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(2017 - Spring/Summer Issue)


What makes a great city? According to Urban Affairs Professor H.V. Savitch, it holds majesty and prominence, and is defined by its commercial power, cultural assets or military capacity.  

Washington, D.C., fits the bill, where all roads lead to the marble white U.S. Capitol, the legislature’s meeting ground. This city is the epicentre of American government, housing Congress, the Supreme Court, and yes, the White House. If I look at the capital in the dawn’s early light, I see the serenity and grandeur of a city befitting a nation that aspires to be the greatest.


My morning walk started from the United States Capitol, through National Mall, and on to the White House. The colossal Capitol Building is located at the mall’s east end. President George Washington, the founding father who selected the city site, laid the Capitol’s cornerstone in 1793, and in 1800 Congress moved in.  The originally 27-metre structure was the principal building around which all others were organized. Currently, the rotunda beneath the 55-metre dome is the principal ceremonial space for Congress.

The interior features Victorian elements such as elaborate fireplaces and intricate cast-iron grilles.  Richly coloured, patterned encaustic tiles cover the floor. Frescoes inside the Capitol Building are by Roman artist Constantino Brumidi, who painted murals in the Vatican before coming to the U.S. in 1852. Tour access to the Capitol is fairly simple, unlike other symbolic D.C. buildings.


In 1791, Major Pierre L’Enfant, a French engineer, master planned the city in a grid pattern with diagonal avenues, much like those seen in Paris. The master plan draws on baroque models, with anchored axes that clarify power centres such as the legislative and judiciary buildings. Pennsylvania Avenue, the primary axis, runs from the Capitol Building to the White House.  

L’Enfant designed a 1.6-kilometre-long Grand Avenue with open, green spaces that ran west from the congressional building. Today, this has evolved into the three-kilometre National Mall, one of the most ambitious urban landscapes in the world, lined with elm trees and the nation’s greatest monuments and museums. The mostly pristine parkland runs from the Capitol to the Potomac River, and includes landmarks such as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial with its masonry and concrete cylinder and Corinthian portico, which was inspired by the Roman Pantheon.

D.C.’s most notable column, the 169-metre-tall Washington Monument obelisk features a marble and masonry exterior and an aluminum capstone. Further down, the Lincoln Memorial at the mall’s west end serves as a counterpoint to the Capitol Building.

There are also grandiose Smithsonian buildings, America’s most exquisite collection of museums. Twelve museums are found across 11 city blocks. Frugal travellers should be delighted to know entrance is free.

The mall is the monumental core of Washington and attracts millions of visitors. The city’s architectural styles are diverse, ranging from neoclassical standouts like the Jefferson Memorial to minimalist, modern structures such as the  National Gallery East Building by legendary architect I.M. Pei. With its H-shaped, lavender-pink marble façade, this is one of the most distinct buildings in Washington.

Numerous events take place in the National Mall. This is America’s front yard, where people from all walks of life gather to tour, rally or just gaze at the confluence of nature and human-made structures.


Moving onto 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, America’s most famous house is geometrically diagonal to Capitol Hill. The building’s 18th-century British Colonial architecture features the work of Irish immigrant and artillery captain James Hoban who was inspired by a mid-18th-century Irish palace where Ireland’s current parliament is held. Except for George Washington, all U.S. presidents have lived in this storied building. Its semicircular south portico was added in 1824, creating the building’s signature façade. President Theodore Roosevelt formally named this residence the White House, back in 1902. The building not only represents the president, but the entire federal executive branch.

Simultaneously a source of national pride and political scorn, the White House has a diametrical quality. During my first visit to D.C. in the winter of 1994, I noticed a multitude of tourists having photos taken by the south lawn’s wrought-iron gates, as a handful of protesters tried to get their message across the great divide. Good photos from this location would now be a rarity, as the adjacent street is restricted from public access and large trees hide most of the south lawn’s view. The overwhelming security presence manifests how this famous house has evolved into a fortress over time.  


D.C. is an amalgamation of geometry and art, with its wide boulevards, grid pattern and extensive collection of outdoor sculptures. Alongside federal government buildings, D.C.’s tree-lined streets caress row houses, boutiques and restaurants. The row-house neighbourhoods are stitched well into the urban fabric as they create the bulk of city-centre housing. D.C. neighbourhoods are also well known for their tree canopies, some of which are over 150 years old.

Due to height restrictions, there are no skyscrapers so monuments tower over commercial structures. Washington, D.C., has a more than 200-year history; the federal city that was planted on the shores of the Potomac River now enjoys a sphere of influence stretching far beyond the nation’s shorelines. It has gallantly undergone urban development and now stands among the world’s most recognizable cities.


D.C. is more than a collection of buildings and monuments; it represents the very idea of American democracy.

Justitia omnibus—justice for all—is the motto for the metropolis. With the nearby 236-hectare Pentagon military headquarters and its Capitol Building where trillion-dollar spending bills are passed, this city on marshy lowlands is the seat of the greatest economic and military power in the world.

The star-spangled banner reigns over the city’s 176 square kilometres. Bodyguards in suits and sunglasses march on sidewalks, talking into microphones on their crisp sleeves. Black sport utility vehicles roll through lanes while flashing red-and-blue lights. Military helicopters fly in procession. These are everyday scenes in this capital.

Then, there are lively families strolling through the city and thousands of tourists pouring into monuments and museums armed with maps and cameras, trying to get the perfect photo before twilight. These visitors from across the nation and around the world give D.C. the distinction of being the second-most visited city in the U.S.  This is Washington, D.C.,  a unique global city that is definitely worth a visit.  


For more information, visit washington.org.

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