Archive for July, 2015

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German-American Friendship Garden

The German-American Friendship Garden, where I went on this lunchtime bike ride, is located on a direct line of sight between the White House and The Washington Monument on the National Mall, at 1600 Constitution Avenue (MAP) between 15th and 17th Streets in northwest D.C. The ornamental garden’s design, developed by landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, features plants indigenous to both Germany and the United States, and contains benches on which visitors can rest while enjoying the gardens.

The garden was commissioned in 1982 after a visit to D.C. by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After the Chancellor’s visit, President Ronald Reagan created a Presidential commission to design and construct a garden to commemorate the tricentennial anniversary of the first German immigration to America, and celebrate 300 years of friendship between the United States and Germany. Later, the garden was dedicated at a ceremony in November of 1988, which was attended by both President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl during their last meeting together.

During his speech at the dedication ceremony President Reagan stated, “In a few months, I’ll be leaving the White House, but the garden, and all it represents, will remain, to be nurtured and sustained by the friendship between Germans and Americans.” Chancellor Kohl agreed in his response, calling the garden a symbol “of friendship and of solidarity which will have validity for the future.”

Eventually, the garden was in need of extensive restoration, so in 2013 an initiative was jointly launched by the German Embassy, the National Park Service, and the Association of German-American Societies of Greater Washington D.C.  Subsequently, new flower beds and other native plants were planted and revitalized in the fall of that year.  A new irrigation system was also installed, and the central square panel of the garden’s plaza was restored in keeping with Oehme’s original design.

The garden has been the site of annual celebrations on German-American Day, a holiday in the United States which began in 1883. The custom, observed each year on October 6th, died out during World War I as a result of the anti-German sentiment that prevailed at the time, but was revived during Reagan’s presidency in 1983 on the 100th anniversary of the first celebration.

Today, the German-American Friendship Garden’s ideal location in one of the city’s most well-travelled tourist areas provides it with an estimated seven million visitors passing by each year.  Unfortunately, most overlook the garden as they walk by it on their way to another destination.  So my recommendation is to make the garden a specific  destination so you don’t also miss out on all that it has to offer.

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The African-American Civil War Museum

Whether it’s referred to as the War to Preserve the Union or the War to End Northern Aggression, American Civil War history is all too often thought of in terms of white Yankees from the North fighting against white Southern Rebels, with African Americans relegated to the sidelines of history as their fate was decided for them. The truth, however, is much different.

In 1861 before the Civil War broke out, African Americans comprised about 14 percent of the country’s population, compared to 12.2 percent in the most recent U.S. census.  There were approximately four million slaves in the United States, and almost a half a million free African Americans. But only about one percent of all African Americans in the country lived in the North at that time.

Although African Americans had served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, they were initially not permitted to enlist on either side during the Civil War. In the North, a 1792 law barred them from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. Additionally, President Abraham Lincoln did not support it at that time because he was concerned that accepting black men into the military would cause more of the border states to secede. Free black men were finally permitted to enlist in the Union Army in late 1862, following the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the South, General Robert E. Lee eventually convinced the Confederate Congress to begin enlisting black soldiers near the end of the war. The legislation required the consent of the slave and his master, and would confer the rights of a freeman after the war.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, it is estimated that 209,145 African-Americans had served as soldiers, participating on both sides, although to a far lesser degree in the South than in the North.  Eventually, several thousand blacks were enlisted in the Rebel cause, but they could not begin to balance out the nearly 200,000 blacks who fought in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) for the Union, and it was too late in the war to make a difference regardless of the numbers.  All together, over 60,000 died over the course of the war, with sickness causing thirty times more deaths than battle.

The African American Civil War Museum, where I went on this lunchtime bike ride, is dedicated to preserving and telling the stories of these men, and African Americans’ involvement and impact during the American Civil War.  The museum is located in the historic Grimke Building at 1925 Vermont Avenue (MAP), just a couple of blocks west of The African American Civil War Memorial in the Shaw neighborhood’s historic U Street Corridor, an area traditionally considered to be the heart of African-American entertainment and theater in the city.

