Hometown Tourist, Ch 11: The Washington Monument

For people outside of Washington, DC, our city is synonymous with many things. Among these, political gridlock, superiority complexes, paranoia, and an increasing inability to get along are ones I hear about most often these days.

Something I am more proud to boast about is that we are home to a vast number of impressive national monuments and memorials. Even if you aren’t on the National Mall, it’s hard not to pass a plaque, or stumble across a statue of historical relevance in this city. Seriously. It takes a lot of effort.

While I was lucky enough to visit most of DC’s monuments as a kid, I was curious to see if I would now leave with a different impression (both as a “local” and as an adult). I decided to test my theory on the recently re-opened Washington Monument.

The National Monument
The National Monument

It boasts the best views of any monument in the city, and so I made a sunset reservation. The Monument is a heavily trafficked area so I strongly recommend tickets. It’s really unlikely you will get there in time for the small batch of free tickets.

As everyone knows, the Washington Monument was built to honor our first President, George Washington. Most people also remember that in 2011, there was a  5.8 earthquake on the East Coast that spun out a series of humorous Internet gifs.  Still, the relatively short-lived quake did in fact cause significant damage to both the Washington Monument and National Cathedral.

Who says Washingtonian's don't have a sense of humor? Post 2011 earthquake gifs.
Who says Washingtonian’s don’t have a sense of humor? Post 2011 earthquake gifs. Image courtesy of brothatech.com

Recently, the Monument reopened so it was the perfect time for a visit. A few interesting stats about the monument:

  • It stands 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches, making it the worlds largest free-standing stone structure
  • In 1884, when it was completed, it was the world’s tallest man-made structure, until the Eiffel Tower
  • It contains 36,000 stones and weights 81,000 tons (or, the equivalent of almost 6,500 school buses)
  • It’s not your eyes playing a trick on you, the stone changes color at 150 feet

After a 70-second elevator ride (the first steam-powered elevator ride took 12 minutes), you reach the triangular pyradmidion and are treated to sweeping views of Washington DC. While I thought I timed our visit to sunset, I was off by about 15 minutes. Nevertheless, we were still in awe of the Mall. And Washington, DC (as well as the northern VA skyline), I have to admit are quite beautiful.

A view of the National Mall from the top of the Washington Monument
A view of the National Mall from the top of the Washington Monument

Now, this next observation will make me sound like a travel snob but I guess, if the shoe fits… The Monument is beautiful, but after seeing Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and Casa Mila, it was just a bit underwhelming. I mean, it’s an obelisk.

It’s possible that part of my travel snob comment, is that we took an elevator to the top. You miss so much that I remember being impressed with by walking up the Monument. Unfortunately, the stairs are still closed to guests. But I do have a bit of scoop. I learned that the U.S. Park Service will open stairs for walk-up tours in early September! So, I’ll be going back. If you’re thinking of visiting, or a native who’s interested in walking the monument, check back for details. They’re only doing two walk-up tours (that amount to 896 steps) a day. So this will fill up fast!

Travel snob opinion aside, but if you are visiting Washington (or even if you live here), it’s well worth popping by. It’s an American experience. You can purchase tickets. It’s really unlikely you will get there in time for the small batch of free tickets. (note: the actual tickets are free but you do have to pay a small reservation fee. Ours was $3.00 plus a processing fee and shipping and handling). It was worth it. And as far as time, we were in and out in about a half hour. So if you time it well, it’s a great one to knock off your list, and then go on to the WWII Memorial and other sights on the National Mall.

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One Gaudí Just Isn’t Enough

After discovering Gaudí, it was clear to me I could not leave Barcelona without seeing another one of his masterpieces. I think that’s the way it is with Gaudí…either you love his stuff, or not. But like Frank Lloyd Wright, and perhaps twice so, Gaudí’s architecture transcends into art.

To quote a friend “that could sound kinda snooty,” until you experience his buildings. For me, it was like walking through a piece of art. His work has a surreal effect he achieves by mixing things that should be completely foreign in a way that is deeply familiar. It’s like a childhood memory that could just have well been a dream.

