The Old Post Office Tower
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, July 20, 2012
The National Park Service announced last week that the Washington Monument may be closed until 2014 for repairs to damage from last year’s earthquake, no doubt disappointing tourists who wanted to see the capital city from 555 feet above the center of the Mall -- and the hosts who’d hoped to show off the city’s finest bird’s-eye view.
So where to take guests who want to see Washington from above, or locals who want to take in the city in a different way?
The tower of the Old Post Office Pavilion, right on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
For many locals, memories of the Post Office Pavilion revolve not around the tower but around its food court, where tour buses would drop off entire middle-school classes and where you could buy cheap Chinese food or pizza for lunch before cruising the overpriced souvenir stands. When I visited the tower at lunchtime a few weeks ago, I hadn’t been to the top of the building in more than a decade.
Looking out at the 360-degree view of the city and the suburbs spread out in the distance, I wondered why I hadn’t. From the observation tower, 270 feet above the street, there were clear views of everything -- from the National Basilica to the National Cathedral to Arlington National Cemetery.
My favorite scene: the unexpected elegance of the crescent-shaped Ariel Rios federal building across 12th Street NW with the Lincoln and World War II memorials just beyond.
In contrast to the Washington Monument, with its pretty, parklike views of the Mall, the Old Post Office Tower never lets you forget you’re in a city. It offers an unobscured view of the Capitol dome at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, past the fluttering flags of the Canadian Embassy. The White House is hidden by the Willard Hotel and the Treasury Department. And you can see which office buildings offer employees rooftop picnic tables and gardens. (You lucked out, 1101 Pennsylvania Ave.)
The views are relatively unencumbered. On three of the square tower’s four sides, rows of thin wire are all that separate you from the elements. The wires are spaced far apart enough to allow for easy, wire-free camera-phone photos; with a wider lens, it’s easier to get clear shots from the ends of the rows of wire. The tower’s fourth side, which faces south to the Mall and overlooks the pavilion’s glass-roofed atrium, is a wall of plastic so that nothing can fall and damage the glass below.
Here’s the clincher: Unlike the better-known monument -- and the less frequently open tower at the National Cathedral -- taking in the sights from the top of the Post Office Pavilion is free and requires no reservations. Just show up.
If you have time, check out the exhibition on the seventh floor that tells the story of the construction of the 19th-century building and a campaign in the 1970s to save the then-empty structure from the wrecking ball. It’s worth a few minutes, especially to see the enormous Bells of Congress -- replicas of the bells of Westminster Abbey that were given to the United States as a bicentennial gift. (If you want to hear the bells in action, skip the somewhat grainy movie and come back on a Thursday night at 8, when you can stand outside and hear the Washington Ringing Society practicing.)
One word to the wise: You wouldn’t expect it, but you must go through airport-style screenings to enter the Post Office Pavilion. All bags are X-rayed, you have to walk through a metal detector, and you’re advised to take off your belt and put it in a tray.
But for this view, it’s worth it.