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  • Jodi Blake

Sights and Surprises in Washington, D.C.

United States Capitol Building
A view of the United States Capitol Building from across the lawn

A visit to Washington, D.C., affords countless opportunities to explore and learn. The hardest part is fitting everything into the itinerary! (We can say that about almost any travel destination, right?)

A couple weeks ago my husband, daughter, her girlfriend, and I traveled to the U.S. capital for a long weekend to visit our son Ryan, who is a college intern in Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth’s office. We were anxious to see Ryan. He’s been telling us so much about his great experiences there, and I think he reveled in showing us around a few parts of the city and the Capitol campus that he has become familiar with.

Except for Ryan, the rest of us had all been to Washington, D.C., at least once before. So, when we discussed our plans for the weekend, we focused on a top place that we each wanted to visit, and we avoided some of the more typical places for tourists. We knew it was the middle of spring break travel season, so we also didn’t try to pack our itinerary too full as it was unclear how crowded places might be.

Front of a bookstore
Solid State Books, an indie bookstore on H Avenue

Leaving some flexibility in our plans allowed us to spend more time at museums and other buildings, linger over meals, walk more leisurely (or skip another Uber ride), head back to the hotel for an afternoon nap, or decide to check out a cute local bookstore – like we did at the indie Solid State Books on H Avenue after lunch on Saturday.

In the end, we settled on visiting the following sights:

  • Library of Congress (husband Dan’s choice – he had never been to the library and always thought looked cool in photos)

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (my choice – I always want to learn more about this important time in history; my daughter Rachael’s choice – one a previous trip she didn’t have time to go through the entire museum)

  • Capitol Building tour with bonus tour of Senate office buildings (Ryan’s choice – he wanted to show us where he works)

At each place we learned so much, including some surprises I didn’t expect.

Note: My only regret for this trip was arriving about a week too early for the cherry blossoms to be in full splendor. But that just means I need to plan another springtime trip to Washington, D.C., right? Right!

Library of Congress

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building). / Photo 2: Sign for the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. / Photo 3: Court of Neptune fountain in front of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress is housed across several buildings. The Thomas Jefferson Building (built in 1897) is the original separate building. It is across the street from the U.S. Capitol and next to the Supreme Court building. Before 1897, the library was housed inside the U.S. Capitol. Nearby are the John Adams Building (built in 1938) and the James Madison Memorial Building (completed in 1981). The library also has other facilities for storage and audio-visual conservation.

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governours must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." -- James Madison (inscription on James Madison Memorial Building, Library of Congress)

Ryan requested timed entry passes in advance for us to access the Thomas Jefferson Building. Currently, the library is not offering guided tours, but you can do a self-guided tour and use the digital pathway to find your way around. Ryan was already familiar with the building, so he was our informal “tour guide.” You can also view a virtual tour and chronology of the three main buildings.

We walked through the Great Hall with its classical architecture, expansive marble floors with brass inlays, and beautiful mosaic tilework around the tops of the walls. In the center of the ceiling are six stained glass skylights that mirror the pattern on the floor below.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Mosaic tilework on the walls in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building). / Photo 2: Stained glass skylights in the Great Hall's dome ceiling.

Most impressive was the Main Reading Room, a large domed room with circular rings of desks and its alcoves of multi-floor bookshelves. The room is richly decorated and packed with symbolism. The ceiling at the tallest part of the dome (called the lantern) showcases a mural painted by Edwin Blashfield. The center features a female figure personifying Human Understanding by lifting the veil of ignorance. Around her are 12 seated figures that represent the countries (or epochs) that contributed the most to the evolution of western civilization – as thought in 1897 at the time of the Thomas Jefferson Building’s construction.

We spent a good amount of time in this room to take in its decoration, explore some of the books in the alcoves (such as the papers of several presidents and other historical figures), and imagine doing research there. Dan said this room was “very cool” and lived up to his expectations .

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Main Reading Room in the Library of Congress. / Photo 2: Painted mural in the dome of the Main Reading Room.

For more information about visiting the Library of Congress, check out the Visiting the Library page.