The museum opened in January of 1999, with a mission “to serve the educational needs of its local, national, and international community with a high-quality and effective learning experience while interpreting the history of the USCT and the community life of African Americans prior to, and after, the American Civil War.” This is achieved through the communication of information and stories using historic documents, photographs, newspaper articles, replicas of period clothing and uniforms, military weaponry and other artifacts, seminars by staff, and historic presentations by volunteer re-enactors. With more than 200,000 visitors each year, the museum serves as a unique resource for teachers, scholars, students and professionals of museum studies, as well as the general public. And through the museum’s African American Civil War Descendants Registry, the museum documents the family trees of more than 2,000 descendants of the men who served with the USCT.

As I was leaving the museum, I couldn’t help but think that its importance is even greater at a time like now, when the Confederate flag is getting so much attention and causing debate and divisiveness around the country. The museum enables visitors to instead learn about the largely unknown role of those 209,145 black men who fought for freedom and to preserve the union, the 23 who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the emergence of three important amendments to the Constitution — the 13th, 14th and 15th — which ended slavery, gave blacks equal protection under the law, and guaranteed black men the right to vote.  All in all, I’d say that’s not a bad achievement for a museum.

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Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Memorials to historic figures of national significance are commonplace in D.C., but the memorial I visited on this lunchtime bike ride is dedicated to one of the most select group of important people in our nation’s history. It is known as the Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence, it is located on the island in the lake located in Constitution Gardens, which occupies 50 prime acres of landscaped grounds approximately halfway between The Washington Monument and The Lincoln Memorial. 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 memorial was a gift from the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, and consists of 56 granite blocks which are inscribed with the signatures of the 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence. Each stone also contains the corresponding signer’s occupation and his home town. The signatures look just like the original pen and ink signatures which are on the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. The granite blocks are then arranged in 13 groups, representing the 13 original states, and are grouped based on the home of the signer. It was designed by Landscape Architect Joseph E. Brown, approved by Congress in 1978, and construction was completed in 1984. It was then dedicated on July 2, 1984, exactly 208 years after the Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence.

Although Thomas Jefferson is often considered to be the “author” of the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t the only person who contributed to its content. Jefferson was a member of a five-person committee appointed by the Continental Congress to write a Declaration of Independence. In addition to Jefferson, the Declaration Committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman.  However, one of the members of the committee, never signed it.  Livingston believed that it was too soon to declare independence and, therefore, refused to sign it.  So although he is one of its authors, Livingston was not included in this memorial.

After Jefferson completed the first draft of the Declaration of Independence the other members of the Declaration committee and the Continental Congress made 86 changes to Jefferson’s draft, including shortening the overall length by more than a quarter. Jefferson was quite unhappy about some of the edits made to the original draft.  He had originally included language condemning the British promotion of the slave trade, even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner. This criticism of the slave trade was one of the portions removed from the final version, despite Jefferson’s objections.

Depending on perspective and how it was perceived at the time, the Declaration of Independence was considered to either form the foundation of a new, independent country, or as a document of treason against the King of England. And had events turned out differently, the only stones commemorating these “Founding Fathers” would have been their gravestones. But despite their success in launching the United States of America, many of these men paid a very steep price for signing the document and their involvement in the birth of this new nation.

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, a number saw their homes and property occupied, ransacked, looted, and vandalized by the British. Some were captured by the British during the course of the Revolutionary War, and subjected to the ill treatment typically afforded to prisoners of war during their captivity. Others saw their sons captured or killed while serving in the Revolutionary Army. Some even saw their wives captured and jailed by the British. But despite what they would go on to sacrifice, each man, by signing the document, pledged: “For the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”  It was this commitment that is honored in this memorial.

