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The Spirit of DC:
In and Around Our Nation's Capitol

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

The sculpture of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial designed by Daniel Chester French, exhibits at least two features that have caused debate. Some have claimed, that the face of General Robert E. Lee was carved onto the back of Lincoln's head, and looks back across the Potomac toward his former home, Arlington House, now within the bounds of Arlington National Cemetery. Another popular legend is that Lincoln is shown using sign language to represent his initials, with his left hand shaped to form an A and his right hand to form an L, the president's initials.
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This is a city that was, and still is, intended to be a paean to all that is beautiful, solemn, creative, spiritual, noble and enlightening about what was at the time the newest country on the planet. The city was to be the Paris of the New World, a monument to everything our founding fathers held dear.


The architect, John Russell Pope, referenced the Roman Pantheon and Jefferson's own design for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in his design for the Jefferson Monument. Finally dedicated in 1943, it is one of the last American public monuments in the Beaux-Arts tradition, the Memorial was severely criticized even as it was being built, by those who adhered to the modernist argument that dressing 20th century buildings like Greek and Roman temples constituted a "tired architectural lie." The monument is open 24 hours a day but park rangers are there only until 11:30 p.m.


Washington DC is also a memorial to America, to all the people who have fought to protect democracy, to protect the right of free speech, to protect the right to live lives of grace, and to protect the right to think, breathe and hope. There are so many memorials—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam—and all of those memorials were worked on by landscape architects.


The Korean War Memorial consists of nineteen stainless steel statues designed by Frank Gaylord, each larger than life-size, between 7 feet 3 inches and 7 feet 6 inches tall; each weighs nearly 1,000 pounds. The figures represent a squad on patrol, drawn from each branch of the armed forces. More than 2,500 ghostly photographic, archival images representing the land, sea and air troops who supported those who fought in the war are sandblasted onto the wall (see above).

I didn’t think I could be moved, but the Korean War Memorial knocked my socks off. It was called a “police action” setting off the Cold War, and left 54,000 dead and 128,000 wounded in just 3 years. Then, came Vietnam, leaving 58,000 dead by 1975 with the fall of Saigon, 153,000 wounded, and scores more wounded mentally. Then came the Iraq War, with, so far, 4,500 American deaths (thanks to the miracle of modern medicine) and 32,000 wounded.


Olmsted designed the Summer House, the open-air brick building that sits just north of the Capitol. Three arches open into the hexagonal structure, which encloses a fountain and twenty-two brick chairs. A fourth wall holds a small window that looks onto an artificial grotto. Built between 1879 and 1881, the Summer House was intended to answer complaints that visitors to the Capitol had no place to sit and no place to obtain water for their horses and themselves. Olmsted intended to build a second, matching Summer House on the southern side of the Capitol, but congressional objections led to the project's cancellation.


Democracy is what they were fighting for, and the cost of democracy is extremely high. I wonder what those memorials will look like?


Renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the FDR Memorial, saying, "This isn't a memorial to him as a person. It's a memorial to what he achieved as our leader. It's a way of communicating to this country what he stood for. I wanted the FDR Memorial to be an experiential history lesson that people could grasp as their own as they walked through it. The FDR Memorial is the apotheosis of all that I have done." (See LASN's February 2009 article, "In His Own Words: Profile: Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, 1916 to 2009

Now that we get a chance to come to Washington DC, and visit all the memorials, and go back to the original principals of our founding fathers, why not read the actual words in the Declaration of Independence—start to finish—slowly. Why not stand in front of the original document and actually read the Constitution word for word out loud. It’s powerful stuff. Hundreds of thousands of people have died to protect those words, and this city is a monument so that we will never forget.


The White House is possibly the most photographed building in the world and the greatest symbol of power in the United States. Every president except George Washington has lived in this mansion. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to call his residence in Washington, D.C. the "White House." Prior to his term, it had been called the Executive Mansion or the President's House.

Wars have a powerful and noble purpose as long as they protect freedoms and save populations. As landscape architects, there is yet another war looming out there. It is a global war. It’s not about states, or money, or market interests. It’s a war about the survival of the species. The humans. Us. People. The cockroaches will be just fine, as Stephen J. Gould noted. Cockroaches are God’s creatures, too.


