American Graffiti

It’s been a tough week for D.C.’s historic landmarks.

Beginning on Friday, a vandal armed with green paint splashed a path through the District, defacing monuments, statues, and churches along the way.

I was in San Francisco when I heard the news that paint had been thrown onto the statue at the Lincoln Memorial.

Pretty shocking stuff, but it turned out to not be an isolated incident. Over the weekend there was a steady drip of similar news from D.C.:

Green paint on a statue of Martin Luther and inside the historic Luther Place Memorial Church at Thomas Circle…

Green paint on a statue of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, outside the iconic Castle building…

And finally on Monday, green paint inside the National Cathedral, where a pipe organ and two chapels were splashed – one of which served as President Woodrow Wilson’s initial burial site.

The Lincoln Memorial undergoing cleaning to remove green paint.
The Lincoln Memorial undergoing cleaning to remove green paint.

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French Connections for Bastille Day

This weekend in D.C. had a decidedly French flavor, and that’s before I even realized that today was Bastille Day.

On Saturday I visited the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization founded at the close of the Revolutionary War by French and American officers to preserve the bonds forged during that long struggle. George Washington, the general who helped unify the Continental Army and the colonies, served as its first president.

Among its ranks, there were two founding French members who would be well known to future Washingtonians – the Marquis de Lafayette and Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

A mural in the sumptuous Anderson House showing Washington and Lafayette and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.
A mural in sumptuous Anderson House showing Washington and Lafayette and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Lafayette was the young French aristocrat who ending up playing a key role in both the American and French Revolutions, and whose name and statue grace the park on the north side of the White House.

And L’Enfant of course was the talented but difficult engineer and artist who served General Washington during the war, and was later selected by him during peacetime to design our first capitol – Federal Hall in New York City – and then the capital, the District of Columbia.

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D.C.’s Tallest Nightlight

With the flick of a switch, things got a little brighter on the National Mall tonight.

At dusk the National Park Service officially lit up the Washington Monument, which has been fully encased in aluminum scaffolding since May.

It’s part of the multi-million dollar repair job needed after the East Coast earthquake of August 2011, which caused significant damage to a number of D.C. landmarks – including our city’s first and most visible monument.

The Washington Monument a few weeks before the illumination, lit by the supermoon.

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Unbuilt Washington

In conversation, some things are better left unsaid – and in the Historic District, some things are better left unbuilt.

That’s the unspoken commentary behind a new exhibit that opened at the National Building Museum this past weekend. “Unbuilt Washington” explores the monuments and buildings – and occasional Venetian-style canal – that might have graced the District, if only they had made it past the drawing board.

There’s the colossal pyramid honoring Abraham Lincoln, or the medieval-style Memorial Bridge dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant, or the new executive mansion built further up 16th Street, atop Meridian Hill.

The U.S. Grant Memorial Bridge
The U.S. Grant Memorial Bridge

As a D.C. guide, I thought this exhibit was a pretty fascinating tour of an alternate Washington. And with Thanksgiving approaching, I was also left feeling grateful that some of these outlandish structures were left unbuilt – either through lack of funds, shifting priorities, or public outcry.

The exhibit reminds you that from its inception, the federal capital has presented a veritable blank slate for architectural imaginations and often competing notions of national expression.

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Fixing America’s Front Yard

My tours of D.C. usually begin at the place that all visitors, both international and domestic, have ultimately come to Washington to see – the White House.

But when we arrive, many of my groups actually don’t recognize one of the most famous buildings in the world. They’re surprised and a little disappointed when I point out the President’s house.

White House - North Side
The White House’s north side, seen from Lafayette Park

“It doesn’t look the way I remember it,” or “It looks smaller than it does on TV,” are the two most common responses I hear.

That’s because I take my groups through Lafayette Park to the north side of the White House. This is technically the front entrance. With its portico and circular driveway, the north side faces the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 16th Street, giving the residence its famous address.

It’s the back, or south side, that most people recognize from movies and postcards. It has the curved façade and Truman balcony, and opens onto the President’s back yard.

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The Conspirator Theories

The Conspirator Movie Poster
The Conspirator Movie Poster

So I just saw the movie The Conspirator last night, opening in the District on the same day that Abraham Lincoln died – April 15, 146 years ago.

I missed the red carpet premiere at Ford’s Theatre last week – complete with director Robert Redford and all the movie’s stars, including Robin Wright, James McAvoy, and Kevin Cline.

But I did get to see the film just three blocks from Ford’s Theatre, where the 16th president was shot on April 14.

And I was just one block away from the boarding house of one of the alleged conspirators, Mary Surratt, whose trial is the subject of the film.

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