A bit of history

The library began as part of an Act of Congress that was approved by President John Adams in 1800. The act included $5,000 for books that could be used by members of Congress when the national government moved to Washington, D.C., from Philadelphia, Pa.

During the War of 1812, the library was burned when the British destroyed the Capitol and the collection of books in its north wing. Congress approved an offer of $23,950 from former President Thomas Jefferson to sell his personal library collection of 6,487 books, which restarted the Library of Congress.

What surprised me

  • It is the largest library in the world with more than 173 million items. Its collection covers nearly every discipline and field of study except technical agriculture and clinical medicine, which are covered by the National Agriculture Library and the National Library of Medicine, respectively.

  • We had to request free reader identification cards to access any of the reading rooms. You also need one to use any of the library collections.

  • There have been only 14 Librarians of Congress since the first one was appointed in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson. The current librarian is Carla Hayden, who was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2016. She is the first woman and first African American to serve in this role.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Since I was a teenager, I’ve had a fascination with stories from the Holocaust and wanting to understand this horrific period in history on many different levels. Visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was at the top of my list for this trip.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. / Photo 2: Bronze sculpture, Loss and Regeneration, by Joel Shapiro, 1993. Dedicated in memory of the children who perished in the Holocaust. / Photo 3: Inside the museum lobby.

Admission to the museum is free, but you need to request time-entry tickets to enter the Permanent Exhibit only. Other exhibits do not require these tickets. Plan to spend 1-3 hours to go through the museum exhibits. There are several displays of artifacts to look at and a lot of information to read, so be prepared to deal with some small crowds of other museum visitors. Also, the recommended age for visitors is at least 11 years old, although the Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story exhibition is recommended for children aged 8 and older.

When we arrived at the museum, we were instructed to pick up a small paper booklet containing identify papers of a real Jewish man or woman who lived during the Holocaust. We could read about how they and their families lived before the Nazis came to power and then how they were affected throughout the Holocaust.

Afterwards, we were taken by elevator to the third floor of the Permanent Exhibit to begin a chronological walkthrough of the events encompassing the Holocaust:

  • The third floor contains exhibits that explain what lead to the Holocaust from the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in 1933 up until the start of World War II in September 1939. As we first entered this floor, we are shocked with photos of concentration camps that were taken by US Army soldiers in 1945. These photos set the scene for trying to understand what caused such hatred that led to mass murder on such a grand scale. Other displays explain the different catalysts for the evolution of this hatred – state-sponsored propaganda, terror, violence, and racism.

Museum photo display of Nazi party members leading up to World War II
Display showing photos of the Nazi party in Germany leading up to the start of World War II.
  • The second floor covers the “Final Solution,” the ultimate phase of the Nazi policy toward the Jewish people and other groups deemed “enemies of the state.” We learned more about how the Nazis segregated the Jewish people of Europe from the rest of the population through its use of laws, special markings, and relocation to ghettos. I found the exhibits about life in the ghettos and concentration camps very moving. The artifacts on display bring glimpses of the horrible suffering but also the resilience for life and preserving posterity – such as the wooden train car that transported Jews to a camp and the metal milk can that contained documents and artwork and was buried in the Warsaw ghetto.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Ironwork sign over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp; translates to "Work will set you free." / Photo 2: Polish photographer Wilhelm Brasse, who was forced to photograph prisoners at Auschwitz. Near the end of the war, he was ordered to burn all photos, but he and another photographer defied the orders and saved 38, 916 photographs as proof of Nazi crimes. / Photo 3: Poster showing markings and badges to identify different prisoner groups in the camps. / Photo 4: Train car used to transport Jews and other "undesirables" to concentration camps. / Photo 5: Small window in the train car to let in air and light. / Photo 6: Metal milk can that was buried with documents and artwork inside the Warsaw ghetto. / Photo 7: Deportation announcement that was placed in the milk can and buried to chronicle the ghetto experience. / Photo 8: Cobblestones from Chlodna Street inside the Warsaw ghetto. / Photo 9: Metal door to a gas chamber at a concentration camp. / Photo 10: Doors from ovens used to burn bodies after gas chamber executions.

