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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Shaw’s Memorial

There have been a lot of significant Civil War anniversaries as we pass through the sesquicentennial (that would be 150 years) of America’s greatest conflict.

Today marks one of those – the failed assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts regiment, one of the first African-American infantry units to fight in the Civil War.

If you’ve seen the movie Glory, then you’re probably familiar with the story and its significance.

But what does that distant battle off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina have to do with Washington, D.C.?

For me, this anniversary hits close to home – literally. I live in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, an historically African-American part of the city near U Street.

The neighborhood is named after Colonel Robert Gould Shaw from Boston, who was the commander of the 54th Massachusetts (and played by Matthew Broderick in the movie).

NPR had a story today on the influential Shaw Memorial by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens – an amazing piece of bronze sculpture depicting not only Shaw, but his regiment of soldiers marching out of Boston and off to war.

Shaw Memorial's plaster sculpture at the National Gallery.
Shaw Memorial’s plaster sculpture at the National Gallery.

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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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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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The District’s Rosa Parks

An African-American woman tries to sit in a seat on public transportation implicitly reserved for whites only. She refuses to get up when ordered to move, and is forcibly evicted by the police.

Her case draws national attention, and eventually causes the Supreme Court to confront the issue of racial segregation.

Rosa Parks, by Marshall D. Rumbaugh, 1983
Rosa Parks by Marshall D. Rumbaugh at The National Portrait Gallery

If you’re thinking of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, you’re about a hundred years too late.

I’m talking about Kate Brown, a resident of the District, who in 1868 refused to leave the car reserved for white ladies in a train bound for Washington.

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In the District, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Whether you were stuck in downtown traffic yesterday morning – or had a birds-eye view from your office – you couldn’t help but notice it.

An ominous black plume of smoke rising from the vicinity of the National Mall, which soon towered over even the Washington Monument.

Brian Levey Fire Photo - Washington Post
(Photo: Courtesy of Brian Levey, Washington Post)

A terrorist attack? A rogue firecracker from yesterday’s Chinatown parade? A Superbowl barbecue gone awry?

The culprit was actually a small fire on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

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