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Entries in NPS (35)


The blossoms are coming! The blossoms are coming!

photo uploaded to flickr by cliff1066™
Outside of a Presidential Inauguration, no event reliably brings the crowds to DC like the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. And while it may be hard to think of when we haven't seen the plus side of freezing in days and the remnants of a kick-ass igloo still occupy pride of place on my front lawn, those of you making serious plans from Cherry Blossom time might want to get moving.

If you're looking for a primer on what the hoopla is all about, I'll refer you to last year's discussion. Suffice it to say, the Cherry Blossoms are magnificent and if you don't believe me you can ask the several hundred thousand folks you will be jostling with. It's not too early to begin planning hotels, etc. and we'll be providing updated information about 2010's events as they become clear, as well as advice on how best to enjoy the event.

But for planning purposes, the mayor recently announced the dates of the Cherry Blossom Festival, which will run from March 27th to April 11th of this year. This is not to be confused with the Peak Bloom Date, which is defined as when 70 percent of the Yoshino Cherry Blossoms are open. Like most forecasting, this will require much guess work and when the gurus at the National Park Service look into the entrails of a chicken at midnight and come up with that date, we'll pass it on. For now, just remember the average date is April 4th, with a historical earliest date of March 15th and a latest date of April 18th.

So get your cameras ready, and sharpen your elbows! We have some Blossoming to do.


Knocking out the Memorials: DC's World War I Memorial

photo by Victoria BelangerTucked into a grove of trees between the World War II Memorial and the Korean Memorial along Independence Avenue is one of Washington's most over-looked Memorials, the District of Columbia War Memorial. Unique for the National Mall, it commemorates the 26,000 Washingtonians that fought in the War, as well as the 499 that died in the process, the only Memorial to commemorate Washington, DC specifically.

Few of my groups visit there, although this may change when the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opens across the street in a year or two. Perhaps that's a good thing, as this Memorial has been slowly falling into greater and greater neglect, even making it onto the DC Preservation League's 10 Most Endangered Sites in 2003. I don't know if folks remember the $200 Million in stimulus money that was for "moving the grass on the National Mall", as some alleged? As is so often lost in the noise, much of the money was to go towards the long overdue maintenance ($400 million worth) of National Park Service sites on the Mall. And if you doubt that's a problem, go walk along the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial. Bring a bathing suit, as portions of it are now almost permanently underwater.

Which brings me to the deferred maintenance of the DC War Memorial. I've been less than complimentary of the National Park Service from time to time, and will probably be again, but fair is fair. It's not their fault that they haven't been provided funding for upkeep of the Memorial. What are they supposed to do, chip in from their own pockets? No, the fault lies in the big white building at the east end of the Mall.

Now, this blog is not meant to be political, and certainly not partisan, but I find it disgraceful that matters have been allowed to progress so far with a Memorial to almost 500 Americans that died fighting for the country. If I had allowed a ship's bilge to fall into such a state as a very junior officer in the Navy, I would have caught hell (and often did!). Congress has less excuse than I did. I don't know if it's because almost all World War Veterans have passed on, or if it's because it's only DC's memorial, but it's unacceptable. What will happen to the Wall when the Vietnam War passes from living memory? Are Memorials transitory, and only for the recent wars, or are they there to remind future generations of the cost and sacrifice of those that passed before us?

Fortunately, this isn't the end of the story. After loosing the $200 million to "mow the grass", some of that money was reintroduced through the Park Service budget, including $7.3 million for the DC War Memorial. Furthermore, there is a very interesting proposal to turn the DC War Memorial into a National World War I Memorial. I'm not totally convinced, but it bears discussion. On one hand, this is a fitting spot, just feet away from the World War II, Vietnam, and Korean War Memorials. This is the National Mall, kept up (or should be) by the Federal government, and not just my city. And it is right and fitting that a Memorial be built somewhere to commemorate World War I. On the other hand, this Memorial was built by citizens of DC to remember Washingtonians killed in the War. We raised the money privately, and it's a little late to usurp the efforts of local Washingtonians, especially by a government that doesn't allow us a voice in the decision making process.

