Friday, September 03, 2010

International Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum pulls you in with the lure of having a James Bond like experience, and then ends up giving you a detailed history of espionage. It's a bit of a bait and switch, but the museum is excellent and interesting nonetheless. I highly recommend it.

I find the admission price for the International Spy Museum a little steep: $18 for adults and $15 for children 12 and under. I've been spoiled by all the free museums in D.C.; These are not unusual admission prices for a museum in any other city. I was able to get two tickets for $9 each, plus a $3.50 fee from the discounted ticket web site Goldstar ( Tickets to the Spy Museum on Goldstar are available only for select days. I had to make my purchase a day in advance, but I saved $11.50.

As we waited to board the elevator from the ground level entry area, a statue of Lenin dangled over our heads. A plaque on the wall showed a photo of the same statue being toppled at the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cold war era exhibits dominate the museum, but exhibits from other eras can be found throughout the museum.

From the elevator we were escorted into a small theater to watch a short, interesting, and enjoyable film on espionage and spycraft. From there we were released into a room with many plaques bearing basic details of a cover identity. Another plaque instructed us to remember the details of one the identities. I've been to the Spy Museum a few times, and I've yet to find any other exhibit in the museum that asks me to recall the details of my chosen cover identity.

There are many artifacts of espionage in the museum, such as a chunk of concrete with an embedded listening device from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and a German enigma machine for decoding orders to troops deployed during World War II. Some exhibits explain the skills and tools of intelligence gathering. Others explain significant or famous incidences.

The museum has a variety of interactive elements. We crawled through duct work to eavesdrop (on the other visitors to the museum?). We sat at computer monitors to analyze satellite imagery of soviet airfield and count and identify aircraft. Some exhibit areas of the museum recreate scenes, such as the Berlin Wall, checkpoint Charlie, and an American dug tunnel underneath the wall.

Finally, the exhibit area exits directly into a gift shop that sells many books, DVDs, gadgets, and toys. From the gift shop is an entrance the full service restaurant Zola, and across the entry area to the museum is the over the counter service Spy Cafe.

The International Spy Museum should interest anyone fascinated by the history of World War II or the Cold War. It is located at 800 F St NW in Washington, D.C. The nearest Metro Station is Gallery Place/Chinatown on the Green and Red Lines. For more information see the museum's website at
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad

The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad runs 4 tourist trains departing from the former Western Maryland Railroad depot in Elkins West Virginia. The boy, his grandmother, aunt, and I traveled on the New Tygart Flyer today.

The route climbs through the Monongahela National Forest in the mountains and along the shallow Cheat River, passing through a tunnel, and by many campgrounds along the way.

For most of the route it follows the line of the former Coal and Iron Railroad that ran from Elkins to Durbin. An older man announced landmarks and told stories as we passed.

Lunch was served on board during the outbound trip: a buffet of potato chips, hamburger buns, cold cuts, pasta salad, and assorted drinks.

After an hour and a half of climbing, the train stopped and the two locomotives used a siding to move from the front to the rear of the train. Another fifteen minutes of climbing with the locomotives pushing, and the train stopped to offload passengers at a small shelter. A short walk downhill led to the High Falls of Cheat, a wide waterfall (the railroad's brochure tells me that it is 18' high, and 150' wide). The surrounding rocks there are slippery, as the boy discovered when he slipped, falling into a mud puddle. Not wanting my son to feel embarrassed for being the only one to slip and fall, I slipped and landed in the same mud puddle right after he did.

On the return trip downslope, we were treated to cookies and brownies.

The ride was fun. The train creeped up the slope on the outbound trip, but went faster on the return. The scenery was attractive mixing the natural with the historic. The food was nothing to get excited about, but we all appreciated being well-fed on a long trip over lunch time.

Elkins, West Virginia is a four hour drive from the Washington, D.C. area without traffic (which there won't be at 6 am on a Saturday when you leave to make it in time for an 11 am departure). The drive is very scenic through the mountains, and lots of fun if you enjoy winding mountain roads.
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Friday, August 27, 2010

LEGO Architecture

Exhibits at the National Building Museum seem to change frequently, which makes going there repeatedly worthwhile.

The boy and I enjoyed our June visit, and headed back there yesterday for the LEGO Architecture exhibit. This exhibit had an admission cost of $5/person, and admittance was timed. We arrived at 12:30, and immediately bought our tickets for the next available time: 2:00.

