Exploring Washington on the Metro
Zachary M. Schrag, November 2007
When you arrive in Washington for the annual meeting, walk down the hill from the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel to Connecticut Avenue, where you will find a granite parapet surmounted by a glass canopy. A short escalator to a mezzanine and a second, 204-foot escalator will take you to the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station of the Washington Metro—a coffered concrete vault glowing with soft, indirect light. By this point, you should have some questions.
First, when was this system built? If you are used to rail transit in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, you probably think of a subway as something from the turn of the 20th century, all I-beams and rivets. But Metro evokes George Lucas more than John Sloan, and indeed it was not begun until 1969. (The Woodley Park station opened in 1981.) From a planning perspective, this means that Metro was a defiant rejection of freeway building, built at a time when most American families already owned cars. It replaced an elaborate highway scheme; it is thanks to Metro that you can walk from Woodley Park to the White House without crossing any freeways. From a political perspective, Metro construction was part of the Great Society—big government at its biggest.
This brings us to a second question: why does Metro look so impressive? In 1962, Daniel Patrick Moynihan persuaded President Kennedy to endorse the policy that federal architecture should "provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American Government." The federal agency then responsible for rapid transit in Washington took notice and hired Chicago architect Harry Weese to tour the subways of Europe and Asia and come back with a design that would "take its place among the most attractive in the world." The final design reflects Weese's search for monumentality and spaciousness, as well as the demand of the Commission of Fine Arts that the stations bear some connection to the formal classicism of Washington's older public buildings.
That commission was only one of many players in Metro's story, which touches on a third question: why is the Woodley Park station so deep? Earlier designs called for a bridge to be built alongside or even through the turn-of-the-20th-century Taft bridge, which crosses Rock Creek to the south of the station. But the National Park Service insisted on a tunnel below the creek, lowering the Woodley Park and Dupont Circle stations. Political considerations also explain the station's ungainly name. The words "Adams Morgan" were added in 1999 at the insistence of a District of Columbia council member, even though that neighborhood is a bit of a hike from the station. Politicians, agencies, and neighborhood groups have left their mark throughout the system. Carl Abbott has called Washington "political terrain," and that's not the easiest place to build a massive engineering project.
But the real question you should ask is where Metro can take you when you need to get away from the meeting for a few hours. Of course, the system gives you the freedom of the city, but let me, as an urban historian, point out a few of my favorite destinations on the Red Line:
1. Union Station. Designed by Daniel Burnham and opened in 1907, this terminal is a temple to an earlier age of rail travel. After World War II, passenger rail travel declined and Union Station declined with it, to the point that it had to be closed in 1981. But the station had its fans—Moynihan among them—and in the 1980s, Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole oversaw a spectacular renovation, with Weese in charge of historic preservation. Some critics complain that the new Union Station is too much like a shopping mall, but travel and commerce have always gone together, so take a look for yourself.
2. The National Building Museum. The Judiciary Square station, one stop from Union Station, served as the prototype for Metro's underground stations and remains one of the most beautiful realizations of Weese's basic design. It also has Metro's best exit: an escalator directly facing the south façade of a magnificent brick palazzo opened in 1887 to house the Pension Bureau. At its peak, the bureau consumed more than 40 percent of the federal budget and sent money to half a million Civil War veterans, as well as widows and orphans. Since 1985 the building has housed the National Building Museum (www.nbm.org). In January 2008, exhibits will feature the architecture of Africa as well as the work of David Macaulay and Marcel Breuer. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged.
3. The Uptown Theater. The Cleveland Park station, one stop north of Woodley Park, is near this 1936 Art Deco movie palace with a 70-foot-wide screen. Movies that would be dull in a multiplex and intolerable on a DVD may seem like masterpieces here.
4. Bethesda. There is plenty to eat in Washington itself, including the restaurants on the 18th Street strip of Adams Morgan, about a mile from the hotels. But if you want more choices, head to Bethesda. The www.downtownbethesda.com web site lists more than 150 restaurants, most of them within a few blocks of the Metro station. The only downside is that the county holds a monopoly on alcohol sales, making the wine lists less varied and more expensive than they could be.
Wherever you go on Metro, enjoy the ride. No public transit is immune from crowds, mechanical failure, and occasional rudeness, but for the most part Metro is comfortable, reliable, and pleasant. It shows what big plans can do.
—Zachary M. Schrag is an assistant professor of history at George Mason University and the author of The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).