But enough editorializing. Even in it's current (and soon to be improving) state, the World War I Memorial is worthy of a visit for quiet contemplation. It's a nice little marble bandstand in the woods, best known for it's Dedication, where native Washingtonian John Phillip Sousa conducted the Marine Band. The most notable feature is the listing of the 499 names of the fallen Washingtonians, listed without regard to rank or race. Which was fairly significant for the time, when that's not how they were allowed to serve.


Knocking out the Memorials - The Vietnam Wall

Traditionally, in Washington, DC, our nation has chosen to remember specific individuals, units, or branches of service in honoring those that have fought for our nation. That all changed in November of 1982, with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was the first Memorial in Washington with the stated purpose of honoring all those who fought in the war, with special emphasis on those who died or were missing.

The design is simple, and I'm sure the vast majority of reader have no more need of me to explain it than they do the Washington Monument. But like the Monument, the Wall, as it is often colloquially known, reveals a great deal of complexity under its seemingly simple exterior.

I'm sure most of us know the story of the architect of the Vietnam Wall, that of Maya Lin, a Yale undergraduate who beat out over 1,400 other nominations to get the chance to design the Memorial. In what would become the first of nearly countless controversies, Maya Lin's design was attacked not only for it's unconventional and minimalist design, but, sadly, for her Asian heritage. As a result, the original design was amended to include The Three Soldiers, a nearby statue which is said to represent all those who fought in the war. Perhaps in answer to the ugly racism associated with Maya Lin's selection, the statue very overtly includes a White, African-American, and Hispanic soldier, reflecting the diversity of all Americans who participated in the war.

The Three Soldiers is a fine sculpture, as is the nearby Vietnam Woman's Memorial. Visitors should spend a minute reflecting on both. But to me, they're add-ons to the main show, roughly akin to hanging Christmas ornaments on a Giant Redwood, so as to add beauty to it. The Wall itself is one of those Memorials that continues to stir emotion in me, no matter how many hundreds of times I've seen it, and it will be the focus of the rest of my discussion.

I can use many adjectives to describe the Wall, but simple should not be one of them. Minimalist, of course, and perhaps even stark, but in no way is it simple. Upon entering the Wall, you will either come in from the direction of the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, done deliberately to ground this work in the fabric of our Nation's Capital. Designed both to blend, and to stand out, the top of the Wall is at ground level, and you descend into it, watching the 58,261 names (as of last Memorial Day) rise above you.

I will leave you to your own thoughts when visiting here, but try to pick out a few of the details Maya Lin chose to highlight aspects of the War. Look for the small diamonds or crosses next to each name, signifying if the person in question was killed or missing, respectively. As we recover remains, many of the crosses have been filled in to from diamonds, but you can still see the original cross underneath. Additionally, as you look at each name that you will see your own reflection. This was not done by accident, and the intent is that you see yourself in this sea of names (hint: take pictures at an angle). And finally, look for the 1959 and 1974 dates at the center of the V. The names are in chronological order from the center, radiating outwards to the east, and metaphorically wrapping around again to complete itself back where they started, forming a circle. Which is, of course, fitting, as a circle is often considered a symbol of life continuing on, albeit broken in this case. Which, sadly enough, also makes sense.

If you have a name you wish to look up, you can do it before you come at, a site set up by veterans that uses the official database of names. It is an excellent resource for more information about folks who are listed on the Wall, as well as general information about the site. You may as well look up names on books at the beginning of either side of the Wall.

A note on rubbings. I haven't heard anything official about continuing or discontinuing rubbing of names on the wall. Several Park Service reps and some of the veterans that volunteer at the Wall have told me informally that they've been having problems with rings and such causing scratches on the granite. So I have not been encouraging my groups to do rubbings unless they have a specific person in mind (family member, someone from their school, etc.). If you do wish to have a rubbing, I would also purchase a graphite pencil at an art store and bring an envelope for the paper so it doesn't smudge. Paper for rubbing is available at the kiosk near the Lincoln Memorial.

