Posts Tagged ‘Lafayette Square’

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The White House Gingerbread House Exhibit

I don’t like it when retailers start focusing on Christmas well before Thanksgiving.  And if it were up to me, I would have all stores be closed on Thanksgiving to allow employees to spend the day with their families.  I’d even be okay with stores staying closed on Black Friday.  However, I don’t mind when some early signs of the holiday, such as the many Christmas decorations that adorn the city during the holiday season, start appearing in November.  For example, as I was riding through Lafayette Square Park on this lunchtime bike ride, I was happy to see a sign advertising a Christmas exhibit of gingerbread houses was already open.  So I decided to stop and check into itWhen I asked the very helpful lady at the entrance about the exhibit, she told me no one else was currently there.  So with the place all to myself, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take the self-guided tour right then.

The holiday exhibit is sponsored by the White House Historical Association, and is entitled “White House Gingerbread: Holiday Traditions.”  The exhibit celebrates the official national gingerbread house created each year by the White House’s executive chef, and explores the tradition of gingerbread at the White House dating back to the Nixon administration.  The main display features the largest gingerbread White House ever designed by the chef.  And surrounding it are gingerbread panels illustrating many of the White House’s neighboring buildings, such as the Old Executive Office Building, the U.S. Treasury Department Building, and St. John’s Episcopal Church, to name just a few.  The exhibit also incorporates examples of marzipan figures and sugar sculptures that have accompanied and accented many of the gingerbread houses over the years.

The exhibit also features photographs of the various types of gingerbread houses of different presidential administrations, including the Obama Administration’s version from last year, with historical information of each.  Along with the wide variety of gingerbread houses, many of the photographs also feature the inhabitants of the White House.  While I enjoyed each of the houses, I guess I am somewhat of a gingerbread house traditionalist, because I did not favor the more recent creations.  Dating back to the George W. Bush Administration, the most recent houses have been made out of white chocolate rather than gingerbread.  I hope this trend ends soon and they return to the old-fashioned gingerbread.

The “White House Gingerbread: Holiday Traditions” exhibit is on display at Decatur House on Lafayette Square, which is  located at 1610 H Street in northwest D.C. (MAP).  It is open from 10:00am – 3:00pm, Monday through Saturday, and will remain open and free to the public through December 22nd.  I highly recommend stopping by if you’re in the area, or even planning a specific trip to see it and the many other Christmas decorations throughout the national capital city during the upcoming holiday season.

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Statue of Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette

After my bike ride at the end of last week to see L’Hermione, the 18th-century French war ship which brought General Lafayette to the American colonies in 1780 with news of the French assistance in the American Revolution, I decided for this ride to go to see a local statue of him, entitled Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette.  The statue is located in Lafayette Square, which is also named after him, and is located just north of the White House, on H Street between 15th and 17th Streets (MAP).

The statue of General Lafayette was commission by the U.S. Congress and created by a French sculptor and painter named Jean Alexandre Joseph Falguiere. It was cast in 1890, and unveiled without ceremony in April of 1891.  The inscription on the base of the north side of the statue reads, “To General la Fayette and his compatriots, 1777-1783, Derville Farbre, by the Congress in commemoration of the services rendered by General Lafayette and his compatriots during the struggle for the independence of the United States of America.” It is part of the “American Revolution Statuary”, a group of fourteen statues scattered throughout D.C., mainly in squares and traffic circles, which are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was born in 1757 into a wealthy noble family.  Before his second birthday, his father, a Colonel of grenadiers was killed when he was struck by a cannonball while fighting a British-led coalition at the Battle of Minden. At the age of twelve, his mother passed away, leaving him a young and very wealthy orphan. In 1771, at the age of fourteen, Lafayette entered the Royal Army. Then when he was sixteen, Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, who was related to the King, thus allying himself with one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in France.

But Lafayette was never impressed with status or riches, longing instead for military glory. However, two years after marrying into the royal family, he lost his military commission, like many other noblemen, when the government reduced military spending. This sent his life in another direction, one which would lead him to America.

At a dinner in August of 1775, Lafayette came into contact with the Duke of Gloucester, who spoke with sympathy of the struggle going on in the colonies. He became convinced that the American cause in its revolutionary war was noble. In fact, Lafayette would always remember this dinner as the turning point of his life. “My heart was enlisted,” he later confessed in his memoirs, “and I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.” Lafayette then set about studying the ideals of the American Revolution while making plans to enlist in the Continental Army.

