WHAT IS IT? The Sites and sounds associated with one of America’s most famous locales, Pennsylvania Avenue, the street that connects the White House with the U.S. Capitol. Included along this storied route is the Old Post Office Building, once home to the U.S. Postal Service and still one of the tallest structures in Washington, D.C.
BEAUTY (7/10) Pierre L’Enfant’s diagonal-filled, European-inspired urban design of Washington, D.C. makes perfect sense as you look down the wide expanse of Pennsylvania Avenue and towards the Capitol building. The white dome shimmers in the distance with steadfast majesty attracting all attention. Parades and inaugural processions come alive; this is “America’s Main Street”.
The Old Post Office Building exists anonymously with its uninspiring name and forgettable architecture, Richardson Romanesque. But once you make an effort to notice it, the Building seems ubiquitous, sneaking into photos intended for the Washington Monument or the White House and beckoning you with its shy charm, saying “I may not look imposing but I’m really tall - the city’s largest habitable structure. Really, I am. I think. Give me a chance, I’m super fun!”
The Old Post Office comes alive once you step inside. Narrow arched columns stretch upward for a dozen stories. Light bathes the open interior brightening even the dreariest haze-filled D.C. summer afternoons. Elevators carry you up to a 270-foot tall observatory tower that affords grand vistas of the District’s myriad monuments and its designed quirkiness. This bird’s eye view reveals flaws in L’Enfant’s plan - isolated traffic jams and the resulting odd building configurations – but it sure looks dramatic, grand and, well, like a capital city.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10) 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is America’s most famous address. Someone mighty important lives there.
The Avenue holds memories of nearly 200 years worth of parades, pomp and protest. Every U.S. president since Thomas Jefferson has paraded down Pennsylvania from the Capitol to the White House post-Oath of Office. The funeral processions of seven of the eight presidents who died in office also marched down this grand avenue. This street’s history is also marked by countless protest marches and other democratic demonstrations.
Dozens of impossibly important federal government buildings line Pennsylvania Avenue’s shores: the Federal Trade Commission, the Treasury Department, the Department of Commerce, the IRS, the Department of Justice and FBI Headquarters. We prefer its more culturally appealing tenets like the National Gallery of Art, the National Theater, the National Archives and the Old Post Office Tower.
The Old Post Office Tower was completed in 1899 and outdated by 1914; the U.S. Postal Service seemingly was growing uncontrollably. By the 1970’s, the building had lost its luster and was scheduled for demolition. Luckily, the then chairwoman of the National Endowment of the Arts, Nancy Hanks, began a grassroots movement which saved the building for generations to come.
CROWDS (7/10) Pennsylvania Avenue is eight lanes wide and the lights are quick. If you pause to cross it, you may get stuck in its interior island. The traffic at the Old Post Office’s Observation Tower, however, is delightfully sparse. Especially when compared to the hordes at D.C.’s other tall structure, the Washington Monument. You will not reach the top of that soaring white obelisk unless you reserve tickets far in advance. At the Old Post Office, you get a similarly spectacular view without the wait, the pre-planning and the hassle. Consider yourself in on one of D.C.’s most helpful tourism secrets.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) Two D.C. Metro stations (Metro Center and Archives-Navy Memorial) representing all five train lines (Red, Blue, Orange, Yellow and Green) stop along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. All subway roads lead here. The Old Post Office is a few block south of the aptly named Metro Center station.
Parking might be tricky unless you are willing to spend the big bucks to go into a garage.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) We think there were a few books for sale at the base of the Old Post Office’s glass elevator’s. Hard to say; we were so eager to go up. However, in the Old Post Office’s current incarnation, its bottom two floors contain a food court and a souvenir-heavy shopping mall. It could be the world’s only mall for whom entry is dependent upon you passing through a metal detector and your baggage through an x-ray machine.
COSTS (5/5) The trip to the top of Washington, D.C. is free!
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5) No Rangers at all.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) There are a few unmemorable exhibit panels at the top of the Old Post Office Tower explaining its history. The official bells of the U.S. Congress are located inside the Tower and are viewable via a narrow staircase. Their ongoing functionality defies their shabby appearance.
There is no Pennsylvania Avenue NHS Visitor Center or museum. A Site would be nice but wholly unnecessary given the zillions of educational destinations Washington D.C. already boasts.
FUN (8/10) An observation tower is a helpful place to begin a trip to any large city. Our initial plan was to first visit the Washington Monument but the Old Post Office Tower’s proximity to the Metro Center subway stop changed things. Our detour proved serendipitous as the day’s last remaining Washington Monument tour tickets had been handed out at 7:00 a.m. The Monument’s ticket vendor told us this at 9:30 a.m.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) We had a short, sweet and wonderful time at the Old Post Office Tower. The views were spectacular, there was no wait and we satisfied our inner Charlie Bucket ambitions with a perilous glass elevator ride. We also achieved a perfect visual orientation for our day’s plans which were to walk until we dropped. The entire National Mall would be ours to conquer. Tally-ho.
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