Afternoon in the Capital: History, Monuments, and Thoughts

After I finished walking around the National Gallery of Art, I started heading towards the Lincoln Memorial, which is located at the opposite end of the National Mall from where the U. S. Capitol Building is located.

The National Mall

So now would be a good time to talk about the National Mall and it’s history. The National Mall is the area located between the U. S. Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. The Mall is home to many memorials and monuments representing different historical events and figures from our country’s history. I was able to see a few of the biggest monuments even though I was short on time. The National Mall is also known as “America’s Front Yard,” and I use that phrase a couple of times below.

Click though the following images of the National Mall landscaping and some of the memorials I saw that didn’t fit in anywhere else in this post.

So looking west of the Capitol Building, you can see the whole of the National Mall. The Mall dates back to 1791, when Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant began creating designs for the new capital city.

I’ve broken the history of the Mall into a very simple time line drawing from a number of sources, which are all listed below. What I have included in the time line relate specifically to monuments and sites that I saw while walking around the National Mall. There is a lot I have left out and I know that. I look forward to the day I get to go back to the National Mall and see everything I missed!

Time Line:

1791 George Washington chooses a central location for the new capital city of the United States of America. HE enlists Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the new city. L’Enfant was an aide to Washington, a French engineer, and his designs were influenced by Baroque town planning. In his plans, L’Enfant, based everything around the President’s House and the Capitol Building. He designed a 400-foot wide, mile long avenue: the west axis from the Capitol, the basis of the National Mall. While the south axis from the President’s house would be a lawn and garden.
1792 Construction for the White House begins. Designs for the White House are chosen from a competition; the winner was James Hoban, an Irishman.
1793 Dr. William Thornton’s designs for the United States Capitol is chosen.
1800 The White House and the U. S. Capitol Building are more “completed.” The location where imaginary lines from the White House and the Capitol intersect, is where a monument to Washington is planned. The location is very marshy, so nothing is built.
1814 The British sack Washington D. C. Luckily the weather was crappy that day and a huge rain storm put the fires out at the White House, and most likely the Capitol.
1820 A canal is built going east-west on the north side of the Mall. It connects the Tiber Creek with the Potomac.
1827 The U. S. Capitol Building is officially completed.
1840’s Railroad tracks are laid across the eastern section of the Mall, separating the Capitol grounds from the rest of the Mall.
1848 Cornerstone for the Washington Monument is laid.
1851 President Fillmore commissions Andrew Jackson Downing to design a public park for the Mall- the designs are never fully executed.
1861-1865 The National Mall is used for military activities during the Civil War.
1872 That canal is removed!
1885 The Washington Monument is completed. Finally.
1902 The Senate Park Commission happens. Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. are all involved with evaluating the National Mall and giving feedback on how to improve the land for the public. Ideas that these three guys come up with are based on the “City Beautiful Movement”- rationalized axis, cleaned out inappropriate structures (the railroad), established a site for a new memorial for President Lincoln. The main idea is to “plan rationally for the common good” and civic pride in communities. They also narrowed the National Mall from its original 400 feet wide to 300 feet wide with rows of American Elms bordering the Mall. See photos above of the rows of trees.
1909 That railroad is removed! Finally!
1914 The Lincoln Memorial is started.
1922 The Lincoln Memorial is completed.
1993-1995 Korean War Veterans Memorial Constructed.
2001-2004 National World War II Memorial Constructed.

The U. S. Capitol Building

The U. S. Capitol Building was where I started my journey at the National Mall; it is located right across the street from the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. See my previous post for more information on the Library of Congress!

The Capitol was designed by an amateur architect- Dr. William Thornton, originally from the West Indies. He literally based his designs for the Capitol off of what he saw in the architectural books of his time and he submitted his plans well after the design competition had ended. Thornton’s design was greatly liked by Washington, Jefferson, and chosen as the winning design. The original designs consisted of a modest dome atop a cubical central section that would be flanked by two wings for the House and Senate.

Construction on the Capitol Building started in the same year that Thornton’s design was chosen- 1793. The building was supposedly “completed” in 1800 but that didn’t stop later architects from adding their own ideas to the building. In 1803, Benjamin Henry Latrobe ( a really important architect) was appointed “Surveyor of Public Buildings” by Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe continued work to the Capitol by redesigning the interior and completed the House wing.

