Monday, August 22, 2011

Here a Memorial, There a Memorial

The best map of Washington DC that I found during our trip -- unfortunately late in the game, on the second-to-last day -- was a federal government folding map called "Seeing the Nation's Capital." It's a National Park Service publication (GPO: 2011 365-615/80616) with distinctive black borders, a detailed map of central Washington on one side and some historic notes on the other. I enjoy just looking at it. Besides streets, railroad lines and bodies of water, the map features government buildings of all kinds, including the Smithsonian museums, greenspace and parks, easy-to-read street names, Metro stops in their precise locations, and of course memorials.

Washington is lousy with memorials. It's also one of the few places in this country where memorials get their due. Or at least the major ones do in the peak summer tourist season, though I recall a fair amount of tourist interest even during previous visits in November.

The ride to the top of the Washington Monument is so popular in the summertime that early in the morning the Park Service runs out of the free tickets it allots for each day. We stood at the base of the monument in the gathering dusk last week -- a literal and figurative golden time to do so -- and admired the 555-plus-foot obelisk, the tallest stone structure on Earth, but couldn't get in. A lot of other people were doing the same.

"Can I touch it?" Lilly asked when we arrived at the base of the monument. "Of course you can," I said.

Lilly thought of and executed that gag shot. I'm reminded of a photo I saw recently of three or four people posing for photos to look like they're holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, except that the photographer caught them at a completely different angle, so it looked like they were simply holding out their arms at random.

After dark, the Lincoln Memorial glows with soft light from the interior spilling out past the columns. Daniel Chester French's giant Lincoln looks down from his chair, as he always does. People look up at him. More people course up and down the steps. Even more people sit on the steps or wander around the front of the memorial. Under the main level of the memorial is a lower-level museum. A lot of people were there as well. I suppose the crowds thin out during the wee-est of the wee hours, but how many other memorials anywhere attract visitors well past the dinner hour?

Here's the crowd at the foot of Lincoln. It's a blurry image, but the best one I took. So let's call it my Hipstamatic shot of the Lincoln Memorial crowd, even though I don't have that app -- that way the picture's technical shortcomings are really just part of its retro charm.

Around the banks of the Tidal Basin, the most visible structure is the Jefferson Memorial. I walked up to it in the summer of 2011 trying to remember whether I had, in fact, visited before. You'd think I'd remember something like that, but no. It wasn't as crowded as any of the memorials on the National Mall, but still hosted a healthy contingent of sightseers, seen here admiring the central bronze statue of Jefferson, towering figure of the Enlightenment, or reading his words inscribed on the walls.

The 19-foot figure of Jefferson, I was interested to learn, wasn't present at the memorial's dedication on April 13, 1943, the bicentennial of his birth. It weighs about five tons, and not even a project so strongly supported by President Roosevelt could get that much bronze in the face of wartime restrictions. The statue, by Rudulph Evans, was finally installed in 1947.

John Russell Pope, who designed the memorial, apparently took inspiration from the Pantheon and, appropriately, the Jefferson-designed Rotunda at the University of Virginia and maybe Monticello too. Some sources (besides Wiki) note that when the memorial was new, its neoclassical design wasn't popular among critics besotted with modernism, but I shutter to imagine some modernist excrescence on the site instead.

I liked the fact that the Jefferson Memorial is open on all sides, which allowed a cooling breeze to waft in. The Lincoln Memorial, open only on one side, had no such amenity, and in fact felt extra stuffy during our summer-night visit, probably because of all the bodies generating heat.

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