a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, November 16, 2007

D.C. from behind bars

There is a way to an awesome birds-eye view of the nation’s capitol without having to wait in long lines at the beloved Washington Monument.

First, duck into the basement of the Old Post Office Pavilion, where a glass elevator departs every five minutes for free tours of a giant tower, which makes the building the third largest in the city.

“It’s kind of like a hidden gem with a great view of D.C.,” National Park Service ranger George McHugh said on a chilly Dec. 12 afternoon when there were just three people on the top deck of the 315 stone tower.

The massive building stands on Pennsylvania Avenue about halfway between the U.S. Capitol and White House. It was constructed between 1892 and 1899 in the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture, which was popular at the time in American cities. But 15 years later, the post office with a massive glass-covered central courtyard had become obsolete because the volume of mail in the United States had increased at a rapid rate.
The last postal workers were relocated from the building in 1934 and it was quickly abandoned prior to its pending demolition, a plan that was stalled as the government fell short of money heading into the Great Depression.

For decades, the landmark fell into disrepair while preservationists debated the building’s fate with those who considered it an eyesore and wanted it erased from the landscape.

Lawmakers eventually earmarked money for demolition in the 1970s but their plan drew protest marchers to the sidewalks in a movement to save it from the wrecking ball. The publicity helped to spur restorations on what is now considered a classic downtown monument worthy of exploration.

The elevator, which offers a dizzying view of the offices and street-level mall, lets off passengers on the ninth floor.

Signs guide them around a tiny museum and a room where volunteers periodically ring the The Congress Bells, which were a bicentennial gift from Britian. They ring out a pitch and tone similar to bells in Westminster Abbey in London.

A second elevator whisks visitors to the observation deck on the 12th floor that overlooks office buildings with lush rooftop patio gardens, the Washington Monument and the city’s sprawling blocks of buildings, none of which are taller than 120 feet. City official in 1910 limited the height of buildings because the fire department’s ladders were no taller than 120 feet.

The 555-foot Washington Monument is the tallest structure in D.C. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is just 16 feet taller than the old post office.

The pavilion tower, meanwhile, is enclosed in bars of thin cables and plexiglass to keep the pigeons out and “the people in,” McHugh said, while thanking the visitors for stopping buy.

Nancy Hawks, the woman who led the 1970s protest to save the old post office, said it best, “Old buildings are like old friends … They encourage people to dream about their cities, to think before they build, to consider alternatives before they tear down.”

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