The wait gave us the opportunity to enjoy other features of the museum. The boy quickly made friends, and they got to work building an entryway sized arch out of large styrofoam blocks. I bought a cup of coffee from the Firehook Bakery kiosk, and enjoyed my lunch, and read some e-mails on my BlackBerry while seated against on of the large columns near the fountain in the center of the museum's atrium.

When it was time, we made our way up one of the sets of worn smooth brick staircases to a second floor exhibit space. The buildings on display are well-known landmarks. Mostly skyscrapers, and mostly from Chicago, hometown of the artist, architect Adam Tucker Reed.

I was struck by how Reed had mostly used very small LEGO bricks to build his very large models.

Beyond the exhibit space was a room with wide child height tables, and bins full of LEGO bricks. Inspired by what they had just seen. The kids got to work building towers. One particularly tall tower collapsed with a crash and the clatter of LEGOs bouncing every which way that momentarily silenced the room. The final room to the exhibit is a gift shop selling, much smaller, less detailed kits designed by Reed of a few of the buildings on display.

The LEGO Architecture exhibit will be at the National Building Museum through September 5.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The end is near

Sitting in the last row of the last car of the train, the woman next to me asks which direction to the cafe car.
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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Visitor Center is a small, sophisticated, and educational museum.

At entry, we were greeted by a notice that model rocket demonstrations were suspended until NASA receives a permit from the FAA to launch rockets in restricted airspace.

The center's exhibits explain the scientific significance of, and the science behind the programs conducted at the Goddard Space Flight Center: satellite and space-based telescope monitoring, and development of space exploration robots. Several of the exhibits are interactive, and some feature games geared at children. Several exhibits relate to satellites gathering data concerning the earth. Others focus on the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe beyond.

The visitor center features a theater with a globe-shaped screen at it's center. Four projectors shine onto the globe. The movie explains the work of NASA in general and the Goddard Space Flight Center in particular. During the course of the film, bright colorful images of the earth were projected onto the globe, as well other planets, giving this viewer the feeling of the planets from outer space.

Behind the visitor center, is the rocket garden where several small and medium-sized rockets are on display.

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is located off Greenbelt Road in Greenbelt, Maryland. The visitor center is accessible from the oddly named ICESat Road, which is the second entrance to the space flight center one passes when coming from the west.
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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Please Touch Museum

Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum is a children's museum with the most clever of names.

Please Touch is located in the beautiful, palatial, and historic Memorial Hall in Philadelphia.

It scores lots of points with this dad amongst children's museums for having lots of benches for tired parents to sit on.

Please Touch makes use of corporate sponsorships in a way I haven't seen at other Children's museums, and that I'm not so sure I am comfortable with. I'm accustomed to the signs that recognize the benefactor of an exhibit. Please Touch works sponsor's brands into the exhibits. The grocery store is a Shop Rite, the gas station a Hess, and there is a mock-up McDonald's. I found no other signage at any of these exhibits aknowledging the company that's logo appeared on the exhibit.

In addition to the exhibts just mentioned, some of the other highlights were a SEPTA bus, a mock-up of a monorail, a water play area, and an Alice in Wonderland themed maze and play area.

Less interesting for the little kids than for the adults, is the exhibit on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition explains the history of the building housing the museum and the surrounding buildings and park land. There is large scale model of the sprawling Centennial Exhibition grounds.

The final notable feature of the Please Touch Museum is century old Dentzel Carrousel in an adjoining pavillion. The boy declined the opportunity to ride the carrousel. I've never known the boy to miss the chance to decline a ride on a carrousel.
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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Philadelphia 30th Street Station

Philadelphia 30th Street Station is the boxy sibling of Washington Union Station. While Union Station has a vaulted ceiling 30th Street has right angles.

The high-ceilinged main hall of 30th Street Station is also a concourse. The gates are stairwells down to the platforms beneath the station that serve Amtrak Northeast corridor trains as well as destinations across Pennsylvania. There are several large wooden benches similar to those at Boston South Station throughout the main concourse.

A second concourse off one end of the main concourse serves SEPTA and NJ Transit trains from gates that lead to platforms either below the station, or to an elevated line at the second floor level. Another hall off the main concourse contains many shops and eateries.

