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

Advertisements

Statue of Limitations

One of the more interesting things for visitors to see in the Capitol is the National Statuary Hall Collection.

It consists of 100 statues placed throughout the building – two donated by each state to commemorate people who have had an impact on their state and the nation.

While most of the statues are traditional marble sculptures of the usual suspects in U.S. history, the collection has also changed with the times. Since 2000, states are allowed to even replace their statues if they so choose – which has happened three times already.

Walking through the halls of the Capitol now, there are a few statues that manage to surprise.

There are the modern – like Utah’s “Father of Television” Philo T. Farnsworth, or Colorado astronaut John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr.

Colorado’s modern statue of John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr. – an astronaut who was also elected to Congress. (Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol)

There are the women – like Alabama’s Helen Keller and Montana’s Jeanette Rankin.

There are the Native Americans and Pacific Islanders –  like New Mexico’s Po’pay and Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I.

And there are even the Confederates – like Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis and Virgnia’s Robert E. Lee.

But there are limits to the breadth of the official collection. So far there are no African-Americans among the 100 statues, and there are no contributions from the District of Columbia.

That could soon change, with a statue of Frederick Douglass that will be heading to the Capitol.

Continue reading

Capitol(ine) Hill

What better way to start the comparisons between Rome and Washington, D.C. than at the center of it all – Capitol Hill.

In Rome, it’s called the Capitoline Hill – or Capitolium in the original Latin, and Campidoglio in the modern Italian.

Ancient Rome was famously settled around seven hills. Although the Capitoline was the smallest, it was the symbolic center of the ancient city, both spiritually and politically.

On its peak was the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, dedicated to the king of the gods. And just behind it was the Forum, where all official political business took place.

A 19th Century drawing depicting the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill during the Roman Republic.

During the peak of the Roman empire, this small hill was literally the power center of the world.

So how did Washington end up with it’s very own Capitol Hill?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

A Big Apple Inaugural

So I found myself wandering the wind-blown streets of lower Manhattan this past weekend, searching for traces of the nation’s first federal capital.

It might seem a little early for a field trip in this blog about historic Washington, D.C., but my flight back from South Africa brought me through JFK, and I decided to make a weekend of it.

New York City’s Federal Hall, our first Capitol.

Here’s the question I wanted to investigate: How much does the Big Apple celebrate its capital heritage?

Short answer: Not much.

Continue reading