Washington DC — November Scouting Report

Breaking News:  The scaffolding for the US Capitol Dome project is now completely up, but the unique illumination that makes it an interesting subject at night (see image below) may be about to disappear.  A check on the east front of the building showed an enormous white plastic sheet enveloping about 60% of the dome and scaffolding on that side and a small portion of the north side.

Capitol Dome Scaffolding

                                  US Capitol Under Repair  (View of West Front)                                   (Nikon D800E with 20-70mm f/2.8 lens on tripod; exposure 3 sec. @ f/16, ISO 400)

This week, I made two scouting runs into the city to determine the feasibility of an evening shoot in the coming weeks.   Along the way, I checked the status of other sites that may be of interest to local photographers.

The Bad News

Fountains: A number of the major and minor fountains are no longer running, having been shut down for the winter.  These include the Bartholdi Fountain, the Court of Neptune at the Library of Congress, the two small fountains on the plaza of the Supreme Court, the Joseph Darlington Memorial Fountain at the intersection of Indiana Avenue and 5th Street NW, and the Mellon Fountain at the Federal Triangle.  And, of course, the long neglected but potentially impressive Columbus Fountain at Union Station continues to languish along with the two smaller basins on its flanks.

The Tulip Library:  The colorful annuals that were blooming in profusion not many weeks ago are now gone.  But in the spring there will be a new display of tulips providing a great foreground for images of the Washington Monument.

National Gallery, East Wing: There is still one crane remaining alongside the building on the Constitution Avenue side.  Close crop shots from a number of angles are possible, however.

Renwick Gallery:  The renovation, begun earlier this year, is still underway and will probably last through next year. The Gallery is closed and well hidden behind the construction scaffolding.

Old Post Office: Also closed, also lots of scaffolding plus an enormous sign with the new owner’s last name prominently displayed.

The Good News

Fountains:  Some are still running, but time is growing short.  The World War II Memorial seems to be in full operation and likely will be one of the last to shut down.  Others that still have running water include the new Disabled for Life Veterans Memorial (plus the flame was going strong this afternoon), the cascades on the northwest side of the American Indian Museum, the Senate Garage Fountain (although the illumination was turned off a few nights ago), the reflecting pool at the Japanese Internment Memorial (Louisiana Avenue and D Street, NW), and the twin fountains/cascades on the plaza of the US Navy Memorial (Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street, NW).

Kennedy Center:  The large temporary tent that had been erected on the south side of the building is now gone.  Those wishing to take photographs from the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge pedestrian sidewalk or from vantage points on that side of the Center will no longer have to contend with this.

Upcoming Events

The 2014 Capitol Christmas Tree is making its way from Minnesota and is scheduled to arrive at 10 AM on November 21st.  The lighting ceremony will be on December 2nd.  Traditionally, the Capitol Police have suspended the requirement for permits to use a tripod on the Capitol grounds for the entire month of December.  Hopefully, that will be repeated this year.  Stay tuned….

Preparations for the National Christmas Tree and Pathway to Peace are well underway now on the ellipse, but much remains to be done.  The lighting ceremony will be on December 6th.

The National Hanukkah Menorah to celebrate the 8-day Jewish holiday will also be on the ellipse.  The lighting ceremony will be at 4 PM on December 16th.

So, get out and get shooting…

Washington, DC–September Scouting Report

Breaking News:  Time is running out for fans of the Corcoran Gallery of Art which will close its doors at the end of this month, less than ten days away because it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.  The closure is part of the transition of control of the Corcoran to the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University.  Work will begin to renovate the second floor gallery space and it is expected it will be about a year before a smaller gallery space will reopen.   Here is a link to the Gallery’s website:

 Scouting Report

On Thursday, I made a quick scouting run into the city to verify that a planned shooting location for the next evening held no surprises.  Along the way, I checked the status of other sites that may be of interest to local photographers.

Problem Areas

Kennedy Center:  A large tent remains installed on the south side of the building, an obstacle for anyone planning to photograph the building from the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge pedestrian sidewalk or from vantage points on that side of the Center.