One of the most poignant displays was the three-story Tower of Faces room with photographs of residents who lived in a shetl (Jewish community) called Eishishok (now in Lithuania). The black and white photos (taken between 1890-1941) show families, small groups of children, couples, and individuals. I found myself drawn to these faces of people I didn’t know but still somehow felt a human connection with. The haunting message at the room’s exit reveals that now there are no Jews in Eishishok.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Tower of Faces room with photos from the shetl of Eishishok. No Jews remained in the community after the Holocaust. / Photos 2-7: Photos taken between 1890-1941 of Jewish residents of Eishishok.

  • The first floor shows the liberation of the concentration camps, the defeat of the Nazis by the Allied forces in 1945, various rescue and resistance efforts, and the post-war aftermath of the Holocaust as the world came to grips with the truth and tried to render appropriate justice for the perpetrators while survivors began to start anew in Europe, Israel, and the United States. I was intrigued by the efforts of Denmark to protect its Jewish citizens. In 1943, the SS planned to deport the Danish Jews, but a German diplomat tipped off one of his Danish contacts a few days early. The Danish people went into high gear to raise money to transport the Jews by boat to Sweden, hide them in their homes and other locations, and refuse to cooperate in the arrests and deportations. Still, nearly 500 Jewish Danes were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Miraculously, all but 51 of them survived. A Danish rescue boat is on display to represent the monumental and heroic acts by the Danish people and their government.

Danish wooden boat used to smuggle Jewish Danes to Sweden during World War II.
Danish boat used to smuggle Jewish Danes to Sweden before the SS started to arrest and deport them to concentration camps.

Another moving exhibit on this floor is the deep layer of shoes from newly arrived Jews and other non-desirables to concentration camps. They were forced to remove their clothing and leave all belongings before being executed in gas chambers. Prisoners on work details had to sort out the best pairs of shoes, which were redistributed to German settlers in Poland. The display contains hundreds of shoes from the Majdanek camp in Lublin, Poland, when Soviet troops liberated it in 1944.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Thick layer of shoes from concentration camp prisoners who were executed in gas chambers. / Photo 2: Close-up of prisoners' shoes of all types and sizes.

We didn’t have much more time to spend at the museum, so we didn’t get to go through the special exhibitions. But we did take time to visit the Hall of Remembrance, a large hexagonal space that surrounds an eternal flame. It was a quiet space where one could reflect on the many tragedies of the Holocaust and on similar troubles currently of concern in the world.

Hall of Remembrance with the eternal flame across the room.
Hall of Remembrance with the eternal flame across the room.

A bit of history

President Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in 1978. Its chairman was author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. A year later, the Commission submitted their recommendation for a memorial that included a memorial/museum, an educational foundation, and a Committee on Conscience. In 1980, the U.S. Congress unanimously voted to establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Council to be responsible for creating the living memorial to the 6 million Jews and millions more who did not survive.

The federal government provided land adjacent to the National Mall for the museum site, and construction began in 1985. Architect James Ingo Freed designed the building, which has permanent and temporary exhibit spaces. The museum dedication ceremony took place on April 22, 1993, and the museum officially opened a few days later.

What surprised me

  • I expected the museum to be extensive, but I wasn’t prepared for how much there was to see, read, and absorb. Some of my family members were not as excited about all of the exhibits, so I tried to gloss over some sections more quickly. If I am able, I would return to the museum to take in the information and special exhibits I missed this time.

  • The museum offers online exhibitions that cover specific Holocaust and related topics, such as Americans and the Holocaust, Anne Frank the Writer: An Unfinished Story, and Nazi Olympics Berlin 1936.

Senate Office Buildings and Capitol Building

On our last morning, we met Ryan at the Hart Senate Office Building for a tour through parts of the Senate office buildings and the Capitol Building. One of frequent questions he gets from constituents is about how to tour the Capitol Building. Usually, a docent gives the tours at the Capitol Building, but we were fortunate to have Ryan for a staff-led tour.

