Film Photography, History

It’s about 1948, and you’re looking over the National Mall in Washington, DC

Among the Kodachrome slides that belong to my mother in law are several from a trip to Washington, DC. Guessing from a number of clues among the entire set of slides I scanned, I think they’re from about 1948. Certainly no earlier than 1947, and no later than about 1953.

Three photos probably taken from the observation deck of the Washington Monument show a very different National Mall than we experience today. The Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool, and the US Capitol and the grassy areas before it, were there. But so were a number of buildings not present today. Check it out:


The buildings on the left are a grassy area today. The buildings on the right have given way to Constitution Gardens and its pond. These buildings remind me of other buildings I’ve seen only in photographs that were built hastily as office space in support of World War II.

The Vietnam War obviously hadn’t happened yet, but it would happen, and eventually the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would be built beyond the buildings on the right. Finally, the National World War II Memorial would be built some 55 years hence, replacing the small pool before the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.


Looking east toward the Capitol, you can see that most of the Smithsonian museums haven’t been built yet. More of those anonymous-looking buildings stand beyond the Smithsonian Castle at center right. That’s where the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian would eventually go.


One last Kodachrome from atop the Washington Monument shows Virginia Avenue and the Potomac River. The set of buildings in the bottom right corner is the Department of the Interior.

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Photography, Stories Told

The time I accidentally wandered onto the set of Forrest Gump

There’s a scene at the Lincoln Memorial in the movie Forrest Gump. It’s the one where Forrest and Jenny run through the reflecting pool to embrace. Here’s a still:


Unbelievably, on my 1993 trip to DC I came upon what remained of the shoot. I didn’t know what movie it was for at the time, of course. But I did photograph enough of the scene to prove now that it was Forrest Gump. Check the TV truck in the lower right of the photo above. It’s in my photo below, lower left.

Lincoln Memorial, 1993

It sports a logo of WTOP-TV, an actual Washington, DC, television station (that has since changed call letters to WUSA). It’s a period-correct logo. Here is a video of an ID and the opening minutes of a newscast from this period:

On the ground that summer day in 1993, I wondered why a television station would use such an old truck. And then I noticed the construction debris, and wondered if I’d wandered onto a set being struck.

Lincoln Memorial, 1993

It was exciting to see Forrest Gump in the theater and realize I’d missed this scene’s filming by probably only a couple of days.

Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is at its most stunning at night. It is carefully lit in a neutral bright light.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln himself is lit in cooler light, and it highlights him. That and his immensity draw people to him.

Lincoln Memorial

If you see nothing else at the National Mall, see Lincoln. He really is compelling.

Lincoln Memorial

His space is remarkable, too, especially at night. The signs all ask for visitors quiet reverence, but even when they ignore the signs the space’s stark airiness creates that reverence in you.

Lincoln Memorial

The glass ceiling tiles are the only light that isn’t neutral or cool in this space, and they stand in contrast.

Lincoln Memorial

From here it’s easy to see the Washington Monument, itself lit in the night.

Lincoln Memorial

Canon PowerShot S95

Photography, Road Trips

The Lincoln Memorial at night

A photoessay: a series on the Lincoln Memorial at night. This is when the memorial is at its most stunning.

Road Trips

Where Lincoln first entered Illinois

I just love to find an old brick road. This one used to be US 50 as it entered Illinois after crossing the Wabash River from Vincennes, Indiana.

Brick segments of old US 50

Notice how the fellow who owns that house parks his cars on the old highway? A roadgeek’s dream! Here’s the road headed west into Illinois. Notice how it flows right into the modern road ahead, a sure sign that this is the old alignment.

Brick segments of old US 50

The bridge that used to connect to this brick road has been gone since the 1930s. I found this postcard image of that bridge. One part of the bridge was a steel arch truss, and another part was a wooden covered bridge!

Since 1933, a series of grand arches has linked Vincennes to Illinois. Here’s the bridge from the Vincennes side. But even this is no longer US 50; the road bypasses town to the north and crosses the Wabash over a bridge named after Red Skelton, who grew up here.

