Paul Will, 28, and Sally Parker, 23, stand shivering in the middle of a windswept Alexandria parking lot. Gulls swoop all around them and the Potomac River glints in the background, but they don't notice: They're too busy looking up.
Jane Richter of Springfield and her sons Jimmy, five, and Timmy, four, are standing nearby. They're looking up, too.
Not far away, sitting on the hood of a blue Chevy, is Louis Montano, 19, formerly of Brazil, now of Arlington.
He is pensive, smoking a cigarette -- and looking up.
The reason was plain to see: There were planes to see. To people in the parking lot were standing underneath a National Airport flight path. When the jets thunder by every minute or so they fly so low the ground seems to shake, and so close you can count the rivets on their wings. At night, says frequent visitor Sally Parker, "You see those lights coming right at you -- it's like something out of 'Close Encounters.'"
Parker and the others have discovered a fact long known by astronomers and birdwatchers: Some of the most interesting sights in the city are not on the ground. Washington's full of unexpected pleasures that can be appreciated only by standing back, craning your neck -- and looking up.
Once you start staring, the surprises are endless. Streetlights, you will discover, are not always dull gray and shaped like L-brackets. Humdrum office buildings you pass every day turn out to be fancifully decorated with carved lions or gargoyles or eagles (one apartment building on Connecticut Avenue even has parrots). You may have gone to the National Zoo a hundred times, but if you've never looked up at the roof of the Monkey House you've missed seeing some of most endearing animal sculpture in the city.
You'd miss all of this if you didn't look up.
Not to belabor the obvious, but looking up has been known to be inspirational. "I look up a lot," said an Adams-Morgan woman who prides herself on her detailed knowledge of Washington's skyline. "I guess because I used to look down a lot, when I was fat. As I got thinner I got more into looking up. It gives you a new perspective. One morning I was walking through the zoo, which I walk through every Saturday morning to see my psychiatrist so she can depress me, and way up at the top of a tree I saw two tiny little lesser pandas, all curled up together.
"There's always something like that -- stalactites under bridges, neon signs at night, the occasional cat caught in a tree. Ice is the best, on tree branches when the sun comes through."
You'll have to find your own icicles and kittens, but we can guide you to some of Washington's more permanent aerial attractions. MURALS. People who ride up the Metro Center escalator with their noses buried in the morning paper miss seeing a startingly realistic, 45-foot-high canyon scene painted on the side of a neighboring wall. Carol Nordgren's "Howdy from Metro Canyon" is a present to Metro riders from the D.c. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Look up and you'll find other examples of high art -- classical columns and archways painted on the wall at the Gallery Place stop, a geometric bicycle on the Big Wheel Bikes building (1034 33rd Street NW) in Georgetown, a Picassoish montage at 18th and Columbia Road in Adams-Morgan ("A people without murals are a demuralized people," it tells you), the Ontario Theater logo at 17th and Columbia, in rainbow colors with film reels for Os. ZOO SCULPTURE. Some of the most appealing animals at the National Zoo aren't in cages. Three stone bear cubs, four fox cubs and two bobcats, sculpted in 1907, are perched atop the green-and-purple tile roof of the National Zoo's Monkey House. And stone turtles, toads, a mosaic dinosaur and assorted lizards and frogs of the '30s cavort around the 25-foot-high doorway of the Reptile House. STREETLIGHTS. Iron eagles flutter from the tops of the 10-foot-high lampposts on Connecticut Avenue's Taft Bridge. As Washington streetlights go, these are some of the best. Others are more flamboyant: the pagoda-like lights at the foot of the Capitol's west lawn, or the many-pronged lamps, like old-fashioned engagement-ring settings, outside the Library of Congress. Some are delicate and almost hidden from view, like the three elegantly simple wrought-iron lampposts on Tilden Street NW as you leave Rock Creek Park. Down Constitution Avenue the lights are understated and pretty -- double globes on gray tapered posts. Madison Drive behind the Air and Space Museum has a row of cylindrical lights. WEATHERVANES. Once upon a time, a building wasn't considered complete until a weathervane was installed on its rooftop. Several lovely examples of this ancient art form are still around -- a pointy-hatted, turn-of-the-century witch riding a broomstick on top of the Eastern Star Masonic Home at Eastern and New Hampshire Avenues NE, and a lacy filigreed vane at the National City Christian Church at Thomas Circle.