There are several Gaudí buildings from which to choose, but I was drawn to Casa Milà. Pictures of the building were intriguing and based on our hotel, it was easy to get to.

This building, also known as La Pedrera, was erected between 1906 and 1912, for married couple Roser Segimon and Pere Milà. The stone facade and iron decoration of balconies and windows were considered very controversial for the time.

To some degree I can understand why. It’s like a really great inside joke. For anyone who lives there, they understand it—get its brilliance immediately. For the casual passer by though, it’s odd, quirky, and not what a building is “supposed” to look like. Or, maybe it’s like a magician turned a rolling mountain’s hillside into a building.

Interesting fact: Gaudí actually began sketching the building in his workshop in Sagrada Familia, where he had the idea of the house as a constant curve, inside and out.

The resulting effort is actually two buildings, structured around two courtyards that provide light to the nine levels: basement, ground floor, mezzanine, main (or noble) floor, four upper floors, and an attic—which was originally intended to house the building’s laundry. As with all his far-out designs, Casa Milà is equal parts form and function.

Standing in the courtyard at Casa Mila, looking up.
Standing in the courtyard of Casa Mila, looking up.

One of the most significant and striking parts of the building is the roof. It is the crown, bejeweled with skylights, staircase exits, fans, and chimneys woven into a dramatic urban landscape. Cleverly (brilliantly), these were built with timbrel (a tambourine like hand drum) coated with limestone, broken marble and glass. Again, all these forms/designs have a specific architectural function, but they are also fascinating sculptures integrated into the building as flora into a landscape.

Sculptures that line the roof of Casa Mila.
Sculptures that line the roof of Casa Mila.

Now, for anyone who decides to visit, and has a similar reaction to mine, block out several hours. Plan to spend an hour on the roof, taking everything in and admiring Gaudí’s talent. But, don’t miss the Mila’s apartment.

Located on the top floor, this is where you can appreciate the architect’s real genius at interior design. The thought put into each person’s room, its location and proximity to other parts of the house, and how they all seamless flow together is jaw-dropping genius.

The every day dinning area, Gaudi designed for Casa Mila.
The every day dinning area, Gaudi designed for Casa Mila. Notice the how the room flows and consists mostly of open space to maximize acoustics and natural light.

For example, the entire apartment is designed in one circle. But the children’s rooms are far away from the dinning and sitting room, so guests wouldn’t disturb sleeping little ones.

Part of Gaudí’s concept for Casa Mila included specially designed furniture for the main floor. An integral part of the modernism movement was the belief that an architect “assumes responsibility for global issues such as the structure and the facade, as every detail of the decor, design furniture and accessories such as lamps, planters, floors or ceilings.”

However, this proved to be a pain point with Mrs. Milà. She complained that there was no straight wall to place a Steinway piano, which her husband apparently played often and quite well. Gaudi’s response was blunt: “so play the violin.” He was infamous for not suffering fools, or putting up with people. Unfortunately, these disagreements resulted in Mrs. Milà ultimately disposing of, or covering much of the original furniture.

When I return to Spain, I look forward to touring some of his other works.

Travel Tip: Like everything else in Barcelona, buy a ticket in advance to avoid lines. I recommend going later in the day. Casa Mila is off the beaten path but you will be treated to a stellar skyline before the sun sets. Photography, sans flash, is permitted. 
It took me 30 minutes to get this photo but I love it. Through one of Casa Mila's rooftop statues, you can see Sagrada Familia.
It took me 30 minutes to get this photo but I love it. Through one of Casa Mila’s rooftop statues, you can see Sagrada Familia.

Inside Sagrada Familia

I have a confession. Before going to Spain, I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce Gaudí. A friend who had just returned from Barcelona riffed off an email with places to eat, a fabulous shop for local shoes and then said, ‘you’ll probably only have time for one Gaudí so make it Sagrada Família.’ Hmm, certainly sounded scrumptious. Yes, I would seek out this restaurant, run by the Sagradas, and be sure to order a Gaudí.

