Constitution Gardens

Constitution Gardens

Mostly unknown and overlooked by the millions of tourists visiting the many other nearby memorials on the National Mall, Constitution Gardens occupies 50 prime acres of landscaped grounds approximately halfway between The Washington Monument and The Lincoln Memorial, and includes a lake with an island, winding sidewalks and pathways lined with benches,  and approximately 5,000 oak, maple, dogwood, elm and crabapple trees.  Located to the west of 17th Street and south of Constitution Avenue in northwest D.C. (MAP), the gardens are bordered on the west by The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and on the south by The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.  But despite its central location on the National Mall, it is a quiet haven in the heart of the bustling capital city.  

The land that became Constitution Gardens was originally submerged beneath the Potomac River, but was dredged at the beginning of the 20th century by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The land then became the location for the Navy’s main and munitions buildings until 1970 when President Richard Nixon, who had once who had served in the offices as a navy officer, ordered his former workplace to be torn down to make way for a park to be established on the land.  In 1976, Constitution Gardens was finally dedicated as part of America’s Bicentennial celebration as a “living legacy tribute.”  It has been a separate park unit in the National Park Service since 1982.

In contrast to its normally peaceful setting, Constitution Gardens became the site of a bizarre standoff between Federal law enforcement officers and a disgruntled tobacco farmer named Dwight Watson during two days in mid-March back in 2003.  Watson, a tobacco farmer from North Carolina, blamed Federal tobacco policies and the cutting of tobacco subsidies for the increasing difficulty he was experiencing in making a living on his rural tobacco farm, which had been in his family for five generations.  Wearing a military helmet and displaying an upside down American flag, the disgruntled farmer travelled to D.C. and drove his tractor into the center of the lake, claiming that he had explosives.  This prompted the evacuation of the area and holding a SWAT team composed of approximately 200 FBI Agents and Park Police officers at bay for 48 hours before he surrendered.  Watson was eventually convicted of destroying federal property for digging up part of the island and damaging a retaining wall during the standoff, but no other monuments or memorials were harmed.

The more often than not tranquil Constitution Gardens becomes uncharacteristically full of activity each year when it is the site of an annual naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens hosted by the National Park Service.  But on the day I rode there, it was just as I hoped it would be – virtually deserted, except for a family of geese and a few mallard ducks.

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