However, one of the signers, a lawyer from New Jersey named Richard Stockton, became the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to recant his support of the revolution. On November 30, 1776, he was captured by the British and thrown in jail. After months of harsh treatment and meager rations, Stockton repudiated his signature on the Declaration of Independence and swore his allegiance to King George III. A broken man when he regained his freedom, he took a new oath of loyalty to the state of New Jersey in December 1777, and again supported the Revolution until victory was achieved in September of 1783.  Despite once repudiating his signature and recanting his support for the Revolution, Stockton is nonetheless included on the memorial.

So this Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence does not include one of the authors of the Declaration, but does include a signer who later repudiated his signature.  I guess this just highlights how complex our “Founding Fathers” actually were.

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In addition to the famously prominent signature of John Hancock from Massachusetts, the President of the Continental Congress, the remaining signatories of the Declaration of Independence consisted of: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple and Matthew Thornton (who was the last man to sign the document, on November 4, 1776), all from the state of New Hampshire; Samuel Adams, John Adams (who later became the second President), Robert Treat Paine and Elbridge Gerry from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery from the state of Rhode Island; Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams and Oliver Wolcott from the state of Connecticut; William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis and Lewis Morris from the state of New York; Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart and Abraham Clark from the state of New Jersey; Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin (who, at the age of 70, was the oldest to sign the Declaration), John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson and George Ross, all from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; George Read, Caesar Rodney and Thomas McKean from the state of Delaware; Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, from the state of Maryland; George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson (who later became the third President), Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee and Carter Braxton from the Commonwealth of Virginia; William Hooper, Joseph Hewes and John Penn from the state of North Carolina; Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr. (who at 26 years old was the youngest person to sign), and Arthur Middleton from the state of South Carolina, and; Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall and George Walton from the state of Georgia.

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The Samuel Gompers Memorial

The destination of this bike ride was the Samuel Gompers Memorial, which is located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 10th and L Streets (MAP), near Mount Vernon Square in northwest D.C.’s Downtown neighborhood. The Samuel Gompers Memorial, built in 1933 only nine years after his death, is comprised of a bronze statue by American sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken, and a small municipal park.

Samuel Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in London, England, into a Jewish family which had recently emigrated there from Amsterdam. Although his family was extremely poor, at the age of six Gompers was able to attend a Jewish free school, where he received the basics of an education which most children in his socio-economic class did not. His scholastic career was a brief one though, and he had to go to work at an early age. He originally apprenticed as a shoemaker before moving on to work in his father’s cigar-making trade. Then in 1863, when Gompers was only 13 years old, he and his family moved to New York City in an attempt to escape the poverty of the lives in England.

Gompers again went to work as a cigar maker, and the following year joined Cigarmakers’ Local Union No. 15, the English-speaking union of cigar makers in New York City. After working for a couple of years, the 17-year old Gompers married his 16-year old co-worker, a girl named Sophia Julian. In an effort to support his rapidly increasing family, Gompers went to work for a more prominent cigarmaker, David Hirsch & Company. Gompers later called this change of employers “one of the most important changes in my life”, because it was there that he was taken under the wing of Karl Laurrell, the former secretary of the International Workingmen’s Association. Under Laurell’s mentorship, Gompers began to believe in the organized economic movement of trade unionism rather than his previously held, more simplistic ideas within unions’ socialist political movement.

In 1881, with several other union leaders, Gompers helped found a loose organization of like-mined unions, known as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which would in 1886 be reorganized into the American Federation of Labor.  Gompers was not only one of its founders of the AFL, he also went on to become its first president, a postion that he held, except for one year, for the next thirty-eight years until his death.

Under his leadership, the AFL became the largest and most influential labor federation in the world. It grew from a marginal association of 50,000 when it began in 1886, to an established organization of nearly three million members in 1924, earning it a place in American society and history. It was these roles as the founder and the first president of the AFL that Gompers would come to be considered by many as the most significant single figure in the history of the American labor movement, and earn him the nickname “The Grand Old Man of Labor.”

