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New DC walking tours give fascinating insights on architecture, art, politics

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Explore the nation’s capital on foot with experts in art, architecture, or politics during three unique new walking tours by Context Travel.

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About the Front Yard America, the Mall from L’Enfant to Maya Lin” examines architecture and history along the National Mall, called “America’s Front Yard.”

From the US Capitol grounds to major monuments including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin, the three-hour stroll along the Mall takes an in-depth look into Washington, DC’s development, beginning with the 1791 master plan of Pierre L’Enfant to create a capital worthy of young America.

An expert historian or architectural historian leads the interactive tours, and draws parallels between the urban planning of Washington and other world capitals such as Paris, designed also by L’Enfant.

At George Washington’s request, L’Enfant created a plan for a capital city that would be the physical representation of the newly ratified Constitution.

The Capitol building to this day is the city's center and highest spot. Radiating from it are diagonal avenues named for the 13 colonies. Pennsylvania Avenue, which connects the Capitol and White House, was named for the state that hosted the Constitutional Convention.

The French urban planner termed the National Mall a “place of general resort.” (Mon Dieu, it’s doubtful that L'Enfant's “resort” envisioned the Mall’s Civil War encampments; civil rights’ Marian Anderson concert in 1939; the March on Washington in 1963; the Poor People’s Campaign “Resurrection City” in 1968; or the AIDS quilt, first displayed on the Mall in 1986; and the numerous other demonstrations for and against crucial issues throughout America’s history.)

More than a century after L’Enfant created his great plan, a lot had not been carried out. So the (Senator James) McMillan Commission of 1901-1902 created a new plan. It included renowned “City Beautiful” architect Daniel Burnham and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., namesake of the man who created the US Capitol grounds, New York’s Central Park, and many other landmarks across America.

As Burnham once said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."

Speaking of aiming high, Burnham even convinced railroad companies to move their tracks, which cut a disfiguring slash across the Mall, and their station at the base of Capitol Hill. The Burnham-designed Beaux-Arts Union Station stands a few blocks from the Senate side of the Capitol Building.

Other stops, depending on the interests of the six-people-maximum group and the expertise of the docent-leader, may include the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Castle, Washington Monument, and certainly the Lincoln Memorial, on this 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.

Lincoln Memorial designer Henry Bacon described the Mall’s symbolism in 1911: “We have at one end of the axis (Mall) a beautiful building which is a monument to the United States Government (the Capitol). At the other end of the axis we have the possibility of a Memorial to the man who saved that Government (Lincoln) and between the two is a monument to its founder (Washington). All three of these structures, stretching in one grand sweep from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River, ... will have its value increased by being on the one axis and having visual relation to the other."

The walk ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was scorned initially, like this from the "Washington Post" -- "An Asian Memorial for An Asian War" designed by "a woman (Maya Lin) who was 4 years old when the first bodies came home."

But now it is one of the most revered and moving of all the monuments. Here, the group will discuss current issues about preserving the National Mall.

The other two DC tours – among Context’s 300 walking tours in 14 cities around the world:

American Biography walk, which explores US history through the collections of the National Portrait Gallery www.npg.si.edu and the adjoining Smithsonian Museum of American Art www.americanart.si.edu, one of the world’s largest collection of American art. An art historian leads the tour through these Smithsonian museums which share the exquisite Greek Revival building, constructed in 1836 to house the US Patent Office.

Gov Workswalk, a very timely political primer along Pennsylvania Avenue, from near the White House to Capitol Hill. A veteran political journalist or expert historian leads this tour.

So, make big plans to take any or all three walking tours to explore what makes the nation’s capital worthy of America.

For more info: Context Travel, www.contexttravel.com, 800-691-6036. Group tours (six people maximum): $330; Private tours: $65; Duration: three hours. This just in: Condé Nast Traveler Magazine selected Context's co-founder Paul Bennett as one of 11 “Top Travel Specialists” for 2011, the second consecutive year, www.cntraveler.com/travel-tips/travel-specialists/paul-bennett. National Park Service, www.nps.gov. National Coalition to Save Our Mall, www.savethemall.org.

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