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UPDATED: Construction Update

October 26, 2011


Last week, a Phototourism DC reader wrote to me and asked whether the amount of construction at popular sites around town would make a trip to DC right now disappointing.  I’m not qualified to answer questions that people hinge their travel plans on but what I did was lay out where the major construction is and how it may impact photography.  After I wrote that e-mail I thought that that would make a great recurring column on the blog.  So this is my first and I will update it every quarter.


1. The Washington Monument – The Monument suffered some damage in the August 2011 earthquake.  Since that day the observation platform at the top has been closed and the area around the base has been fenced off.

  • Impact: HIGH – There are still plenty of angles to get pictures of the exterior of the Monument though the fence surrounding the base may show up in some of your closer ones.  Also, the observation deck is a unique place, offering views that you can’t get anywhere else (like the one on the right).  The Old Post Office Clock Tower offers the closest approximation but it’s just not the same.
  • Expected Completion: TBD – A construction company that specializes in historic structures and difficult repairs has evaluated the damage but I have yet to see a report on the extent of the damage or the timeline for repairs.

2. Washington National Cathedral – The Cathedral also took a hit in the earthquake, losing some of the spires on the roof.  The interior is off limits to visitors and there is some scaffolding around the exterior.

  • Impact: HIGH – While the exterior of the Cathedral ordinarily makes for great photographs, the equipment, scaffolding, and fencing makes this a poor time to go.  The interior of the Cathedral is the real attraction and once it reopens it will be worth going even if the outside is unsightly.
  • Expected Completion: The interior has now reopened. I haven’t heard anything about when the reconstruction on the exterior will be complete.

3. The Reflecting Pool – One of the more well-known features in DC, the Reflecting Pool, is currently undergoing renovation to add filtration systems.  The old pool was more or less a giant bathtub full of stagnant, dirty water.  The new version will be more like a swimming pool with circulating, dirty water.

  • Impact: HIGH – Some of the most iconic views of DC incorporate the Reflecting pool in some way.  Whether that be photos of the Lincoln Memorial or of the Washington Monument.
  • Expected Completion: The National Park Service (NPS) website says the expected completion date is Spring, 2012 but I wouldn’t expect to see all of the fences down and equipment out of the way until the end of Summer, 2012 at the earliest.

4. The National Mall – The grass of the “Nation’s Front Yard” takes a beating through the summer months so the NPS likes to fence off sections of it in the Fall to let it regrow. The fences block off the Mall from 1st St. near the Capitol down to the Smithsonian Castle (basically the area shown in the Washington Monument picture above).

  • Impact: MEDIUM – The fences are unsightly but are just a small piece of a photo incorporating the whole Mall.  Where they will impact your pictures is if you want to take a photo of the Capital or the Washington Monument from a spot in the middle of the Mall since that area is now inaccessible.
  • Expected Completion: TBD – I couldn’t find any specific references to a completion date and the project is eventually supposed to restore the grass on the entire Mall area so I would expect these fences to be up until Spring at least and to move or expand their reach all the way to the Washington Monument.

5. The U.S. Capitol – On the Northwest (Senate) side of the Capitol some fences have sprung up around what appears to be a construction site, though it is unclear what that project is trying to accomplish.

  • Impact: LOW – This construction is tucked off to one side of the Capitol.  Many of the pictures people like to take of the Capitol, from the east, west, and northwest side will not show any evidence of this construction.  This will only impact those who wish to take a profile shot like the one shown in the picture here.
  • Expected Completion: TBD – I haven’t seen any completion dates for this project, though the high grade fencing, rather than a simple chain-link, makes me think it will be there awhile.

6. Union Station – The city of Washington, DC has embarked on a long term restoration of the area immediately in front of Union Station. The interior is also undergoing repair for damage suffered during the earthquake.