The memorial to this historic figure in American unionism is maintained by the National Park Service, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.  It features Gompers dressed in period garb and seated, with papers on his lap. He is surrounded by six allegorical figures representing the American labor movement. The seated male to his right is symbolic of the overthrow of industrial exploitation by education. The seated female figure located on his left symbolizes the protection of the home. The two standing women represent Justice, while the two principal background figures, men standing and shaking hands, denote Unity and Cooperation.  Various other symbolic figures and objects are also included in the memorial, such an angel, a baby, and a locomotive engine.

The memorial also contains several inscriptions which were taken from speeches made by Gompers. The first of two main inscriptions is located to Gomper’s right on the statue’s base. It reads, “No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion if we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, United, is invincible. There is no way whereby our labor Movement may be assured sustained progress in determining its policies and its plans other than sincere democratic deliberation until a unanimous Decision is reached. This may seem a cumbrous, slow Method to the impatient but the impatient are more concerned for immediate triumph than for the Education of constructive development.”

The other main inscription is on the base of the statue to his left, and reads, “So long as we have held fast to voluntary principles and have been actuated and inspired by the spirit of service, we have sustained our forward progress and we have made our labor movement something to be respected and accorded a place in the councils of our republic. Where we have blundered into trying to force a policy or a decision even though wise and right, we have impeded, if not interrupted the realization of our own aims.”

Gompers died in December of 1924 in San Antonio, Texas, where he had been rushed by train after falling ill in Mexico City while attending the inauguration of the new president of Mexico.  Staying true to his life’s work of fighting for shorter working hours, higher pay, safe and clean working conditions and democracy in the workplace, his last words were reported to be “Nurse, this is the end. God bless our American institutions. May they grow better day by day.”

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Outdoor Farmers Market at the U.S. Department of Agriculture

A farmers market is a physical retail market featuring foods sold directly by farmers and others to consumers. Farmers’ markets are most frequently outdoors and typically consist of booths, tables or stands, where farmers sell fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and sometimes prepared foods and beverages.

For such a heavily urbanized area with no actual working farms within the city limits, D.C. boasts a large number of diverse farmers markets. Both large and small markets, they offer a selection of fresh produce and numerous other products. Most are outdoors and open seasonally, like one of my favorites, the Vermont Avenue Farmers Market.  Other larger ones, like Eastern Market, are indoors and open year round.  And some are less traditional and might not even be initially thought of by most as a farmers market, like The Maine Avenue Fish Market.  On this lunchtime bike ride to end the week, I went by the outdoor farmers market at the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is located in a parking lot outside the U.S.D.A. Headquarters on the corner of Independence Avenue and 12th Street (MAP), across the street from the Smithsonian Metro stop in southwest D.C.

Celebrating its 20th summer, the U.S.D.A. Farmers Market opened for the 2015 season on May 1st, and will operate from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. every Friday until the day before Halloween. Managed by the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the U.S.D.A.’s Farmers Market is considered by the Department as a “living laboratory” for farmers market operations across the country. As a model for others, the market supports the local economy, increases marketing opportunities for farmers and small businesses, provides access to an assortment of local and regionally sourced products, and increases access to healthy, affordable food in D.C.

So regardless of whether you get there by bike, or some other way, I recommend checking out either the U.S.D.A. Farmer’s Market, or any other farmer’s market near you.  If you try some of the many free samples while you’re there, you’ll most likely buy more to take home with you like I did.

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As I was riding around the DuPont Circle neighborhood in northwest D.C. on this lunchtime bike ride, I saw a plaque mounted underneath a window on the front of a house located at 1608 R Street (MAP).  So naturally my curiosity compelled me to stop and read it. The commemorative plaque indicated that the house formerly belonged to Charlotte Forten Grimké, and inasmuch as it possessed national significance in commemorating the history of the United States, was designated as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Not knowing who Charlotte Forten Grimké was, or why her house would hold such importance, I researched it later after I got back from my ride. The following is what I found out.

Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten, who would be known as “Lottie,” was born on August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Mary Virginia Wood and Robert Bridges Forten, members of an affluent and influential black abolitionist family. Her family was involved in the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, an anti-slavery network that rendered assistance to escaped slaves, as well as founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and young Lottie grew up in the family tradition to become one of the most influential antislavery and civil rights activists of her time.

Forten also grew up to become a teacher. She attended the Higginson Grammar School, a private academy for young women, where she was the only non-white student in a class of 200. After the Higginson School, she studied literature and teaching at the Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts, which trained teachers. Her first teaching job was in Salem, where she was the first African-American teacher to be hired in Massachusetts, and probably was the first in the country to teach white students. Later Forten was the first black educator to join the Port Royal Experiment, a program during the Civil War to set up schools to begin teaching freed former slaves and their children in South Carolina.

After the war Forten retired from teaching, and obtained a position as a clerk at the Philadelphia branch of the U.S. Treasury Department, where she worked recruiting teachers. It was while she was employed there that she met her future husband, Francis J. Grimké.  They were married in December of 1878, when Charlotte was 41 years old and Francis was 28. The nephew of famed abolitionists and feminists Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld, Francis was a Presbyterian minister. They eventually moved to D.C., where Francis became the pastor of the prominent Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in D.C., a major African-American congregation. They had one daughter, Theodora Cornelia, who died in infancy. She lived out the rest of her life with Francis in D.C., where after many years an invalid due to tuberculosis, she died of a cerebral embolism in 1914.

In addition to her extensive work as an antislavery activist and advocate for justice, one of the things for which Charlotte is best remembered is her writings. She also developed a passion for writing poetry, many of which focused on antislavery. During the Civil War, she wrote essays about her experience as a teacher among southern blacks which were published in The Atlantic Monthly under the title “Life on the Sea Islands”, which brought the work of the Port Royal Experiment to the attention of Northern readers. But it is her journals that stand out as the most prominent of her writings. Beginning in her childhood, she kept many journals diligently throughout her entire life. In fact, it is through these journals that we know today how passionate Charlotte Forten was against slavery. She wrote that she simply could not understand why so many whites thought that they were better than blacks. She also wrote about her daughter’s death and her busy life with her husband. Today, her journals are a rare example of documents detailing the life of a free black female in the antebellum era.

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The Jefferson Pier

When tourists on the grounds of The Washington Monument gaze up at the tribute to our nation’s first President, they seldom are aware of the other, smaller but similarly-shaped stone monument that is also located there on the same grounds, in the shadows of the 555-foot obelisk that towers over the National Mall.  Or if they do happen to notice it, they have no idea what it is.  It is called the Jefferson Pier, and it is only 391 feet on a northwest diagonal from the center of the Washington Monument. However, it pre-dates the Washington Monument. In fact, the original stone monument served as a marker, aiding surveyors and serving as a benchmark during construction of the monument.

On December 18th, 1804, a simple granite obelisk was erected at the intersection of lines from the front doors of the White House, known at that time as the Executive Mansion, and the U.S. Capitol Building. That intersection is etched on the top of the stone marker. The stone was located along 16th Street, almost due south of the center of the White House, due west of the center of the Capitol building, and due north of the center of the Jefferson Memorial (MAP). It was intended as part of a meridian system used to align city streets and in the development of the young nation’s new capital.  It was also the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

President Thomas Jefferson wished for the new national capital to be a new “first meridian,” the longitude (0′ 0″) from which distance and time would be measured. But the 16th Street meridian never became the official prime meridian. Instead, a meridian on 24th Street did.  Then in 1884, the world recognized the longitude of Greenwich, England as the prime meridian, and it remains so today.

