- 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
The most engaging guide to the city’s landmarks is Washington Itself by E. J. Applewhite, which is both well written and full of delightful, little-known facts. Thanks to Mr. Applewhite, a former official of the Central Intelligence Agency, I now know as I did not before that the statue of Winston Churchill in front of the British Embassy has one foot planted firmly in the extraterritoriality of the embassy’s Crown property and the other over the boundary in U.S. territory, in tribute to Churchill’s British-American parentage. I know that the Government Printing Office is the City’s largest industrial employer; that the eight glorious columns inside the old Pension Building are the tallest ever built in the Roman style, taller even than those at Baalbek; that the Mayflower Hotel is by the same architectural firm, Warren and Wetmore, that did Grand Central Station in New York.
My favorite book about the city is Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize history, Reveille in Washington .
If asked to name my favorite book about the city, I would have to pick Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize history, Reveille in Washington, first published in 1941, one of my all-time favorite books of any kind, which I have read and reread and pushed on friends for years.
It is Washington during the Civil War, a chronicle of all that was going on at every level of government and society. I read it initially in the 1960s, in those first years of living here, and it gave me not just a sense of that very different Washington of the 186Os, but of the possibilities for self-expression in writing narrative history. Like Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, it was one of the books that started me on the way, first reading Civil War history, then thinking more and more of daring to try something of the kind of my own. I wanted to be a writer in the worst way—if ever I could find a subject.
The subject turned out to be the Johnstown flood of 1889, and the fact that I found it in Washington, found the work I wanted most to do, has, I know, a lot to do with my affection for the city.
A number of old photographs were spread out on a big oak table in the Picture Collection of the Library of Congress at a point when I came wandering by one Saturday. They had just been acquired by the library, and one of the curators, Milton Kaplan, took time out to tell me about them. A Pittsburgh photographer had managed somehow to get into Johnstown with all his glass plates and heavy paraphernalia only a day or so after the disaster, when almost nobody was getting through. In one picture a whole tree was driven through a house like a javelin. I didn’t know it then, but I had just begun my first book.
More important in the long run, I had “discovered” the Library of Congress, the greatest “treasure house” we have, and I have been drawn to it, I have been inspired and fortified by it ever since, no matter where I was living. Any city that has the Library of Congress is my capital. Some of the happiest, most productive days of my life have been spent in its manuscript collection or working with its newspaper files. It is one of the wonders of the world. The statistics are staggering—twenty million books, of which less than a fourth are in English, nearly six million pieces of sheet music, more than one million recordings of music and the spoken word, the papers of twenty-three Presidents, the papers of Clara Barton and James G. Blaine, the Wright brothers, Clare Boothe Luce, Margaret Mead, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, Sigmund Freud, Lillian Gish, and George Washington Goethals. Its new Madison Building is the largest library building in the world. But I love best the old building, the Jefferson Building as it is now known, with all its Beaux-Arts marble extravagance and exquisite workmanship. The domed Main Reading Room is one of the most spectacular interior spaces in America.
It was because he wanted to be near the Library of Congress that Woodrow Wilson chose to retire in Washington. I understand that perfectly.
The combination of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian, all within walking distance of one another, more than justifies the city’s reputation as an unrivaled center for research. But they are only the largest and best-known of numerous libraries and research facilities within the city limits. There are a half-dozen universities with excellent libraries. The Folger Shakespeare Library is here. The Columbia Historical Society, devoted to the history of the District of Columbia and housed in a splendid old brewer’s mansion, has a library of fifteen thousand volumes, collections of maps, prints, manuscripts, memorabilia, and many thousands of rare old photographs. The Society of the Cincinnati has a research library devoted to the Revolutionary War that includes some twelve thousand volumes and letters from nearly all the principal figures of the war.