Exploring DC: Smithsonian Castle and the Kennedy Center

Both are examples of what wonders we humans can produce when we work together toward positive goals.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

On this day we were hoping to visit the Holocaust Museum, but it requires entry reservations thanks to the pandemic, and they are booked solid for months in advance. They do hold back a few tickets each day, but you have to log into their website at 7 am to try for those tickets. Dear Husband did just that, and watched the tickets all disappear within two minutes. All this while I continued snoring. But as is so often the case, that failure was good experience. We discovered a reservation trick that I’ll reveal in the blog post I write about that museum, coming soon.

Meanwhile, today was going to require a change in plans, so we decided to stop in to the Smithsonian Castle for inspiration. If you plan to visit more than one Smithsonian Museum while in DC, I strongly suggest that you go to the castle first. It’s the information hub for all things Smithsonian. However, it turns out that thinking that that’s all that it is is a big mistake. (Don’t you just love an awkwardly constructed sentence?)

The Castle was the very first Smithsonian building. Construction ended in 1855. It took 8 years to complete. It’s full of Gothic, Romanesque, and Norman architectural elements. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see 12th century knights in full armor and ladies fair wandering about the grounds. It’s a time warp of a building.

The building was designed by James Renwick, Jr., the same architect who brought us St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. As you enter, one of the many things you get to see is the original cardboard model that Renwick submitted, which understandably won him the contract. Behind that model is an interesting photo of buffalo grazing in front of the castle in 1889, before the zoo was started. Washington DC was kind of a backwater back then. Raw sewage ran in the streets and into the Potomac, and pigs wandered everywhere. It was a swampy, disease-ridden place, with no museums to be had. This one must have caused quite a stir.

The castle is made of a warm, Seneca red sandstone, and unfortunately slaves were used to quarry the stone. However, there’s no evidence to suggest that slaves were used for the construction of this edifice. That’s something, at least, given the fact that Washington DC was full of slaves back then, and emancipation was not yet a thing.

The first thing you encounter by the entrance of the castle is the crypt that is home to the tomb of James Smithson. A fascinating little side note about Smithson is that he never stepped foot in America while alive. He left his fortune to us for the purpose of starting a Smithsonian Institution because his only heir died without having children, and he wanted to leave some sort of dignified legacy. It is said that because he was born out of wedlock, despite having high-born parents, he was not treated well by English society, so his money going to America instead of England could also be interpreted as a final face slap. Regardless of what his motivations were, he’s a personal hero of mine, because we have been benefiting from this man’s generosity ever since.

After the crypt, the center of the castle is, indeed, full of information about the Smithsonian, as well as a place for gift shops and a café. The castle also houses the Smithsonian administrative offices. But the wings off to the sides held fascinating exhibits. More on those exhibits in a minute. Let me rant first.

My only complaint about the Smithsonian institution in general in this COVID era is that they don’t have enough volunteers, and for some reason that means they feel that it’s not prudent to leave their National Parks Passport stamps out in most of their buildings. (Every other national park has left their stamps relatively unattended and they don’t seem to get stolen, so I don’t understand why this is the attitude at the Smithsonian.) All of the Smithsonian is part of our National Parks System, and I was looking forward to collecting stamps everywhere I went. Once I figured out that most places had locked away said stamps, I assumed that at least the castle, the information hub of it all, would have all the stamps for all the museums. But no. They, too, are hidden away. This is heartbreaking. I hope they’ll see fit to change that, perhaps make the castle stamp central, in the near future.

Anyway, back to the exhibits. One side of the castle, called Commons 1, is full of displays from the various Smithsonian museums. If those museums were movies, these displays would be the previews. They whet your appetite for all the other Smithsonian locations. Commons 2 is all about the fragments and souvenirs of various famous buildings and events throughout the world. You can see an interactive, panoramic view of the inside of various rooms in the castle here.

There’s also a cozy library in the castle as well as some beautiful gardens surrounding it, all of which encourage deep contemplation about all the various topics that all the various Smithsonian museums support. Just interacting with the Smithsonian on any level kind of makes you feel smarter. It definitely makes you hold all forms of edification in high esteem. That can only be a good thing in an era when ignorance seems to abound.

That evening we got to do something else that was very exciting. We went to the Kennedy Center to see the musical Hadestown. I had blogged about this musical here, nearly 3 years ago, and finally my dream see it was to come true. And to make the experience even better, we were seeing it in a venue that I’ve always wanted to experience, and with my dear friend Martine, whom I haven’t seen face to face in more than 7 ½ years.

We met Martine at the Tazza Café, a delicious Mediterranean restaurant that’s right across the street from the Kennedy Center. The food was wonderful, and it gave us time to catch up a bit before going to the play. It also helped me reaffirm that Martine is one of my favorite people, and has an amazing future ahead of her.

Entering the Kennedy Center makes you know, deep in the marrow of your bones, that you’re about to see a special event. It is our National Cultural Center, and it was named after Kennedy two months after his assassination because he was the center’s most enthusiastic fundraiser and he was devoted to the advancement of the performing arts in the United States. It officially opened to the public in 1971, so we were attending during its 50th anniversary.

The center houses the Concert Hall, the Opera House, and the Eisenhower Theater, along with the Family Theater, the Terrace Theater, the Theater Lab, the Millennium Stage and the Terrace Gallery. The place is huge, to put it mildly. If all venues were at capacity at the exact same time, it would seat 7,262 people. It is nearly 1.5 million square feet of floor space sitting on 17 acres of outrageously expensive land on the Potomac River. It’s also the home of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.

Directly from the Kennedy Center’s website:

“The Center’s mission is established in its authorizing statute:  present classical and contemporary music, opera, drama, dance, and other performing arts from the United States and other countries; promote and maintain the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as the National Center for the Performing Arts; strive to ensure that the education and outreach programs and policies of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts meet the highest level of excellence and reflect the cultural diversity of the United States; provide facilities for other civic activities at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; and provide within the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts a suitable memorial in honor of the late President.  To fulfill the mission as the nation’s cultural center, the Kennedy Center presents world-class art by the artists that define our culture today, delivers powerful arts education opportunities nationwide, and embodies the ideals of President Kennedy in all the Center’s activities provided throughout the living memorial.”

If for nothing else, you know of the Kennedy Center for the program the Kennedy Center Honors. They honor five artists or groups every year for their lifetime achievements. This year, two of the people they will be honoring are Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell. (You can catch the event on CBS on December 22nd at 9/8 central.) And it takes place in the Opera House, the very same venue where we would see Hadestown! I wonder what famous behinds will sit in our nosebleed seats. Here are some pictures we took of the center in general, and the Opera House in particular.

Hadestown was amazing. It’s a modern adaptation of two ancient stories: That of Orpheus and Eurydice, and also that of Hades and Persephone. It’s full of very talented dancers and singers, and the set itself is spectacular. It even has a rotating floor that made me kind of feel sorry for the cast. Not only do you have to sing well and dance well, but you also have to do this on a spinning floor? Seriously? And yet they carried it off without a hitch. I was quite proud of them, and awed by them. I must say I’ve never spent a more entertaining time in hell, and I’d go back again if it meant I could experience this musical once more. Go see this play is what I’m saying to you. It’s worth the price of admission.

Both the Smithsonian Castle and the Kennedy Center are examples of what wonders we humans can produce when we work together toward positive goals. It’s kind of stunning to realize that these two places are in our nation’s capital, where there is currently so much greed and division and toxicity. The very best and the very worst of humanity all in one amazing city. Visit Washington DC if you can, to experience a very unique mixture of amazement and disgust. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, indeed.

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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