Tuesday, September 10, 2013

DC Days: See It Before It's Gone

My family moved to northern Virginia when I was in the 7th grade. I started school right after winter break so smack dab in the middle of the school year. This is the worst thing ever for a military kid. By mid-year, everyone already has their groups of friends and their lunch table. Being the new kid is not anything like the movies: you are not mysterious (especially in the 7th grade), your accent is not charming, and no one cares about where you used to live. So I totally lucked out by making two wonderful friends within the first few days of starting at Lake Braddock. And thankfully, I have stayed friends with them. We've had our ups and downs as all friendships do but we've made it through it all and still like one another. That's pretty cool in my book.

When I proposed DC Days to a few friends, Anita was the first person to reply that she was in for a day. I expected this and also figured she'd be one of the first to actually plan her day. This seemed fitting given that she was one of my first friends here and we've always shared a love of the city even though it also infuriates us on occasion. To recap the plan: each of my friends plan a day for me in the DC area complete with activities, restaurants/bars/cafes, and I will document the adventure here on the Island so other people can enjoy the fun on their own DC Day. Anita came up with a theme: See It Before It's Gone (this will become clear as I go through the day). There's also a secondary theme about the US Postal Service.

The itinerary:
Onward we tour!

Stop 1: Welcome to the nation's first superfluous building
I believe that Anita is a Metro good luck charm. Both times I have taken Metro with her in recent months there has been some kind of weird routing or need to take a bus for part of our trip. Like the last time, we had perfect Metro timing and no crazy anything. She must be a Metro whisperer.

We headed to Federal Triangle to get to our first stop of the day, the Old Post Office Pavilion. I've been to this building many times (this is what happens when you move somewhere that every member of your family wants to see) but it's been years. Anita has also been but had never been up in the Tower. The Tower is impressive - you can see all over DC and into Arlington from the top. It's a gorgeous view.

The Tower also houses the Bells of Congress, which are rung at the start and end of sessions and federal holidays. It's run by the Park Service and the Washington Ringing Society, a volunteer group, are responsible for bell ringing. The building was the first federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue and the first government building to house its own power plant. Originally built as the Postal Department Headquarters, it fell into disuse and disrepair in the 1930s and was set to be razed but it was saved as it became home to many government agencies during the Great Depression. In the 1970s, Nancy Hanks, chairwoman of the NEA, spearheaded a restoration project for the building. Shops and restaurants make up most of what's open to the public today and some government offices still remain.

It's a stunning building from the outside complete with a statue of Benjamin Franklin (the nation's first Postmaster General) and our spirit guide for the day (Ben pops up everywhere). Here's the most important thing you need to know about the Old Post Office - Donald Trump just finalized a deal to redevelop the building.

Did your heart just sink a bit? Mine did when Anita told me this in the lead up to yesterday's trip. The deal was just approved by Congress. Trump will spend something like $200 million to renovate and add to the building including a spa and hotel. Now since the building is a historic landmark, he can't tear it down or make changes to the exterior so the beauty of the building will at least be intact. But as Anita and I discussed yesterday over lunch in the food court after our trip up to the Tower, what will he do with the interior and the local businesses that make up the few remaining shops and restaurants? Several have already chosen to close their doors in reaction to the deal. Does it take away from the character of the building if there's a Subway, a Starbucks, and a McDonald's? Or could it be more like Union Station where the chains don't feel out of place and don't take away from the beauty or history of the building?

We won't really know what the future of the Old Post Office Pavilion will be until the Trump begins this project but we can hope that he'll heed the words of Nancy Hanks: "Old buildings are like old friends. They reassure people in times of rapid change. They encourage people to dream about their cities - to think before they build, to consider alternatives before they tear down." (from the Park Service hand out).

With that thought in our minds, we moved onto our next stop of the day.

Stop 2: Feed me Seymour
This may come as a bit of surprise to many of you but there is a tiny National Aquarium in DC. It's located in the basement of the Commerce Building on 14th and Constitution (not too far from the Old Post Office Pavilion and right off the National Mall). The Commerce Building seems like an unlikely place for an aquarium but that's where it is. The National Aquarium opened in 1873 as the nation's first public aquarium and moved to the Commerce Building in 1932. The tiny aquarium will close its doors on September 30 so you only have a few weeks to visit.

This is the smallest aquarium I have ever been to. As we entered the building and started walking down the blue stairway, I thought of entering Ripley's Believe or Not, like I was descending into some sort of weird basement of oddities. No oddities here just your standard aquarium displays featuring aquatic life from all over the globe. You can get through the exhibit in about 20 minutes if it's not crowded (which it was on Saturday) or if you don't get distracted by a baby turtle and it's mom swimming. This happened to us - I have never seen anything as cute as a baby turtle learning to swim. He sort of rode around on his mom's back and then would swim a little on his own and then rush back to mom. Adorable. We were also there in time for the shark feeding. I felt sort of bad for the guy doing the shark feeding; he came out before to share some facts about the sharks on display and to explain that this wouldn't be the feeding frenzy people were probably expecting. No one was really listening and several people were being a little obnoxious (Side note: It is not cool to say that a crying child should be thrown into the shark tank. Some d-bag behind us did just that and it was not funny.).

