Monuments & Memorials, Washington, D.C.
Some of the most famous U.S. monuments can be found in D.C., and I would say all of them are worth seeing at least once. The majority of them are located around the National Mall, at the heart of D.C., and it’s a fairly easy walk to see them. If you’re less mobile or simply don’t want to walk all day, there are bus routes that stop directly in front of most of the monuments.
At the top of the list is the Washington Monument, the well-known obelisk that stands over the National Mall. This monument is both the world’s tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk, standing just over 555 feet. It’s also one of the oldest in D.C., built between 1848 and 1884. My favourite quote regarding the monument comes from the Washington National Monument Society, laying out their dream for the design:
“It is proposed that the contemplated monument shall be like him in whose honor it is to be constructed, unparalleled in the world, and commensurate with the gratitude, liberality, and patriotism of the people by whom it is to be erected … [It] should blend stupendousness with elegance, and be of such magnitude and beauty as to be an object of pride to the American people, and of admiration to all who see it. Its material is intended to be wholly American, and to be of marble and granite brought from each state, that each state may participate in the glory of contributing material as well as in funds to its construction.” – Wikipedia
If you want to get a peek inside the structure, same-day tickets are available to board the elevator and ride 500 feet up to the observation deck at the top. Besides the exceptional view, you can enjoy exhibits on display inside ‘D.C.’s centerpiece’, and hear park ranger commentary on particular areas of interest on the elevator ride back down.
The Lincoln Memorial is nearly as famous, and on any given day you can see people sitting on the grand steps, chatting or relaxing, or reading books and newspapers at Lincoln’s marble feet, where speeches that have lived on in history – “I have a dream” was uttered here – have been given for decades. The Lincoln Memorial stands on the opposite end of the National Mall from Washington’s, and both line up directly with the White House. The Reflecting Pool lies in front of the Lincoln Memorial steps, often mirroring the Washington Monument on the surface of the water if you stand with your back to Lincoln. Lincoln Memorial is an important center for civil rights and African-American history, and the inside of the monument, open to the public, is filled with quotes, murals, and ornaments encouraging people to look forward to a better world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. has his own memorial downtown; a sculpture featuring quotes from his life and work. It is built on a ‘Stone of Hope’, which takes its name from the “I Have a Dream” speech, and is viewed through the likewise-named man-made ‘Mountain of Despair’. Other reminders of that era are the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials, dedicated to those who lost their lives in those conflicts.
The Korean War Memorial honors not only the soldiers who fought, but also the nations that provided support in the war effort. The memorial is in the shape of a triangle, with three granite walls fencing in a circle containing a Pool of Remembrance. On the walls, among other inscriptions, are written the numbers of the dead, wounded, captured, and missing. It’s a striking and solemn memorial to visit. The Vietnam War Memorial is in three parts, including the Three Soldiers statue and Vietnam Women’s Memorial, but the most recognizable is the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, with its seemingly endless list of the names of those who died or went missing in the conflict. The wall is reflective, so visitors see their own living reflections over the names of those lost; a reminder in the present to remember and learn from the past. Visitors can reach out and touch the surface, and rubbings are often taken of names inscribed on the wall.
The largest of the presidential memorials by acreage, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is an inspirational monument to human spirit and contributions. Visitors can take their time wandering across its 7.5 acres through sculptures of FDR, his wife Eleanor, and even his dog Fala. Interspersed with these are sculptures modeled on photographs from the Great Depression, capturing an American era with scenes of bread lines and fireside radio chats. Along with quotes inscribed in rocks and other landscape features, the memorial has a series of small waterfalls. There are four, representing Roosevelt’s four terms in presidential office, and the political and social upheavals he faced and weathered along the way. The first waterfall represents the crashing Great Depression, a single long drop; the second splashes over stairs, representing the Tennessee Valley Authority dam-building project; the third is a chaotic and jagged jumble of falls to represent World War II; the fourth is a still pool, for Roosevelt’s death. In honor of Roosevelt’s physical limitations during his life, the memorial was specifically designed to be handicap-friendly; a courtesy which extends as far as braille inscriptions for the blind in addition to those written in print.
The Jefferson Memorial is an architectural reference to the Rotunda at Jefferson’s own University of Virginia. Inside is a statue of Thomas Jefferson looking toward the White House, surrounded by excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s letters. All of these memorials – Lincoln, Martin Lither King, Jr., Korean War, Vietnam War, and Roosevelt – stand near the Tidal Basin, a reservoir located between the Potomac River and Washington Channel, which comes alive in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom all along the banks.
Back along the National Mall is the World War II Memorial, a plaza with a central fountain surrounded by pillars and arches. The memorial is dedicated to everyone who served during the war, both in the military and as civilians. Two walls depict bas-relief scenes of the war, from enlistment to – finally – peace. A Freedom Wall memorializes those who died in the war in U.S. service. Farther afield near Arlington National Cemetery stands the famous Marine Corps War Memorial, depicting the raising of a U.S. flag on the Island of Iwo Jima, Japan, during WWII.
Arlington is also where you’ll find the very recent Pentagon Memorial, dedicated to those who died in the attack on the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001. Illuminated benches engraved with the names of those lost are arranged in two directions: The ones representing those lost on the ground face the south side of the Pentagon, where the plane crashed into the building, and those who died on the plane when it crashed are angled to look toward the sky. A wall encircles the benches, rising gradually in height to reflect the ages of those lost.
Photos: Washington, D.C.