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Entries in Lincoln Memorial (18)

Tuesday
Aug032010

Urban Legends of the Lincoln Memorial - Robert E. Lee as Voldemort

It’s not there. I just can’t see it. Some of you know what I’m talking about already.

The story goes like this. Daniel Chester French carved a profile of Robert E. Lee emerging from the back of Lincoln’s head a la Lord Voldemort in the Sorcerer’s Stone. If you go around to the right side of Lincoln (his, not yours), and look on the back of the head, you see Lee’s profile in Lincoln’s locks of hair. Lee is gazing across the river at his house, now preserved as the Robert E. Lee Memorial. Further elaborations have Daniel Chester French a secret Southern sympathizer, Klan member, or other such nonsense.

The Park Service addresses this on their site:

No such carving was done intentionally, but the myth persists to this day. The fact remains that several visitors claim to find all sorts of profiles within the tufts of Lincoln's hair.


While I quibbled with them yesterday regarding the A and L in Lincoln’s hands, they’re absolutely right here (insofar as one can disprove a negative).

The idea that Daniel Chester French might harbor some Confederate fetish is just downright odd. The man was born in New Hampshire and steeped in New England Yankeedom from birth onward. Fun fact of the day his father, Henry Flagg French laid out in his 1859 book Farm Drainage detailed plans for a trench filled with gravel that redirects surface water away from retaining walls. You may know it better as a “French Drain”, which is perhaps why it was never renamed a Freedom Drain.

Daniel French was eleven when the Civil War began, and moved shortly thereafter to Concord, Massachusetts. He was a neighbor to the Alcott's (you know, of Little Women fame) and Louisa May Alcott’s youngest sister May (Amy in the book) fostered his artistic tendencies by giving him modeling clay and lending him sculpting tools. French went on to study at MIT for a year before embarking on his sculpting career in Boston, New York, and Florence. Hardly the stuff of secret Confederate sympathies.

Now, even though French designed the statue of Abraham Lincoln, he didn’t necessarily carve every bit of it. For the grunt work, French hired the famed Piccirilli Brothers of New York. Well, of Tuscany originally, but they had set up shop in 1882 in the Bronx. French’s daughter Margret French Cresson described them as “so in harmony were they, each so gifted, and so perfectly trained, that any one of them could pick up the tools and go on with the work that another had laid down.” No, it’s hard to see all six Piccirilli Brothers as likely suspects in secretly carving Lee’s face in the back of Lincoln.

And secret it would almost certainly have to be. It’s fashionable today to downplay the hatred and animosity that existed for years afterword. We hear a great deal about “brother fighting brother”, and my guests from southern states gently correct me as to the “War Between the States”. Heck, I purchased a book at Gettysburg a few months ago and the bag read “Our Country’s Common Ground”.

This would NOT have been the sentiment in Washington, DC in 1914 when French started sketching out his designs. Granted, tensions weren’t quite as high as the 1880s, or even a few years prior in 1902 when Virginia had attempted to select Gen. Lee as one of their two statues every state places in the Capitol. The public outcry, spear headed by the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, was overwhelming and it wouldn’t be until 1934 that Virginia quietly got it’s way.

And, on the surface, reconciliation had progressed quite a bit. The last actual veterans of the war were dying off and the nation had elected it’s first southern President since the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson. In June of 1914, the nation took the then radical step of dedicating the new Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded by re-interred remains of southerners previously buried in the Washington, DC area.

However, while public opinion was moderating enough to allow honoring the valor and sacrifice of common soldiers, it did not go so far as to accept recognition of their leadership. As late as the 1930’s, Representative Hamilton Fish of New York proposed an equestrian statue of Lee at Arlington. He received letters condemning the idea of a rebel leader, be it “Robert E. Lee or any other traitor” (more about this topic can be read at Kathryn Allamong Jacob’s excellent book Testament to Union: Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.).

So, yeah, I just don’t see Daniel Chester French deciding to add a profile of Robert E. Lee in the back of Lincoln’s head. Which is fine, because I don’t see anything back there anyway.

Monday
Aug022010

Urban Legends of the Lincoln Memorial - A and an L?

photo uploaded to flickr by bjackrianIt's been awhile since we've delved into the morass of DC's urban legends. Now that's we've scratched the surface of the Capitol, why don't we head to the other end of the Mall this week and discuss a few of Old Abe's.

Perhaps the most common question I get about the Lincoln Memorial is "do his hands form a “A” and an “L” in American Sign Language?" The killjoys at the National Park Service categorically deny this, giving the explanation:

No, this is yet another myth. The artist studied casts of the former President's hands to get the proper appearance. They were both in a closed shape for the casting, the artist decided to open one up a bit to give a more life-like aspect.