The main concourse is dominated by a dramatic statue at one end of a winged angel holding a dead body. A plaque at the base of the statue reads:

"In memory of the men and women of the Pennsylvania Railroad who laid down their lives for our country 1941-1945."

On an earlier trip through 30th Street Station I remember discovering a waiting room off the main concourse that was dominated by a large dramatic painting. The details of that painting escape me now.
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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

College Park Aviation Museum

In College Park, Maryland is the oldest continuously operating airport in the world. Don't try to book a ticket there the next there the next time you're flying to the Washington, D.C. area. Unless you fly your own plane, or know someone who does, your not likely to ever use this airport, but it is worth going to for the College Park Aviation Museum.

This excellent, small, modern museum tucked away out of site on the edge of the airport, explains the basics of flying, and the development of airplanes that took place at College Park.

We were welcomed to the museum by Mort who collected our admission ($4 for adults and $26or children). Mort's name tag identified him as a recent volunteer of the year award winner. As he handed me my receipt he said to me and the boy: "If it's behind a rope, or glass, don't touch it. If it isn't, play with it."

An animatronic Wilbur Wright welcomed us to the exhibit area, and gave us a history of the early years of flight. The main exhibit halls has replica and relic planes that were developed and flown at college Park on display on the floor and suspended from the second story ceiling. A catwalk let's you see the suspended planes as up close as the ones you can see on the floor. Amongst the features of the museum more interesting for children, are a propeller that you can spin to start the engine (the boy spun it, but nothing happened), an airplane dashboard, bomber jackets to try on, and two flight simulator video games.

There were only two other families at the museum when we visited on a hot federal holiday. It made for cool break from the heat.

The College Park Aviation Museum is located at 1985 Corporal Frank Scott Drive in College Park, Maryland.

To get there when heading away from the University of Maryland campus from the Paint Branch Parkway turn left onto 51st Avenue at the large sign for the museum. Head straight down 51st until you reach the entrance to the airport. Follow the signs there to the right. The museum has plenty of parking. The museum should be a manageable walk from the College Park Metro Station on the Green Line. The museum's website is
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Friday, July 02, 2010

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

For two weekends at the beginning of every summer the Smithsonian Institution puts on the Folklife Festival on the National Mall.

The big attraction for me at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is always the food, which represents the cultures being featured in the exhibits and the performances of the festival. This years festival features Mexico, Asian Pacific Americans, and exhibits under the umbrella "The Smithsonian Inside Out." This year there were four vendors offering foods from the following cultures: Indian, southeast asian, and Mexican. There was also a barbecue tent, surrounded by the Smithsonian Inside Out exhibits.

The food options were mostly platters of an entree and side dishes. Since we'd already eaten lunch, and it was still too early for dinner, I opted for something light, and ordered Elote from the Mexican vendor, Casa Oaxaca. Elote turns out to be roasted corn on the cob, slathered with mayonnaise, and sprinkled with cayenne. It tastes better than it sounds.

The boy opted for french fries from one of the permanent kiosks on the Mall (the boy often opts for french fries).

The Folklife festival features dance, music, story telling, cooking, and folk art. We listened to a trio from Mexico sing folk music. We sat in on stories by two doctors, one American-raised ethnically Chinese, and the other an immigrant from India, who compared eastern and western medicine. We watched Indian dancing, and skipped the demonstration on spam sushi. We also watched four men Mexico spin upside down from a pole. We never got down to the Smithsonian Inside Out exhibit.

This year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs through July 5.
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Smithsonian National Zoological Park

The boy and I have been going to the National Zoo for all of his nine and a half years. The zoo has changed a bit over those years, as has the boy, whose had different favorite things about the zoo from time to time.

When he was younger, the boy, like so many others, was fascinated with the baby animals. First it was Kandula, the elephant. Later it was Tai Shan, the giant panda.

There was also a time that the boy really seemed to enjoy Amazonia, an indoor exhibit tucked away in an easily overlooked part of the zoo. Lately, I can't drag him there.

For the last few years, the boy has mostly seemed to enjoy the giant pizza. Yes, they have a giant pizza at the National Zoo. No, I don't know why. The boy will play on the pizza for hours. Our days at the zoo lately end with me insisting that we must go, greeted by much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Near the bird exhibits is an eagle statue carved from pink granite that was once on the exterior of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City. The boy has a book I gave him about the construction, and later demolition of Penn station. The boy and I often pass through the new Penn station on the train. The statue at the National Zoo is one of the few remaining statues from the old Penn. We both appreciate it for its striking visual appeal, and connection to railroad history. In addition, the boy likes to climb on it.

