Washington DC: Monumental City

PERHAPS the best place to appreciate Washington, D.C., is from the heights of Arlington Cemetery. Here, looking out over the city spread before me, I can see the National Mall, stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and beyond. The rows of marble gravestones, laid out with military precision around me, echo the mathematical layout of a city designed by French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant to have the grandeur of Paris. Diagonal avenues bisect the grid of streets that run north-south and east-west, wide boulevards that stretch out to symbolically reach the rest of America. Of course, the reality is that they just run into the Beltway, the congested ring road that has become a symbol of Washington’s isolation.

L’Enfant, who was soon removed from the project in a fine early example of Washington politics, is buried in Arlington. Here too, I stand before the eternal flame marking the grave of President John F. Kennedy, who said with dry wit: “Washington is a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” Built on ten square miles of swampland, designed to unite north and south, the District of Columbia was named for Christopher Columbus and incorporated the towns of Georgetown, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria pulled out of the deal in 1846, believing it was being dragged down by its association with the new capital. “It is an issue that still dogs D.C.,” says local historian Martin Stephens. “The focus on building a monumental center pushes residents and housing literally to the edges. The Federal Government has more important things on its mind than looking after a city, especially one full of people with no real voting power.” In an anomaly arising from its unique status – D.C. is not a state – residents have to endure “taxation without representation”, a phrase that dominates local car license plates.

“L’Enfant’s plan was for each of the original 15 states to have an area at each intersection to display their own monuments,” says Stephens. “The McMillan Commission of 1902 moved the center of gravity to the National Mall, depriving each neighbourhood of a focus. That created this cityscape we have today of bland government buildings, designed to act as a neutral backdrop to the monuments, and neglected suburbs.”

Kirk Savage, professor of history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, has written extensively about the National Mall. “The McMillan Commission claimed L’Enfant as their predecessor because he had this direct link to George Washington,” he says. “It was important to give it the authenticity of a plan that was overseen by Washington himself. The reality is that there were some major departures, including the main idea of a long pedestrian boulevard. It is not exactly clear what L’Enfant had in mind but it was probably more like an urban boulevard.”

The new Mall did away with an existing rolling landscape of hills and trees, replacing a city park with a national one. “The park that developed in the 19th century was perhaps more consistent with L’Enfant’s vision,” says Professor Savage. “But to the MacMillan planners it was Victorian claptrap and they wanted rid of it. The Federal Government was so much smaller and weaker than it is now and yet the representation is so bold and powerful. It was an attempt to create an image of national unity despite all the complicated local governments of the time.”

Washington, D.C., has been the capital of the U.S. for so long – in American years – that it is easy to forget what an artificial construct it is. Unlike the great capitals of Europe, such as Paris, Rome or a London, that predate their countries, D.C. was built to fill the role. While New York is the financial capital, and Los Angeles is arguably the cultural capital – in that Hollywood is the most unique art form the US has given the world – Washington, D.C., is purely a political one, with the seat of power officially transferred from Philadelphia in 1800.

Arlington Cemetery is one of the nation’s great symbols but it too had controversial beginnings. The former home of General Robert E Lee, it was taken over by Union forces when he joined the Confederate Army at the start of the US Civil War. I walk past the prized rose beds that were dug up to form a military graveyard and still bear the bronze grave markers. Even before Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House in 1865, he accepted he would never live here again and there are now some 300,000 graves and memorials to thousands of others. With around 30 burials a day, I soon see a flag-covered caisson trundling past with a uniformed escort, bringing respectful silence and doffed hats from visitors, with the quiet of the cemetery later broken by the echoing crack of a rifle salute.

After touring Arlington’s grounds, I watch the Old Guard do their mesmerizing duty in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns where their steel-shod boots have worn a track in the marble. How else to follow that but with a visit to the Iwo Jima Memorial that recreates one of the most famous photographs in history? Many times larger than life, it is a powerful and moving sight, with Old Glory fluttering from the flagpole the Marines are eternally raising. I ask a National Park Service Ranger here what she thinks of after all her hours on duty and she says simply: “Their sacrifice. I am not sure our generation could answer the call in the way they did and I glad we do not have to. They left their homes and families, experienced things we can never imagine, then quietly went back to the life they had left behind. Most never even spoke of the horror again.”

From the Marine Corps War Memorial, I walk over Arlington Memorial Bridge, which symbolically links North and South as it passes from Virginia to Washington itself, and from Lee’s home to the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln’s brooding statue may have his back turned on Arlington but his words from the Gettysburg Address of 1863 are a clarion call to the memory of all those buried there. Engraved on the neo-classical temple, its design making us forget it dates only to 1922, they ring through the centuries: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln looks to the Washington Monument twinned in the recently refurbished Reflecting Pool and the center on which the National Mall pivots. Beyond is the shining dome of the Capitol, fronted by a memorial to U.S. Grant and the Civil War. This vista has seen much history – from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (marked by a small plaque on the steps), to Forrest Gump wading through the pool to sweep up Jenny in his arms. However, when I ask the Park Ranger here what is the most common question asked by visitors, it turns out to be “Where are the washrooms?”. These icons are so familiar that few questions need asked and the solemnity of the inside calls mainly for hushed awe. That is even more true as I walk on to visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial, with its adhoc squad of servicemen immortalized as stainless steel statues and a reminder that “Freedom is not Free”.

On the other side of the Mall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial rises out of the earth bearing the names of more than 58,000 dead in chronological order. The first name is Dale Buis, who died in July 1959, the last Richard Vandegeer, who died in Cambodia in May 1975 – a week after the war officially ended. Buis was a major and Vandegeer was a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force, but no ranks appear on the wall; all are brothers in arms – and sisters: there are eight women. A symbolic V-shape, its polished black panels reflect back all the emotions laid before it.

Now one of the most popular features of the Mall, the memorial’s construction was mired in controversy. Architecture student Maya Lin first presented the design as a college paper for which she was awarded a B-plus. Besides her being of Asian descent, the wall was also criticized for being black (memorials traditionally having been white) and for being dedicated only to the dead, rather than all who served. Artist Frederick Hart was later called in to sculpt the nearby figures of The Three Soldiers and these have now been joined by another trio in the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.

While I admire Hart’s work – and go later to the National Cathedral to see more of it – I am glad his sculpture was not placed at the apex of the wall as originally planned until Lin strenuously objected. It would have detracted from the wall’s striking simplicity. The prominence of the whole is a long way from when the first site offered was at Arlington.

“The idea of having all these names permanently displayed in Washington a few blocks from the White House, a block from the State Department, down the street from the U.S. Congress – to me, this was poetic justice,” said Jan Scruggs, the veteran who first had the idea for a Vietnam memorial. “These were the people everyone wanted to forget. They wanted this whole thing to go away, and I didn’t want it to go away.” Scruggs is now campaigning for an onsite underground museum, telling the story of U.S. wars up to the present day. The idea of bundling Vietnam in with less controversial wars has met opposition from those who feel it may bring a reinterpretation of the conflict.

“It remains to be seen if it will be built,” says Professor Savage. “But it really changes the nature of the memorial a lot. They are making a history of American wars from the Revolutionary War to the present and putting the Vietnam War in that timeline of glorious service to American freedom. It completely recontextualizes the war and the memorial in a way that the military would love to see.”

Savage’s preference would be for the war memorials to have been at Arlington. “There is something very powerful about having the monuments where the bodies are buried,” he says. “There was a proposal to de-commission the memorials, perhaps as the generation involved dies off, and they could then be transferred to Arlington.” However, he recognizes that is unlikely to happen.

The Vietnam Memorial opened the flood gates for a series of others: Korea in 1995, F.D.R. in 1997, World War II in 2004, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 2011. “Almost all the monuments of the last quarter of the 20th century were erected by individual constituencies,” says Savage. “Once the Vietnam Memorial was on the Mall, all the other veteran groups wondered why they did not have theirs as well. And so you have Korea and World War II. If they had not been built we might think of the Mall in very different terms than as a place where we dump all our national war memorials.

“In many ways we have returned to the situation the MacMillan planners were trying to avoid. They not only wanted a comprehensive landscape design but they also wanted a comprehensive approach to the public monuments on it. They wanted the monuments to tell one story – the story of the nation. Now we have all these interest groups who lobby Congress for things that in many cases have very little to do with American history – the Ukrainian Famine and so forth. We have a much bigger government now, with a huge military, and yet we have minimal control over this shared national space.”

