Yesterday was the last time I’ll see the inside of the Old Post Office Building for at least two years. And even if I go back after 2016, it will be a totally different building. But today her time is growing short; in about two weeks she will be closed to all visitors and begin a lengthy transformation into a luxury hotel. (Check my post of 20 February 2014 for background on the circumstances.)
The Old Post Office is a unique building with a long-running history of many narrow escapes from the wrecking ball of progress. So it seemed like she deserved one last visit before she began her new life. As I approached the front entrance, nothing seemed amiss. Tourists, looking for a way in, pulled fruitlessly on locked doors, confused by signs claiming that the observation tower was open and mystified by the wrongly aligned directional arrows. But I knew her secret; a below-grade doorway on the east side. This was where the security guard inspection station had been located when federal agencies occupied the building just a few short months ago. Back then, everyone had to undergo a TSA-level check, even if they only wanted to buy a soft drink.
A statue of Benjamin Franklin overlooks the almost deserted front entrance
But now the x-ray scanner was turned off. A single guard, relaxing on a chair, waved me through without a second glance at my large black backpack. I walked into the atrium, a 10-story open space that was almost completely deserted. All of the fast-food establishments and souvenir stores that had been there for years were now gone, their doors and windows shuttered, A single custodian was sweeping the floor of the food court, each of the forlorn tables topped by one or two upside-down chairs, symbolic of a closed restaurant. Peering up toward the glass-covered roof, it was obvious that all of the federal employees who used to work in the upper level offices were gone.
The empty food court and commercial pavilion
A few persistent tourists who had found their way inside ambled toward the small space housing the National Park office where a ranger welcomed them. I followed and he pointed us to the elevator to the observation tower where a spectacular 360-degree view of the city awaited. The elevator, with a curved glass rear wall, carried us to the 9th floor and we could see the entire atrium as we ascended.
Elevator at the 9th Floor, but only halfway to the top
We disembarked and followed the signs to the small elevator to the 13th level. As we waited for the second lift to appear, we looked at the set of thick bell ropes, which are used by the bell ringers to peal the set of bells hung on the 10th level. I recalled an evening, years ago, in the observation tower while the bells were being rung. I could feel the entire tower move gently in response to the movement of the enormous bells.
There was nervous laughter from the tourists as the second elevator shuddered and groaned from the effort to take us up. It was as if it knew it was nearing the end of its life. Then, after what seemed like a malicious pause, the doors rumbled open and we were struck by the brilliant light of a sunny day and a blast of chilly air. Even when you know that the tower is open to the elements, it is always a surprise to emerge from the cocoon of the elevator and be slapped by the outdoor reality of wind and cold.
View from the top, looking toward the Washington Monument
Here, nothing seemed to have changed. The tourists checked out the views as they moved slowly from one vantage point to the next. The openings are protected by an acrylic sheet or closely-spaced vertical wires. The latter make the space essentially open to the elements and the lack of protection from reality is what makes this place special. The vertical strands prevent birds from flying in or anyone from leaping out, but wind, rain, snow, or whatever element Mother Nature has in mind that day become part of the experience. It was sunny and mild —in the low 60s—but it was windy. For me, as the wind whistled through the cables, it was a perfect day for a farewell.
View to the east, showing Pennsylvania Avenue and U.S. Capitol*
As always, the Park Ranger on duty was friendly and informative. At present, the plan is to close the tower in April, the exact day not yet official. At about the same time, the Washington Monument will reopen after a lengthy repair project made necessary by the earthquake on August 23, 2011. Again, no official date has been set but I’m looking forward to a visit there in the near future.
*Technical footnote: There is a trick to shooting through wires, so don’t believe the folks on Trip Advisor saying it is impossible. No Photoshop trickery is needed. The technique works best with a telephoto lens, but this was done at 70mm. Use the widest aperture available on your lens, in this case I set it for f/2.8. Then focus on a point in the distance. Bring the lens as close as possible to the wires, touching them gently if possible. If all works as it should, the wires will be so out of focus they will disappear.