One of the best is George Washington's Bird of Peace. The future president knew just what he wanted when he ordered the wrought-iron, copper-covered vane (the gold leaf is a recent addition) from Philadelphia in July 1787: "I should like to have a bird . . . with an olive branch in its Mouth," he wrote. "The bird need not be large (for I do not except that it will traverse with the wind and therefore may receive the real shape of a bird, with spread wings). The point of the spire not to appear above the bird." The result, which set Washington back 24 pounds, 7 shillings, can be seen on top of Mount Vernon. GLASS ELEVATORS. The Hyatt Regency Hotel on the Hill (400 New Jersey Avenue NW) and the White Flint shopping mall in Rockville add an extra dimension to elevator riding: see-through walls. Watch the people going up watch the people on the ground. Another one, so understated that you might take it for another display window or miss it altogether. Raleigh's on Connecticut Avenue. ARCHITECTURAL SCULPTURE. Back before the K Street school of architecture took hold, Washington's office buildings were worth looking up to. Some of them are still around -- the Southern Building at 15th and H NW with its carved, roaring lions, or the Colorado Building at 14th and G, which has two majestic eagles guarding its entrance. Look way up to see the row of lions' heads under its roofline.
The stately old apartment buildings along Connecticut Avenue take aerial art to new heights. 2101 Connecticut Avenue sports a row of stone parrots and, above them, a line of lions. The Kennedy-Warren, at 3133 Connecticut, has Art Deco eagle carvings. One of the most lavishly decorated buildings along the avenue, the Sedgwick Garden at 3726, is home to an assortment of semi-nude women (three of whom are riding stallions), two more women (dressed) clutching medieval staffs, a row of little cat heads and four Deco-style lamps resembling lighthouse beacons -- "perhaps to guide the residents back safely in their Packards and LaSalles from the speakeasies of the era," writes James C. Goode in his wonderfully detailed study, The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C.
There's usually a story behind the ornamentation. The 33 carved human heads above the second-story windows at the Library of Congress take on new meaning when you learn that they are an 1891 salute to the races of the world -- they cover every type from Blonde European to Pueblo Indian.The nine empty niches on the second story of Renwick were, from 1885 to 1900, the homes of seven-foot-high marble statues of "The Great Artists and Sculptors of the World" -- Michelangelo, Durer, etc. (The two statues there now, of Murillo and Rubens, are copies made in 1974.) The originals were sold around the turn of the century and are now in Richmond and Norfolk.
Perhaps the richest source of architectural sculpture in the city: The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, aka the Washington Cathedral (Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues NW). More then 3,000 handcarved sculptures, representing forms from all of nature, enrich its walls, doorways, ceilings, vaults and towers. WORLD POPULATION CLOCK, corner of N and Connecticut, below Dupont Circle. Look up the next time you walk past the triangular building and see how fast we're proliferating -- at the rate of 172 people a minute, according to the frenetically clicking clock. STARGAZING. The stars are out tonight, and you don't need a fancy telescope to appreciate them. Miriam Miranian, astronomer at the National Observatory, says the heavens will be ablaze with visible planets in the coming weeks: Right after sunset Venus glitters in the southwest; from 8 to 9, Jupiter lights the more subdued red Mars in the southwest; Mercury hides low in the west after sunset until February 25 and Gemini, the twins, can be seen from 8 to 10. Almost overhead, Castor winks alongside the more conservative, yellowish Pollux.
Watch that space: Halley's Comet is due back in November 1985. BIRDWATCHING. Winter is the best time for novices to begin birdwatching, because there are fewer birds and it's easier to see them; in summer you tend to have to identify them by their calls. Some of the best skies to stake out, says Anne Macglashan of the Audubon Society, are above Glover Archbold Park, Dumbarton Oaks Park, Montrose Park (especially in spring) and all along Rock Creek. FLAGS.Walk down Pennsylvania Avenue around the White House and you can tell when the president has company: Tiny flags hang from nearby lampposts. Or walk down Massachusetts Avenue between Sheridan Circle and the Vice President's house and see how many embassies you can identify by their flags. NEON SIGNS. Some of the city's most whimsical -- and unexpected -- works of art are located over shop windows, and they're at their colorful best at night. Smull's emblem (1606 20th Street NW near Dupont Circle) celebrates the heart. Eagle Wine and Liquor (3345 M Street NW in Georgetown) has -- what else -- flapping eagles. There's a yellow Peking duck with a flashing red eye at the Empress, 1875 Connecticut NW, and an eternally waltzing couple above the Vic Daumit Dance Studio, 3333 Connecticut NW. That one used to flash too, in its heyday -- about 30 years ago. CLOCKS. Clocks are not just for telling time. The clock at the National Zoo headquarters building is decorated with animals and plays songs too.The Hecht Company clock, a heavy square affair, juts out over the sidewalk at Seventh and F NW. A lovely round Victorian clock