Wabash River bridge, Vincennes

There are lots of photos of this bridge on the Internet, but I’ve yet to see any taken from the Illinois side. I’ve corrected that problem here.

Lincoln Memorial Bridge

I didn’t think much about how the 1933 bridge rose so high above the river until someone commented on one of these photos on Flickr that the area looked pretty good for having been under water so many times. The most recent flood was in June of 2008. Several square miles were under water in Illinois, including the old brick road and the house of that fellow who parked his cars on the bricks. (Suddenly, parking my car there didn’t seem so attractive anymore.) But the 1933 bridge was never under water.

This monument, which stands near the end of the bridge on the Illinois side several feet above the old brick road, wasn’t under water either. When young Abraham Lincoln crossed into Illinois, he and his family did it near this spot, and this monument commemorates it. It felt very cool to walk ground Lincoln walked.

Lincoln memorial

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Washington, DC

I hadn’t been to DC since before my children were born, and that time wasn’t even supposed to happen. I was in Maryland for training and the instructor got sick. Unexpectedly having the day to myself, I boarded a Metro train and spent the day walking the National Mall, taking in the monuments. One day wasn’t nearly enough and I’ve wanted to return ever since.

My 12-year-old son is hurtling headlong into his teenage years, but he’s not so far gone yet that I’ve become uncool. Wishing to enjoy my stature while it lasts and get in some good father-son bonding, I decided that my sons and I should make a long car trip. DC was far enough away to be an adventure, but not so far away that the drive would be a drag. So when spring break came this year, we loaded up my little car and headed east.

The DC weather could have been better. We didn’t get to see everything we wanted to because it was either raining or cold and windy. We did arrive at the height of cherry blossom season, so the city was full of blooms.

US Capitol

I find the US Capitol building to be awe inspiring, just a stunningly beautiful building. My last trip to DC was years before 9/11, so you could, and I did, walk into the Capitol and just wander around.  Today, you have to get tickets in advance for a guided tour. I arranged for the tour, on which we learned that the dome weighs nine tons!

US Capitol

There’s plenty to see inside the Capitol, but when I got home I found I had taken more photos of ceilings than of anything else. The Capitol has some wicked ceilings.

Inside the US Capitol

This is part of the dome from the inside. I thought that the line of people around the edge were some sort of carving until the tour guide explained that it was a painting. The four artists who painted it sure achieved some depth!

Inside the US Capitol

My other favorite stop in DC, two miles west at the other end of the Mall, is the Lincoln Memorial. I think I could just sit at Mr. Lincoln’s feet all day, looking up at him, studying his face.

Lincoln Memorial

We wanted to tour Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, but the lines were so long and the winds were so strong and cold that we settled for exterior photographs and then got hot chocolate at a nearby Starbucks. The building is so big, and the street it’s on is so narrow, that even my 28 mm lens couldn’t capture it all. I took several photos in sequence and let Autostitch patch them together.

Ford's Theater

We spent a whole morning in the National Air and Space Museum. A family story is that my mother’s father, a mechanical engineer who specialized in designing brakes and airplane landing gears, was on the top-secret team to design the landing gear for the Apollo 11 lunar landing module. I was delighted that the museum had it on display.

National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC

We also spent some time in the National Museum of the American Indian. I was hoping to see something about the Potawatomi there since we have some of that blood in our family, but no luck. The building’s exterior is cool, and stands in sharp contrast to the nearby Capitol.

National Museum of the American Indian

We also stopped by the White House. The boys really wanted to go inside, but you have to give six months’ notice and have the recommendation of your senator or representative. We settled for taking photos from the fence.

The White House

We stayed in a hotel in College Park, Maryland, and rode the train into town each day. Our stop was right next to the Navy Memorial. My dad’s father, James W. Grey, was a navy man, as was my father, James W. Grey, Jr., making me the only James W. Grey in the family not to have served in the Navy. Since this was where we began and ended our days in DC, it seems appropriate to end with this photo.

Navy Memorial

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