May 29, 2007
What brings tourists to Washington?
Spring and summer are tourist season in Washington. In the spring it’s the high school class trips. Summer brings the families, easily spotted by their casual clothes amid the dress-for-success-plus-comfortable-shoes locals, and by their dazed and baffled expressions as they consult maps. (Crossing a Capitol Hill street, I once overheard a conversation taking place behind me. A man with an English accent was saying to his friends, “They say that Washington’s laid out on a grid, and that once you understand the scheme, it’s easy to get around. But it’s not true.”)
Some people can’t stand tourists for the way they clog up intersections, sidewalks and restaurants.
I like tourists. They feel like a transfusion of fresh blood into an otherwise closed system. I not only like them, I find them inspiring. What’s inspiring is the reason I think they come here. It’s not for the fun or excitement. It’s not for the summer weather—hot and humid. We have no beaches, no resorts.
This is going to sound strange, given how we suppose people feel about government—“I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help you.”—but I’ve always thought tourists come here to visit their government.
My hunch is confirmed by a ranking of “America’s Favorite Architecture,” compiled by the American Institute of Architects, which I found through a column by Whitney Gould, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s urban landscape columnist. Six of the top ten, and eight of the top fifteen, are in Washington. No other city has more than two of the nation’s ten favorite buildings.
Part of the popular appeal of these buildings is doubtless based on their appearance. But only part. New York has many impressive buildings among the top 150 but just two in the top ten. San Francisco’s TransAmerica Pyramid is more striking than any of the Washington buildings (with the possible exception of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial), but it ranks only 62nd. The first Frank Lloyd Wright building, Fallingwater, is 29th. The first building by Daniel Burnham, Wannamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia, is 32nd. Philip Johnson’s top-ranked building, the Crystal Cathedral, is 65th. Frank Gehry’s Disney Music Hall is 99th, and Edward Durrell Stone’s Radio City Music Hall comes in at 100th.
The connection isn’t architectural, I don’t think, or even visual, but emotional. It’s because Washington is the seat of their national government. There’s something compelling about being in the city of Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and John F. Kennedy. This is the city to which demonstrations came a half-million strong to protest the war in Vietnam, where 300,000 listened to Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, the city where so many soldiers, sailors and Marines are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Is Washington not unique in this regard? Are there other capitals that draw millions of tourists, not just from their own countries but, like Washington, from abroad, to see a city whose only attraction is that it’s the national capital?
I was born and raised in Washington, and have lived the better part of my life here, the last few years within a mile or so of the Capitol. I’ve always felt that I was fortunate to live among the great buildings, to pass by them almost every day. Maybe that’s why I like tourists. They feel the same way.
Want to see the whole list of 150 structures? Look at “America’s Favorite Architecture.”
Check out Whitney Gould’s insightful consideration of the list, “Familiarity Breeds Fondness.”