The seats of Power and the Smithsonian in DC

Today we visited the ‘halls of power’ and the Smithsonian NASA Air and Space Museum which was great fun.

From our hotel we could see the Capitol Building down at the bottom of the street and, if I had been fully fit, we would have walked there and to the White House but our ticket for the bus was still valid so we decided to ride the short distance.

The bus stop was directly in front of the Capitol at the Peace Monument located on a central island in Pennsylvania Avenue. It is an easy walk up to the building itself which is set in beautiful park-like surroundings which are meticulously maintained. We spent a long time there getting some lovely photos and chatting to some of the employees who working in the gardens.

Peace Monument

Peace Statue

The Capitol Building has the central section with the gold dome on top which we all know so well. I wonder how many of us have noticed the Statue of Freedom right at the top of the dome though. I hadn’t and was very interested to learn that it is of a female, made of bronze, designed by Thomas Crawford and has been there since 1863! It is 19.5ft high and no statue may be higher than that in Washington DC. Originally called the Statue of Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, it is now officially known as the Statue of Freedom.

Freedom StatueStatue of Freedom on top of the Capitol

On either side of the central section are the Houses and Offices of the Senators and Representatives. When looking at the building from the front, the Senate facilities are to the left and the Congress to the right. When a House is in Session the US flag flies above that House. When we were there the Senate was sitting. It had been our intention to go on a tour of the Capitol but they would not allow us in as we had our packed lunch in the backpack and there was nowhere to leave it for 20mins.

Capitol Bldg with fountain The Central Section of the Capitol building

As we made our way to the back of the buildings we stopped at the Senate Reflecting Pool. There is also a Congress Reflecting Pool which we didn’t see but the Senate Reflecting Pool is made of red brick with a fountain in the middle. Around the inside walls are small concrete benches and one enters down a few steps and through a pair of lovely gates. It really was a peaceful place to sit and catch one’s breath. It made me wonder how many Senators take time to come and reflect here.

Senate Reflecting PoolThe Senate Reflecting Pool

At the rear of the building is a large car park but very few cars were there maybe because the Congress was not in Session. There was also a lovely fountain, called Senate Fountain, to one end of the car park and on getting closer we saw that it was built above the Senate underground parking garage.

Fountain Union stationFountain at tear of the Capitol Building with Union Station at the back

Opposite that and outside the Capitol grounds was the Union Station. It is described as “a superbly restored historic, mixed-use, intermodal transportation and shopping center located just blocks from the U.S. Capitol.” All the large train and bus stations in Europe and the US have shopping malls as part of the complex.

Union StationUnion Station opposite the Capitol. Note the lovely wide streets

We walked back down the street and waited for the next bus to take us to the Smithsonian NASA Air and Space Museum. The first museum building and currently home to their Visitor Centre was the Smithsonian CastleJames Smithson, was a renowned British scientist in the 18th Century. He left most of his estate to a nephew, Henry Hungerford, who died, childless, just 6 years later and he left the estate "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men". One stipulation was that entrance to these establishments shall always be free. 

The bus dropped us right outside the door to the Museum where we spent a wonderful 2-3 hours and easily could have spent a day there. We went directly to the Space Exploration section having to miss out on the History of Flight which was just as big. It was for this visit that we had made a specific decision to visit DC and so we were quite happy to spend so much time there and yet cover only about ¼ of the museum.

NASA Smithsonian entranceThe entrance to the NASA Air & Space Museum

There are displays of all the space expeditions which have taken place and details of the research done to achieve these and to learn about what is returned from space. There was a replica of the working space inside a capsule and we could walk through that and imagine how it must be to work for days in such a small space. It is quite amazing what is fitted into this space as well. I have always been fascinated as to how much is fitted into an aeroplane kitchen and storage areas just for a few hours. This must have been so carefully designed and packed for journeys of days in much smaller capsules.

NASA Smithsonian Apollo capsuleThe Apollo Capsule

NASA Smithsonian Mars exploration rocketA Mars exploration rocket

NASA Smithsonian replica of work areaReplica of the workspace in an older rocket

NASA Smithsonian instrument panelAn Instrument Panel in a Rocket

Our bus ticket expired at 3pm so we made sure that we were at the bus stop in time to catch a bus at or as close to 3 as possible. This time we had the best driver we have ever had on one of these buses. He is known as “Big Joe’ and he was the tour guide as well. He was surprised that there were so many small anecdotes and pieces of information that we had not learnt from previous guides in DC. We could have listened to him for hours. He even took us much closer to the White House than we would have been if we had alighted at the correct bus stop as at that time we were the only passengers.

Stopping at the White House was a bit of a disappointment as the present incumbent, Donald Trump, has had the fence around it raised by 3ft, there are a minimum of 150 guards on duty at any one time and all roads in immediate proximity have controlled bollards which can be dropped when an official vehicle comes through. When I was there 50 years ago we sat on the South Lawn and went for an inside tour. Not denying that times have changed, these measures do seem extreme. For an opportunity to tour the White House, application must be made at least 6 months in advance for security checks and then you MAY be given an invitation. Photos of the building and South Lawn could only be taken from Lafayette Park across the road. The history and details of the dimensions of the building are very interesting and I do urge you to go to the link for more information.

Andrew Jackson in Lafayette SquareLate President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park. We had to stand behind these barricades to see the White House which is 'behind us'

On the far side of Lafayette Park is a little church, St John’s Episcopal, and inside is a plaque which says that Abe Lincoln used to walk across from the White House each Sunday evening for the service and then walk back. No President does that anymore.

St Johns ChurchInside St John's Church. Abe Lincoln sat at the back and on the right

After an eventful and interesting day we slowly made our back to our hotel on foot.

About Me

I was born into the early part of the Baby Boomer generation, the 3rd of what came to be a family of 6 daughters. Although both our parents, who are now deceased, had been raised in rural Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) and the 2 eldest daughters were born in a country town, the other 4 of us were all born at home in Durban. Read More

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