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

  1. Excellent post. I believe Margaret Bourke-White made a classic B&W image of these steps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am not an real photographer. I just take photos with my cell phone. So I looked up the photo you mentioned in your comment (http://tinyurl.com/orjstke) so I could see what a real photographer’s photo of the steps looks like. I also read a short biography of Margaret Bourke-White on the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum’s website (http://tinyurl.com/nnznc4q). She sounds like an interesting woman. I particularly liked the quote atrributed to her, in which she once wrote, “in this experience of mine, there was one continuing marvel: the precision timing running through it all…by some special graciousness of fate I am deposited—as all good photographers like to be—in the right place at the right time”.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting quote; I was not familiar with it. Knowing a bit about her work, I’d agree that this is the hope of most photographers. I suspect in her case, however, that it was no accident that she kept finding those places at those moments.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “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. ”

    Well, not entirely discontinued in 1965. I recall going to see the Ramsey Lewis Trio perform at the Watergate shell in the early 1970s with my family when I was a kid. I believe we saw other concerts there, although none with such a large audience. A quick Google reveals that other concerts were still taking place at the Watergate during the 1970s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill Wing says:

      I too remember going to watergate concerts in the early 70s. We would either sit on the steps or rent a canoe (from Fletcher’s boathouse as I recall), paddle near the bandstand with our date, stick the paddle into the Potomac mud and tie the canoe to the paddle while we watched the concert and drank wine in the canoe. Once in a while too much wine resulted in someone’s canoe overturning, but not ours. Super shallow water so no chance of injury. Great memories plus an inexpensive date.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] the turn onto Independence Avenue after the Watergate Steps, I reaching Mile 12.  My stamina finally started to wane.  I wondered, “Why now?!” […]


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