Touring the Architectural Wonders of Washington, DC
There is no other place in the United States with a vast collection of historic and iconic landmarks, grand government and museum buildings and distinctive memorials than our nation’s capital – Washington, DC. Touring the monuments and museums, one can’t help but marvel at the architecture reminiscent of some European cities with French, Greek, Roman and even ancient Egypt inspirations. What struck me most during a recent trip was the dominance of columns, domes and white exterior found in many of the structures.
Washington DC was established as the nation’s capital by the US constitution in 1790. George Washington hired Pierre L’ Enfant, a French-born architect, who designed the city (with some Paris inspiration) with wide tree-lined streets, public spaces and strategically placed monuments. Most of the city has stayed true to L’ Enfant’s vision.
Washington, DC was my first trip without my parents as a high school 10th grader many years ago and was in awe back then walking around. I’ve returned several times since then but a couple of weekends ago was the first time with my kids. I hadn’t appreciated how family friendly the capital city was from its famous attractions to a range of free museums until this visit. These are only a few of the noted architectural wonders found throughout the city.
The White House
The one place my kids really wanted to visit during this entire trip was the White House. They have always associated Washington, DC with where the president lived and found the White House so appealing. They wanted to see it in all its glory during the day and glowing under the moonlight. Since this was a last minute trip, we didn’t have the chance to reserve the free tour inside which would have made their year.
The White House has survived fires, major renovations and a revolving door of famous residents yet the nation’s most prominent home has stood for over 200 years. Its exterior walls are made of white sandstone. The presidential home currently has six floors, seven stairways, three elevators, 132 rooms, 32 bathrooms and 28 fireplaces.
It was originally designed by an Irishman, James Hoban, who was especially selected by George Washington. The White House is an elegant portico mansion believed by historians to be based on Dublin’s Leinster House (seat of Irish parliament). It may not be as large or as lavish as European palaces but it is our closest version to a royal house. Day or night, we found the fences in the front and back crowded with visitors trying to catch a glimpse and pose by this famous residence.
The Lincoln Memorial
Honoring the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, this memorial includes an imposing statue of the president. The Greek Doric inspired marble temple has 36 massive columns which represented the states of the union at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865.
As my kids ran up the steps to the memorial, they paused and gasped in amazement at the impressive 19-feet statue of the seated president. The statue would be 28 feet tall if it stood up.
What I love about this memorial other than its historic importance and notable events on its steps is the view it presents of the Reflecting Pool and the Capitol on the other side.
Built in 1793, the US Capitol has undergone rebuilding and restoration over the years. Located on a high point in the center of the city, it has long been considered as a “monument to the American people and their government”. The Capitol houses the legislative branch of the US government where representatives and senators meet and laws are made (most of the time).
The neoclassical architecture of the Capitol was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman designs. Its huge dome makes it look very dignified and stately as it prominently looms over the city. The dome is 2,888 feet tall which is the height of a 28-story building. There’s a wonderful visitor’s center in here but something my kids were not interested in seeing (maybe, in a few years).
Another domed structure was the Jefferson Memorial. Its architecture may look a bit familiar since it was modeled after Rome’s Pantheon. The memorial is a bit more isolated from the other monuments but definitely worth the visit.
The circular structure also represented the dome and columns found throughout the city. This was a tribute to the third President of the United State, Thomas Jefferson, which incorporated his role as president, architect, educator and founding father.
A striking bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, at 19 feet tall, looks out into the White House across the Tidal Basin. The panoramic views of the city from here are amazing. Park rangers were available throughout many of the memorials to answer questions and conducted guided tours.
It’s worth noting that there were other landmarks without columns and domes. The Washington Monument is one of the area’s tallest structure and stands at 555 feet (169 m) tall built to honor the country’s first president, George Washington.
It is an immense, Egyptian-inspired, white, marble obelisk that dominates the city’s skyline. We’ve used it as point of reference from many areas around the city. A design competition was held in 1836 to determine the appropriate structure and an obelisk was chosen which represented magnificence as well as simplicity much like Washington himself. Obelisks were often used in Egypt to honor their pharaohs and kings.
Since the earthquake in 2011, entry into the observation deck inside the monument has been closed. The 50 flags surrounding the base of the monument represent America’s 50 states.
The Government Buildings
Walking around the city, it was hard not to miss the columns in many of the museum and government buildings. The best way to see the city is by walking and most attractions are conveniently close to each other and some near the subway stops. It was hard to resist looking up and admiring the details.
At times, it was hard to distinguish one building from the other without any signage. This was the Department of Justice building.
This was the Treasury Department. Money wasn’t printed here but at the nearby Bureau of Engraving.
We found more columns at the Commerce Department building.
The National Mall and Smithsonian Buildings
Contrary to what my daughter hoped was a giant shopping center, Washington, DC’s National Mall is actually a two-mile, tree-lined open space from the Washington Monument to the Capitol. This spacious green lawn has been used for gatherings and rallies for many years. During our visit on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, it was filled with people strolling, playing sports and having picnics.
The Smithsonian has 16 museums and galleries and the National Zoo. Nine of the museums are located in the National Mall. These museums held priceless treasures yet its exterior and architecture were also works of art.
The Museum of Natural History was a striking building with columns and domes. Inside is the famed 45.52-carat, dark blue Hope Diamond which is one of the most visited museum object in the world. My kids could have spent days here exploring dinosaurs, animals, butterflies and gems.
The National Archives was one of the most unforgettable places I visited a long time ago. I hope it has the same lasting impression on my kids too. Described as a “temple of history”, the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom inside houses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – documents representing the foundation of America. Unfortunately, no picture taking is allowed inside. It’s a lovely building resembling a neoclassical temple with 72 majestic Corinthian columns in the front flanked by four large sculptures.
One memorable building that stood out from the rest (not because of its beauty) but because it looked completely different from its surrounding buildings was the Smithsonian Institution Building or the Castle. For many years, it was the residence of the Smithsonian’s first secretary and became the operations building. It is currently the Smithsonian’s administrative building and its Information Center.
My daughter is studying US Government and History in the 5th grade this year. Lucky for her, I was there for a conference and they got to tag along. School age kids are perfect to take here since they have some understanding of the monuments’ significance and an appreciation for museums. It is one of the most walkable cities in the country and offers so many free attractions. Despite our short visit, it was enough to ignite more interest in the presidents and American history.
Washington,DC is one of the finest national capitals in the world. Architects have kept many of the buildings’ classic designs of domes, stately columns and lack of color intact for centuries. No matter what nationality you may be, it is hard not to be affected by the stunning and unforgettable landmarks, monuments and memorials throughout the city whether seen in daylight or by the moonlight.
*Have you visited Washington, DC? What was your favorite landmark or Smithsonian museum?
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