Then the War of 1812 happened. The building was burned but the Capitol was salvageable. Latrobe began work on rebuilding the Capitol around 1817-19 but was replaced by Charles Bulfinch (another really important architect), who saw the Capitol completed a second time in 1827. Another architect, Thomas U. Walter, worked on the building in the 1850’s. Walter designed new, larger wings for the House and Senate because of the growing number of Senators and Representatives (new states). Walter also replaced the dome with a Baroque, cast iron dome, that was double layered.

The Washington Monument

Along the way to the Lincoln Memorial I stopped briefly at the Washington Monument. There’s not a lot to say about the Monument. It’s tall. It’s also closed for repairs until 2019. At it’s base (well the bottom of the hill the obelisk stands upon) there is a gift shop with bathrooms. I checked it out since I’m always on the lookout for fun souvenirs. Oddly enough, what I was looking for, was a map of the entire National Mall with info. I seemed not to be able to locate one; I might have been looking incorrectly though…

Anyways, I didn’t get up close to the Washington Monument because there was a bunch of people at it’s base and I felt I could easily see the monument from a distance. As I was continued past the Washington Monument to get to the Lincoln Memorial, I did help a fellow visitor take some selfies in front of the Washington Monument. She was very nice and gave me a hug! I hope she enjoys her photos that I helped take!

So even though I said there’s not much to see at the Washington Monument, it actually has a very interesting history.

You see, there was a proposal for a monument to Washington while the man was still alive. He was like, “No. We have more important things to do. Did you forget, we have a NEW CAPITAL CITY to build. And. Oh, that’s right. BTdubs, we’re pretty much broke because of the war we just fought.”*

So the Nation held off on building a monument to George Washington until 1848, when the cornerstone was laid for the monument on July 4th. Funding ran very low by 1854, so construction stopped and then a political groups named the “Know Nothings” took over “construction” and ironically did almost nothing to the monument. Then in 1876, the Nation got a fire under these asses because that year marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the country and realized that, “Hey, now would be a good time to finish the half built tower to Washington that’s been sitting, neglected, in America’s front yard for the past two decades.”**

President Grant authorized the federal funding needed to finish the monument-work began in 1879 and the Washington Monument was FINALLY finished in 1885. It was officially opened in 1888. During this 37 year construction adventure- a funny thing happened- the quarry stone couldn’t be matched when construction picked back up in the 1870’s. So the Washington Monument is two different shades of white marble. Look at those photos again and find where the changes in marble start!

The Lincoln Memorial

To get to the Lincoln Memorial, it’s a trek. When I arrived at the Memorial, it was about 3:00 pm. It was packed with lots of people and not to be negative about the other visitors but there were many school groups visiting the Lincoln Memorial. Some of the groups seemed well behaved and then there were other groups that definitely needed more supervision- there were students sliding down the smooth sections of marble running along the side of the stairs (there’s a real word for that space- I can’t think of it- if you know the name, let me know). I wasn’t sure how to handle watching people be disrespectful of the Lincoln Memorial. It just seemed inappropriate and honestly it pissed me off.

I went to the Lincoln Memorial not to just take some nice photos of a very popular tourist attraction in the Nation’s Capital but to pay whatever respects I can to the 16th President of the United States, who worked to hold this Union together during a time of darkness in our country’s history. I also went to there to stand on the same steps that Martin Luther King Jr. stood on and try to imagine what it was like on those steps on August 28, 1963. The Lincoln Memorial is a place to reflect on our Nation: where we have been, how far we have come, and how much further we need to go as a Nation.

Within the Lincoln Memorial there is obviously the statue of Lincoln but there is also some really amazing inscriptions on the walls to the right and left of the statue. To the left of the statue of Abraham Lincoln are the words of the Gettysburg Address, while on the right is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech from 1865.

In my last post, I talked briefly about getting to see a photo from Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, while I was at the Library of Congress. So, it was really cool to have seen an image of Lincoln on his inauguration day while I was at the Library, and then be at his Memorial where the words he spoke were inscribed on the walls.

Sorry, I’m totally history nerding out right now. It’s just really exciting!

