It was the latest in a series of inviting changes in the nation's capital — a city that was once as famous for its crime rate and slums as for its cultural institutions and high-powered politicians. Despite its long history as a tourist destination, downtown Washington was avoided by many visitors and residents after dark. The Washington Post said D.C. had come to stand for "Deserted City."
But a downtown renaissance — coupled with new attractions and museums in the city and beyond — has revitalized the area. Stylish restaurants, nightclubs, theaters and brew pubs are drawing crowds to the capital at night. And during the day, visitors can choose from a host of new activities as well as see the sights that have drawn tourists for generations.
The Museum of the American Indian, the first museum to open on the National Mall since 1987, is the most imposing of the new offerings — a $219-million homage to the Western Hemisphere's Native peoples. But other additions to the city and environs also have brought freshness and vitality.
In the Penn Quarter neighborhood just north of the Mall, district workers and tourists dine on tapas at trendy restaurants such as Jaleo, glimpse the dark fury of "Macbeth" at the Shakespeare Theatre and test their espionage skills at the International Spy Museum.
On the Mall, tourists swarm the National World War II Memorial night and day, despite criticism preceding and following its opening in spring.
Outside the city near Washington Dulles International Airport, visitors stand awestruck in front of the Space Shuttle Enterprise and other historic aircraft at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, named after its main benefactor. It's a mammoth addition to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
I visited the nation's capital twice in the last six months to sample its flourishing cultural scene and tour some of its new museums and attractions. Guided by a friend who spends his days as a button-down D.C. civil servant, I saw vibrant night life, from hip ethnic clubs and restaurants to clubby old-line watering holes.
I visited lively neighborhoods such as Penn Quarter, Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle — hot real estate markets where condos, lofts and row houses come with million-dollar-plus price tags. And I walked miles at night through tourist areas and bustling neighborhoods without worrying about becoming a crime statistic.
That's not to say the District is crime-free. It's still among the nation's most violent cities. But in recent years it has increased police presence on the streets and now has more officers per capita than any other large U.S. city. They're out and visible. And there are enough people on the street to encourage strollers and discourage thugs.
Although the night life was entertaining, nothing can top D.C.'s world-class museums. I didn't waste any time during the day, when most Smithsonian Institution facilities are open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and free.
Oddly enough, the man who started it all, James Smithson, never visited the United States. He was a British scientist who bequeathed $500,000 to the U.S. in 1829 to establish an institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." The Smithsonian — with 18 museums and the National Zoo — eventually became the largest such complex in the world, drawing 24 million visitors last year.
American Indian museum
The newest of the Smithsonian's jewels was my first stop: the National Museum of the American Indian. It is unlike any other Smithsonian facility, from its sweeping design to its eclectic collections. There are no Doric columns on the outside; no timelines or other standard historical fare on the inside. The museum is "of the people," with hundreds of tribes solicited for input.
The honey-colored limestone building, designed to look like an outcropping of weathered bedrock, stands out from its neighbors on the Mall. So do the crops — corn, beans and squash — planted outside. The museum occupies the last space available on the Mall and faces east, the direction of the rising sun and the nearby Capitol.
As I walked around the dramatic structure, it started to rain and I hurried inside, moving through a circular rotunda that soars 120 feet to a huge sky-lighted dome described as "the sun of the building's universe."
Symbols seemed to be everywhere.
The open dome pays homage to the smoke holes of Native dwellings; the interior spaces of the museum — most circular — speak of Native gatherings or storytelling sessions; the curved exterior walls recall the wind-shaped rock formations of the Southwest.
I moved on to the fourth floor, where the tour began with a multimedia presentation in a domed theater. Images of the Western Hemisphere's Native peoples — from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego in South America — were projected onto a screen and the circular ceiling. Videotaped snippets of conversation helped make the museum's message clear: "We do not claim the land," said a Hopi. "We are only here working with the elements."