  • Impact: HIGH– Right now the exterior construction is confined to the outermost edges of the Union Station property.  Most of the pictures I’ve taken of the exterior of the station have come from within that boundary.  So, for now at least, that construction shouldn’t obstruct your photos.  The interior is highly cluttered with scaffolding.  There are also nets hanging across the entire main hall to protect people from falling bits of plaster.  All of this makes for less than desirably photography.
  • Expected Completion: Exterior: 2013- References to this construction in newspapers have referred to this as a 2-year construction process and it began in August of 2011. Interior: several months at least – It’s hard to say but judging by the amount of scaffolding it looks like there’s a lot of work to be done.


1. The Ellipse – The area in front of the White House will soon undergo a massive restoration to help hide some of the functional but unfashionable security features and make the park more useful and beautiful.

2. Constitution Gardens – A contractor was recently selected to revitalized the area just to the North of the Reflecting Pool.  This area isn’t necessarily a draw for people but it does offer great views of the Washington Monument and is beautiful in the Fall.

3. Union Station Interior – Eventually extensive construction is supposed to take place in the main hall of Union Station.  This area is makes for some amazing pictures and it being out of commission for a year or two will be disappointing.  There are also plans for a mixed use high-rise attached to the station but I think those are still fairly tentative.

4. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial –  This Memorial is supposed to go up relatively soon in an area to the South of the National Botanic Gardens.  It is out of the way and won’t likely get in the way of your photos but it’s worth keeping in mind as a photo location in a year or two when it’s complete.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2011 11:49 am

    DC is a living, breathing city and is always having construction some where. Thanks for putting this into a central spot, especially for photographers venturing into the nations capital. I imagine keeping the Mall looking as good as it does is a daunting task for the Park Service given the number of tourists who visit every year.

    Who would have thought an earthquake on the east coast would cause the type of damage it did. Better safe than sorry…don’t want a gargoyle falling on my head.

  2. December 5, 2011 11:52 am

    Terrific blog you’ve got here!
    I’m a docent at the Washington National Cathedral, and just wanted to chime in on your post about it. The interior is now re-opened as you mentioned, and the black debris netting hanging inside makes for some very interesting “light-catcher” shots, particularly if you go during the fall/winter; a clear, sunny morning, as soon as they open at 10am, gives quite a light show from the south windows, with that lower-angle sun streaming in! The safety-perimeter fence has been retracted a good bit, so the Bishop’s Garden is now opened once more (sadly, having lost several big old trees hit by the September crane collapse accident.) As for the repairs timeline, the master mason Joe Alonso has indicated he is looking at 10 years of work, with costs that will climb well into tens of millions of dollars (all to be paid by gifts/donations/private funds.) Thanks again for the report, and for this helpful blog!

    • December 5, 2011 12:58 pm

      Thank you the information and the kind words. I’ll incorporate this information when I update the post in January. I hadn’t thought about their being a net. That’s kind of disappointing but you have some great shots with it there. Will that be up as long as the exterior repairs are going on? I haven’t been back since the earthquake but have been meaning to go. You have some great shots on your website as well. I love the featured picture of the bannister in the cathedral. Thanks again for the update. I hope the repairs go quickly and painlessly (i.e., cheaply).

  3. December 5, 2011 1:07 pm

    Thank you for checking out my images as well. The cathedral is my favorite place in DC to photograph, with the Library of Congress being a very close second.

    The netting inside will be up until ceiling repairs are completed (they have yet to begin that, so it could be awhile!) The netting is there to catch any loosened mortar bits that may yet fall; after the quake, the floor was covered in a fine layer of mortar dust and small bits. I believe they’ll need to create moveable scaffolding inside, and inspect/repair the mortar of the entire ceiling in zones, taking down the netting as they progress. I do not believe it will stay in place during the entire 8-10 year exterior repair job. Alas, there’s little chance that will be painless as you hope. Just the stabilization efforts alone, since the quake, have topped $1M. Repairs haven’t even begun, as dismantling is still underway. But it will get there, eventually… Time and money are all that’s needed 😉

    If you make it to the cathedral on a Saturday, ask for me–My volunteer tour guide shifts are usually 2 Saturdays each month, 10-4, and I love to meet & chat with fellow photographers!


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