Dan Brown's blockbuster success with The Da Vinci Code and its ensuing, inevitable film adaptation inspired a sort of literary tourism, geared toward enthusiasts who wanted to follow the trail of Brown's hero, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, through Europe. In his latest, The Lost Symbol, the action takes place in Washington, D.C.
Without divulging spoilers, Langdon unexpectedly finds himself in D.C. at the behest of an old friend and mentor, Peter Solomon, who also happens to be a high-ranking member of the Masons. Langdon and Peter's scientist sister Katherine guard a prized Masonic pyramid believed to be responsible for unveiling great truths; numbers (such as 33) and symbols (Greek, Roman, and otherwise) provide clues that lead them on a wild chase through various national monuments, architectural structures, and other landmarks.
Anticipating a groundswell of interest, the district's tourism organization, Destination D.C. (tel. 202/789-7000; www.washington.org/visiting/experience-dc/the-lost-symbol) and the book's companion website (www.thelostsymbol.com) have put together guides to following the clues, site by site. Although Brown enjoys blurring the lines of fact and fiction and he provides readers with enough truth to start the journey, we wanted to do a little sleuthing of our own.
Some of the novel's early action begins at the Visitor Center at the Capitol Building (tel. 202/226-8000; www.visitthecapitol.gov), which as Brown describes is subterranean by design, in order to preserve the historic views. Langdon ends up one level up in Statuary Hall in the Rotunda, viewing Constantino Brumidi's fresco, Apotheosis of Washington, which spans the Rotunda's canopy. Hovering 180 feet high, the fresco depicts the first U.S. president surrounded by clouds, Roman gods, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel B. Morse, and other scientists and thinkers. One of the scenes finds the characters in a location that provides them with unusual access to the fresco, but don't look to your tour guide for access; although there's a balcony up there and a walkway enclosed by a balustrade, it's strictly for fresco and Dome for maintenance and preservation work, according to Eva Malecki, communications officer in the Office of the Architect of the Capitol.
The Library of Congress (tel. 202/707-8000; www.loc.gov) spans several buildings, including its oldest, the Thomas Jefferson Library, and its holdings include some of the U.S.'s most important documents, books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts. Throughout the library you'll also find noteworthy works of art. Brown gets this one right, too. Langdon is led there through the Library of Congress tunnel, which is indeed open to visitors and can be accessed by the upper level of the Capitol's Visitor Center.
Current exhibits include the Library of Congress Bibles Collection -- Robert Langdon and Peter Solomon discuss the bible's importance extensively. In fact, for those who want to play sleuth, the website has put together a guide for decoding some of the messages in the Italian Renaissance architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building itself (http://myloc.gov/Education/OnlineActivities/ExhibitObjects/jeffersonbldgsecretmessages.aspx), which has more than 100 murals, along with countless ornamental details, floor mosaics, and, on the exterior, 42 granite sculptures.
While the pair is in the Library of Congress, they seek information about German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, whose famous work Melancholia I (1514) is part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art (tel. 202/737-4215; www.nga.gov) and helps the pair figure out another clue. Replete with symbols and codes, it's one of those puzzling works that scholars debate to this day.
Another clue leads Langdon to the United States Botanic Garden (tel. 202/225-8333; www.usbg.gov) to a room referred to as "the Jungle," which does indeed exist, although it's technically a rain forest. Each room at the garden simulates a live habitat; approximately 4,000 plants are on display overall. Upcoming exhibits include a new permanent installation called "Hawaii" and a seasonal exhibit called "Holiday Magic," which opens November 26 and runs through January 10, 2010.
The Washington Monument (tel. 202-426-6841; www.nps.gov/wamo), designed by Robert Mills features prominently, too. You can ride the elevator up 33 stories to the top for an unparalleled view of the surrounding landmarks and beyond. The monument, which Brown's characters view as America's Egyptian obelisk, holds special power in the novel, but the staircase he mentions is not accessible to the general public anymore due largely to safety issues. The commemorative plaques Brown mentions -- 193 of them -- do indeed line the east and west walls of the monument.
The Washington National Cathedral (tel. 202/537-6200; www.nationalcathedral.org) is a beautiful building whose cornerstone was laid in 1907, took 83 years to complete, and is the second largest church in the United States. A sculpture of Darth Vader carved into the Cathedral only sounds apocryphal, but that, too, is true. Bring your binoculars and look to the northwest tower, which is where you'll find the grotesque, a result of a contest that was held in which children designed commemorative sculptures.
One of the main characters, Peter Solomon, works at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Support Center (tel. 301/238-1030; www.sil.si.edu/libraries/msc), located in Suitland, Maryland. Brown even references it by its accurate address and goes so far as to include a phone number that leads to Solomon's fictional voicemail. Its library is open to the public by appointment. The support center is an off-site collection management facility that stores many of the Smithsonian's holdings when they're not on display. Katherine works in one of the buildings "pods," which do exist, and although the center's materials include subject areas such as molecular evolution, medical entomology, and evolutionary biology, her field of study -- noetics -- is not specifically mentioned. However, there are thousands of things you can see within the many museums of the Smithsonian Institute (tel. 202/633-1000; www.si.edu).
Another scene leads Katherine and Robert to Freedom Plaza (Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th Sts.), which features inlaid stonework designed to resemble a map depicting the original plan of Pierre L'Enfant, D.C.'s master architect, for the city. Brown's characters are also led to Franklin Square (K, 13th, 14th and I Streets), a public park downtown named for Benjamin Franklin. Alexander Graham Bell sent his first wireless message here.
The neo-Classical building the House of the Temple (tel. 202/232-3579; www.scottishrite.org) is the elite national headquarters for the Scottish Rite Masons' Supreme Council, and is located in Dupont Circle. The building is open to visitors and you can take pictures, too. For the most part, Brown accurately described the building's details and symbols; the Temple Room, for example, does exist. Scottish Rite leader Albert Pike, a former Confederate general, spent several decades conceiving Masonic rituals. The Temple has his crypt and an exhibit room, according to Heather Calloway, who also notes "we have had a 400% rise in visitorship" since the book's publication. If you're really curious, a statue of Pike is located at Judiciary Square.
A little bit further afield, a unique sculpture covered in mysterious code at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, called Kryptos (www.cia.gov/about-cia/virtual-tour/kryptos/index.html), gets some attention and some of the action takes place at the George Washington Masonic Memorial, (tel. 703/683-2007; www.gwmemorial.org) which is in fact located in Alexandria, Virginia.
For those who want to know what's what regarding the Masons as it pertains to The Lost Code, check out www.freemasonlostsymbol.com, a project headed by the Masonic Society, the Masonic Service Association of North America, and the George Washington Masonic Memorial.
Talk with fellow travelers on our Washington, D.C. Forum.