Columbus Day in the District

It’s Columbus Day today – and whether you love or loathe the historical figure, he has a pretty significant association with the District.

Namely, our name.

The capital was named by the three commissioners who were appointed by President Washington to prepare and plan the new Federal City. In 1791, they decided it would be called the “Territory of Columbia,” and the “City of Washington.”

They made this choice with a significant anniversary looming – the 300th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World.

Frieze in the Capitol’s Rotunda showing the landing of Columbus. (Photo: Architect of the Capitol)

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Pre-Occupied D.C.

A tent city of protesters springs up in our nation’s capital during a severe economic downturn. After several months of Bonus Army Posteroccupying government property and the public’s imagination, the protesters are finally evicted as police raid the camps and destroy the temporary shantytowns.

While this might be ripped from today’s headlines, I’m not talking about the end of the Occupy D.C. movement, which has spent the past several months camped in the city’s McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza parks.

This is the story of D.C.’s very first group of occupiers (not counting the British during the War of 1812) – the Bonus Army, which staked its tents in our nation’s capital eighty years ago.

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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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The Capitoline Venus in the Nation’s Capital

My European visitors are usually a little bit surprised when we tour downtown Washington and they get a first glimpse of our federal office buildings.“All of your architecture, it looks like Rome,” one of them told me, more than a little amused.

I think they’re expecting to see something a little more “American.”

But in the early days of the republic, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson helped set the tradition of looking back to antiquity for civic symbolism.

As president, Washington was responsible for planning the new federal capital along with his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. They encouraged the use of Roman architecture for all of our new buildings – including the White House and the Capitol – to link the new American republic with the ancient Roman one.

Even today, visitors can find traces of Rome throughout Washington, D.C. That symbolic link was made more official last month as the District signed a sister-city relationship with the Eternal City.

As one of the first cultural exchanges in the relationship, Rome lent Washington one of its treasures: the Capitoline Venus.

Capitoline Venus - NGA
The Capitoline Venus will be at the National Gallery of Art through September. (Photo: Robert Yule)

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Law and Order in the District

When you’re a tour guide in Washington, D.C., you never know what you’ll encounter. Any given day, the nation’s capital plays host to all kinds of groups, protests, parades, and commemorations.

One Sunday a couple of weeks ago, I was guiding a Japanese tour through the city when we encountered a pretty unusual sight in front of the Capitol building. A row of about 25 policemen on horses, lined up across the National Mall.

Police Officers on Horseback

The officers were from all different regions of the country, wearing distinct state uniforms and riding different breeds of horses.

It made a great sight, especially with the statue of Civil War General and President Ulysses S. Grant astride his own horse looming just behind them.

Turns out, it was National Police Week, and that Sunday was Peace Officers Memorial Day.

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Royal Fever in the District

Royal fever continued unabated in the District this week, as Washingtonians had the opportunity to bask in a small bit of reflected glory from Will and Kate’s wedding.

Fresh off his son’s nuptials, Prince Charles was in D.C. promoting something a little less glamorous – sustainable agriculture and community gardening.

Prince Charles touring the Community Good City Farm in LeDroit Park
Prince Charles touring the Community Good City Farm in LeDroit Park (Photo: Robert Yule)

The historic neighborhood of LeDroit Park had the honor of a prince in its midst (watch out, Prince of Petworth) when Charles visited Washington’s only urban farm on Tuesday.

I managed to see him with a few dozen other onlookers, as we gathered behind the fence of the Community Good City Farm to catch a glimpse of British royalty in our back yard.

LeDroit Park isn’t a neighborhood you’d normally expect to find a royal – although it was formerly home to a Duke (jazz royalty Duke Ellington lived here for a year).

It was also one of the first suburbs and exclusive gated communities in Washington.

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The White House Easter Egg Roll

Yesterday morning I was at the White House for an historic Washington tradition – the President’s annual Easter Egg Roll.

I went with a good friend and her young son, traipsing through the morning mist along the Ellipse and, after waiting in several lines and security checks, eventually onto the South Lawn.

Attending a White House event these days is a little like a trip to the airport.

South Lawn of the White House in the morning mist
South Lawn of the White House in the morning mist (Photo: Robert Yule)

We followed along as my friend’s son took part in a variety of activities,  starting with the famous Easter Egg Rolling Race itself. The race is a more recent tradition, started in 1974 using spoons from the White House kitchen and eggs hard boiled by White House chefs.

It basically involves pushing an egg with a wooden spoon through the grass to the finish line.

Trust me, not as easy as it sounds.

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