A Late Bloomer on the Mall

Over the past week, there has been a celebrity drawing crowds to the Botanic Garden.

It’s a rare plant from the rain forests of Sumatra known as the titan arum – growing up to twelve feet in height, and boasting one of the largest flowers in the world. The catch is that it rarely ever blooms – from once every few years to once every few decades.

When it does, it releases the stench of death far and wide. And then the bloom withers away within a day or two.

That’s how it earns its other name – “the corpse flower” – which is also the name of the next Tim Burton film.

A flowering titan arum has only been in display in the U.S. a few times, and the last time it was at the Botanic Gardens was in 2007.

The titan arum in full bloom.
The titan arum in full bloom.

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D.C.’s Tallest Nightlight

With the flick of a switch, things got a little brighter on the National Mall tonight.

At dusk the National Park Service officially lit up the Washington Monument, which has been fully encased in aluminum scaffolding since May.

It’s part of the multi-million dollar repair job needed after the East Coast earthquake of August 2011, which caused significant damage to a number of D.C. landmarks – including our city’s first and most visible monument.

The Washington Monument a few weeks before the illumination, lit by the supermoon.

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Pre-Occupied D.C.

A tent city of protesters springs up in our nation’s capital during a severe economic downturn. After several months of Bonus Army Posteroccupying government property and the public’s imagination, the protesters are finally evicted as police raid the camps and destroy the temporary shantytowns.

While this might be ripped from today’s headlines, I’m not talking about the end of the Occupy D.C. movement, which has spent the past several months camped in the city’s McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza parks.

This is the story of D.C.’s very first group of occupiers (not counting the British during the War of 1812) – the Bonus Army, which staked its tents in our nation’s capital eighty years ago.

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Unbuilt Washington

In conversation, some things are better left unsaid – and in the Historic District, some things are better left unbuilt.

That’s the unspoken commentary behind a new exhibit that opened at the National Building Museum this past weekend. “Unbuilt Washington” explores the monuments and buildings – and occasional Venetian-style canal – that might have graced the District, if only they had made it past the drawing board.

There’s the colossal pyramid honoring Abraham Lincoln, or the medieval-style Memorial Bridge dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant, or the new executive mansion built further up 16th Street, atop Meridian Hill.

The U.S. Grant Memorial Bridge
The U.S. Grant Memorial Bridge

As a D.C. guide, I thought this exhibit was a pretty fascinating tour of an alternate Washington. And with Thanksgiving approaching, I was also left feeling grateful that some of these outlandish structures were left unbuilt – either through lack of funds, shifting priorities, or public outcry.

The exhibit reminds you that from its inception, the federal capital has presented a veritable blank slate for architectural imaginations and often competing notions of national expression.

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Fixing America’s Front Yard

My tours of D.C. usually begin at the place that all visitors, both international and domestic, have ultimately come to Washington to see – the White House.

But when we arrive, many of my groups actually don’t recognize one of the most famous buildings in the world. They’re surprised and a little disappointed when I point out the President’s house.

White House - North Side
The White House’s north side, seen from Lafayette Park

“It doesn’t look the way I remember it,” or “It looks smaller than it does on TV,” are the two most common responses I hear.

That’s because I take my groups through Lafayette Park to the north side of the White House. This is technically the front entrance. With its portico and circular driveway, the north side faces the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 16th Street, giving the residence its famous address.

It’s the back, or south side, that most people recognize from movies and postcards. It has the curved façade and Truman balcony, and opens onto the President’s back yard.

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Law and Order in the District

When you’re a tour guide in Washington, D.C., you never know what you’ll encounter. Any given day, the nation’s capital plays host to all kinds of groups, protests, parades, and commemorations.

One Sunday a couple of weeks ago, I was guiding a Japanese tour through the city when we encountered a pretty unusual sight in front of the Capitol building. A row of about 25 policemen on horses, lined up across the National Mall.

Police Officers on Horseback

The officers were from all different regions of the country, wearing distinct state uniforms and riding different breeds of horses.

It made a great sight, especially with the statue of Civil War General and President Ulysses S. Grant astride his own horse looming just behind them.

Turns out, it was National Police Week, and that Sunday was Peace Officers Memorial Day.

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Floodgate

It’s often said that Washington, D.C. was built on a swamp – usually in August, when the humidity in the District is unbearable. While that’s not entirely true, the Georgetown waterfront certainly looks like one right now.

The Potomac River flooded after a weekend of heavy rains, and by Monday the river had risen up to 12 feet.

Normally floodwalls are raised to protect Washington Harbour, the restaurant and office complex on the waterfront. The modern floodwalls were part of the original construction, and have been used successfully dozens of times since they were built in 1986.

But this time, a section of the wall wasn’t raised early enough. Muddy water gushed into the Harbour complex, which is conveniently shaped like a crescent bowl.

Washington Harbour Flooding
Washington Harbour flooding (Photo: Alex Greenlee, DCist)

A week later on Earth Day, the Harbour is still closed as a clean-up crew deals with the effects of Mother Nature.

Of course, this all got me thinking about historic floods in the District.

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