- Historic Sites
I Love Washington
A noted historian’s very personal tour of the city where so much of the American past took shape—with excursions into institutions famous and obscure, the archives that are the nation’s memory, and the haunts of some noble ghosts
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
It was Olmsted also who did the magnificent Capitol grounds and who had the nice idea of putting identifying tags on the trees, giving their places of origin and Latin names. I like particularly the tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera); the tulip is one of the common trees of Washington, and it lines the main drive to the east front of the Capitol. There are red oak, white oak, silver linden, a tremendous spreading white ash, sugar maples, five kinds of American magnolias, a huge Japanese pagoda tree. A spectacular willow oak on the west side has a trunk three men couldn’t put their arms around. In spring the dogwood in bloom all around the Capitol are enough to take your breath away.
There are trees and there is sky, the immense, blessed overarching sky of the Mall. What city has anything to compare to the Mall? At first light on a summer morning, before the rush hour, before the first jets come roaring out of National, the dominant sound is of crows and the crunch of your own feet along the gravel pathways. The air, still cool from the night, smells of trees and damp grass, like a country town. Floodlights are still on at the old red Smithsonian castle, bathing it in a soft theatrical glow, like the backdrop for some nineteenth-century Gothic fantasy. The moon is up still, hanging in a pale, clear sky beyond the Monument, which for the moment is a very pale pink.
I am always moved by the Mall, by the Monument (our greatest work of abstract sculpture), by the Lincoln Memorial with its memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., and by the Vietnam Memorial. I don’t like the Hirshhorn Museum. I think it’s ugly and out of place. And I don’t like the ring of fifty American flags around the base of the Monument, because they seem so redundant. (How much more colorful and appropriate, not to mention interesting, it would be to replace them with the fifty flags of the fifty states.) But I love the steady flow of life in every season, the crowds of tourists from every part of the country, every part of the world. One Saturday morning I watched a high school class from Massachusetts pose for a group portrait in front of the colossal equestrian statue of Grant at the east end of the Mall, the Capitol dome in the background. They looked so scrubbed and expectant, so pleased to be who they were and where they were.
I keep coming back to look at the statue and its companion groups of Union cavalry and artillery. Grant on his mighty horse, his face shadowed by a slouch hat, looks brooding and mysterious. He and the side groups are the work of a prolific sculptor who is hardly remembered any longer, Henry Merwin Shrady, whose father, George Frederick Shrady, was Grant’s physician. Henry Merwin Shrady had no romantic misconceptions about war. He spent twenty years on his memorial to Grant—twenty years “laboring on details of action and equipment, which have passed the scrutiny of military men as well as artists,” I read in one biographical sketch—and he died of overwork before it was dedicated. To me it is the most powerful of all the equestrian statues in Washington, and I wonder that it is not better known.
Though I have lived in other places longer, Washington has been the setting for some of the most important times of my life. I saw it first when I was about the age of those students from Massachusetts, traveling with a school friend and his family. I had seldom been away from home in Pittsburgh and could hardly believe my eyes, hardly see enough. We got about by streetcar. It was something like love at first sight for me. At the Capitol we were given passes to the Senate gallery and warned not to be disappointed if only a few senators were on the floor. There was almost no one on the floor and one man was reading a newspaper. No matter. I was overcome with a feeling I couldn’t explain, just to be in that room. I would happily have stayed all afternoon.
The next visit was about five years later, while I was in college, only this time I was head over heels in love with a girl, who, fortunately, also wanted to see the sights. (She is a politician’s daughter.) We stood in line for the White House tour, drove out along the Potomac to Mount Vernon. It was March, but felt more like May. The tulips were out at Mount Vernon, and the river, I remember, looked as blue as the ocean. That night, all dressed up, we had dinner at the old Occidental Restaurant, next door to the Willard.
In 1961, after Kennedy took office, still in our twenties, we came back again. I had landed a job as an editor with the U.S. Information Agency, then under the direction of Edward R. Murrow. Only now we came with three small children. On summer evenings, my office day over, we would meet to walk around the Tidal Basin, the baby riding in a carriage. One Saturday afternoon at the Library of Congress, I found my vocation.