I had the opportunity to spend some time in Washington, DC, the capital of the United States. Of course, as part of my time there, I had to visit and walk around the city’s most well known monuments and memorials.
I had seen them so much on TV and in film. I had heard so much about them, too, so it was time I got my walking shoes on to discover them myself with my own eyes. There would be many ‘pinch me’ moments along the way. To see these iconic landmarks for real, in-person, was truly surreal.
Washington DC’s National Mall, America’s front yard, is home to monuments and memorials that take you on a journey through some of the history and key moments of the nation. This space also helps you learn more about some of the country’s most influential figures, from presidents to statesmen and artists.
A big tip is to go in the evening, especially during the hot DC summer. The crowds will have lessened somewhat, plus it really is magical to walk about the park at sunset and into the dark when all the monuments and memorials get lit up against the dark sky.
The question is where do you start? For parking reasons you may want to start near the Jefferson Memorial in one of the collection of car parks on the other side of the tidal basin. Or, if you want to start at the top and make a good circular, then where else to start but the Washington Monument!
Standing in the centre of the capital of the USA is the Washington Monument. A tall obelisk that represents the importance of the first president of the USA, George Washington.
The idea for a monument or statue to honour George Washington was first raised way back in 1783.
In 1789 he became president himself and didn’t want to spend the money needed. Years, then decades, passed with lots of wrangling over any proposed project.
Finally in 1833, Robert Mills’ design was chosen to create the memorial. Even then the design was nothing like what you see today. The bottom part beneath a pyramid obelisk was to be a pantheon/temple with columns and statues dedicated to not just George Washington (on a horse-drawn chariot) but also statues of the other Declaration of Independence signatories.
On July 4, 1848, the first cornerstone was laid. It was done using the same trowel Washington used for the first cornerstone of the Capitol building. Fascinating fact: at this ceremony was a virtually unknown-at-the-time congressman named Abraham Lincoln.
Years passed and the building of the monument was slow. The Civil War brought work to a complete standstill. It was not until 1876 that the then President Ulysses Grant authorised the monuments completion.
In all the years that passed, the fashion of monuments had changed, and away went the plans for the pantheon and in came the want for a simpler obelisk.
If you have ever seen the Washington Monument closely then you will see where the stone changes shade part way up. This is because of a big pause in work. Once work resumed they could not find quarry stone that matched the original stone that had been used at the start. Therefore, bottom third is a lighter shade.
The capstone was placed upon it at completion in 1884. At the time it was the tallest man-made structure in the world at 555 feet and 5 inches. That lasted only 5 years as in 1889 the French completed the Eiffel Tower at 985 feet.
There is an argument that the Washington Monument is the tallest ‘stone’ structure in the world. With the tallest ‘masonry’ structure being supposedly claimed by the Anaconda Copper Company smelter stack in Montana (585 feet). But I am sure the San Jacinto Monument in Texas (567 feet) has something to say about that when you look at the bases of both. Alas, I digress.
If you look just left of North from the Washington Memorial you get a glimpse of the back of the White House framed within the trees.
If you were to pick out a perfectly iconic and famous memorial in Washington, DC then the Lincoln Memorial would be it. Over 7 million people visit the site every year and the memorial has gained significance in the years since completion, well beyond a memorial to the 16th President of the United States.
The memorial also appears on the back of the 5 dollar bill.
It is another monument that took many years and changes of ideas before completion. Mooted almost immediately after his assassination in 1865, it would be nearly 60 years before it was finished.
For the design it could have looked so very different. Architectural ideas considered included buildings based on an Egyptian Pyramid, a Mayan Temple, a ziggurat and even a building with wedding cake like-tiers with Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on the top.
In the end we get what we see today, a large building based on a Greek Doric Temple with a huge statue of Lincoln seated within, looking down the reflection pool towards the Washington Monument.
The 36 columns represent the number of states in the union at the time of Lincoln’s death. There are an additional 48 festoons above the columns to represent the number of states at the time the memorial was completed.
Pictures do not do this place justice at all. I can now say myself that you have to be there to appreciate it fully. It is certainly awe inspiring.
Standing before the statue of Lincoln, you really are looking upward; you get a sense of the scale of the memorial but it also gives a sense of awe from the aura of the man himself.
The statue was originally intended to be 10 feet tall, but it felt too small and the architects worried that it would get lost in the space it is in. It was enlarged to 19 feet from head to foot. He is seated, and if he stood up in these proportions he would be a massive 29 feet tall.
The statue was made from 28 slabs of marble by the Piccirilli brothers in the Bronx, New York. It took them 4 years. Once moved to Washington, DC these pieces had to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle and then the challenge became to leave no visible seams.
On the walls to the left and right of Lincoln are inscriptions of 2 of his most famous speeches. His second inauguration speech and the Gettysburg address.
To stand in this place is not just about the history and times of Lincoln himself. On the steps outside is an inscription where Martin Luther King Jr stood as he made his ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963.
These steps also mark the spot where a hugely talented opera singer named Marian Anderson performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on Easter Sunday 1939, in front of 75,000 people. It was hugely significant in that she was banned from performing in Constitution Hall due to the colour of her skin. Eleanor Roosevelt, amongst others, left that organisation because of the barr and the interior minister asked her to perform in front of the monument which had Lincoln’s words inscribed behind her:
”With malice toward none; with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds”Abraham Lincoln
Martin Luther King Jr Memorial
Next to the National Mall in West Potomac Park is the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. The address of the memorial is significant too: 1964 Independence Avenue SW – the year of his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.
“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hopeMartin Luther King, Jr
The memorial is a standing depiction of the above line from the speech. King himself is a relief in the stone of hope, standing at 30 feet tall. Behind are 2 smaller pieces of granite that symbolise the mountains of despair.
The whole area covers 4 acres and is quiet and thought provoking to say the least. King is seen looking out over the Tidal Basin towards a new horizon. (He is not purposely looking at Jefferson as some think, even though the Jefferson Memorial is in that general direction.)
Around the memorial is a huge inscription wall with 14 of the inspirational quotations from King’s speeches. Dating from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to his last speech, given at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, just 4 days before his assassination.
Cherry blossoms adorn the memorial area and bloom at the time of year that coincides with the anniversary of his death.
National World War II Memorial
Opened in 2004 the National World War II Memorial is a significant one for poignancy, thought and remembrance. It is dedicated to the 16 million Americans who served overseas during the war as well as the 400,000 who died.
For such a late addition to the mall it has a rightful prominent position. For one, it sits at the opposite end of the reflection pool from the Lincoln Memorial, and in the straight line of monuments and memorials that stretch through the Washington Memorial and all the way to the Capitol.
The arrangement of the fountains, pillars and arches have much significance themselves, as well as making up an impressive sight, especially at night.
There are 2 archways at either end to signify the 2 areas of conflict: Pacific and Atlantic.
The 56 pillars each represent a state (48 at the time of WW2) plus 8 overseas territories that fought with the US, namely the District of Columbia, Alaska, Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
There is a freedom wall that has just over 4000 gold stars. One star for every 100 soldiers who perished in WW2.
The lights, the pillars and backdrop are stunning but to look closer it truly makes you think. As an ex British soldier I know how these places make you feel. Here you could see American citizens making their way quietly to their state pillar, maybe to think of a family member lost in that dreadful war.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
I must admit, passing through the Korean War Veterans Memorial was absolutely thought provoking. Almost a forgotten war to many this is a reminder of the sacrifices made by many.
You are struck immediately by the 19 statues of soldiers on patrol in Korea. Each branch of the services is represented and their clothing is shown in such a way as to represent the harsh weather conditions within battle there.
The juniper bushes and stone slabs represent the hard conditions underfoot.
The 19 statues are surrounded by a wall that reflects them, giving the effect of 38 soldiers. This represents the 38th parallel, the point that separates North and South Korea.
The wall is also adorned with faces from photographs during the war. It really brings the human element to life and the sheer numbers of sacrifices to bare. Nearby is the apt inscription, ‘Freedom is Not Free.’
Next to all this is a Pool of Remembrance. A shallow pool that is surrounded by linden trees and benches. There are inscriptions all around with numbers of killed, wounded, missing, POWs etc. Reminders of the huge sacrifices made.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
We have all heard of the Vietnam War but passing along the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial brings home the scale of loss in the conflict.
The wall goes on and on and on. The names of those who were classified as dead, missing or as a prisoner of war. To date there are over 58,000 names.
Next to each name is a little symbol (not just separators). The diamond means confirmed dead. A plus sign means missing. If originally missing then confirmed dead later, a diamond is put over the plus sign.
If one of those denoted as missing is found to be alive, the plus would be circled. To date this has yet to happen.
When originally conceived, the memorial was said by many to be dull and lacking grandeur. But now is listed as one of the best architectural pieces in America. It is certainly a place that really makes you think.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
If you walk beside the Tidal Basin from the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial you will pass through the sprawling Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Memorial at a whopping 7.5 acres
Rather than build a monument or memorial that went skywards, the low level outdoor museum over a large space was designed to make it accessible to all – a nod to the disabilities that Roosevelt had himself. All the information boards are offered in braille too.
As you walk through the Roosevelt memorial it is set up as 4 rooms. Each representing a term of office as you go along.
Each room prominently features water in the form of waterfalls etc. They start with a single large drop that represents the economic crash that started the Great Depression. From room to room, the waterfalls become more extravagant and chaotic, through the Tennessee Dam building project to the big one representing World War 2.
At the end is a still pool to represent FDR’s peace in death.
There are poignant depictions representing the challenges he enduring during his time in office. The bread line is in room 2 that covers the Great Depression.
Within the memorial is also a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt showing her dedication to the United Nations. She is the only First Lady to be present in a memorial.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Memorial is off the beaten track compared to many of the more famous, central ones. It is across the Tidal Basin on the banks of the Potomac River and overlooks the water of the basin itself.
It certainly is an impressive building and much larger than you imagine it will be from photos. Even though it is situated away, over the basin you can see on a map that the position is almost directly south, across from the White House with the Washington Memorial in the middle.
Jefferson was a known lover of classical architecture and the design of his memorial was based on a miniature version of the Pantheon in Rome.
The memorial was originally supposed to be even larger and grander, with a much bigger footprint. There were many protests and objections at the time (it was built between 1939 and 1943). The original plan was not thought to be in line with Pierre L’Enfant’s design of Washington, DC, plus the original design would have demolished many of the rare cherry trees Japan had gifted in 1912 as a symbol of friendship with the United States.
Female protestors chained themselves to trees and the public outcry forced Roosevelt to reduce the scale.
Inside the centre of the memorial is a 19 foot tall bronze statue of Jefferson. When originally built, during the second world war, bronze was in short supply so it was made of plaster then painted to appear bronze. After the war in 1947 this was replaced with the now bronze version.
Around the sides of the building inside are many of the famous writings of Thomas Jefferson, including the Declaration of Independence.
Fun fact: you will see that on the wall they use the word ‘inalienable’ in the Declaration of independence. This is the word Jefferson used when writing it too. However, if you look at the final written version in the National Archives, it uses the word ‘unalienable’.
In differing official drafts of the texts it is written both ways but always with Jefferson using inalienable. Nobody knows for sure how it changed, and there is no record of Congress ever changing it. It is thought that John Adams, who helped supervise the printing, may have changed it.
I myself have been reading up a lot on Jefferson and to me there seems a lot of hypocrisy in his words and actions. The line ‘all men are created equal’ doesn’t sound right coming from a man who had over 600 slaves never mind one who did not free them in his will, unlike other men of power in his time.
Plus, as such a well read and prolific writer he also never wrote about women, even his wife. It definitely made me think a bit…
George Mason Memorial
George Mason was one of the Founding Father and although he never became president his work had a profound effect on American society seen to this day.
He was responsible for much of the inspiration and language of the US Bill of Rights which are effectively the first 10 amendments of the United States Constitution.
However he refused to put his signature on the Constitution for 2 primary reasons. The first reason was because the Constitution did not abolish the slave trade. The second and bigger reason being that it did not protect the citizens enough against the Federal Government. He feared citizens would not be equally protected by their various states’ own declarations.
On the slave trade issue he is a bit of a paradox. He made many speeches and writings where he expressed his hatred of the slave trade, yet he owned slaves himself, and instead of freeing them in his will (like George Washington and others) he passed them down to his daughters.
Politicians are often known as bandits, but as I was walking around the memorials on this lovely evening, a masked bandit of another kind peered out to me from a tree.
A cute looking raccoon looking straight at me as I passed by. Another name I have affectionately heard them called here is ‘Trash Panda.’
Those few hours I spent walking the Washington, DC memorials and monuments have certainly opened my eyes to a whole world of complex and interesting history.
I have so much more to learn and so much more to see. Instead of simply looking at photographs or watching events here on TV, I am so glad I took the time to walk the actual area and experience it for myself.
History cannot be erased but it should never be forgotten. As in life, past experiences make us what we are: some exemplary and inspiring experiences, and some experiences we may have yet to learn from. From wars and sacrifices that should never be forgotten to men and women who changed, and continue to change, the course of society.