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.

Scouting Report

Every so often I like to take a quick drive through the city to check on what’s happening with some of my favorite locations.  Yesterday I decided it was time for another because spring will soon be upon us.  Typically, I am looking for construction projects that may finally be completed, the appearance of new obstacles since my last scouting run, whether a given fountain is running, and what flowers might be in bloom.  So what follows is an example of a periodic report that will be of interest primarily to photographers interested in possible photographic opportunities in the coming weeks.


              Major News:  Access to the observation tower will be ended soon, most likely by the end of March in order to make way for the renovation of the building by the Trump Organization.  The tower will re-open in 2016.  See my blog post with details here

              Fountains:  It is still too early for most fountains and I didn’t see any that were operating during my circuit.  If you have a specific favorite (mine is the Bartholdi Fountain across Independence Avenue from the Botanic Garden), you can send a question using the comment field.

              National Gallery of Art, East Wing:  The exterior work, involving the removal and reinstallation of the marble veneer seems nearly done.  The estimated completion date is spring 2014.  A single large construction crane remains on the Madison Avenue side and there is a large temporary construction building on the lawn bordering 3rd Street.                

              Smithsonian Arts and Industries  Building:  The long-term renovation project continues, but the end for the exterior seems to be in sight.  The scaffolding has been removed from many parts and the finished exterior looks great.  Unfortunately, according to a 13 January article in the Washington Post, the building will not re-open to the public in the foreseeable future due to a lack of funding for the work needed for public access and operation.

              Supreme Court:  The repair and renovation of the West Façade was completed last November but the scrim they used during the project was really cool.  The scrim was like a big painting of the front to diminish the ugliness of all those scaffolds, a technique commonly used in Europe.  But it’s gone now and a quick glance at the front of the Supreme Court yesterday showed no sign of any work being done.  So photographers can snap away, but be aware that a tripod cannot be used on the plaza or the steps.  I’ve been able to use a tripod on the sidewalk without any problems, however.  


              U.S. Capitol Building:  The Dome of the Capitol Building is scheduled to go under scaffolding sometime soon, but as of 21 February, there was no sign of work having begun.  So if you have plans for photographing the Capitol as it normally appears, you had better hustle.  Don’t forget that a tripod permit is required if you want to use one on the Capitol grounds. You can find a copy of their rules and a form here.

                Washington Monument:  Although the earthquake repair is finally complete, a portion of the scaffolding is still present.  It looks like they have progressed only a little since late December, the last time I photographed it.


                World War II Memorial:  The fountains are not running and the pool is empty.  Moreover, the repair project at the west end of the Memorial is still unfinished.  A guard told me last year that it had something to do with the recent renovation of the Reflection Pool and we are well past the estimated completion date he gave me.  But once the fountains start up again, there will be plenty of shooting opportunities unaffected by the work site.