Well, that was simple. Now that I’m done with this post, I'm hitting a bar.

Wait, what’s that I see? There’s more to the story? Well, crap, ok, I’ll dig a little deeper.

First off, is it really an “A” and an “L”? Not being fluent in ASL, let me defer to the experts. Handspeak.com, a site that discusses all things ASL, analyses it thus:

The left handshape of the statue can be ambiguously read as a rudimentary letter a, but the other handshape is more vague. Even though it is not close to the form of the letter "L", it is closer to the letter "L" than any of the other manual alphabetical letters. The index finger appears to be vaguely lifted while the other fingers remain on the seat arm.


Ok, so right off the bat, we're not talking about a clear "L". Let's take a look at the history of the Memorial itself.

The sculptor of the Lincoln statue, Daniel Chester French, was not unaware of sign language. Decades prior to the Lincoln Memorial, in 1889, he had designed a sculpture for Gallaudet University, then the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (actually, he sculpted two; he had completed a bust of President Garfield in 1881). But the one of interest to us today depicts early deaf educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet teaching his first student, Alice Cogswell to sign. The letter being signed by both Gallaudet and Cogswell? That’s right, “A”.

So, undoubtedly, Daniel Chester French had a familiarity with signing, or at the very least the letter “A” and it’s not unreasonable to assume that he knew enough to find out what “L” was if interested.

Digging a little deeper, we come across National Geographic’s On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C., which doesn’t mince words when it notes:

French had a son who was deaf and the sculptor was familiar with sign language, so Lincoln’s left hand, resting on the arm of the chair, is shaped in the sign for “A” while his right hand makes an “L”.


This is great! A deaf son would certainly provide further motive to French to want to quietly include ASL in his statue. Unfortunately, French had but one child, Margaret French Cresson, who went on to be both female and not deaf.

But perhaps Margaret can help illuminate some items. In her book about her father The Life of Daniel Chester French - Journey Into Fame she specifically references the Galludet statue, saying father reviewed it before beginning work on Lincoln. She also notes her father’s interest in Lincoln’s hands:

He put a great deal of thought into the hands. Dan always felt that hands were richly expressive of personality and he wanted these hands of Lincoln to show the strength and power and tension as well as the relaxed character that he was trying to put into the whole figure.


She also describes the casting process for the right hand, noting that French was not pleased with the first castings. He had been using the casts of Lincoln’s hands now on display at the Smithsonian as his model, but did not feel the right hand was working. He made a plaster model of his own hand, and draped it into the position he desired.

This dovetails with the Park Service’s point that the artist wished to open the hand up to create a more lifelike appearance. However, Galludet Reference Librarian Tom Harrington had this to say about that topic:

I have independently found that in photographs of early working models of the Lincoln statue, the right hand is a simple claw shape gripping the end of the chair arm, without the subtle finger placements that on the final statue say "L" to us. If French intended that hand to be a manual "L", it must have been a late decision. However, in support of the theory, the left hand remains in the supposed "A" handshape throughout all the preliminary sketches and models, never changing shape or position.


That French was dissatisfied with the original hand and changed it is undisputed. That the resulting right hand bears some resemblance to an ASL “L” is less clear, but not without merit. French himself had nothing to say on the topic, but his daughter did say after his death it was a coincidence.

So where does that leave us? In the absence of documentary evidence, it would be incorrect to say Daniel Chester French deliberately carved an A and an L into the Lincoln Memorial. However, I think it’s not that cut and dried. French was intimately familiar with American Sign Language, left one hand clearly making an “A”, and reworked, at great length, the other hand so that a “L” is visible, if admittedly not exact. French was a deliberate man; it’s a bit of a stretch that the thought would not have passed through his mind. I think an intellectually honest “I don’t know” is called for here.

Wednesday
Jan202010

A Voice of the Century--Marian Anderson

Tour guides just love to talk about Marian Anderson, but many folks have forgotten all about her.  She was a singer and she was African American.  On April 9, 1939, Easter Sunday afternoon, she sang from the steps of The Lincoln Memorial.  It was a total of 7 songs.  An estimated crowd of 75,000 people listened in person and more on the radio.  7 songs changed history.

In 1897 Marian Anderson was born to an extremely poor family in Philadelphia, PA.  In fact, she dropped out of high school at one point to earn money for her family.  She finished later, but she never went to college.  It was finances that prevented it.  Eventually, due to her talent, she was able to study privately in Europe.  She was rejected by the Philadelphia Music Academy, because, in those days, no African Americans need apply.

