“I remember when I first came to Washington. For the first six months you wonder how the hell you ever got here. For the next six months you wonder how the hell the rest of them ever got here.” Harry S. Truman
“I often say of George Washington that he was one of the few in the whole history of the world who was not carried away by power.” Robert Frost
I returned to Washington DC over the Memorial Day weekend. It was an opportunity to experience the many changes time and terror have made to the original concept of making the West Front of the Capitol Building a grand lawn for the nation to celebrate major patriotic events.
Since my last visit, a non-profit organization was chartered in 1962 by Congress to, “to educate the public on the history and heritage of the U.S. Capitol building, its institutions and the people who have served therein.” For the specifics of the need to establish a non-federal, privately funded organization to tell the general public about our nation’s legislative house visit another website: http://www.uschs.org/about-us/about-the-society/
The name of the organization is The United States Capitol Historical Society. Their Chief Guide and Public Programs Manager is Steve Livengood. He led us on a merry route around the perimeter of the grounds.
Beginning on the terrace of the terrace of the US Botanic Garden, the tour headed east towards the closest access to the lowest level of terracing on the mall side of the building. A sprawling stage had been set up fronting a massive sail of canvas and bunting. The majestic lawn of the West Front was surrounded by a bulwark of orange tapes, traffic barricades and official police presence. The group accompanying me posed for a photo on the landing dedicated to the fallen heroes of the Civil War.
It’s known as the Grant Memorial. I knew U.S. Grant. After his presidency. During the scandals that came afterward. I was with him in New York as he was writing the memoirs that would support his family after the cancer completed its course. He was a great man. The Memorial is monumental but it is still not as grand as the man. His life was perfect for his time and his place. He delivered the Republic back to the hands of the people.
It was an auspicious location. It was also the closest we came to viewing the work for which Olmsted and the partnership is famed. On our groups approach, guards came forward to prevent us accessing the lawn and terraces.
Steve decided to walk and talk our way along the south façade and past the Rayburn congressional office building on Independence Avenue. We heard about the plan to open up the true “front” of the building as originally envisioned by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. He was French but wanted to be known as Peter when he was working on the original plan of the city.
Imagine the designer putting plans on paper for a city of 500,000 people when the site was mostly a tidal swamp prone to culturing more mosquitos than people. His vision was grander than Paris or London in its time. He had a blank slate on which to write historic large letters dedicated to the majesty of America’s great political Republic. Not since Roman times had such power been wielded by the general public.
As with most singularly unique concepts, the design languished in the control of three commissioners. L’Enfant was replaced after the site had been surveyed and pinned. The streets were run but it would be years until anyone could see visual supremacy of his populated capitol.
The building housing our bicameral house of legislation grew by needs and starts. Senate and House added wings. The dome was finally completed. But the main entrance for its first 100 years of existence was the East Front.
The mall was cut out of a city built up of blighted tenements and squatter’s shacks. The museums came later to save the avenue that now connects the Capitol with the Washington Monument. The tree-lined avenues edged with marble-faced buildings that a casual visitor now experiences around the Capitol were unknown to President Lincoln.
Somehow L’Enfant’s vision, although 200 years in the creation, was fulfilled with the energy and strength of children four or more generations removed from the fountainhead.
Our tour group reached the top of Capitol Hill. We walked around the cordon of security barriers. Access to the building was blocked. We could hear music played by the National Symphony. We stood silent as a big-voiced soprano added conspicuously extraneous notes to the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. I hummed along. I stood proud as I viewed all that had been created. I was reconnected to being an American.
We crossed the street and climbed the stairs to the old Library of Congress. Sirens screamed. Lights flashed. Large black Mariahs pulled up to the curb in front of us. Armies of black-capped security personal, bristling with armour and badges and weapons raced up the steps. We were under siege. They shouted and signaled: “Off the steps! Now! Move, move, move!!!”
We just ran. “Bomb scare! In the Library of Congress…move away fast.”
The times have changed. Events are larger than architecture. No one notices a man in a top hat with memories of how it used to be when the nation could have an uninterrupted party on its front lawn.
Happy Memorial Day. I remember other events held on the same anniversary. But I continue to feel just as proud to be able to say, “I am an American.” I thank Steve Livengood for reminding me how important and unique that is.