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.