At that time, a representative of the Continental Congress named Silas Deane was sent to France to recruit officers. And even though Lafayette was only nineteen, spoke almost no English, and had no experience in war, Deane offered him a written agreement that he would be commissioned a major general. The King of France, however, issued a decree forbidding French officers from serving in America, specifically naming Lafayette. So Lafayette secretly and against the wishes of the French government, bought a shop named the La Victoire and sailed to America, where he announced himself a volunteer.

Lafayette arrived in America in June of 1777, and by the end of the summer he had met General Washington and a friendship developed between the two men which lasted as long as Washington lived. Their bond became so strong that when Lafayette was shot in the leg during the Battle of Brandywine, Washington sent his own surgeon to care for him, telling the doctor to treat the young Frenchman as if he were Washington’s own son.

Lafayette arrived in America in June of 1777, and by the end of the summer he had met General Washington. A friendship subsequently developed between the two men which lasted as long as Washington lived. Their bond became so strong that when Lafayette was shot in the leg during the Battle of Brandywine, Washington sent his own surgeon to care for him, telling the doctor to treat the young Frenchman as if he were Washington’s own son. (Sharing the same sentiment, Lafayette would years later name his son George Washington Lafayette.) After Lafayette recovered, he became a valued member of Washington’s close-knit military family. At the end of that year, Lafayette went with Washington and the army into winter quarters at Valley Forge.

Lafayette was overjoyed when news of the French alliance arrived in early 1778, but decided to return to France in June in hopes of winning even more military support for the American cause. Lafayette had also hoped to be put in charge of the French army, but Marshall Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau was chosen instead. In 1780 Lafayette returned to America aboard L’Hermione, delivering news to George Washington of full French aid in the colonialists’ cause, helping turn the tide of the American Revolution.

Washington then sent Lafayette to Virginia to stop British raids along the James River. While there, General Charles Cornwallis’ forces arrived in Virginia, Lafayette harassed the British general until Washington and Rochambeau could lay siege to him in Yorktown. In October 1781, there was no prouder soldier than Lafayette at Cornwallis’ surrender to a combined American and French force at the Siege of Yorktown, ending the war.

Still only 24 years old, Lafayette returned again to France after the American Revolution, where he was welcomed as the “Hero of Two Worlds.” Back home, he rejoined the French army and organized trade agreements with Thomas Jefferson, the American ambassador to France. With the country on the verge of major political and social upheaval, Lafayette was named commander of the Paris National Guard. But when violence broke out in 1789, Lafayette’s obligation to protect the royal family left him in a vulnerable position to the factions vying for power. So he fled France in 1792.

Upon his departure from France Lafayette was captured at Olmütz by Austrian forces and imprisoned. He was later released by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. He finally returned to France in 1799, where he largely retired from public life. He settled at LaGrange, an estate near Paris nicknamed the Mount Vernon of France. In 1824, he made one final tour of America and was hailed as a hero.  Six years later, the aging statesman declined the dictatorship of France during the July Revolution, and Louis-Phillipe was crowned king.  He died four years later, May 20, 1834 at the age of seventy-six, following a battle with pneumonia.

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McPherson Square

McPherson Square

This month marks three years since a disillusioned band of protesters first pitched tents in a park in lower Manhattan, sparking a movement against corporate greed known as Occupy Wall Street. The New York protest initially garnered a significant amount of media attention and public awareness, thanks mainly to the involvement of the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine named Adbusters, which originally came up with the idea for the occupation. Adbusters began to promote the occupation, and then enlisted help from the Manhattan-based public relations firm Workhouse, who was well known for its successful work on client brands including Mercedes and Saks Fifth Avenue. It was their efforts that lead to media awareness, inspiring the initiation of other Occupy protests and movements around the world, including here in D.C.

Occupy D.C. was a protest in McPherson Square in D.C., and was connected to the other Occupy movements that were springing up across the U.S. in the fall of 2011. The group began occupying McPherson Square in October of that year. As a result of an inability to resolve internal differences and disputes, a number of protestors broke off from the original group, and began an occupation of Freedom Plaza several days later. That group called itself Occupy Washington. This squabble was an early indicator to me that the movement was destined to fade into obscurity.

The main issues raised by the Occupy movement were social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government – particularly from the financial services sector. The Occupy slogan, “We are the 99%”, referred to income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. However, without designated leaders or specific demands, Occupy eventually turned into an amorphous protest against everything that anyone perceived to be wrong in the world.