She just wanted to sing--everything from German lieder to spirituals.  When Arturo Toscanni first heard her contralto voice, he said, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.”  She went to Europe because she had so much difficulty getting bookings in the US.  She jump started her career in Finland and then moved on to other Scandinavian countries; she even sang in Germany in the years just before the Nazis made that impossible. For many years Ms. Anderson’s faithful accompanist was Kosti Vehanen, a Finn.  In those days, for some, that was a scandal because he was White and Marian Anderson was not.  DC Like a Local has been finding a lot of Finnish connections recently.  When Vehanen first heard her sing, he said, 

 It was as though the room had begun to vibrate, as though the sound came from under the earth.... The sound I heard swelled to majestic power, the flower opened its petals to full brilliance; and I was enthralled by one of nature's rare wonders.

So, in 1939, after establishing her career in Europe, she just wanted to sing in Washington, DC, and Constitution Hall was the largest venue; it was owned by The Daughters of the American Revolution.  The DAR refused to book her.  When alternative dates were tried it became obvious that the reason for their reluctance was her race.  The DAR was an elitist society of women devoted to promoting patriotism.  If you are of a certain age, you remember those essay contests from high school.  “Patriotism”, as defined by the DAR, did not include equality—if you were not White.  It seems impossible today, with an African American president, that people could have thought like that only 70 years ago, but, thankfully, so much has changed.  You should know the rest:  Eleanor Roosevelt got involved and the concert happened, but, Ms. Anderson got a better gig—she had the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop.  It marked a moment like no other.  Kosti Vehanen came out of a sick bed to accompany her.  No one who saw or heard the concert ever forgot it.  One of the songs she sang was "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen".  Fitting.

Life for Marian Anderson was never the same after that.  She lived into her 90’s.  In Rudolf Bing, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, asked her if she would like to sing with the Metropolitan.  She did in 1955 and broke the color bar there.  Of course, it was past the time when she could have had a career there, but she, as always, blazed the trail for others.  By the way she also broke the color bar at Constitution Hall, by in 1943.

In her later years Marian Anderson did a lot of charity work and even served as a delegate to the United Nations.  She died in 1993, having lived to see a lot of things change in America.  Insofar as the DAR is concerned, when this tour guide drives by that building, the remark is always that “the building is most famous for the concert that never took place.”  Interestingly, the DAR lists Marian Anderson as one of the people who have sung at Constitution Hall on its website, but the website is silent about what happened in 1939.  James DePriest, the conductor, is her nephew.

For more information on Marian Anderson, you might want to read The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America; by Raymond Arsenault.  

Friday
Dec112009

You Don't Have To Eat Chinese! Christmas Day in DC

So, you are in DC on Christmas Day and everything is oh so silent (during the day too--not just at night), but do not despair, we at DC Like a Local have some suggestions for you.

If you have a car, enjoy the free and abundant parking downtown.  Yeah, Christmas is the one day of the year the Smithsonian is closed—which might account for the abundant parking—but enjoy parking without having to have a roll of quarters ever present or paying for parking via those annoying ticket machines.  Ugh!

We are going to assume that you are reading this because you do not want to do the religion thing.  If you wanted to do the religion thing, you would just go to church.  Here we look for things you could do that do not involve church services.

First of all, the monuments do not close.  No, neither the Tourmobile nor any of the other tour companies running tours to the monuments will be operating, but get yourself a good pair of shoes and walk it.  Don’t tell anyone, but you could be standing in front of Lincoln without the maddening hordes just gazing up at Daniel Chester French’s statue by your lonesome.  In the evening, check out the National Christmas Tree on the South Side of the White House (the side that faces Constitution Avenue, NW, behind the Treasury).  Unfortunately, the seasonal entertainment wraps up(pdf) on the evening of December 23rd, but the tree will still be up and lit for you to enjoy.  You could even take your photo among all the Christmas lights.

If you’ve done the monuments and/or don’t fancy walking all over the Mall, Arlington Cemetery is open 365 days a year.  The Tourmobile will not be running, but the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns will still change every hour on the hour and walking up there is not so bad if you take your time.  The Tomb Guards do that 24/7. Christmas does not stop the show.  Before or after the Changing of the Guard, stop by the Kennedy graves.  You will see where Edward Kennedy was recently buried next to his brothers John and Robert.  It is recommended that you take the Metro; the subway will be on a holiday schedule, so allow extra time.