Turns out, Gaudí is not a food. It’s a person and he was one of Spain’s most famous figures of the 1800s. An artist, and Catalan architect (and interior designer), Gaudí is the “figurehead of Catalan Modernism.” He has a very distinct, organic style, by which I mean his work was heavily rooted in nature. As far as architects go, his work is a feast for the eyes.

His creations are widely thought to play off of his passions: architecture, nature and religion. It’s like, turn a corner on a regular street and suddenly…is that building melting? And, Gaudí’s architecture isn’t just steel or stone, because he combines ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork forging and carpentry, and meshes these into shapes inspired by the natural world. The effect is simultaneously jarring and soothing.

Sagrada Familia. Stunning.
Sagrada Familia. Stunning.

Much of Gaudi’s architecture is concentrated in Barcelona, which brings a certain element of otherworldly magic to the city that is hard to describe but wonderful to experience. From what I understand, people either love Gaudí, or don’t.

If that is true, then Sagrada Família is the best demonstration of his vision, talent and where you would fall in love with him. If there’s one signature work to visit of his while you’re in Barcelona this is it. Be warned, it’s still being built.

Borrowed from various sources, Sagrada Família is considered an architectural evolution. While I know about as much about architecture as I do art, I wholeheartedly agree. Think nature meets neo-gothic…like a church growing out of the ground.

Gaudí began working on the Cathedral in 1915, and spent the rest of his life (he died June 7, 1926) devoted to it. The Sagrada Família has a cruciform plan, with a five-aisled nave, a transept of three aisles, and an apse with seven chapels. It has three facades dedicated to the birth, passion and glory of Jesus, and when completed (note: that’s a key point) it will have eighteen towers: four at each side making a total of twelve for the apostles, four on the transept invoking the evangelists and one on the apse dedicated to the Virgin, plus the central tower in honor of Jesus, which will reach 170 meters (560 ft) in height.

Stamps on my Passport
A great demonstration of Gaudi’s style.

Travel Tips: While the Cathedral is jammed packed, this is truly the “don’t miss/must see” attraction in Barcelona. And I say that for the spiritual and non-spiritual alike. A few mandatories:

  • Purchase a ticket ahead of time online. The lines are HUGE, wrapping around the cathedral, for those who did not get tickets in advance.
  • Make sure your ticket includes the Basilica and and Tower. There are a two towers, each has perceived pros and cons. I won’t bias you.
  • Be on time; the admissions folks are ultra strict about prompt entrance and you don’t want to miss your window of opportunity, especially if you are visiting one of the Towers. BTW, this also means don’t show up too early. We arrived 15 minutes ahead of time and were told to exit the line and enter then.
  • Plan to spend a few hours, either exploring, taking photographs, participating in a tour or simply just sitting quietly.

When Barcelona’s residents complained that construction was taking too long, Gaudí is said to have quipped: “My client is not in a hurry.” He had a reputation for not suffering fools. When he died in 1926, the basilica was only about 20 percent complete. After Gaudí’s death, work continued until interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Parts of the unfinished basilica and Gaudí’s models and workshop were destroyed and the present design a reconstructed version of his vision.

Construction is now funded by visitors and the final Cathedral is projected to be complete around 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death. However, we noticed that other information states 2028. For anyone who has personally experienced the charms of Spain, the humor is not lost. But, I’m guessing that if it’s not complete, they’ll make it look finished in 2026.

Inside the Sagrada Family. A feast for your eyes.
Inside the Sagrada Family. A feast for your eyes.

While writing this, I saw Paul Steel’s post and thought he had some really beautiful photos. Interestingly, i struggled with the same question (to comment or not on the ongoing construction of Sagrada Família and Spain’s overall work ethic.) Ultimately, I think we both agreed, like any country, the stereotype is personified. The people we met in Spain were friendly, hard working. I wouldn’t want to come off as disrespectful. And I am careful not to diminish new friendships by holding on to an old stereotype. I mean, I would hate for people to judge me based on what they read about Washington DC.