He points out the example of the Boy Scout Memorial, a bizarre trio of semi-naked man and woman with a uniformed scout, sited prominently between the White House and Washington Monument. “This is a classic pressure group driven project – who is going to say no to the Boy Scouts? No congressman would vote against that. The monument is ridiculous, although it is one of my favourite because it is so odd. The regulatory agonies are trying to get some control but with very little success.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, with its white Chinese marble and remote grandeur, is another monument that has attracted controversy. The words on its base – “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” – had to be removed following complaints that they paraphrased his words. I find it difficult to warm to as I watch groups of students under the gaze of teachers struggle to take a picture that includes both them and the massive figure of King. I cannot believe this most human of pastors would want to be so distant from his flock.

However, one visitor who asks me to take his photo has no doubt about its value. “I think it’s great!” says David Acey, a professor of public speaking at the University of Memphis. I am humbled to find he knew King and had joined him on several marches as a hot-headed young man. He regales me with stories that bring the man and his wisdom to life.

Professor Savage is not so enthusiastic. “It should have a very central location because he was an exceptional figure and it is our Civil Rights memorial as well. He is an anti-war figure, so it is a counterweight to the war memorials in that vicinity. As to the monument itself, the huge statue, I think it was a mistake. It seems a travesty of what he stood for. He was a charismatic minister who taught non-violence and humility, so having this giant statue of him does not seem very true to the man or his life project. I do like some of the inscriptions. It took courage to choose lines from one of his anti-Vietnam War speeches. It is the only place in the memorial landscape where you get the idea there was an anti-war movement.”

As the storm over M.L.K.’s Memorial dies down, another builds to greet the proposed Eisenhower one. No doubt the passing of time will erase their troubled birth, just as it has that of the Vietnam Memorial and, indeed the Washington Monument which was originally destined to be a figure on a horse. Both now feature high in the list of America’s favorite buildings, which has six of Washington’s sights in its top ten: White House (2), Washington National Cathedral (3), Thomas Jefferson Memorial (4), U.S. Capitol (6), Lincoln Memorial (7), Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). The arguments that surround every new structure point up the difficulty in D.C.’s job of being the spiritual heart of a vast and diverse country. As times change, so do the needs. Professor Savage has suggested a moratorium on new monuments, with an area reserved to show off temporary designs that the public can decide on.

“I would like to keep the criteria for any new monuments open,” he says. “They are only a reflection of your own historical moment. The MacMillan planners’ idea was to reunify the mall around the Civil War as a symbol of the reunification of the nation. They could not have imagined a time when that story did not need to be told. Of course, the nation has changed enormously and is now an imperial power fighting wars in countries most Americans have never heard of. So change is part of the deal. I like the idea of temporary memorials because new voices and new ideas we cannot even imagine might emerge.”

The Mall’s museums are its other great attraction, with 11 of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and galleries centred around its gothic “Castle”. I always enjoy the over-sized toys of the National Air and Space Museum, with historic exhibits such as Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 Command Module. The Museum of American History is a must-see for its new gallery dedicated to the original “Star Spangled Banner” of 1812, still a massive flag despite so much being shot away or snipped off by souvenirs hunters through the centuries. Away from the Mall, I touch history with a visit to Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was shot in 1865, and the tiny house opposite where he was taken to die.

John Wilkes Booth’s act was an extreme form of the protests that bring another large group of visitors to the Mall. Near the Capitol, I see a group of vegetarians campaigning for a meat-free society and a camper van covered with an incoherent set of messages about 9/11 conspiracies. For Zev Slurzberg, working in one of the Mall’s museums, such protests are a regular feature of his working day. “On the whole I am always a fan of it,” he says. “This is a city and country where we allow debate and, as long as it is done in the proper context, it should be allowed. I say that knowing that it can mess up my commute, or cause delays for my programs. I want the country to see the Mall as a place for protest and debate.”

If the National Mall is the nation’s stage, there is no doubt where the spotlight shines. I ask Savage where his favorite spot is. “The top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,” he says. “The view is so amazing and the spot has so much historical resonance, partly because it is a beautiful monument, incredibly well done, but also because it is so saturated with very important and moving history, particularly around the Civil Rights movement. This is where Martin Luther King spoke, where Marion Anderson sang. There are so many different people from all over the world around you. It is the one single spot in the U.S. where I feel most what is great about the United States, where I feel connected to the nation in some way.”

Published by Kieran

Travel writer

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