The Washington Monument is a pinnacle structure dedicated to the founder of the country, George Washington. The centerpiece of the National Mall, it was designed by Robert Mills, an architect of the 1840s. The actual construction of the monument began in 1848 but was not completed until 1884, almost 30 years after the architect's death. This hiatus in construction happened because of co-option by the Know Nothing party, a lack of funds, and the intervention of the American Civil War.

So, I urge you to visit our most solemn, beautiful memorials. Stand there. Contact how important these sites are. Soak in how much heartfelt knowledge they impart. Feel the reaction they engender. This is not a lightweight assignment. And remember who designed them ... Landscape architects, starting with Olmsted.


The current grounds of the Capitol were designed by noted American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who planned the expansion and landscaping performed from 1874 to 1892. In 1875, as one of his first recommendations, Olmsted proposed the construction of the marble terraces on the north, west, and south sides of the building that exist today. The East Front of the Capitol building was rebuilt in 1904, following a design of the architects Carr?re and Hastings, who also designed the Senate and House office buildings. To this day, the location of the cornerstone is still not known.

Every building in Washington DC is a memorial to a principal that is unswerving and good. Pay Attention. Our lives depend on it.


The Memorial Wall, designed by Maya Lin, is made up of two, highly reflective, black granite walls 246 feet 9 inches long and is dimly lit by recessed ground lighting. The wall listed 58,159 names when it was completed in 1993; as of May 2007, there are 58,261 names, including 8 women. Approximately 1,200 of these are listed as missing. The confirmed dead are marked with a diamond. If the missing return alive, the cross is circumscribed by a circle (although this has never occurred as of March 2009); if their death is confirmed, a diamond is superimposed over the cross.

Responsibility is such a chore, isn’t it? So while everyone is hanging around waiting to do some more good, why not see art, hear music, eat great food, tell funny stories and have a great time? There is also all of that in Washington DC, as well.


The new WWII Memorial is beautifully lit at night. The high arches, towering pillars, and even the numerous fountains are all lit up. (For more in-depth information go to LASNs "Controversy Illuminated," April 2007 courtesy of Brett Drury Architectural Photography, Inc.


First There’s the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Castle was the museum’s first building when it was established by British scientist, James Smithson, who sent his fortune —100 bags of gold, for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Serving as the first endowment, the Smithsonian Institution has grown to 15 buildings and complexes.

Smithsonian Air & Space Museum has become the most visited museum in the world. The Smithsonian Institute had to build another museum 40 miles away. The museum on the Mall houses the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world!

Smithsonian American History Museum is sometimes referred to as “America’s Attic”. This museum collects anything possible, but got it’s start with the original flag for the United States and the story behind it.


The National Zoo was created by an Act of Congress in 1889 for "the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people." In 1890 it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution. Three well-known individuals drew up plans for the Zoo: Samuel Langley, third Secretary of the Smithsonian; William Temple Hornaday, noted conservationist and head of the Smithsonian's vertebrate division; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the premier landscape architect of his day.

The National Zoo was created to exhibit animals for the public and to serve as a refuge for wildlife, such as bison and beaver, which were rapidly vanishing from North America. An interesting note: Dr. Hornaday’s tenure as director of the zoo met some controversy in September 1906, when Ota Benga, a pygmy native of the Congo, was placed on display in the monkey house. Benga shot targets with a bow and arrow, wove twine and wrestled with an orangutan. Although, according to the New York Times, “few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions,” controversy erupted as black clergymen in the city took great offense. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes.”

If time is an issue for sightseeing, there are several tour choices that are either restful or short and will give you an overview of this fabulous city. A narrated two-hour scenic lunch cruise along the Potomac boasts a buffet lunch, DJ and live entertainment. You can cruise along the Potomac River with spectacular views of the city’s downtown.


The National Capitol Columns are located at the United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. The columns originally supported the old East Portico of the United States Capitol (1828). They were removed during expansion of the Capitol in 1958 and placed in the National Arboretum during the 1980s.