with Roman numerals sits at the top of a triple-story bay window at the National Savings & Trust Building, 15th Street and New York Avenue NW. CIRCUS ACTS. Those daring young (and old) men (and women) on the flying trapezes of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus are coming to the D.C. Armory soon. They'll perform from March 26 to April 7. Call 364-5000 for ticket information. DUPONT CIRCLE STATION. Fast becoming one of the most overly photographed scenes in the city, but still impressive: the dramatic view from the foot of the Dupont Circle Metro station's escalator. CEILINGS. The lobby of the 1928-era Southern Railway building (920 15th Street NW) has an ornate, recessed gilt ceiling that is carved into octagon shapes decorated with gold starbursts. (Look up at the large bronze, Deco-style floors lamps -- they look like big martini glasses -- while you're there.) "Ceiling" is an underwhelming word to describe the tops of the rooms in the Library of Congress's grand hall, but for lack of a better one . . . . iPick any spot at random and you'll find a mosaic, mural or interesting inscription to decipher in the dim light. "The web of life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together," one panel begins. "God sends the thread . . ." TURRETS & TOWERS. Admirers of spires, minarets, cupolas, pinnacles, dormers, cones, finials, cornices, eybrows and all that's fancy on buildings don't need to be told this, but Washington architecture is rich in Gothic and Victorian embellishments. Some of the memorable turrets around town can be found on the Heurich House (now the Columbia Historical Society) at New Hampshire and 20th, the Smithsonian Castle on Jefferson Drive SW, and the wonderfully ornate National Savings and Trust building at 15th and New York Avenue NW. The roofline of the 1830-vintage Washington Street Methodist Church (109 South Washington Street, Alexandria) is especially impressive. Bay and bow windows abound on the rowhouses in the Logan, Washington and Dupont Circle areas. As for spires, take your pick -- the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (9th and Independence SW), the old Post Office (12th and Pennsylvania), Washington Cathedral (wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues NW) and Georgetown University's Healy Hall are famous for them. Some of the most stirring can be found on the neo-Gothic, red standstone Luther Place Memorial Church at 1226 Vermont Avenue NW (Thomas Circle). THE AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM, a goldmine. Dangling from the ceiling are such famous planes as the Wright Brothers' Kitty Hawk "Flyer," Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis," a 25,000-pound DC-3 (the largest plane they've got), "Glamorous Glennis," the first plane to break the speed of sound (in 1947), and a North American X-15, the plane that bridged the gap between aircraft and spacecraft. PLEASURE DOMES. Sure it's obvious, but no up list would be complete without a mention of the Library of Congress or Capitol domes -- inside and out. That lithe figure on top of the Capitol dome is a 14,985-pound lady called "Freedom." Squint and see if you can make out the sword, shield and wreath she carries. The finishing touch on the Library of Congress dome is a bronze flame representing knowledge. Inside the dome's gilded inner shell rises 125 feet, and the view from the floor of the main reading room is considered by many to be among the loveliest in the city.
Not as well known, but definitely worth a cricked neck, is the silvery dome at the top of a yellow, Victorian-style Navy Department building at 23rd and E Streets NW. Look carefully: a slit in the dome shows that once it was able to open and close (it also rotated). This was the location of the Naval Observatory before fog (they didn't call it Foggy Bottom for nothing) and city lights forced its move to Massachusetts Avenue in 1893.
Other notable domes can be found at the tops of St. Matthew's Cathedral (1725 Rhode Island Avenue NW), the Renwick Gallery (17th and Pennsylvania), the Willard Hotel (14th and Penn) and the Botanic Gardens (1st and Canal Streets SW). MODEL ROCKETRY. What's up at Goddard Space Flight Center? Plenty, between 1 and 2 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of the month, when area model rocket enthusiasts of all ages launch their creations. Some of the homemade devices can soar hundreds of feet. To get to Goddard, take Beltway exit 28 and follow the signs. The space center is open to visitors Wednesday through Sunday, 10 t 4. Call 344-7000. GREAT FALLS. Seeing a waterfall from underneath can be a rush. When the water's at a low point, says a Park Service staffer, many people at Great Falls climb down the gap called Fisherman's Eddy, between the first and second overlooks on the Virginia side of the Falls, for just such a treat. COMING ATTRACTIONS. Come spring, the skies become cluttered with kites, stuntmen and assorted other flying objects. This year the Smithsonian's kite festival takes place March 22; call 381-5157 for registration information. The Bealeton Flying Circus Aerodome show runs from May through October over Warrenton (call 703/439-8661). This May 10 is Armed Forces Day Open House at Andrews Air Force Base, and the Air Force's Thunderbirds and Army's Golden Knights jumping team will be there (the Thunderbirds will fly there May 9 as well, and at Langley Air Force Base on May 3). And the U.S. Navy's flight team, the Blue Angels, are scheduled to fly at the Annapolis Naval Academy May 26.