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Capitol Hill and the White House

Tours of Capitol Hill and the theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated but only a distant glimpse of the White House

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View 2013 Round the World Trip on FrancisRTW's travel map.

Tours of public buildings tend to be free in the USA but often have to be booked up a long time ahead (as I found out to my cost when trying to visit the US Mint in Denver). I was chuffed therefore to find only a couple of days beforehand that there was still a tour slot available for the US Capitol during my stay in Washington.

The entrance to the Capitol is via the large underground Visitor Center at the back of the building opened in 2008. Having cleared the airport style security you enter Emancipation Hall dominated by the original plaster model for the bronze Statue of Freedom which stands on top of the Capitol's Dome.

The entrance to the Visitor Center behind the US Capitol

The entrance to the Visitor Center behind the US Capitol


The Statue of Freedom in the Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall

The Statue of Freedom in the Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall

Emancipation Hall is the large central space in the Visitor Center where you pick up your tour passes from one on the information desks situated at either end and then queue for one of the two Orientation Theatres - this place is designed to cope with numbers as politely as possible with lots of volunteer guides on hand offering help. While waiting there is a rather impressive Exhibition Hall with models and exhibits describing the history of the building; there is also looking up a rather unusual and impressive view of the Dome itself.

One of the two Information Desks at either end of Emancipation Hall

One of the two Information Desks at either end of Emancipation Hall


The view of the Capitol Dome through the glass roof of the Visitor Center

The view of the Capitol Dome through the glass roof of the Visitor Center

The Capitol Building and Visitor Center is cluttered with statues as each US state is entitled to donate 2 statues honouring persons notable to their history to the national collection which they can change over time. Twenty four of the 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection are in the Visitor Center.

Jack Swigert (1931-1982) from Colorado's Statue in Emancipation Hall

Jack Swigert (1931-1982) from Colorado's Statue in Emancipation Hall


Chief Washakie (1798-1900) from Wyoming's Statue in Emancipation Hall

Chief Washakie (1798-1900) from Wyoming's Statue in Emancipation Hall


King Kamehameha (1758-1819) from Hawaii's Statue in Emancipation Hall

King Kamehameha (1758-1819) from Hawaii's Statue in Emancipation Hall

The tour itself begins with a short film in one of the Orientation Theatres where you are allocated to a tour group; ours was large containing perhaps 80 people but all linked to the tour guide by a radio earpiece so everyone could hear her. We were then taken into the Rotunda and had its marble painted frescos, friezes, paintings and statues explained to us as we looked up at the inside of the impressive 288 feet (88 metre) high and 96 feet (29 metre) diameter Dome. The Rotunda is where John F Kennedy and ten other US Presidents have lain in state after they died.

Our guide explains the various pieces of artwork around the Rotunda underneath the Capitol's Dome

Our guide explains the various pieces of artwork around the Rotunda underneath the Capitol's Dome


Looking up at the inside of the Dome from the Rotunda

Looking up at the inside of the Dome from the Rotunda


'Baptism of Pocahontas' - one of the 8 large oil paintings depicting events from US History around the bottom walls of the Rotunda

'Baptism of Pocahontas' - one of the 8 large oil paintings depicting events from US History around the bottom walls of the Rotunda


Statues of Presidents Grant and Lincoln beside the POW/MIA Flag in the Rotunda

Statues of Presidents Grant and Lincoln beside the POW/MIA Flag in the Rotunda

Next we entered the semi-circular shaped National Statuary Hall; this where all the state statues were displayed from when they were first inaugurated in 1864 until 1933 by which time the hall had become rather cluttered (the statues were 3 deep!) and their weight threatened to fall through the floor. The statues were instead distributed throughout the building and today only 38 statues remain in the National Statuary Hall itself including Rosa Parkes (Civil Rights Pioneer 1913-2005 who refused to give up her bus seat to a white person) and Ronald Reagan (40th US President 1981-1989).

National Statuary Hall where the House of Representatives sat 1807-1857

National Statuary Hall where the House of Representatives sat 1807-1857


The Statue of Liberty above the south door of National Statuary Hall

The Statue of Liberty above the south door of National Statuary Hall


Rosa Parkes' Statue in National Statuary Hall

Rosa Parkes' Statue in National Statuary Hall


Ronald Reagan's Statue in National Statuary Hall

Ronald Reagan's Statue in National Statuary Hall

National Statuary Hall was originally where the House of Representatives met from when it was completed in 1807 until 1857. It has peculiar acoustics which mean you can't hear someone speaking quite close to you while being able to hear someone whispering on the opposite side of the room - a phenomenon demonstrated to us by our guide. It is rumoured that John Quincy Adams (6th US President 1825-1829) took advantage of this while a congressman 1831-1848.

John Quincy Adams' desk location 1831-1848 - the famed whisper spot

John Quincy Adams' desk location 1831-1848 - the famed whisper spot


Our guide (you can just about make her out in her red uniform) demonstrates the whisper point from across National Statuary Hall

Our guide (you can just about make her out in her red uniform) demonstrates the whisper point from across National Statuary Hall

Our official tour ended with a trip down to the crypt, but not before I managed to get sneak photo through the main backdoor of the Capitol along Capitol Street East with the US Supreme Court on the left and Library of Congress on the right. Down in the crypt we saw amongst the massive columns and arches supporting the Rotunda the White Compass Stone which marks the zero spot from which all of Washington's streets are numbered and where it was originally envisaged that George Washington (1st US President 1789-1797) would eventually be buried.