He showed us around the Hart, Russell, and Dirksen buildings that contain Senators’ and other administrative offices. Yes, there’s even a Senate Gift Shop where we bought Ryan a US Senate pullover for an early birthday gift.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Ryan with the Hart Senate Office Building in the background. / Photo 2: Hart Senate Office Building sign. / Photo 3: Rachael, Ryan, Dan and Jodi outside Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth's office. / Photo 4: Sign posted by the Friends Committee on National Legislation on a building across the street from the Hart Senate Office Building.

He also walked us through Senator Duckworth’s office where we met the intern coordinator, his supervisor, and two of the other eight college interns working there this semester. Not surprising, the office looks like a typical office, but there are definite touches that let you know it belongs to Senator Duckworth, such as a replica seat from the Blackhawk helicopter she flew in Iraq and a replica pilot helmet with her nickname “Mad Dog.” Not surprising, Ryan especially likes the University of Illinois football helmet in the Senator’s personal office.

There’s also an iconic photo of Senator Duckworth bringing her infant daughter onto the floor of the Senate in 2018. When she was pregnant, she advocated for a rules change that allowed male and female Senators to bring their infants up to one year old onto the Senate floor – which was quite an accomplishment since most Senators have been older politicians who didn’t have young children.

For the tour of the Capitol building, we started in the United States Capitol Visitor Center. It’s recommended to make a tour reservation in advance. There may be open same-day tour spots, which will be available in the Visitor Center. The tour is free.

Emancipation Hall, the large lobby-like space in the Capitol Visitor Center, honors the enslaved people who helped to construct the building. There are a few statues of famous people on display in the Visitor Center (and many throughout the Capitol Building).

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Capitol Visitors Center sign in Emancipation Hall. / Photo 2: View of the Capitol dome through glass ceiling tiles. / Photos 3-6: Statues in Emancipation Hall in the Capital Building -- Kamehameha, first king of all Hawaii; Helen Keller; Sakakawea; and Frederick Douglass.

One large statue you can’t miss is a 19.5-foot plaster model of the Freedom bronze statue that sits atop the Capitol dome. Once this model was shipped from Italy, the challenge was figuring out how to create the bronze statue from it. An enslaved man named Philip Reid figured out how to take it apart so the foundry could cast it in bronze. Reid was a free man by the time the bronze statue was placed atop the dome.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Plaster model of the Freedom bronze statue that sits atop the Capitol Building dome. / Photo 2: Close-up of the Freedom bronze statue.

Ryan also shared the story of a Senate staffer giving a private tour who asked the kids in the group if they noticed anything about the statue. One kid replied, “There’s a chicken on her head.” It’s an eagle, but now Ryan and the other interns always think of a chicken.

The Capitol tour starts with a short film titled “E pluribis unum” (Latin for “Out of many, one”). It is the traditional motto of the United States and appeared on the Great Seal until 1956 when Congress passed an act to change the official motto to “In God We Trust.”

Ryan then led us through the Capitol (only permitted areas), including the following:

  • The Crypt contains the 40 arches and columns that support the ceiling and the Rotunda dome above. A marble star shape in the floor represents the center of the four quadrants of the District of Columbia. Here you can also find more statutes from each of the original 13 colonies. It was intended to be the burial place for President George Washington, but those plans were abandoned after a lengthy battle with his estate and the state of Virginia.

Marble star shape in the floor of the Capitol Building Crypt
Center point of the four quadrants of the District of Columbia. The marble star is located in the Crypt of the Capital Building.
  • A stone marker sits above the Capitol cornerstone, located deep in the building’s foundation. It was laid by President George Washington in a Masonic ceremony.

Marker for the cornerstone of the Capitol Building
Marker designating where the Capitol Building cornerstone was placed in the foundation by President George Washington.
  • The Old Supreme Court chamber on the ground floor of the north wing was first the room for the lower half of the US Senate from 1800-1806 and then used by the Supreme Court from 1810-1860.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Justices' seats in the Old Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol Building. / Photo 2: Another view of the Old Supreme Court chamber.