For its first two months, authorities largely adopted a tolerant approach toward the movement, but this began to change in mid-November of 2011 when they began forcibly removing protest camps. By the end of the year authorities had cleared most of the major camps, with the last remaining high profile sites – in D.C. and London – evicted a few weeks later. The movement’s end seemed to arrive almost as suddenly as it began.

The problem with the movement was that its mission was always intentionally vague. It was deliberately leaderless. It never sought to become a political party or even a label like the Tea Party. And because it was purposely open to taking in all comers, the assembly lost its sense of purpose as various intramural squabbles emerged about the group’s end game. The Occupy encampments, which began with a small band of passionate intellectuals, had been hijacked by misfits and vagabonds looking for food and shelter. And as the USA Today newspaper described it, “It will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.” Regardless of your support or opposition to the Occupy movement, I think it can be described as an interesting time that began full of idealism, but ended with unrealized potential.

I went to McPherson Square, as well as Freedom Plaza, several times back when the Occupy D.C.’s and Occupy Washington’s protests and occupations were ongoing. And to mark the third anniversary of the beginning of the Occupy movement, I rode back to the location where they began, McPherson Square.

McPherson Square is named after James B. McPherson, a major general who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. It was identified as a park on the original 1791 design plan for the national capitol city created by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, and is a key element of the historic monumental core, along with Farragut Square and Lafayette Square.

McPherson Square is located in northwest D.C., and is bound by K Street to the north, Vermont Avenue on the East, I Street on the south, and 15th Street on the West (MAP). It is two blocks northeast of The White House, and one block from Lafayette Park. Located in the central downtown commercial and business district, today the square is frequented by area workers and street vendors during the day, and restaurant-goers and the homeless at night.

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St. John’s Episcopal Church

On this bike ride I rode to St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square.  An historic church located in the heart of our nation’s capital at 16th and H Streets (MAP), St. John’s is across the street from Lafayette Square Park and near the White House in downtown D.C.   It is informally known as the “Church of the Presidents,” a nickname it earned because every sitting President, beginning in 1816 with James Madison, has been a regular or at least ­an occasional attendee.

Officially organized as a parish in 1815, the church was named for Saint John, the Evangelist.  The church’s building was designed by the “Father of American Architecture,” Benjamin Latrobe, one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol Building and the architect of The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also called the Baltimore Basilica, which was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States, and among the first major religious buildings constructed in the nation after the adoption of the Constitution.  Construction of St John’s was completed and the first service held in October of 1816.  In 1820, the portico and tower were added, and in 1966,  St. John’s Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Church of the Presidents also has a “President’s pew.”  President Madison first established the tradition of a President’s pew, selecting pew 28 for his private use in 1816.  During subsequent renovations over the years, the pews were renumbered, including the President’s pew.  President John Tyler paid for its use in perpetuity by Presidents of the United States.  Today, the President’s pew is pew 54, and remains reserved for the President’s use when in attendance.

Another historic aspect of St. John’s Church is the bell in the steeple.  Cast by Paul Revere’s son, Joseph, at his Boston foundry in August of 1822, it weighs nearly 1,000 pounds.  It was installed at St. John’s in November of that same year, and has been in continuous service ever since.  In addition to signaling a call to services, the bell has also served as an alarm bell for the neighborhoods and public buildings in the vicinity of the church.

From its historic origins in our country’s early days, to the founding of an orphanage in 1868 to serve children of the Civil War, to its modern-day ministry in D.C. and throughout the world – St. John’s continues its traditions of the past while having a present-day effect on our nation and our world.

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The White House Peace Vigil

The national capital city routinely hosts a variety of protests.  Some are one-time events, while others are ongoing.  And they range in size from hundreds of thousands to just a few.  From marches down Pennsylvania Avenue to crowds gathered in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, there is almost always multiple protests taking place in D.C. on any given day.  Currently the longest-running protest in the city, and perhaps the longest-running protest in United States history, is the White House Peace Vigil.

Located in Lafayette Square Park (MAP) across from the northern portico of the executive mansion, the White House Peace Vigil, also sometimes referred to as 1601 Pennsylvania Avenue, is an anti-nuclear weapons peace vigil started by William Thomas Hallenback Jr., better known simply as Thomas, in June of 1981.   Concepción Picciotto, known as Connie, joined Thomas in the protest in August of the same year.  At times over the years, various other activists have helped man the vigil.  And despite Thomas’ death in 2009, the vigil still continues to be maintained around-the-clock by the tiny and weather-worn 77-year-old Conchita, along with other volunteers.