A sneak photograph out the backdoor of the Capitol along East Capitol Street

A sneak photograph out the backdoor of the Capitol along East Capitol Street


The Compass Stone and Lincoln's Bust in the Capitol's Crypt

The Compass Stone and Lincoln's Bust in the Capitol's Crypt

I then managed to get a pass to the House of Representatives Visitor's Gallery to sit and watch the Senate in session for ten minutes or so discussing the finer points of a new bill concerning the War on Terrorism (Congress was not sitting out of respect for a New Jersey Congressman who had died the previous day). It was then time to move on and I took the underground tunnel to the Library of Congress across the street.

The underground tunnel from the Capitol Building over to the Library of Congress

The underground tunnel from the Capitol Building over to the Library of Congress

The Italian Renaissance-style Library of Congress Jefferson Building directly behind the Capitol was built in 1897 and is the oldest of the four buildings housing the Library. Entry to the building is via its stunning Great Hall which has a 75 foot (23 metres) high stained-glass ceiling, marble floor and marble staircases. Branching off from the Great Hall are several impressive exhibition galleries on such topics as the American Civil War and American Explorers. Although we were only allowed a fleeting glimpse from the Main Reading Room Overlook, the centrepiece of the Building is the Main Reading Room with its ornate domed 160 feet (49 metres) ceiling and wood panelled desks.

Inside the Great Hall of the Library of Congress

Inside the Great Hall of the Library of Congress


View down into the Great Hall of the Library of Congress

View down into the Great Hall of the Library of Congress


The stained-glass ceiling of the Library of Congress' Great Hall

The stained-glass ceiling of the Library of Congress' Great Hall


View across the Great Hall to the entrance to the Main Reading Room Overlook

View across the Great Hall to the entrance to the Main Reading Room Overlook

It was now time for some external shots; the Library of Congress was fine but the US Supreme Court across the road was undergoing refurbishment and cloaked in white sheeting - Sydney Town Hall, Denver Capitol, St Patrick's Cathedral New York... I'm beginning to lose count of the number of landmarks that been obscured by scaffolding while I've been on my trip! At least they had the good sense to put an image of the building on the taupaulin so it wasn't an eyesore while undergoing the restoration work.

Outside the Library of Congress

Outside the Library of Congress


The US Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court


Rear view of the US Capitol

Rear view of the US Capitol

Walking back across the street and around to the west front of the Capitol I got a close up of the classic view of the building where it looks down the National Mall towards the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. A short distance in front of the Building is the mounted Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (18th US President 1869-1877 and Civil War General) and the Reflecting Pool, again with great views of a very photogenic building.

View of the Capitol from the north west

View of the Capitol from the north west


Front view of the steps leading up to the US Capitol

Front view of the steps leading up to the US Capitol


View of the US Capitol from the path around the Reflecting Pool

View of the US Capitol from the path around the Reflecting Pool


Me sat by the Reflecting Pool outside the US Capitol

Me sat by the Reflecting Pool outside the US Capitol

The White House is 1.2 miles (1.8 kilometres) from the steps of the Capitol on the north side of the National Mall facing the Washington Monument. On the way there I stopped at the National Archives Building on Constitution Avenue and queued to see original copies of the US Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in its central Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom with an original copy of the British 1297 Magna Carta on display in a case close by. Unfortunately photography inside the building was not allowed.

The National Archives Building on Constitution Avenue

The National Archives Building on Constitution Avenue

Carrying on to the White House, it has been the home of all US Presidents ever since it was completed in 1800 although it needed to be rebuilt after it was burnt down by the British during the War of 1814 (apparently in retaliation for the destruction of some public buildings by American troops in Canada). I had hoped to do a tour of the White House but these had been stopped indefinitely in March 2013 because of staff shortages following the 2013 budget sequestration (a casualty of US brinkmanship party politics!). Even the Visitors Center was closed for refurbishment temporarily replaced by a Portakabin in the Park to the front of the South Lawn.

Crowds by the railings in front of the White House

Crowds by the railings in front of the White House


The White House - home of the US President

The White House - home of the US President


Me by the railings of the South Lawn in front of the White House

Me by the railings of the South Lawn in front of the White House

I did however manage to book a slot to visit the Ford Theatre 5 blocks away which is where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a performance of the play "Our American Cousin" shortly after the end of the American Civil War in April 1865. It's still a working theatre with a museum in the basement containing Lincoln artifacts such as the gun John Wilkes Booth used to shoot the President and then a trip upstairs to the theatre auditorium to see the Presidential Box beside the stage where the fatal shot was fired.

The Ford Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated

The Ford Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated


Glass case containing the gun that killed Abraham Lincoln

Glass case containing the gun that killed Abraham Lincoln


The Presidential Box inside the Ford Theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated

The Presidential Box inside the Ford Theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated

After he was shot President Lincoln was carried across the street to the small back bedroom of the Petersen Boarding House where he died in the early hours of the following morning. As with the theatre itself while the building has been restored to look like it did in 1865 very few of the furnishings are originals. Upstairs their is a museum describing how the assassins were tracked down and hanged and a book shop with an impressive tower of 15,000+ books claiming to contain every book ever written about Abraham Lincoln.

The Petersen House across the road where President Lincoln died

The Petersen House across the road where President Lincoln died


Abraham Lincoln's death bed

Abraham Lincoln's death bed


The tower of 15,000  books written on Abraham Lincoln in the Petersen House

The tower of 15,000+ books written on Abraham Lincoln in the Petersen House

Posted by FrancisRTW 02:00 Archived in USA Tagged buildings tour washington native_american solo us_presidents us_east_coast constitutions

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