Anyway, as the guy was giving his talk all I could think was "Feed Me Seymour" from the musical Little Shop of Horrors. The sharks just wanted to be fed and the people wanted a shark feeding frenzy. This was compounded by a guitarfish that started swimming behind the guy (who I called Seymour) as if he were performing for the crowd. Once the feeding actually started, it was sort of a let down. Most of the sharks just sort of bumped into each other and the sun starfish moved a quarter of inch.

My favorite part of this stop was the lighting fixture outside of the building. The design includes bats. Anita told me this was a symbol of good luck which totally seems legit. I can actually understand why this aquarium is closing (all the aquatic life are moving to Baltimore). It's in a weird place and seems sort of sad. The fish even seem a little bored. I don't know if I'd go out of my way to come here but if you're in the area between now and September 30, it's worth stopping by if only to say that you went to the first public aquarium in the nation which also happens to be in the Commerce Building. If you catch a shark feeding, be nice to Seymour (not his name) and give him a little attention while he's giving his "tour".

Stop 3: What do taxidermy, Benjamin Franklin, and the Pony Express all have in common?
Our final stop of the day was actually the one I was most looking forward to visiting. Anita and I both share a love of postcards and receiving actual physical mail from people (that doesn't include bills or junk mail). She sends postcards to people monthly. I am not as dedicated as she is so I only send them when I'm traveling or get the idea that I need to write to someone. There's something so personal and delightful about receiving a letter or postcard in the mail. And also romantic. For years, Anita has talked about starting a National Postcard Month and I'm hoping that this year it happens. I will help in any way I can.

Anita described the Postal Museum (part of the Smithsonian Institute) as "adorable". I would totally agree with that description. Everything is on one floor and designed in such as way that you can see everything in a few hours (probably two if you wanted to read everything). The exhibits are interactive (we got several postcards stamped) and you can try sorting mail and playing a game that includes zip codes. I now know what each number in a a zip code represents. I'm not going to tell you because you should go to the museum and find out for yourself. There's even an exhibit on the Pony Express (one of my favorites). The museum will open a new stamp gallery later this month so I'll have to go back to check that out too.
We also happened upon Owney, the mascot of the Albany, NY post office from 1887-1897. In addition to a statue of Owney as you enter the museum, he's also actually there. Owney was preserved after his death and now resides in teh museum near the train exhibit. You can also view all the medal and tags he received during his time of service. I have to admit that the taxidermy version of Owney was a little creepy but the medals were interesting and more importantly, I liked the idea of Owney. Definitely harkens back to a time where the Post Office mattered.

This museum was my favorite part of the day. It was fun and very hands-on with some different exhibits - there's currently one that focuses on mail service on the Titanic and Hindenburg disasters called "Fire & Ice". I also enjoyed the anniversary exhibit mostly because of this:

I learn something new everyday. The other nice thing about the location of the Postal Museum is that it is next door to Union Station, a favorite building of mine. Union Station is currently undergoing some renovations but it's still magnificent and a great place to end a long day of touring around DC> Anita and I enjoyed crepes and discussed our day.

While the Postal Museum isn't in danger of closing anytime soon, the mail and more specifically, the art of letter writing, is dying before our eyes. Everyone wants everything immediately and even though we're not sending mail by Pony Express anymore, even a few days is too long for some. Both Anita and I hate to think of living in a time when we wouldn't be able to send something as simple as a postcard to someone. E-mail just isn't the same. Do yourself a favor and visit the Postal Museum and then go home and write someone a letter (and don't forget to mail it). You can even buy stamps at the museum if you need them.

Thanks to Anita for being the inaugural DC Day planner! Information on how to get to each place we visited is listed below and the links to the locations appear at the top of the post. I leave you with a few more photos from our day.

Get out there and enjoy the city!

How to get there:
  • Federal Triangle (for both the Pavilion and the aquarium)
  • Union Station (for the Postal Museum
NOTE: Metro is doing rebuilding on the red line so you may have to take a bus to and from Union Station. Get off at Judiciary Square and buses will be waiting.
Cost of the day:
  • Admission to the National Aquarium DC: $9.95 (adult); $4.95 (children 3 and up)  
  • Lunch: $18 for two combos at Quick Pita at the Old Post Office Pavilion Crepes: $10 at Crepe Lena (nutella and raspberry is divine)  
  • Metro: $5.70 per person (total for the day)

1 comment:

  1. I'm so timely and relevant: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2013/09/10/donald-trump-takes-a-fawning-d-c-by-storm/