  • The Rotunda sits at the ceremonial center of the Capitol that has been used to share the country’s history, honor those who have significantly contributed to the country, and mourn national leaders and citizens who have served the country. This space is filled with art – and, of course, more statues, including presidents, a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, who were pioneers of the women’s suffrage movement.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: View of the Rotunda in the Capitol Building. / Photo 2: Fresco frieze in a band around the Rotunda; depicts different scenes from American history. / Photo 3: Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony in the Capitol Building Rotunda. / Photo 4: Jodi posing with the bronze statue of President Harry Truman, for whom her alma mater (Truman State University) is named. / Photo 5: Bronze statue of President George Washington in the Capitol Building Rotunda. / Photo 6: Marble statue of President Abraham Lincoln in the Capitol Building Rotunda.

  • The Old Senate chamber located on the second floor of the north wing was used by the Senate from 1810-1859 and then repurposed as the Supreme Court chamber from 1860-1935. It has been restored to show its appearance as the Senate Chamber.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Senator desks in the Old Senate chamber at the Capitol Building. / Photo 2: Two-tier dais at the front of the old Senate chamber. / Photo 3: One of the mosaic tile inlays on the corridor floor in the north wing of the Capitol Building.

  • National Statuary Hall was formerly the House of Representatives chamber from 1807-1857. You can see bronze markers on the tiled floor where prominent representatives sat, including Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams. This space now showcases more statues from individual states and Congress-commissioned statues of prominent citizens, including civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: View of Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building. / Photo 2: Statues of Rosa Parks and Dr. Mary Bethune. / Photo 3: Statue of Chief Standing Bear. / Photo 4: Statue of Amelia Earhart.

  • A memorial bronze plaque, located in the East Front Vestibule near the Rotunda, commemorates the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93, who overpowered hijackers on September 11, 2001, and diverted the plane to crash in Pennsylvania. All aboard died, but their heroic acts are credited with saving the lives and possibly prevented the destruction of either the U.S. Capitol or the White House, as determined by the 9/11 Commission.

Bronze plaque honoring the United Airlines flight 93 passengers and crew who died in a plane crash in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001
Bronze plaque honoring the United Airlines flight 93 passengers and crew who died in a plane crash in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, while foiling a hijacking plot to potentially destroy the Capitol Building or the White House.

At the end of the tour, we went outside to take a family selfie with the Capitol Building in the background. Then Ryan had to get back to his internship duties, and Dan, Rachael, and I headed to the airport. (Note: Isabel had left by train early that Monday morning to return to the University of New York at Stony Brook.)

Selfie of four people in front of the Capitol Building
The Blake family selfie in front of the Capitol Building

A bit of history

The Residence Act of 1790 set forth that Washington, D.C., would be the seat of the national government. A Board of Commissioners was put in charge of providing suitable buildings for use by the Congress. They hired Pierre L’Enfant to create a city plan and Andrew Ellicott to survey the boundaries of the 100-square mile federal district.

The design for the Capitol Building was decided in a competition won by Dr. William Thornton in 1792. His design included the two-winged building with a central dome. He is credited as the first Architect of the Capitol, which is both the name of the U.S. legislative branch agency that maintains and provides upkeep for the Capitol campus and the title for the leader of the agency. Construction of the Capitol Building began soon afterwards, and President George Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793.

What surprised me

  • A two-car subway system connects the three Senate office buildings with the Capitol Building. (There is also a subway system that connects the Rayburn House Office Building to the Capitol.) With his staff clearance, Ryan was able to get us passes to ride from the Russell Senate Building to the Capitol Building. It’s a very short ride, but it certainly would save many steps by members of Congress and their staff.

Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Current subway cars that run between the three Senate Office Buildings and the Capitol Building. / Photo 2: Subway monorail cars used between 1915-1961.

  • During the Civil War, the Rotunda was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers.

Endless Travel Itinerary Options

Washington, D.C., offers so much to visitors who love history, government, art and culture, and so much more. Although I have traveled there a couple times, I still have a long list of places to visit and things to do, including the National Museum of African American History and the National Museum of the American Indian. And don’t worry – I’m not forgetting about those cherry blossoms!

Have any other recommendations for not-to-miss places and activities? Let me know in the comments!

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1 Comment

Apr 06, 2023

What a fun travelogue! Enjoyed the in-depth look at some stellar DC attractions.

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