John Paul Jones Memorial: The small water feature on the base of the statue was not operating.  It is not a well-known memorial despite its excellent location close to the World War II Memorial at the intersection of 17th Street and Independence Avenue.

The White House:  A small project is underway to repair a section of the iron fence along Pennsylvania Avenue.  The section is small, but efforts to have a centered photograph of the White House and the fountain in the front lawn will be frustrated. However, It doesn’t look like it will be a problem for long.

Renwick Gallery:  A major renovation, begun earlier this year, is still underway and will probably last through next year. The Gallery is closed and well hidden behind the construction scaffolding.  Nothing to see here, move along…

Old Post Office: Also closed, also lots of scaffolding. The Trump organization is busy transforming this historic building into a luxury hotel.

U.S. Capitol: Scaffolding is now about half-way up the dome.  This will be a long wait, but see the good news below.

The Good News

U.S. Capitol:  Depending on your taste, there may be some opportunities with the presence of the scaffolding.  We don’t have the benefit of the elegant illuminated effects that charmed night-time visitors to the Washington Memorial when it was being repaired.  But as the night approaches, the dome begins to look a little like a wedding cake.  In addition, the dome’s interior lighting is much brighter than usual, probably due to the construction work inside.  Take a look, get creative.

The Tulip Library:  The tulip season is long past but the garden, located along Independence Avenue, is full of colorful annuals.  The Washington Monument provides a nice backdrop

Court of Neptune Fountain: Fronting the Library of Congress, it was running nicely when I drove by but some of the figures could use a little scrubbing.  It appears that some white mineral deposits are appearing.

Senate Garage Fountain:  Running nicely, but I didn’t get a close look.  A great subject for a twilight shot, especially when the light show begins.  Located in the park between the U.S. Capitol and Union Station.

Bartholdi Park and Fountain:  This is my favorite park in the city and was the reason for the scouting trip.  I planned to join a fellow photographer the next evening to photograph the fountain at twilight.  The fountain was running as hoped and the park was in perfect condition.  I will do a post very soon on what happened.  In the meantime, here is a preview:

Bartholdi FountainBartholdi Fountain, September 19, 2014

Saying Goodbye

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.

Washington, DC, an ever changing scene…

At least once a month, I look back at what I was photographing a year ago, especially when the weather prevents me from going out and doing something useful.  Today is such a day.  Going back to my images of this week one year ago it turns out that  I had been working on twilight shots of the Old Post Office Building which, among other things, has an observation tower that boasts the second highest viewing  point in the downtown area.  The Washington Monument, of course, is higher.  But looking over those images, I was reminded that, even though the 100-year-old building is still standing, it is yet another example of how the Washington architectural scene is constantly changing.


Originally Originally constructed in 1898-99, it became a target for demolition almost immediately, but managed to fend off proposal after proposal for “redevelopment.”  (An excellent history of the Old Post Office can be found here, WashingtonStreets.com.)   The building’s most recent incarnation included the tower, operated by the National Park Service, a commercial pavilion on the ground floor featuring tourist shops and fast-food eateries, and federal offices in the upper floors.  But all that is about to change.  The General Services Administration, which owns the building, has awarded the Trump Organization (Yes, that Trump!) a 60-year lease to renovate the building and operate it as a luxury hotel.  The commercial pavilion closed down earlier this month and I’ve been told by a National Park Service representative at the Tower that once construction begins, it will be closed to the public for about two years.  So if you want to check out that view from the tower before 2016, you had better get over there before the end of March.

The good news is that the exterior of the Old Post Office will remain essentially unchanged and the Tower  will re-open to the public once the construction work inside is finished.

The photograph here was taken from a location in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, using the median strip to avoid the traffic passing in both directions on either side of me.  (Technical data: Nikon D800E with 14-24mm f/2.8 lens.  The exposure was 15 seconds at f/16, ISO 400, and lens set to 16mm.)  The small aperture produces the “star effect” of the street lights.  The trick was to choreograph the exposure with the traffic lights so no cars would pass through the scene.  It was easier than on a normal evening because that day was a federal holiday and there was no rush hour to speak of.