Night Tours

Since theoretically many people have to be inside the convention during the day, it might be a good idea to consider night tours. It is said that you haven’t seen Washington DC until you’ve seen it at night. You can see first-hand how Washington turns into a different city when the sun goes down!

There are also night trolley tours that include Washington DC’s most popular monuments and points of interest, including the Capitol Building, the White House, the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument with stops at the FDR Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial and the Iwo Jima Memorial. These allow you to see these impressive monuments floodlit by night. Also see the WII Memorial, Old Executive Building, Ford’s Theater and more.


When Civil War casualties overflowed hospitals and burial grounds near Washington, D.C., Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs proposed in 1864 that 200 acres of the Robert E. Lee family property at Arlington be taken for a cemetery. Lee's grandson, Custis, sued claiming confiscation without due process and won in 1882. A year later, Custis Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000 at a signing ceremony with Robert Todd Lincoln, Secretary of War, and Arlington Cemetery officially came into being.

For those of you who still have gobs of energy left over, there are Segway tours and bicycle tours that will offer you a fantastic orientation and give you an opportunity to see virtually all of the sites you’ve read about.


Go-Go + Jazz

While several cities boast about their jazz and country traditions, there’s no city besides DC that can claim go-go. Named for its non-stop, danceable beats, go-go is a fusion of African percussion with hints of Latin, jazz, funk and soul. DC native Chuck Brown, dubbed “the Godfather of go-go,” has been a prominent figure on the local music scene since the late 1970s when he released his first hit, “Bustin’ Loose,” a song that later inspired rap artist Nelly’s hit single, “Hot in Herre.” At age 73, Brown continues to draw crowds when he performs at DC entertainment venues.


For underground rap, reggae and more, check out who's playing at venues like the 9:30 Club (named the best live music venue in the country by Esquire in its Esky Awards), Takoma Station Tavern or Bar Nun.


Much of DC's musical history is centered north of downtown on U Street, which was once known as "Black Broadway." DC natives Pearl Bailey, Jelly Roll Morton and Shirley Horn were regular fixtures on the entertainment circuit, playing such venues as Bohemian Cavern (seen here) and the Lincoln Theatre. For another soulful experience, catch a set at Georgetown's Blues Alley, the nation's longest-running jazz supper club.


So Many Smithsonians…So Little Time!

Collectively known as the “Smithsonian Institution,” there are 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoological Park comprising the world’s largest museum complex. The Smithsonian’s collection of nearly 137 million objects spans the entire world and all of its history, its peoples and animals (past and present) and it’s future.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum maintains the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world. The museum features 22 exhibition galleries, displaying hundreds of artifacts including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the "Spirit of St. Louis," and the Apollo 11 command module.

The National Museum of Natural History is part of the Smithsonian Institution and houses a national collection of more than 125 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts. This museum is also a research facility dedicated to inspiring discovery about the natural world through its exhibitions and education programs. Popular displays include dinosaur skeletons, an enormous collection of natural gems and minerals, artifacts of early man, an insect zoo, a live coral reef and much more.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History collects and preserves more than 3 million artifacts of American history and culture, from the War of Independence to the present day. The Smithsonian's world class museum offers a wide range of exhibits that demonstrate the diversity of America's history and culture. After a two year and $85 million renovation, the museum has added spectacular new galleries to showcase the presentation of the original Star-Spangled Banner, the White House copy of President Lincoln's Gettsburg Address and much more.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home of the largest collection of American art in the world including more than 41,000 artworks, spanning more than three centuries. The exhibits tell the story of America through the visual arts and represent the most inclusive collection of American art of any museum today. It is the nation's first federal art collection, predating the 1846 founding of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum's permanent collection will be featured in six installations, including "American Experience," "American Art through 1940" and contemporary works in the Lincoln Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery tells the stories of America through the individuals who established American culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts, and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists. The museum's collection of nearly 20,000 works ranges from paintings and sculpture to photographs and drawings. The National Portrait Gallery presents six permanent exhibitions including the expanded "America's Presidents" as well as "America Origins, 1600-1900," and "20th Century Americans" featuring famous sports figures and entertainers.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is the newest museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC, showcasing Native American objects from ancient pre-Columbian civilizations through the 21st century. Multimedia presentations, live performances and hands-on demonstrations bring the Native American people's history and culture to life. The National Museum of the American Indian features films, performances of music and dance, tours, lectures, craft demonstrations and special programs throughout the year. Dining at this museum is a real treat. The Mitsitam Native Foods Caf? offers meals and snacks inspired by the culinary traditions of Native Americans.