What I do encourage my school kids to do, on the rare occasion time permits, is to look up a specific name on the Wall. I think it helps to bring focus to the experience. With the explosion of smartphones with many kids, they can even look up the person in question before they even find the name. This might  not be obvious to a fifty five year old, who may have fought in Vietnam themselves, or protested against our involvement in it, or simply lost friends there, but the Vietnam War is becoming increasingly remote. I either have them look a name up at random, or give them one of the following, and we talk about it afterword:

Obviously, no one of these names is any more important than the others, but they serve to illustrate a little of the detail that many of the younger generation does not have.

A final note about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Perhaps fittingly, for what is arguably America's most controversial war, just about no element of the Memorial has been without some controversy, which continues to this day. It pains me to see it presented so often without acknowledment of that discussion (as the Park Service does on their website), as it is a war without easy answers. Some may take exception to how I interpret the Memorial, and other guides often view some of these elements in radically different ways than I. By all means, add your own interpretation in the comments below as you see fit. It's a difficult subject to tackle, especially since for many Americans it's not history, as it is for me.


Knocking out the Monuments: Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial
One of the unique benefits I have as a DC tour guide, is not only seeing and experiencing the monuments, memorials, museums, etc. through my own eyes, but through those of countless visitors I usher around our fair city. I get to meet a good cross section of Americans (and occasionally foreign guests) and I am perennially fascinated by their reactions, by what we hold in common, and by what we take in differently.

While stereotypes abound, and generalizations are easy to come by, most groups, no matter their background, tend to oooh and ahhh at the same points; get bored with the same things, and be struck emotionally at the same time. I particularly enjoy using my visitors viewpoints to judge the success and failure of the architects, sculptors, and other artists whose works dot the Mall. After all, as you learn in the first week of economics, value is determined by what someone will pay for an item, not what experts claim it is. Through the eyes of my thousands of visitors I can judge the value of these works far better than august Planning Commissions, Institutes of Architects, boards, critics, and even my own personal judgment. If the masses get it, it works. If they are left scratching their heads, it failed. Art, to me, is only successful if it evokes an emotion; and I'm privileged to get to see how many people react to the same thing.

I mention all this, because our last stop on this little tour, the Lincoln Memorial is by far the most successful of all the Presidential monuments, using the above definition. My hat's off to Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of Lincoln in the Memorial. Theoretically, my objections to the Jefferson Memorial should apply to the Lincoln. It's just a big statue of a guy in a neoclassical temple. But it's not the same at all, and that is entirely a result of the artistry of French in creating a work that captures some of the weight that Lincoln wore about him like a cloak.

It's all the more impressive in that there is no surprise as to what you're going to see. Everyone is ready for it. You've seen him in movies, in pictures, in history books, and countless other bits of our collective zeitgeist. And if somehow you have not, just flip over a penny or a five dollar bill, and there he is. But still, despite my visitors familiarity, Lincoln still evokes a reaction as they walk up to him.

And the walk is part of the experience. As you walk up the 57 steps (of no significance, by the way), you are ascending as if you are a supplicant. But the statue is not heroic (in the classic sense). He's not triumphant; he is, if anything, resigned to his fate. Martyrdom, sacrifice, satisfaction, sorrow, wisdom, and a dozen other thoughts share space in his face. I've seen it hundreds of times, and it still hits me, in a way that sculptures of equal significance do not.

Besides the pilgrimage portion of your visit, you'll want to take the time to explore the rest of the Memorial. On the ground level there is a nice little museum, elevators (for the handicapped, you lazy bastards!), and the ever important restrooms. You may want to spend a minute reading the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Sure, you've read them before, but they make more sense here. You'll also want to find the exact spot Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech. And finally, despite the Park Service's linguistic contortions, there IS a misspelled word in the first paragraph of the Second Inaugural. So, with high hope for the euture, I leave you to find it.


Knocking out the Monuments: FDR Memorial

The "Real" FDR Memorial
I apologize for the informality, but the next person I hear call it the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in actual conversation will be the first. It's always just the FDR Memorial, or simply FDR.

