It’s difficult for me to substantiate what impressed me most about D.C.; the extent of its attention to history and technology is rather breathtaking given the political order the city is principally charged with keeping. More by coincidence than planning, a third element — culture — came across as yet another defining pillar.
Knowing that D.C. was similar to Charleston in topography, I searched for different perspectives to view the city skyline. I didn’t have much luck; there aren’t a whole lot of public buildings with unobstructed views across the city. It wasn’t until my second or third day into the trip that I learned that the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts has guided tours of the building that conclude with a visit to the roof of the building.
While affording a glance at the Watergate Hotel, the view from the roof admittedly isn’t jaw-dropping; trees are in the way of Foggy Bottom and the National Mall beyond. (I should mention, however, that the Kennedy Center is nevertheless one of the few locations of significant enough prominence that the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and the Washington Monument can be seen together.) What was jaw-dropping, however, was the content inside the Center: massive chandeliers, viewing rooms for Presidential use, art from countries around the world, and music halls whose acoustics and decorations show painstaking considerations. Sixteen Orrefors chandeliers — gifts from Sweden each weighing one ton — adorn the ceiling of the Grand Foyer.
Inside the Opera Hall, the lighting only gets more magnificent, with a central chandelier (gift from Austria) casting light like fireworks against a red sunset.
Lighting and acoustics aside, the Center could be an art showcase, with sculptures and tapestries alike featured in different rooms across the building. How convenient that a tour intended to feature a panoramic overlook turned into a fascinating (but short!) dive into art, music, and performance. As the one-hour tour went from room to room, I thought to myself that this must be how photojournalists feel when they stumble across a fascinating subject!
The Kennedy Center would not be the only place whose artistic value I underestimated. Noting that images online seemed to suggest that it was an architectural wonder, the Library of Congress sat high on my list of places to check out. Being a library I figured it would be seldom visited and largely a not-to-be-disturbed resource center for academics and those seeking out obscure information. I was solidly wrong. There was a line out the front door, and the main foyer and viewing overlook were packed with visitors. How the building is constructed is nothing short of astonishing — even the ceiling above the main atrium is beautifully decorated.
I knew the building would be grand, but I was not expecting the degree of intricate architecture or thoroughness of exhibitions. I had budgeted only an hour or two to wander through the building, and this proved to be folly. I snapped the few shots I could get and promised to myself I’d be back for a more thorough investigation of its exhibits and its corridors.
One of the draws to D.C. is its Cherry Blossoms, and the Cherry Blossom Festival in particular. I visited just before peak bloom, however, and never got to see the flowers in their prime — or the crowds that go with them when at their prime. As a result, a sunrise photo session was rather quiet, with just a few other photographers scattered around the Tidal Basin. The buds just beginning to emerge stated clearly nevertheless that spring was just around the corner.
Of all the cities I’ve visited recently, it’s surprising to me that D.C. — with no mountains and no great nature refuge — was the one that captured my curiosity most. This is a city whose atmosphere I normally would not enjoy, for its primary business incites hostility. But yet, the charm of the city is its ability to flick on its lavish appreciation for culture and history while still permitting the grittiness necessary to serve as a nation’s capital. That visitors still line the Lincoln Memorial at 10:30 PM is a testament to D.C.’s touristic draw.
At 4:30 AM, however, the National Mall is largely deserted. Away from din and flash, while waiting for the sunrise I sat on the steps and pondered what D.C. had revealed to me: a memorial to the fallen heroes who laid the foundation for this country, a salute to technological wonders of planetary (and celestial) exploration, and a champion for making the arts accessible to the public.
Casting aside the weighty politics that swirled around me, this is what a great city should be.