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October 2007

In Our Own Backyard
Taking Off to National Airport

by Michele Bush Kimball, Ph.D.

On the way inside, they race each other across the polished marble floor, arms outstretched. Travelers rolling suitcases dart around them, smiling at the two chattering, laughing "airplanes" buzzing around them. They stop to admire the mosaics on the floor, then dash off to watch the real airplanes take flight.

Look beyond the airport as a means to a destination, and it becomes a playground for the imagination with a bonus of art appreciation.

One of our family's favorite destinations is the National Hall at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. My two children, Joey, 4, and Gracie, 3, can't get enough of the action throughout the corridor.

Even finding our way into the airport is exciting for them. A series of moving sidewalks carries us briskly toward the heart of the airport. Joey and Gracie pretend they are suitcases on conveyer belts being loaded onto planes to far-off destinations.

Once inside, we usually start with the mosaics - they are impossible to miss. Set into the floor down the length of the hall are 10 different floor medallions. They are about 26 feet in diameter, in a variety of designs, colors, styles and motifs. Gracie is entranced by the most geometric of the medallions, with rectangular strips of color in red, blue and green and black. "I think that looks like a track," she says as she lays on it to get a closer look. From about two inches away, Richard Anuszkiewicz's Astral medallion definitely looks like a train track.

Gracie is no different from most kids who wander through the hall, according to Tara Hamilton, the public affairs manager for the airport. She says she often sees kids staring at (or laying on) the mosaics. "I don't know if it is because they are closer to the floor." Hamilton says that kids seem to really love Michele Oka Doner's Flight medallion in which winged creatures great and small are inlaid in bronze on the terrazzo floor. That one made me stop in my own tracks to stare.

We pick Gracie up off the mosaic as Joey calls for us to follow him. He has found it - the perfect perch for watching the planes. "Let's sit right here. Do you see them? They're moving!" Joey says with the kind of excitement reserved for little boys and big machines that move.

Joey has parked us in the middle of the corridor between terminals B and C at a row of armchairs set up right in front of a glass window that soars 54 feet. He's right. The view is spectacular.

We sit for at least 15 minutes (which is a long time for these two) watching two jets being backed up by white tugs that look like mini trucks. As one jet moves back, another waits in line to take its place. Meanwhile, taxi directors in neon vests wave orange wands to show the way. Bright yellow refueling cars with coils of fuel lines sit in wait around the tarmac.

Beyond the tarmac is the fork of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. It is a bright day, so we can see boats racing on the water. In the distance is the Capitol. Joey couldn't have picked a better spot.

Just as the kids get restless, we move on to the next activity: lunch. The National Hall is packed with food possibilities. There are at least five sit-down restaurants in the hall itself, with more in other terminals. There are also a few quick-service places for snacks and light meals. No one will go hungry here.

While waiting for our favorite seafood spot to open, we spend some time browsing at the children's section of one of the bookstores. The hall is like a mall with all of the shops and boutiques. There are plenty of treasures for kids to find. In fact, the intention when it was built was to make it feel like a main street. The planners wanted a functioning airport with plenty of places to shop and eat, according to Hamilton. While Main Street certainly fits as a way to describe the National Hall, it's the art that catches visitors' attention, no matter their age. When it was built in 1997, the architect wanted to honor the tradition of incorporating art into the architecture. Beyond the floor mosaics, there are five murals, a bridge sculpture, two stained glass friezes and a sunscreen panel near the ticket level lobby. Eleven balustrades on the ticketing level overlook the National Hall, giving an eagle's eye view of the art all around. "The architect wanted to have a permanent art element to the building," Hamilton says.

It's the art that draws us back down the corridor after lunch. Gracie inspects more medallions. Joey makes a stop to check on his planes from his spot.

In the distance we see a father come through a gate into the arms of his waiting sons. "Daddy!" Their yells echo through the hall as they hang on his neck, hugging him hard. We watch for a moment, then make our way out of the airport.

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer and a stay-at-home mom.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

Home page: www.metwashairports.com/national

For more information about the art in the airport: www.metwashairports.com/reagan/dca_art_program/art_program

Information for kids: www.metwashairports.com/kids/kids_page

To learn about the airport's history: www.metwashairports.com/kids/kids_page/history_of_ronald_reagan

Hours: The National Hall is always accessible, but the shops and concessions close at night. The hours vary from weekdays to weekends, but most everything is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Directions: From I-95, go to I-395. Take the George Washington Parkway South exit, then take the exit marked for the airport.

Parking: In the hourly lots, parking fees are $2 per half-hour for the first hour, then $4 per hour. In the daily lot, parking is $5 an hour.

Metro: For an added layer of transportation excitement, travel by metro. The airport is at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport exit on the Yellow and Blue lines.

Food: There are five sit-down restaurants in the National Hall, including Legal Sea Foods and T.G.I. Fridays, both with kids' menus. For something faster, there are a few take-away stalls that have sandwiches, snacks and drinks.

Shopping: Traditional mall shopping. Bookstores, souvenir shops, clothing stores, gadget shops. Kids will especially enjoy the Smithsonian Museum Store, which stocks highlights from many of the museums' gift shops.

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