to the appointment. To the White House. I'm not sure what they thought was going to happen, but let me assure you, on the near impossible chance you get White House tickets, they will be unbending on rescheduling. I'm no fan of the White House's visitor policy, but on this one, I'll cut them some slack.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Not to prolong a ridiculous non-story, but to explore what an appointment time "means" when you have one. So let me run down the list of likely ticket venues and my experiences with being late. Obviously, I should lead in with the usual caveats that this is simply my experience, your's may be different, and I don't speak for any of these organizations. That aside, let's assume you have 12:30 pm tickets to all of these places:

Bureau of Engraving and Printing: I don't know why they even have tickets for this one anymore. Personally, I think their schtick has gotten stale, but if you have tickets, be on time. They're pretty good working with you if you are five to ten minutes late, but no guarantees.

Capitol Visitors Center: 12:30 is the time you line up to enter the movie theater, inside the Visitor's Center. This means you have already passed through security, which you should allow 20 minutes for, although it's routinely less (and occasionally more). Also, you will want to give yourself a few minutes to orient yourself to the new Visitors Center. So, I would plan on being in line to enter the CVC thirty minutes prior to your ticket time and use the spare time, if any, to take a break in the cafeteria and/or explore its excellent museum. The good news; although I don't recommend it, the folks at the Visitor's Center have proven to be very helpful with me in the last few months with late/delayed visitors. It's worth asking them if you miss your ticket time.

Ford's Theater: The ticket time is when the presentation starts. You want to be in line 10 minutes or so before it. You might be able to squeeze in a minute or two after, but don't plan on it. Fortunatly, you can still use the ticket to visit the Peterson House across the street, even if you miss the ranger presentation. Once the museum opens, I'll be posting on ticketing procedures for that.

Holocaust Memorial Museum: Great news here! Ticket times are good for any time after their stated time. So, you could use the 12:30 ticket at 4 pm with no problem. Also, the ticket is only for the Permanent Exhibit. If you arrive early, take the time to check out Danial's Story (if you have kids) on the first floor, or the temporary exhibits in the basement. I strongly recommend one of the current ones, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.

National Archives: Officially, you have to be on time, but I've had luck with just handing the security guard the appointment sheet and bluffing your way in. Not that I recommend it, but it can be done.

Tours: If you have a tour scheduled at a museum, Library of Congress, Cathedral, bike/segway etc. you're going to want to be on time. The tour will start on time and they may or may not allow you to catch up.

Washington Monument: You have about a thirty minute window to use this ticket. If you're ticket is 12:30, I'd be there right about then, but if you are a few minutes late, you'd just get in the 12:30 line and no one would be the wiser. You might be pushing it if you arrived at 12:59 and they were already taking the 1:00's in. Throw yourself on the mercy of the Park Ranger, and you might get lucky.

White House: Yeah, right. Don't be late.

I hope this highly subjective look helps. Not that I ever advocate being late, but.....