I also discovered, after the fact, that there is an inscribed step on the Lincoln Memorial to signify exactly where Martin Luther King Jr. stood. Sadly I did not see this when I was there at the Memorial. Like I said, there were a lot of people there when I visited and the time I had was also limited because I had one last stop to make.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I left the Memorial around 3:40ish and had to book it to my last planned stop for the day: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Museum closes daily at 5:30 and I wasn’t sure what to expect for crowds when I got there. I got to the Museum at 4ish and there was a small line to get in. This time of the year is considered the “off season”, so I did not need to get tickets prior to visiting the museum. The museum is free to visit but during the busy tourist season, admission tickets are needed and can be picked up at the museum in the morning or reserved online.

Before you enter the main exhibit, which you take an elevator to the top floor where it begins and work you way down to the ground floor. Before entering the elevator, you grab a small “identification card” booklet. Within the pages of the booklet is the biography of a victim of the Holocaust; you read different sections of the booklet as you progress through each floor of the museum.

My knowledge of the Holocaust isn’t extensive but I know a lot- in high school I took a course on the Holocaust through my school’s distant learning program. I’ve also visited the Holocaust Memorial in Boston, MA. So my understanding of the rise of the Nazi Party, the Final Solution, and the genocide of Europe’s Jewish population and other “undesirables” such as the Romani, Serbs, Ethnic Poles, Communists, Freemasons, Homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, is very clear. The main exhibit added to my knowledge.

I visited the museum as a way to remember those who were murdered and to share what I have seen with those who haven’t or maybe don’t have the ability to visit the museum in person.

The museum was dark, grim, and yet I have these photos from inside the museum- a wall of beautiful portrait photographs, names of places, and of people who were victims.

I had a lot of feelings walking through the main exhibit at the museum. I don’t know what the right words are to explain how I felt about it. But walking through the glass corridors where the names of places and people are inscribed I thought about what that walkway might look like when the light is shining through those names. It just might be terrible and beautiful at the same time. They are the names of those who died. I read their names and I paid my respects to them. I think about how reading their names and seeing their faces means in a way they are not forgotten and they never will be.

Which brings me to the “identification card” that I picked up randomly from the piles of cards you can choose from at the beginning of the exhibit. The identification card I received was for Bella Judelowitz. Bella and her family lived in Kuldiga, Latvia. She and her husband, Daniel, had 10 children, one of whom died in infancy. Together, Bella and Daniel, ran a bakery-grocery store in their town, which was eventually taken over by a few of their daughters. Bella was in her seventies when her and Daniel were deported in 1941 and never heard from again.

The following link goes to a search from the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website for Bella and members of her family: One of the people listed is Fanny Judelowitz, who I assume was a granddaughter; she survived the Holocaust. I tried researching more on Bella’s other children but I haven’t been able to find out a lot. If anyone can shed light on the rest of her family that would be nice or where to even start looking, that would be wonderful.

The White House

By the time I left the Holocaust Museum, it was about 5:30. I was hungry, thinking about everything I had just seen and read at the museum, and I realized I hadn’t seen one really important site while in Washington D. C.

The White House.

I had actually forgotten to plan to see the building. Luckily my phone had enough battery life in it to direct me in the general location of the White House. It was getting dark out by the time I found the White House but I did manage to take some photos!

If you have any questions or comments, let me know in the comment section below!

Thanks for reading!

Further Information

National Mall:

The general website for the National Mall, it will give you links to every site I saw while walking around the national park such as the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the World War 2 Memorial, etc:

Mark Gelerneter. A History of American Architecture: Buildings in their Cultural and Technological Context (Hanover, NH: University of New England, 2001).

U. S. Capitol Building:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

Another person I wanted to highlight, is Gerda Weissmann Klein. She wrote an autobiography entitled, “All But My Life,” that details her survival during the Holocaust. I read the book when I was in high school. The link is to the Wikipedia page for Mrs. Klein and tells about the amazing things she has done in her life as a human rights activist and author: There are other resources about Gerda at the Holocause Memorial Museum’s website.

***Made Up Quotations

* Washington’s exact words to members of Congress about building a monument to himself.

**Probably an actual statement made in Congress to secure funding for the Washington Monument by President Grant.