Over the last 33 years the protest display has been a fixture outside the White House, but there have been two incidents when the anti-war protest display that is a fixture outside the White House has been temporarily removed.  It is routinely moved back from the White House and further into Lafayette Park during Presidential inaugural parades, as well as during times of heightened security and other limited occasions.  But it was actually shut down twice last fall after volunteers abandoned the watch during the night and the display was left unattended in violation of the laws that regulate protest efforts on Federal land.  U.S. Park Police dismantled the small, makeshift encampment and seized the protest materials after the volunteers walked away during the night.  When other volunteers arrived to man it during the morning shifts, the vigil was gone.  Both times the materials were retrieved from the Park Police, which had placed them in a Park Police storage facility for safekeeping, and he vigil was continued.

And it still does today.

UPDATE (1/26/2016):  Sadly, Connie passed away at the aged of 80 on January 25, 2016, at N Street Village, a non-profit organization that supports homeless women in D.C.  However, others have vowed that the White House Peace Vigil will go on.

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Decatur House on Lafayette Square

In 1820, Stephen Decatur, Jr., a U.S. Naval Officer notable for his long and celebrated career, was shot during a duel with another officer, Commodore James Barron.  A long-time rival, Barron bore a grudge against Decatur for his role in Barron’s court-martial and ouster from the Navy years earlier.  Attempting to solve the issue, Decatur accepted Barron’s challenge to a duel. Decatur shot and wounded Barron, as was his intention, and was prepared to let the matter drop. Barron, however, had other plans. He mortally wounded Decatur and exacted his revenge. Decatur was taken to his home, where he didn’t die straight away, however.  It took him two days of agonizing pain to finally succumb to the gut-shot.

It’s notable that their duel occurred during a time period when duels between officers were so common that it was creating a shortage of experienced officers, forcing the War Department to threaten to discharge those who attempted to pursue the practice.

Washington society, as well as the entire nation, was shocked upon learning that Decatur had been killed in a duel with a rival navy captain.  His funeral was attended by Washington’s elite, including President James Monroe and the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as most of Congress. Over 10,000 citizens of Washington and the surrounding area also attended his funeral to pay their last respects to the national hero.

On today’s bike ride I went by Decatur’s former home. Located at 1610 H Street in northwest D.C. (MAP), the house is one of the oldest surviving homes in D.C., and one of only three remaining houses in the country designed by neoclassical architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the “father of American architecture.” In D.C., Latrobe also designed St. John’s Episcopal Church (also known as the President’s Parish) and parts of the White House.  The Decatur House was built with the prize money Decatur was awarded for his naval conquests in the War of 1812.  The couple moved into their grand house in 1819 and spent the first several months cementing their social prominence in Washington by hosting a number of extravagant parties. Prominently located on Lafayette Square just north of the White House, the house was later the home of a number of other famous people, including President Martin Van Buren, who rented it from Decatur’s widow.

Despite leaving her financially well-off at the time of his death, his widow was eventually forced to sell the home due to overwhelming debt.  The subsequent owner built an addition onto the house – a large two-story dependency building at the rear of the property.  This was used as quarters for the numerous enslaved individuals in his household.

Sometimes referred to as a house of slavery and death, Decatur House is considered among paranormal enthusiasts to be one of D.C.’s most haunted. Those who have been in the house frequently claim to have seen Stephen Decatur walking the halls, his expression one of bleak sadness. He has been sighted throughout the house. And though he is often seen looking out windows or walking the halls, he is not the only phenomenon to take place. There are also reports of a mournful weeping and wailing sound that comes from empty rooms or is heard after hours. While no one is certain just who it is, most people believe the voice to belong to Decatur’s widow, Susan. The most palpable phenomenon is the feeling of sadness and heaviness that comes from the room on the first floor where Decatur died.

As with many historical homes, the house is now a museum and houses The Decatur House National Center for White House History, a repository for all things having to do with the home of the President. It is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It is also open for historic tours of the house as well as self-guided tours of exhibits and even cell phone tours in which visitors are guided by calling the museum’s tour number. Additionally, the house is also available to host weddings and other special events, keeping in the tradition that Stephen and Susan Decatur started almost 200 years ago.

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