To understand how the meridian stone came to be known as “The Jefferson Pier” it is necessary to first understand that the geography of the city was originally much different than it is now. Tiber Creek flowed through that area of the city, and the entire Mall area west of where the Washington Monument is now located was under water. Tiber Creek, along with several other small streams, were eventually transformed into the Washington City Canal, a system that connected the Washington Waterfront, the Capitol Building, the White House and other areas downtown with The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Towpath‘s first lock in Georgetown during the mid to late 1800’s. Boats and barges navigating the Washington City Canal via the C&O Canal and the Potomac River routinely used the meridian stone marker as an anchoring post. Although it was never officially designated so, the name used by boat captains and others stuck, and the prime meridian marker they used as an anchoring post for their boats came to be referred to as the Jefferson Pier.

The original stone marker was destroyed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1874. But the spot was recovered and a replacement marker was erected December 21, 1889. This is the stone that remains today. The stone reads, “Position of Jefferson Pier Erected Dec. 18, 1804. Recovered and Re-Erected Dec. 2, 1889. District Of Columbia.” A line has also been etched out on the face of the stone to indicate where the shoreline of the Potomac River once reached the Pier Stone.

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The Watergate Steps

Ever since the infamous 1972 illegal break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C.’s Watergate complex, and the Nixon administration’s attempt to cover up its involvement in it, the word “Watergate” has become synonymous with the scandal and the office complex where it originated. But almost half a century before the scandal that took down a president began, a staircase between The Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac River (MAP) was built.   That staircase is named the Watergate Steps, and it was my destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

Designed in 1902 by the architectural firm of McKim, Meade & White, the Watergate Steps were built in 1930 as part of the Arlington Memorial Bridge and Lincoln Memorial approachway. The 40 granite steps are approximately 230 feet wide at the base near the Potomac River, and rise 50 feet to the level of the nearby Arlington Memorial Bridge.  The steps become narrower as they rise, and are approximately 206 feet wide at the top. The steps are also divided into two tiers by the Rock Creek Parkway.

The steps were initially intended to be used for ceremonial arrivals of heads of state, government officials and other dignitaries arriving via the Potomac River. Their boats would pull up to the steps, and there to greet their arrival would be the new memorial, which was less than a decade old. Unfortunately, the steps were never used for their intended purpose.

Eventually, someone realized that the steps would make an excellent venue for music concerts, and a proposal was approved to moor a barge with an orchestra shell on the water at the base of the steps as a stage for summer concerts. The first concert was held there on July 14th, 1935, at which the National Symphony Orchestra performed. These “Sunset Symphonies” became quite popular, and over the next three decades crowds as large as 12,000 were entertained each summer at a series of concerts. Within the first ten years, the National Park Service, which sponsored the concerts, estimated that two million people had attended symphony performances there, as well as concerts by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces bands.  Performers as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Paul Robeson also appeared there.

Alas, the concerts were discontinued in 1965 when jets started flying into Washington National Airport, and the noise was just too loud and would drown out the concerts. Failing to be used for their intended purpose, and with the discontinuance of the waterside concerts, the steps now serve mainly to provide tourists and other pedestrians with access to and from the Rock Creek Park Trail, which runs along the bank of the Potomac River. It is also a favorite location for local runners, who sprint up and down the steps for exercise.

So next time you hear the word Watergate, remember that it is more than just an office complex which was the site of a political scandal.  Not only did the Watergate Steps come first, but it is widely thought that the office complex was actually named after the steps.

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Shuttle Parking

On this lunchtime bike ride I saw an unusual sign as I was riding past the headquarters for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), located at 300 E Street (MAP) in D.C.’s Southwest neighborhood. It reads, “NASA Shuttle Parking Only. Unauthorized Vehicles subject to Ticket or Tow.” So naturally I assumed that the parking space was being reserved for one of the remaining manned launch vehicles from NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle Program. And not wanting to miss an opportunity to see a piece of history, I decided to wait around to see one of the space shuttles as it pulled up to park in the reserved space.

