News & Politics

The Old Post Office Tower Has Some of DC’s Best Views

We visited an underrated DC tourist attraction, which quietly reopened this spring.

The Old Post Office and traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue during the blue hour. Photographs by David Andrews

There wasn’t a lot of fanfare when the Old Post Office tower reopened last March after being closed for two years of the pandemic. Let’s call that a soft re-launch; now with tours back in full swing, we decided to check out an underrated DC tourist attraction.

The tower atop the Waldorf Astoria (the former Trump International Hotel) on Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, is free to visit and is open to the public seven days a week from 9AM until 4PM with tours running every five minutes.

Visitors to the tower must enter through the south entrance on the back side of the building off of 12th Street. The entrance marked “museum and clock tower” is next to the entrance for Sushi Nakazawa, which you can also visit if you’re looking to splurge on omakase sushi. But if “free” is more your style, continue on down the hall—past the gift shop that is currently under renovation, past the murals of what the surrounding area looked like in the early 1900s—and meet your National Park Service ranger and tour guide at the first elevator.

View of the interior of the Old Post Office from the glass elevator.

On your way up, you’ll get a spectacular view of the hotel restaurant and its inner courtyard; but unlike the Wonkavator, this glass elevator stops before you reach the glass ceiling. There, you exit and ride another elevator up the clock tower shaft to the observation deck.

The Washington Monument has the highest views from the center of the city, but the Post Office tower offers views that include the famous obelisk. Visitors can spend as much time as they’d like exploring the expansive vistas: National Cathedral to the northwest, Federal Triangle directly below to the southwest, planes landing at National Airport, and much of DC’s 68 square miles.

View of the Washington Monument from the Old Post Office observation deck.
Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol Building from the Old Post Office observation deck.

“There’s nowhere else that you can get that good a view down” Pennsylvania Avenue, says NPS spokesperson Mike Litterst.

Federal Triangle, the African-American History Museum, the Washington Monument, and the White House are all visible to the west.
The Capitol Building, along with the Washington Monument reflected inside the observation tower.

Visitors can also glimpse the pull ropes for the Bells of Congress, replicas of Westminster Abbey’s bells that Britain’s Ditchley Foundation gave to the US for its bicentennial. The bells are rung every federal holiday and for prominent events such as presidential inaugurations. A group of bell-ringers called the Washington Ringing Society—which also tintinnabulates at the National Cathedral—practices at the Post Office tower every Thursday evening. If you’re on Pennsylvania Avenue on Thursdays between 7 and 9PM, you might just hear the bells toll.

 

The inner workings of the clock tower, visible from the observation deck.

The building wasn’t always considered a spectacular attraction. The Richardsonian Romanesque style was considered an eyesore when it was completed in 1899 as it didn’t match the surrounding neoclassical architecture. The New York Times called it “a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill.” Almost as soon as it was finished, there were calls for it to be “dynamited.” In the ’20s, the building commission of the Treasury Department advocated for the Old Post Office’s demolition as the surrounding Federal Triangle complex was being built, but the government could not afford to swing a wrecking ball during the Great Depression.

The building fell into disrepair was almost demolished in the ‘70s, before it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and then renovated from 1976 until 1983 (including a retrofit so the bells could fit in what was designed as a clock tower). Despite a change of ownership groups throughout the years, the building is owned by the General Services Administration. It’s not a NPS property, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, but GSA doesn’t have a visitor services division, so it has contracted NPS to provide tours since 1982.

“It’s really kind of a best-kept secret in the city,” says Litterst. “The Washington Monument tickets are tough to get—they go quickly and early every day. But there’s rarely any sort of line or wait to get up to the observation deck of the Old Post Office.”

David Andrews
Editorial Fellow