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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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.

Continue reading

Freedom’s Eve at the Archives

Tonight most of us in the District will be spending New Year’s Eve celebrating with a watch party to see the ball drop in Times Square.

Sally Fickland, a former slave, views the Emancipation Proclamation in Philadelphia in 1947.
Sally Fickland, a former slave, views the Emancipation Proclamation in Philadelphia in 1947. (Photo: National Archives)

But every December 31st, there’s another type of watch night gathering – one that commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on January 1, 1863.

The very first Watch Night was held around the country on New Year’s Eve 1862, by African Americans and abolitionists waiting to hear word that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Proclamation.

The night was dubbed Freedom’s Eve, and witnessed the first major step toward the abolition of slavery in the United States. It also added a new significance to what had been an end-of-year religious tradition for many Protestant churches by creating a new tradition for African American churches.

This New Year’s Eve, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Archives is joining the festivities and staying up late.

The Archives will be open until 1 AM with the Emancipation Proclamation on display.

Continue reading

Capital Coffee

Anyone who knows me knows that my love of history is perhaps only matched by one other abiding past time – finding and drinking really good coffee.

Shaw's newest coffee shop, The Coffee Bar.
Shaw’s newest coffee shop, The Coffee Bar.

The District used to be a veritable desert for quality java, but the past few years has seen the birth of a serious coffee community in the nation’s capital.

And while I used to have to travel far to get my fix, now I have a number of great choices in my own backyard – the historic district of Shaw.

Yesterday morning I had the chance to visit the newest addition to the neighborhood with the soft opening of The Coffee Bar.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

A Drum-Major Misquote

On this MLK Day, there was finally a place in the District where you could pay your respects to the fallen civil rights hero.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Statue

King’s thirty-foot granite statue now stands prominently on the Tidal Basin, in sight of monuments and memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

It was unveiled last fall, in a ceremony postponed because of the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

But that wasn’t the only storm to hit the memorial – there was also a firestorm of criticism over a monumental misquote carved on the north side of King’s statue.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading