Morning On The Mall

Whenever I come to Washington, D.C. I try to pay a visit to the monuments on the National Mall to see some old favorites and check out the new additions. On this visit, I was interested in seeing the Martin Luther King memorial. Yesterday morning provided the perfect opportunity to satisfy that urge and, in the process, replenish some good feelings about the country. I headed out from my hotel at 19th and L, walked down to the Mall, and turned right. I was not alone. It was a brisk, partly cloudy day, and a lot of people were out.

I noticed there were many people in wheelchairs out on the walkways and realized that they were an “Honor Flight” group of Vietnam veterans who were heading to the Vietnam War memorial–better known as the Wall, because it is a sunken wall engraved with every name of an American killed in action. I decided to tag along, and I’m glad I did. As I walked over I overheard the veterans sharing their memories with their children, wives, and friends. When we reached the Wall itself it was enormously moving to see these seniors rise from their wheelchairs, search for the names of lost comrades, and give a salute or shed a tear in tribute.

The Vietnam vets weren’t the only people at the Wall. A number of kids were making rubbings of names, and of course people were leaving flowers, photographs, handwritten tributes, and “thank you” notes at the base of the wall, under the engraved names of loved ones who had fallen.

The Wall is a pretty intense experience on any visit, because the sheer weight of all of those names makes a powerful impression, and the personal mementos left at the base of the wall drive home the humanity of each one of the lives that were lost. Add in a group of veterans who have come to search for the names of long-lost buddies, and you’ve got a gut punch reminder of the cost of war.

It’s interesting to recall that when the commission that decided on the design of the Vietnam War memorial chose the Wall, it was highly controversial. Some people felt it wasn’t sufficiently heroic and was too dark and unsettling. How wrong they were! The Wall has a visceral emotional impact that can’t help but make visitors reflect on the war and the men and women who served in it. What more can you ask of a memorial?

From the Vietnam War memorial I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial, my favorite monument. It remains an awesome experience. There were lots of people there, taking photos. If you visit the Lincoln Memorial, you’ve got to expect to inadvertently appear in dozens of selfies as you walk around. It’s also interesting to hear the different languages spoken by the visitors. It’s clear that Abraham Lincoln is still a historical figure who is of interest not only to Americans, but to people across the world.

Whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial I like to try to find a quiet spot where I can stand an get an unobstructed view of the seated Lincoln statue and then read the speeches–the Gettysburg Address on one side, and the Second Inaugural Address on the other–without being disturbed. Given the crowds in the Memorial, this isn’t easy, but if you walk close enough to the statue you’re out of the selfie zone, because it’s too close to get the whole statue in the frame, and you can reflect on what Lincoln somehow accomplished.

You can get a good position to read the speeches if you stand directly behind one of the interior pillars in the Memorial. I took this picture of the carved words of the Gettysburg Address, marveling once again that the most famous speech in American history can be recorded on one wall and read in only a few moments. But even now, more than 150 years later, the stirring words, and the concepts they so perfectly captured, still have the ability to grab you. Lincoln was a great writer who managed to convey more in a few words than other politicians can express in dozens of pages.

When I left the the Lincoln Memorial the crowds were out, taking in the view of the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol in the far distance. I turned right to walk over to the Martin Luther King Memorial, which is across Independence Avenue.

The entrance to the King Memorial is striking. Visitors walk through a rock formation that has been cleaved in two, with a view of the Tidal Basin through the opening. The massive statute of Dr. King appears on the other side of the missing piece of the rock formation, as if he has moved the mountain toward the water, and the theme of the memorial, written on the side of the stone bearing the likeness of Dr. King, is “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”

The statue of Dr. King is colossal and depicts him, speech in hand, gazing thoughtfully into the distance. The Memorial also features statements by Dr. King carved into a low wall that rings the statue, and the combination of the statue and Dr. King’s writings and speeches have an undeniable impact. When you stand by the statue of Dr. King, you notice that the Memorial location affords a fine view of the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin, shown below. Interestingly, Dr. King’s statute doesn’t appear to be looking directly at the Jefferson Memorial, but at an angle to the side. I expect that was intentional.

As I exited the grounds of the Martin Luther King Memorial I turned right and walked up the Mall, past the Smithsonian Institution museums and National Gallery of Art, to the Capitol. A parade was going down Constitution Avenue, and the atmosphere was loud and boisterous. When I reached the Capitol I took in the dome and classical lines of the building, as I always do, and thought about the contrast between the graceful beauty and power and grandeur of the building and the petty politics of its occupants. I found myself wishing that our current political class had more of the spirit of Dr. King, President Lincoln, and those Vietnam War soldiers–all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Going Classical

Some architects are up in arms about an executive order apparently being considered by the Trump Administration, called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”  According to a report in the Architectural Record, which says it obtained a preliminary draft of the order, the order would revise the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” issued in 1962 to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings.

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.The Architectural Record states that “the draft order argues that the founding fathers embraced the classical models of ‘democratic Athens’ and ‘republican Rome’ for the capital’s early buildings because the style symbolized the new nation’s ‘self-governing ideal.’”  The Record notes that the classical style was the prevailing form of architecture during the time of the Founding Fathers — as evidenced by the designs of Mount Vernon and Monticello.  The Record also reports that the draft order specifically criticizes some recent government buildings for having “little aesthetic appeal.”  The proposed order apparently does make allowances for “traditional architectural styles,” which would include Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial designs — but would ban “Brutalism,” the blocky, massive style of building that came into vogue in the middle of the 20th century and was the preferred style in the Soviet Union.

The American Institute of Architects says that it “strongly and unequivocally” opposes any change to the guidelines for constructing government buildings, and is urging its members to sign an online petition objecting to the proposed order.  According to one on-line report, the AIA says that “[a]ll architectural styles have value and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.”

It’s not clear exactly what the Trump Administration is contemplating, as the articles I’ve seen say it isn’t commenting on the draft rule.  However, I wouldn’t object to changing the standards to return federal buildings to the classical style, or the quasi-classical style adopted by many WPA federal buildings built during the 1930s.  I’m glad the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, for example, adopted the classical form of architecture; they are lofty, soaring, graceful buildings that are both attractive and aspirational.

Brutalist and Bauhaus designs are neither of those things.  I shudder to think of what a ponderous, looming, dark, Brutalist Lincoln Memorial might look like — but I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t have its picture taken by millions of tourists every year, as is the case with the Lincoln Memorial we now have.  If businesses want to go the Brutalist route on their corporate headquarters, that’s fine with me — but government buildings should provide a link to the past and our traditions, and do more than simply adopt whatever the prevailing architectural styles might be at the time.


Minding Abe’s Sign

I stopped at the Lincoln Memorial,  my favorite national monument, on my visit to the National Mall early this morning.  It never fails to inspire me, and I stop there whenever I can for a few minutes of silent, awed contemplation of our greatest President.

This morning I was struck by the message on the sign placed near the Lincoln statue.  It’s probably unnecessary — I’ve never heard anything but hushed whispers in my prior visits — but I appreciated it nevertheless. 

Don’t you wish people took heed of the sign as they talked about, say, the 2016 presidential campaign?

Lighting Lincoln

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a wonderful place, with its museums and monuments, walking paths and reflecting pool.  My favorite spot on the Mall is the Lincoln Memorial.  It is, quite simply, a majestic place — a kind of temple to democracy and an aspirational symbol of what the United States can and should aspire to be.

lincoln-memorial-statue-symbolsThe most awesome part of the Lincoln Memorial experience is entering the interior and seeing the colossal statute of Lincoln created by sculptor Daniel Chester French.  Towering nineteen feet tall, showing Lincoln seated on an enormous chair, the statute is the embodiment of our ideal of presidential character.  When many of us — at least, those who have visited the Memorial –visualize Lincoln, French’s  depiction is what comes to mind:  deeply thoughtful, somber, placid, resolute, and reassuring.  The dark shadows that sharply etch the 16th President’s craggy face play a significant role in creating that sense of calmness and historical enormity.

Interestingly, it wasn’t always that way.  When the Lincoln Memorial was first dedicated in 1922, French was horrified by the lighting of the statute.  French specifically created the sculpture so that shadows would define Lincoln’s face, but the skylights in the building didn’t produce sufficient overhead lighting to provide the shadows — leaving Lincoln to sit with a kind of blank, zombie-like stare, rather than projecting the sense of unwavering purpose that French had intended.  It wasn’t until 1926, after large floodlights were installed into the ceiling to cast the overhead light in the right way, that French was satisfied.  The photograph below of the worker installing the statue prior to the dedication gives a sense of how different Lincoln looked under the original lighting conditions.

French was right, of course — the shadows are a crucial part of what makes the Lincoln Memorial statue so memorable.  It’s amazing what some light shining from the right direction can accomplish.

Man Working on Lincoln Monument Highlights its Size

Downcast D.C.

IMG_1544I had a quick trip to D.C. this morning, returning this afternoon, and it was a downer.  In addition to the torrential rains and bleak skies, and the bumper-to-bumper, constant-honking, angry-gesturing traffic that made what should be a 15-minute taxi ride into an hour-long ordeal, the news on the radio was all about shutdown, shutdown, shutdown.  I saw tangible evidence of our inert government  when the cab drove past the Lincoln Memorial and I saw the “closed” sign and the barriers blocking off the area around the noblest structure on the National Mall.

Everybody on the streets, from the surly drivers to the sodden pedestrians, seemed deep in gloom, and I found myself sinking deeper into the mire with each fresh blast from a car horn.  It’s hard not to be depressed about the state of our nation when petty politics causes the closure of even public areas that are supposed to remind us of our nation’s glory.

Don’t Mess With The Lincoln Memorial

In a world of senseless violence, ethnic wars, random kidnappings, and suicide bombings, why get angry about some green paint splashed on a statue — particularly when the paint can be cleaned and the statue returned to its former glory?

But the vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial does make me angry.  I hope they catch the twisted person who did this, and I hope they make him pay.

The Lincoln Memorial, like the rest of the National Mall, says a lot about America.  Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents, and one of our greatest Americans, period.  His story tells a lot about this country, and his perseverance through the awful bloodshed of the Civil War does, too.  Most Americans have seen the Lincoln Memorial, on fifth grade trips to the Nation’s Capital or on family visits there, and it is an awesome temple to the American Idea — noble and grand, humbling and moving, with Lincoln’s careful words carved on the walls and his craggy, wise head looking down upon us.  We leave the Lincoln Memorial, and we feel good.

So why in the world would some idiot splash paint on Lincoln’s statue?

And while we are figuring out the answer to that question, let’s also answer this question:  how could the vandal do this and get away?  I hate to suggest even more surveillance cameras in this country, but the Lincoln Memorial needs to be protected.  Now that this pointless act has occurred, we don’t want to give terrorists any ideas.