For a while there, the zoo seemed to have a problem keeping it's animals alive. Just from memory, in my ten years in Washington, I recall accidental deaths of a zebra, a lion, and two red pandas. The red panda deaths were tied to a very severe rat infestation. I recall, when the boy was a toddler, pushing him in his stroller on a late fall weekend through the zoo. When we came to the prairie dog habitat we discovered not prairie dogs popping their heads out of the holes, but rats, and one very nervous looking prairie dog.

It was shortly after that day I read about the two red pandas that had died from eating rat poison, buried in their habitat. The zebra, as I recall, died from a problem with the animal's diet, and the lion died in surgery from problems with the anesthesia.

The first bit of advice that any local should give a visitor when making a trip to the zoo: alight Metro at the Cleveland Park Station. Don't use the deceptively named Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Station. Alighting at that station will require you to walk several blocks uphill to the zoo. The walk from Cleveland Park isn't any further. The zoo is laid out on a slope, so be prepared for the uphill walk after you've seen everything. Also, plan to bring your lunch or eat at one options near zoo. The prices on food at the zoo are pretty steep.
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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

National Building Museum

The National Building Museum is one of Washington, D.C.'s lesser known, under- appreciated museums. The building itself is striking, and the exhibits, focusing on the built environment, change frequently.

The best way to get to the National Building Museum is by Metro. I'm not suggesting this for the obvious benefits of avoiding traffic and limited (and expensive parking), but because as you ascend the escalator out of the Judiciary Square Station at the F St. NW exit, the six-story-tall, red-brick National Building Museum looms over you.
On today's visit to the National Building exhibits featured the layout of Washington, D.C., parking garages, solar houses, and New England house designs. 

As interesting as the exhibits are, the building itself is worth going to see. The 19th century structure originally built to house the Pension Bureau has many fascinating and distinguishing features. Wrapped around the exterior is a frieze featuring Civil War era soldiers. The centerpiece of the interior is the naturally-lit Great Hall featuring four-story, faux marble columns under the six-story roof, and a series of busts in individual alcoves at what would be the fifth story level. The Great Hall has a carpeted floor and a fountain in the middle. It's a great place for kids to run around. Indeed, the National Building Museum has provided some kid's toys in one corner of the hall. In the opposite corner are cafe tables, and a small cafe counter. The museum has a large shop with an extensive collection of books on architecture, a variety model kits, and various quirky items.

The National Building Museum is located at 401 F St. NW in Washington, D.C. The nearest Metro station is Judiciary Square on the Red Line (take the F St. NW exit). Admission to the museum is free, but they do ask for a donation. The museum is open seven days per week, Mon. through Thurs. 10 to 5, and Sun. 11 to 5.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Washington Union Station

Everyone who visits D.C. should arrive, at least for the first time, by train to greeted by Union Station's expansive main hall and the view of the Capitol as you exit the front of the station. Union Station serves as a kind of portal to federal Washington. When you arrive in D.C. by train, you don't ease into the city, you arrive greeted all at once by its grandeur.

The main hall with it's arched ceiling, is impressive both for its expansiveness, but also for the details: surrounding the hall at the second-floor level are Augustus Saint-Gaudens'
statues of soldiers holding their swords and shields. You can get an up close view of the soldiers by eating dinner in one of Union Station's restaurants. Indeed, you should eat a couple meals at Union Station; after you've viewed the statuary up close from America the Restaurant or Thunder Grill, eat at the upper-level of the station cafe in the center of the main hall to enjoy the experience of being surrounded by the main hall's arched ceiling, and enjoy watching people pass by below.

Union Station has many shops and restaurants. There is a food court at the basement level. Stores and restaurants are located along the perimeter of the main hall and the two wings. A second level has been built into the original concourse making space for shops on two levels. Amtrak's ticket counters are located on the ground floor of the original concourse. Departure gates are located in a new, architecturally unremarkable concourse behind the original. Amtrak's Club Acela is located in a pleasant, but windowless and also unremarkable, room in the new concourse.