As I waited, I began to wonder which one it would be; Endeavour, Enterprise, Atlantis or Discovery. But then I realized that after completing an unprecedented 12-mile drive on city streets from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center, Endeavor has been on display there ever since. And I know that there are no plans to move it. In fact, an addition to the California Science Center, named the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, is currently under construction to permanently house Endeavor. But it was still possible that Enterprise, Atlantis or Discovery would drive up and park, so I decided to wait a while longer.

As time continued to pass, I started to get a little discouraged. But I continued to wait. And it was while I was waiting, however, that I realized Enterprise is on permanent display in New York City at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum’s Space Shuttle Pavilion. Atlantis is part of the Space Shuttle Exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex on Merritt Island, Florida, where it is on permanent display. And Discovery is on permanent display in nearby Chantilly, Virginia, at the National Air and Space Museum’s annex at Washington Dulles International Airport, named the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.  Discovery is located only 30.2 miles from my office, but that’s still a little too far to go, at least on this bike ride.

Realizing that all of the space shuttles are on permanent display in other locations, I finally gave up and decided to leave. It was then, as I was getting back on my bike, that a bus pulled up, picked up some employees, and then left. It turns out that NASA provides a shuttle bus service to transport employees to locations of other NASA offices and off-site locations throughout D.C. So I rode back to my office a bit disappointed that the NASA Shuttle I got to see was not one of the ones which had been to space, but rather a passenger bus.  It’s always good to get out of the office, though.  So I still consider today’s bike ride a success.

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Amerigo Vespucci Statue

With the holiday weekend celebrating America’s birthday now over, I decided on this lunchtime bike ride to visit a statue of our country’s namesake.  So during this ride I visited the grounds of the Pan American Union Building, which serves as The Headquarters for the Organization of American States, located on 17th Street between C Street and Constitution Avenue (MAP) in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of northwest D.C.  One of the sculptures there is of an early Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci, who is the namesake of the continents of North and South America, and subsequently the United States of America.

The stone sculpture depicts a bust of Amerigo wearing a sea-farer hat of his era, and stands on a circular stone pedestal base with a relief of the globe inscribed on it. The base also contains an inscription which reads, “Amerigo Vespucci, 1454 – 1512.”

Amerigo Vespucci was born on March 9, 1454, in Ognissanti, Florence, Italy, the third son of Ser Nastagio Anastasio and Lisabetta Mini, members of a prominent Florentine family comprised of statesmen, philosophers, and clergy, which intermarried with the renowned Medici family who ruled Italy for more than 300 years. After being educated by his uncle, Amerigo worked for the Medicis as a banker, and later as a supervisor of their ship-outfitting business in Seville, Spain, where he moved in 1492. Amerigo’s position allowed him to see great explorers’ ships being prepared before they sailed off in search of new discoveries. In fact, Amerigo’s business helped outfit one of Christopher Columbus’ voyages, giving him the opportunity to talk with the explorer with whom he would one day be compared.

Fascinated with books and maps since he was young, his meeting with Columbus further fueled a fire burning inside him for travel and exploration. The fact that his business was struggling helped Amerigo, already in his forties, decide to leave the business behind and set out on his own voyage to see the “New World” while he still could.

Although historians are unsure of exactly how many voyages he embarked on, through his travels Amerigo was the first to be able to demonstrate that South America and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate and previously unknown landmass. Based on the work of a German clergyman and amateur cartographer named Martin Waldseemüller, he labeled a portion of what is today Brazil as “America”, deriving its name from Americus, the Latin version of his name. Later, in 1538, a mapmaker named Gerardus Mercator applied the name “America” to all of the northern and southern landmasses of the New World.  The continents have been known as such ever since.

So here in the District of Columbia, a name which references Christopher Columbus and was chosen at a time when many people were still upset that we hadn’t actually named our new nation Columbia, I visited the statue of Amerigo Vespucci.  And although he never visited here on any of his voyages, Amerigo’s name is forever associated with our 239-year old country.

Vespucci03     Vespucci02
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]