Tour guide: Two days of sightseeing in Washington DC (1956)

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Washington: A Woman’s Day Pocket Guidebook, by Bernard DeVoto

Highlighting: The Capitol • Supreme Court • National Gallery of Art • Smithsonian Institution Washington Monument • Bureau of Engraving and Printing • Jefferson Memorial • Lincoln Memorial • White House • Department of Justice • Arlington National Cemetery • Mount Vernon


2 days in Washington DC: Your guide (1956)

A cutout guidebook to make and carry with you during 2 days in Washington

A family tour, prepared by Bernard DeVoto

Washington, the center of our government, is full of the symbols — and indeed the very landmarks — of the dangers, travail, achievements, hopes, and fears that the American people experienced while they were making us the nation we now are.

These strike sparks in every parent visiting the city with his family, and he hopes his children too will kindle with the same awareness of American power, of the richness and greatness and variety of the national life, of the memories and continuing experience that bind the present to the past, of a deep belief in the future.

The children never disappoint this hope. Like all tourists, including their parents, they are tired at night. But they are fascinated, they are delighted, they are stirred, and most of all they feel a new understanding, an illumination, which they have no words to express. So much so that a parent will bring them back as often as he can. For there is always more to be seen. Washington is a spacious city — a city of distances and vistas. It has pride and grandeur and magnificence. It is beautiful in its design and symmetry, in its openness, in its monumental architecture. It is inexhaustibly interesting. The trouble is, there is never time to see all you want to see. But that is true of all touring — and, remember, you will be returning.

The family tour that follows is designed to fill two days with high moments, with the indispensables. In the course of the two days, it is certain every tourist will somehow find time to visit other places not listed here. The hope is that he will be able to take a third day to ramble, to seek out what he has heard about, to be surprised by what he runs into without forewarning — and to go back and spend a little while longer at whatever has impressed him most or spoken most eloquently to him.

At all government buildings, there are clear floor plans, maps, directions for reaching the most important exhibits, and usually descriptive pamphlets as well. At a number, you must take the conducted tours, most — but not all — of which are free. Except for the second afternoon, this tour can be made on foot without undue exertion or fatigue.


1. The Capitol

Where our Congress meets

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It is pleasant to preface the Capitol with a few minutes at the Grant Memorial at the head of the Mall, and then to enter by the great stairs of the East Front. There is an excellent guided tour. If you prefer to go by yourself, you will want to see, at least, the Great Rotunda, the Hall of Columns, Statuary Hall, and the chambers of the Senate and the House. (Both bodies usually convene at noon. Passes to the visitors’ galleries can be obtained at the offices of your senators and representative.) The climb of 365 steps to the Dome (between the inner and outer shells) is stiff going but a memorable experience. As you leave, go to the basement and take the unique monorail subway to the Senate Office Building.

The Capitol


2. Supreme Court

“Equal Justice Under Law”

The Library of Congress is to the right of the Capitol’s East Front, and the Supreme Court Building to the left.

Vast collections of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, maps, prints, drawings, and music make the Library of Congress one of the greatest libraries in the world — in many ways the greatest. Magnificent samples of this wealth are on view in the permanent and temporary exhibitions that fill the galleries — for example, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible and a manuscript of the Gettysburg Address. You will want to see also the Periodical Room and the Main Reading Room.

Some architects regard the Supreme Court Building as the most beautiful structure in Washington. It is austere and impressive, and the solemnity of the courtroom is overwhelming. The entire building is designed to give the greatest emphasis to the basic tenet of the Republic carved over the entrance: Equal Justice Under Law.

Supreme Court


3. National Gallery of Art

Masterpieces by world-famous artists

Back now to the Mall, the east-west axis of Washington. It stretches from the Capitol almost to the Washington Monument and is continued by West Potomac Park. The rest of the first day’s tour will be spent along or near its edges.

The first stop is the National Gallery of Art. The building has true grandeur and contains one of the world’s greatest art collections. Some paintings you will especially want to see are Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and canvasses by Vermeer, Renoir, Titian, El Greco, and Rembrandt.

When you are ready, leave by the north portal and cross Constitution Avenue to the National Archives Building. It houses the official records of the United States and an enormous number of related documents. Of many reasons for visiting it, the most important is that here, simply but with great dignity, are the original manuscripts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

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National Gallery of Art


4. Smithsonian Institution

Surprises and wonders by the acre

This huge castellated structure, on the south side of the Mall, and its two subsidiaries, the Arts and Industries Building and the Natural History Building, are among the most fascinating places in America. So absorbing are the exhibits that you almost forget the Smithsonian is an important bureau of government science.

In the Arts and Industries Building nearly everything imaginable is on view — the Wright brothers’ first airplane and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis; antique automobiles, bicycles, fire engines, and cable cars; models of ships and machines; collections of firearms, swords, postage stamps, and historical costumes; the flag that inspired The Star Spangled Banner.

When you can bear to leave, cross the Mall to the Natural History Building — a museum of anthropology, paleontology, zoology, and other sciences.

Here is where you will develop “museum feet” and appreciate the benches that line the Mall.

Smithsonian Institution


5. Washington Monument

Hub of the capital

AT 14th Street the Mall becomes West Potomac Park and you reach the marble obelisk that dominates the city, the Washington Monument. You will want to sit for a while in the circle at its base and study the vistas of trees, buildings, lawns, and water that open in all four directions.

By far the most impressive view of Washington is from the chamber just below the pyramidal top of the monument, more than 500 feet above the ground. It takes in all of the city, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. The children will want to climb the 898 steps that lead to it, but you will not. Take the elevator, then, but walk down that endless stairway to see the “tribute” stones — contributed to the structure by states, nations, and organizations, throughout the world — and to read their striking inscriptions.

Washington Monument


6. Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Where paper money and stamps are made

The tour now turns south on 14th Street, a couple of hundred yards beyond the Mall, to visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Here you will have to join a tour.

The Bureau prints various kinds of official licenses and certificates and revenue stamps. It prints our postage stamps, too, and our paper money. Here is where it is all turned out, the one-dollar bills, the ten-thousand-dollar bills, and all the others — about thirty-five million dollars a day. You will be spellbound.

Beyond the Bureau, set in the lawns of the two Potomac Parks, is the Tidal Basin. You will want to loiter on the banks, all the more so if it is blossom time — for the famous Japanese cherry trees line three sides of the basin.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing


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