Washington Union Station is served by Amtrak, MARC (Maryland commuter trains), VRE (Virginia commuter trains), and Metro by way of the Metro station of the same name located underneath Union Station. Metro buses, the Circulator, and various tour buses depart from the front of Union Station. Washington's intercity bus station is located just a couple blocks behind, and some buses depart from Union Station's parking garage.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Boston Back Bay Station

Just a few minutes from the terminus at the palatial South Station is Back Bay Station near Copley Square. The station, also serving the T Orange line and MBTA Commuter Rail, is concrete and brick, in the brutalist style of most T stations. At Back Bay the platforms are below ground level.

For travelers taking Amtrak from the northeast corridor to a destination on the Downeaster route (New Hampshire and Maine), Back Bay station would be the stop to disembark for the Orange Line for a single ride transfer to North Station. There is no direct rail connection between North and South Stations. The transfer from Amtrak and commuter rail to the Orange Line is merely a matter going up one level, walking a few yards, passing through the fare gates, before descending one level to the T platform.

Pictures of historical railroad stations from the region adorn the walls at Back Bay Station, as well as pictures and text about the railroads that served the station in the days before Amtrak and MBTA. There's also a placard with the story of a railroad porter.

There's a convenience store, and two Dunkin Donuts(!) in Back Bay Station.
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Monday, May 31, 2010

Boston South Station

South Station is a jewel of a train station. It's beautiful in it's own right, but especially so when considered in contrast to either of Boston's other two intercity stations: Back Bay's subterranean brutalism, or North Station's unadorned utilitarianism.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, looking at Amtrak's materials, more promotional photographs are seemingly shot at South Station than at any other station in the system.

South Station is bow- shaped with two wings. Stairs and escalators descend to the T subway station of the same name serving the Red and Silver Lines, at the middle of the bow, creating a smooth flow of foot traffic.

A new, naturally-lit concourse area was created some years ago by building a glass ceiling over the area between the two wings of the building. Cafe tables occupy the central part of the concourse, which also holds a newsstand, an Au Bon Pain, and a bookstore. The concourse almost has a sidewalk cafe feel to it, albeit, a sidewalk where a few hundred people periodically stream by.

Other take out eateries occupy one wing of the station. The ticket counter, and Amtrak's Club Acela for first-class passengers occupies the other wing.

I'm particularly fond of the Club Acela. It offers an opportunity to use a bathroom not nearly so crowded, or filthy as the one for coach, business, and commuter passengers. It is also in the most attractive part of the station. The attractively adorned ceiling in Club Acela is original to the station. It also affords a great people watching opportunity, perched as it is on the second floor looking out over the concourse.

The one thing that South Station lacks that would really improve it would be a full-service restaurant. There is a bar, Clarke's, which I would appreciate and make use of, but it is usually closed when I am at South Station.

A concise history of South Station can be found here:
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Dover Transportatin Center

Dover Transportation Center, recently built for Amtrak's Downeaster service, is a small contemporary looking building that nonetheless evokes the look of classic Boston and Maine Railroad Stations common to this region. Dover has one combination low-level and high-level platform for the single-track serving the station. There is a wheelchair ramp up to the high-level portion of the platform.

Dover Transportation Center is served only by Amtrak Downeaster trains. The Downeaster service operates trains between North Station in Boston and Portland, making several stops along the way in New Hampshire and Maine's seacoast region. The cafe car on Downeaster trains serves regional foods adding such items as Maine's Shipyard Ale and Gearyaks to Sam Adams Boston Lager, which is also available on Northeast Corridor trains, and soups such clam chowder and lobster bisque.
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Children's Museum of New Hampshire

The Children's Museum of New Hampshire moved to it's current location on the Cocheco River in Dover two years ago, having previously been the Children's Museum of Portsmouth for twenty-five years.

The whole facility has a much newer look to it compared to the previous location's more worn and homemade appearance. Several exhibits have been carried over including the post office window, the Music Matrix, and the Greek restaurant. Gone is the space shuttle cockpit. The much loved yellow submarine, great for climbing on and hiding in it's nooks and crannies, has been replaced with a more submarine-like yellow submarine without places to climb or hide.

The museum exhibit area is a single, open room with a ramp rising to a second level loft.

There is a lunch room with a vending machine, and a gift shop on site, but eating out will require going to one of the many restaurants nearby.

www.childrens-museum.org6 Washington Street Dover, NH 03820
(603) 436-3853
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