And I find that quite appropriate. Like his compatriot across the Tidal Basin, FDR was a complex character, a man born to the upper crust but who saw himself the spokesman of the people. But in many ways he eschewed the formality of the class he was born to. Oh sure, he wore the prince nez glasses, and used the funny looking cigarette holder, and no one has ever confused him with a rag to riches story. But while certainly not humble, he often ducked the more personal trappings of his exalted status, even to the point of asking for a low key memorial.

That's right, this is very much not the Memorial FDR wanted. In fact, it's not even his first. According to his friend, the humorously named Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, FDR had very specific ideas about how to be remembered:

If any memorial should be erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I should like it consist of a block about the size of this (putting his hand on his desk) and placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I don't care what it is made of, whether limestone or granite or whatnot. But I want it plain, without any ornamentation, with the simple carving "in memory of ...."
But you don't really get to pick how you are remembered after you die, for good or ill, so while the "Real" FDR memorial was built as he directed (shown above), the one we now refer to as such was completed on the Tidal Basin in 1997.

Unfortunately, if you've been following our little "tour" we are heading backwards in time, but it still works. This to me is a great Memorial to guide folks through. It's full of interesting nuances and quirks that spark interest in FDR in a way not seen in the other Presidential Memorials. The Memorial is divided into four plazas or "rooms", each dealing with a different term of his Presidency. Will discuss this as if we came into the front of the Memorial:

  1. The first area is not one of the four "rooms". Labeled as "Prologue", it is a result of a controversy following the design of the Memorial. Lacking any overt representation of FDR's disability, many activists threatened to protest. The statue you see up front is a result of that discussion, clearly showing his use of a wheelchair. Whatever the artistic merits of its inclusion, the statue has become a favorite of schoolchildren, who often pose on his lap. It's a great display of a healthy, vibrant FDR who happened to be unable to walk.
  2. Moving on, you enter the first plaza, which is almost stark in it's simplicity. You are faced with a large, almost overwhelming waterfall, illustrating the scope of the Great Depression and the challenge he faced with the New Deal. Quotes, including the famous "Fear itself" one, surround the room.
  3. Continuing to the second plaza, we start to focus on the nuts and bolts of FDR's plan for recovery. We see a little of the human displacement of the Depression with the famous statue of the bread line. This is another favorite, with kids often squeezing in to get pics between the forlorn, hungry, out of work men. But you also see the first tendrils of hope, as we see a man listening to the radio, a depiction of one of FDR's Fireside Chats. Around the corner we have a series of reliefs of people back at work, picking fruit, painting, sculpting, industrial workers, and so on. And finally we see another great waterfall, this one broken up into terraces, evocative of the works of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The deluge is coming under control.
  4. We leave this plaza and move to his third term. The great national crisis has moved past the Depression and we start to confront the World War. The designers cleverly illustrate the destruction of the war in abstract means. You will see large blocks strewn about, as if they were ripped from the Memorial itself. Look back from where you came and contrast the finish of the walls. You will see that it is much rougher and less even. The focal water fountain matches the chaos of the surrounding design (and no, the fact that it's perpetually broken has no greater significance). The world is falling apart. I might note here my one quibble with the Memorial. You'll see here a quote beginning with "I hate war" etched on the wall. It very much mistakenly, in my opinion leaves the impression that FDR was a bit of a pacifist and sought to avoid engagement in the conflict overseas.
  5. Leaving that aside, we move to his fourth term. FDR died a bare 82 days after being inaugurated, so the plaza acknowledges this with the bas relief sculpture of the funeral procession in front of a still pool. The stillness, of course, represents the end of life. After this we see a statue of Eleanor, who, appropriately enough is acknowledged after her husbands death. In many ways, she came into her own then, serving, among other things as the U.S. Delegate to the newly formed United Nations. The final fountain serves as a conclusion to the narrative, with a large combination of water devices borrowing from the earlier fountains.
Take note of the use of water throughout. Whether by design, or simply the encrusted layers of tour guide stories, the symbolism of the fountains (assuming they're working) has acquired great meaning. There is much to absorb here, and I myself learn new things all the time about this Memorial.

Once you're done taking it all in, and I encourage you to take your time, we'll finish our tour tomorrow with, in my opinion, the greatest of the Presidential Memorials. You know, the one on the back of the penny.

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