Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Capitol Time

We only had 24 hours in Washington D.C. so we wanted to see much as possible. Getting to D.C. from most places on the east coast is easiest on Amtrak, in my opinion. We could relax and read while on the train instead of having to negotiate the traffic on the beltway. Trains arrive in the gorgeous Union Station, where you can catch a Metro subway, eat in any of a number of restaurants, or shop in a veritable mall of stores. Washington is a very walkable city, so we were able to stroll out of Union Station and over a couple of blocks to the Hotel George, a little boutique hotel on Capitol Hill where we had reservations.

After depositing our suitcase, we set out for lunch and ended up at The Monocle Restaurant, an institution that has been serving Washingtonians since 1960. It is billed as the closest restaurant to the U.S. Capitol building, and it certainly looked like a lot of Capitol Hill staffers were there, judging from all the suits and ties. After a nice lunch, we continued down First Street, on the way to the Library of Congress. It was a beautiful day outside and we smiled to see a yoga class being conducted in the Lower Senate Park - not a bad way to spend one's lunch hour, I suppose, de-stressing with some downward dog and triangle poses.

As we crossed Constitution Avenue, several police cars screamed by us. I noticed that First Avenue was now closed to traffic. The road had been blocked with temporary barriers that were raised from the ground. When a police car needed to access the road, the barrier could quickly be lowered into the ground again. As we headed down First Avenue, I could see that all the pedestrians were being diverted to the east side of the street. At the intersection of First and East Capitol Street were 2 HazMat trucks and a few police canine units. Now I was starting to get a little nervous. I could see that the Capitol building was being evacuated - workers were sitting all over the steps. This was quite a mystery and we never did find out what prompted these actions. Perhaps this is becoming routine in our nation's capital?

In order to get into the Library of Congress, we had to pass through airport-like security, including removing belts and jewelry (and I still needed to get "wanded"). I suppose this a reflection of the times we live in; it seems almost quaint to think of the days when one could just enter a museum without a metal detector or bag search. Once inside the Library we headed to the Great Hall to see the breathtaking marble interior. The Great Hall is a two-story neoclassical atrium with 2 marble staircases, arches, columns, and stained glass skylights.The Library of Congress houses one of only three perfect vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with moveable type. This was printed in the mid-1450's in Germany. The Bible is kept in a special temperature and humidity controlled vault, with no photography permitted.

The Library is also home to Thomas Jefferson's personal library. Congress purchased Jefferson's 6,487 volume personal library in 1815, to replace the Congressional Library that was burned in 1814 when the British burned the Capitol. A portion of Jefferson's books burned in 1851 in another fire, however the Library has endeavored to replace those works lost in that event. This collection is displayed in a circular room, with all the volumes protected behind glass panels. They are grouped and organized in the fashion that Jefferson himself used in his own library. While much of the collection focuses on topics like history and law, there are also manuscripts on gardening, medicine, and cooking. Visitors are encouraged to browse the stacks in silence, with no photography permitted. It was quite humbling to be surrounded by the personal library of a Founding Father who famously declared, "I cannot live without books." (June 10, 1815)

From the Library, we ventured next door to the Supreme Court building. The Supreme Court is housed in another stately classical building, built in 1935. We were able to visit the ground floor, but the main floor with its great hall and courtroom was off limits that day due to a private event. (Could Elena Kagan be touring what might be her future chambers?) We took the opportunity to visit the Supreme Court gift shop and pick up a miniature gavel for my daughter, who aspires to be a judge one day.

Once outside, the mysterious police activity was over and we could walk on the Capitol's grounds. We enjoyed people watching as we strolled around the Capitol, seeing first a group of nuns in blue habits, our senator from Pennsylvania being interviewed, and then a group of priests, (who did not appear to be with the nuns, by the way,) as well as the usual groups of school children and tourists.

In the early evening, we headed out for a quick appetizer and drink at Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, where I designed my own pizza with fontina, spinach and prosciutto. The bistro features mediterranean fare, artisanal cheeses and of course, an extensive wine list. I could have lingered much longer at Sonoma, but we had to hop in a cab for our next destination - the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center on the national mall.

Scott Turow, the attorney and author, was being interviewed by NPR's Scott Simon at the Ripley Center's auditorium. Turow is probably best known for his novel Presumed Innocent, and his memoir of law school, One L. During the interview, he reflected on his writing and legal career. He still practices law, "til I get it right", he joked, by taking a few select cases each year, mostly pro bono work. Turow has a new book out, Innocent, which is the sequel to Presumed Innocent, set 20 years after the events of his first novel. After the interview, Turow took some questions from the audience and then was available to sign copies of his book and meet the audience.

Turow gave an interesting interview; he was self-deprecating and quite funny. His answers during the Q&A were thoughtful and eloquent, he seemed to really enjoy the interaction with the audience. My husband is a big fan of his, and we really appreciated the time he took to greet his fans after the formal program.

Once back at our hotel we opted to linger at the Bistro Bis bar in our hotel, not wanting our getaway to end. Once morning came, we traversed the path back to Union Station and our train back home, having enjoyed our visits with books, both historic and contemporary, in a city that offers both historic and modern charms.


  1. It's good to be reminded what a treasure-trove awaits in Washington, D.C. I remember fondly living there one summer and taking the bike path to Mount Vernon, exploring Georgetown, and more. I recall, also, as I was there the summer of 1974 (year of Watergate), being stopped on a sidewalk and unable to pass to where I needed to go, for some security reason that was never made plain. An odd thing, then, but I think now unremarkable. Nice to be reminded of how much there is to see, and to get some great restaurant and lodging tips. Another great post, WOS!

  2. I remember visiting the capital; the White House, the cherry blossoms, the freeze dried neapolitan ice cream at the Air and Space Museum, and the horse drawn barges on the canal in Georgetown.

    It's a fascinating city and your post reminded me of all of those delights. The idea of arriving by train really appeals to me - one more entry on my ever-growing list of things to do, thanks to my RA team members!

    Great description of a lovely trip - thank you!

  3. I very much enjoyed this post which makes me want to fulfill a long-time desire to visit the Smithsonian.

    Your description of Union Station further tantalizes me to make the trip. I'm an avid train traveler and to roll into DC via Amtrak would be just perfect!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.