East Coast 08, part 4: On the Capitol and on the bikes

High of 94, humidity 72%

Back to Patty Murray’s office for a staff-led tour of the Capitol building, which we’d heard was much better than the tour offered to the general public. Unexpected bonus: only two others showed up for our group. We descended into the basement of the Russell SOB (no – it’s for Senate Office Building) where tunnels and passageways took off in all directions. I would have been happy to do some exploring and urban spelunking right there, but we took the short tram ride from the Russell Bldg to the Capitol instead. More service corridors, storage closets and utility spaces in the basement of the Capitol; fun to see parts of the buildings where ladders and paint cans and unused statues are kept.

We came up a stairway into the Brumidi Corridors, which others far more knowledgeable and eloquent can describe for you. This Brumidi guy (1805-1880) grew up in Rome, and had already painted in the Vatican, in a palace, and in the villa of a Roman prince before coming to the US. No wonder he could make that section of the Capitol building look like something between a cathedral and a palace. Senate committees meet in the rooms opening off of these elegant corridors; nice that the Appropriations Committee has a beautiful, chandeliered office in which to decide who will and who won’t get those federal dollars.

The Capitol Rotunda is dazzling. For me it was a place where the presence of the nation’s history seemed tangible. I remember a few of those who have lain in state there in my lifetime: JFK; Herbert Hoover (Question: who has the last hand-signed autograph Hoover left with his secretary – and an accompanying letter from her – before he died? Answer: I do); Eisenhower; Lyndon Johnson; Ronald Reagan; Rosa Parks; Gerald Ford. Eight enormous paintings portray scenes including the landing of Columbus; the embarkation of the Pilgrims; the Declaration of Independence; and George Washington resigning his military commission.

58′ above the Rotunda floor is what appears to be a sculpted frieze but is actually a trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) 300-foot long painting encircling the Rotunda. It was designed by our pal Brumidi, painted by him and two other artists. Two details about the painting: 1) At age 73, Brumidi was working on the figure of William Penn when the chair on which he was standing slipped on the scaffold platform. He had to hang onto the rung of a ladder for 15 minutes before being rescued. Honest to Pete. Didn’t his parents teach him not to stand on chairs, especially up on scaffolding? 2) In this photo of the ‘frieze’ scroll to the right to the section called “American Army Entering the City of Mexico.” Look closely to see a man’s face painted into the base of a tree (left side of that section). Filippo Costaggini, one of the other painters, is suspected. Nice work, Fil.

The National Statuary Hall, next to the Rotunda, housed the House of Representatives for fifty years. The exquisite domed ceiling and marble floors allow one of those cool acoustical things where you can hear the whisper of someone standing a stone’s throw away. Each of the 50 states has contributed two statues to the Capitol’s collection, many of which are displayed in this hall. If you’re a real American history buff, you’d probably recognize most of them; otherwise, you’ll know how I felt. Washington State’s two contributions were statues of Marcus Whitman and Mother Joseph.

SuperTourists that we are, we saw all of the above and more before noon. It could take a lifetime to describe all of the history and architecture and artwork in just the Capitol building. I don’t have the time or energy to keep going on about it, but others have written more than enough for those who have the time to read it.

There was no line to get into the National Museum of Natural History, so we popped in to check out the Hope Diamond and a couple of dinosaur and bird exhibits. But our real mission was the East Wing of the National Gallery, which Susan was eager to show us. We came through an underground passageway from the West Building, surprised by a wonderful waterfall cascading down behind glass panels from an outdoor fountain in a courtyard above. The tunnel opens into the soaring central atrium, a breathtaking, light-filled space announcing your entrance into a major work of art, not just a place to display it. Susan and I were captivated by a few of Martin Puryear’s sculptures; this video clip shows a couple of the pieces that we saw that day (worthwhile even with the initial commercial).

Refreshed in body and spirit by beautiful art showcased in the architectural magnificence of the East Wing, we rented bicycles for some evening sightseeing. But things are never quite that simple, are they? Susan grew up in downtown Seattle and never learned to ride a bike as a kid. Over the years we’ve made sporadic attempts to help her acquire the skill, and earlier this summer I rented a big, heavy, red tandem and took her out for a test drive. It went pretty well until I had her ride it by herself. She made good progress but had difficulty mounting and dismounting. Bless her heart for getting right back up for another try – and another and another – in pursuit of my hope that we’d all be able to ride our own bikes. Didn’t realize what a taskmaster I’d been until a couple of days later when Susan showed me gigantic bruises on her arms and legs where she and that big old tandem got tangled up on our practice run. So in DC we rented another tandem for us and bikes for each of the kids, and pedaled off to see the World War II Memorial (dedicated in 2004), Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, and the Jefferson Monument.

Riding bikes wasn’t nearly as much fun as we’d imagined. The kids could ride three times faster than Ma and Pa on our clumsy bicycle built for two, and were frustrated by having to wait for us. It also seemed we were constantly locking or unlocking the bikes because the first four memorials were fairly close to each other.

Even with tons of publicity over the years, the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials still cast quite a spell. The giant inscription of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address strikes a number of observations about the grief and devastation of war that are as timely and sad today as they were in 1865. Made me want to learn much more about Lincoln. It was my first visit to the Vietnam Memorial, and I was surprised that such a simple structure could be so evocative; seeing all those names made that faraway war feel close and personal. We’d watched a moving DVD of visitors who knew soldiers killed in Vietnam telling what it meant to come there and see the names in the wall.

As leader of our little bicycle tour, I didn’t know a bike route around the Tidal Basin to get to the Jefferson Monument, and nearly got us all killed trying to cross a busy arterial near a blind curve. Once across, we had to ride along a path which became dangerously narrow where it ducked under several low overpasses; we were inches from a brick wall on one side and not much more than that from cars whizzing by us on the other side. What a relief to get onto a real bike path along the water.

We were dripping with sweat by the time we returned the bikes, but recovered over dinner at a comfortable restaurant with good food. Our cool and quiet apartment was especially welcome after such a long and full day.

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One response to “East Coast 08, part 4: On the Capitol and on the bikes

  1. Wow Tom, I had no idea you and your family had done SO MUCH research into this trip – no wonder it was a good one. Even makes me want to get on a plane and go see for myself.

    Also I liked your texting blog. So true.

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