Hands down favorite for me, however, on Christmas Day is Mount Vernon.  Yes, Mount Vernon is open 365 days a year.  For some families a Christmas Day visit there is annual tradition.  According to the website, the National Treasure tour should even be up and running for Christmas Day (you see areas where the popular film was made).  As usual during the holidays, the rarely seen third floor of the mansion will be open to visitors.  Unlike The Smithsonian (where you don’t have to pay to get in because you’ve already paid on April 15th), Mount Vernon is privately run and you must pay an admission fee. Mount Vernon is open 9:00am to 4:00pm Christmas Day on its regular winter schedule. 

If you want to have a more relaxing day, there is always the “Jewish” solution to Christmas—eat Chinese and see a film—you can do that as well. DC has a small Chinatown on H Street, NW, between 5th and 8th Streets, NW, and H and I Streets, NW.  No, it is nothing like Chinatown in San Francisco, but DC does have the world’s largest Chinese Arch.  Have the kids count the dragons on the arch; there are 272 of them.  So what if they get the number wrong, the purpose is to amuse them, right? Then go get a bite to eat in one of the area’s many Chinese restaurants.

At 604 H Street, NW, in Chinatown take a look at the plaque outside the building.  In the 19th century it was the Mary Surrat boarding house--where the Lincoln assassination was planned.  Yes, it's open to the public, but only if you want Chinese food.  It has morphed into a Chinese carry out called the Wok 'n' Roll.  Great name!

Before or after your Chinese meal, drop into Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th Street, NW (despite the address actually on E Street between 10th and 11th Street, NW).  The Landmark shows a lot of independent and foreign films.

Of course, there is nothing to prevent you from spending a nice relaxing day at home on Christmas preparing for the sales on the day after Christmas!

Thursday
Nov122009

Knocking out the Memorials - the World War II Memorial

I don't know if you've noticed a common thread as we've been taking you through the history of the various Memorials and Monuments, but you might have picked up by now that, almost uniformly, they all had controversies surrounding the location, design, construction, and so on. Except, to the best of my knowledge, the Korean Veterans Memorial. Perhaps it was forgotten.

But we rebound strongly with our next one, the National World War II Memorial. Obviously, no one objected to the choice to build a memorial honoring those who fought in the Second World War (or at least no one who we have to listen to), but the choice of its location, at the end of the Reflecting Pool, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, caused a titanic debate, with some even arguing that its location "defaces a National treasure".

Now I too was skeptical about it's location, but I'm a believer. First off, the final design, that which was ultimately built, is far less obtrusive than the original plan. The built Memorial nicely frames the Washington Monument when viewed from Lincoln. Secondly, as arguably the most pivotal crisis of the 20th Century, World War II very much belongs with our first President and the man who brought us through the Civil War. And finally, it looks a whole lot better than the broken down and deserted fountain it replaced.

I'm less complimentary about another element of its design. The Memorial is flanked by 56 pillars, representing the 48 states and 8 territories that comprised the United States at the time. I don't get this. Unlike the Korean Memorial, where depicting the various races in the sculptures was a nod towards the desegregation of the military, World War II had no specific nexus with the states. Why not list all the counties, while your at it. I understand the whole "we were separate states but came together as one nation" argument, but that's really not a part of the World War II narrative. Once federalized early in the War, even National Guard units rapidly lost much of their state identities, especially when replacement troops began being assigned.

But my aesthetic whining aside, this is a fitting tribute to the overplayed but still valid label of the "Greatest Generation". I've had some rewarding times as a tour guide, but none more so than having the privilege of taking a bus load of World War II veterans there last month. To see their impressions first hand, and to get to hear their accounts, was far more valuable than any stories or tales I could add. As he so often is, Senator Dole was on hand, with his wife Senator Dole, to great the veterans personally. It was a very moving moment. Then my bus blocked Sen. Dole's car in.

While the odds are not bad that you might see the Senator at the Memorial, prudence demands that you have a back up plan for visiting. Yes, yes, go and see your state's pillar. Now that that's out of system, you will of course want to see Freedom Wall, where each gold star represent 100 Americans killed. No, I'm not going to tell you how many there at; count them yourself. The gold star was a symbol displayed in one's house when a family member had been killed in the War; sadly the tradition continues today. Also make sure to see the excellent bas-relief sculptures along the entrance towards 17th St. And, of course, you must go around the back and witness the "graffiti" carved in the rear. Paying homage to the more irreverent nature of the young men and women of the War is an engraved Kilroy Was Here, a critical reminder that in the midst of all the marble and bronze, real people, with human foibles, accomplished so much.