Washington D.C. Art Galleries

Washington, D.C. art galleries feature contemporary art and traditional art, paintings, prints, fine art photography, glass, sculpture, and other types of visual art. If you’re interested in collecting art or would like to purchase art, some of the top art galleries are in Washington D.C. You’ll find most of the galleries along R Street and Connecticut Avenue, and they are open between 6pm and 8pm.

A List of Washington D.C. art galleries includes: Adamson Gallery; Addison Ripley Fine Art; Alex Gallery; American Painting; Burton Marinkovich Fine Art; Carroll Square Gallery; Civilian Art Projects; Conner Contemporary Art; Cross MacKenzie Ceramic Arts; Curator’s Office; District Fine Arts; Dissident Display Gallery; Foxhall Gallery; Gallery plan b; Gary Edwards Gallery; Georgetown Frame Shoppe; G Fine Art; Govinda Gallery; Guarisco Gallery; Hamiltonian Gallery; Hemphill Fine Arts; Honfleur Art Gallery; International Visions; Irvine Contemporary Art; Jane Haslem Gallery; Long View Gallery; Marninart ; Nevin Kelly Gallery; Newman Gallery; The Old Print Gallery; Parish Gallery; P & C Art Project 4; The Ralls Collection, Inc.; Robert Brown Gallery; R Street Gallery; Spectrum Gallery; Warehouse; The Watergate Gallery.

There are also a group of high-end art galleries in the Dupont Circle area that are definitely worth a visit: Aaron Gallery; Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery; Foundry Gallery; Gallery 10, Ltd.; Hillyer Art Space; Marsha Mateyka Gallery; Primimoda; Studio Gallery; Washington Printmakers Gallery.


The Sackler Gallery opened in 1987 after Arthur M. Sackler, a research physician and medical doctor, donated some 1,000 Asian art objects to the Smithsonian. These include early Chinese bronzes and jades, paintings and lacquerware.



Lose Yourself Finding Lost Symbols


George Washington Masonic Memorial
pays homage to Washington's Masonic history. The temple-like building towers over Old Town Alexandria, Va. Inside, you'll find exhibits about George Washington and Freemasonry, a large Masonic library and artifacts including George Washington's family Bible, locks of his hair and items used during his funeral.


House of the Temple--Scottish Rite Two sphinxes guard the wide steps leading up to an enormous doorway. This 16th Street landmark was once voted one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. While it is officially used as an office building for the Sovereign Grand Commander and other officers and staff of the Scottish Rite, it also houses a museum and Masonic library. Look for the references to the number 33, a symbolic number for the Masons in the building's 33 columns and 33 ceremonial chairs. Free public tours are offered Mon.-Thurs. from 10 am-4 pm. Inside, is a cavernous temple atrium decorated in black marble and other precious materials. The Temple is also literally filled with treasure. There's a library full of rare books.

U.S. Capitol Building
-- Examine the profound meaning of the spiritual imagery and artwork of the Capitol building. George Washington is said to have worn his Mason apron when he laid the cornerstone for this powerful landmark. Some say that Masonic symbols and references appear throughout the building.

National Gallery of Art — There are multiple pieces of artwork depicting Moses. Their hidden presence is implied in Erastus Salisbury Field’s circa-1865 painting “Ark of the Covenant” in the National Gallery of Art…also the magic squares such as those in the 1514 work ‘Melencolia I.’

Freedom Plaza — Pierre Charles L’Enfant is the city designer whose streets and avenues have often been connected to Masonic symbols. Head to Freedom Plaza, near the White House, to see a large-scale rendering of L’Enfant’s city map.

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August 24, 2019, 5:33 am PDT

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