Posts Tagged ‘Pierre Charles L’Enfant’

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The East Front of the United States Capitol Building

The United States Capitol Building is a world-renowned architectural icon and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.  It is located at 100 Constitution Avenue (MAP) atop Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall. Though not at the geographic center of the Federal District, the Capitol forms the origin point for the District’s street-numbering system and the District’s four quadrants.  I’ve ridden both to it and past it hundreds, if not thousands of times, and on this lunchtime bike ride Julius and I rode there again.  And although I usually write in this blog about the lesser-known monuments and attractions in D.C., for this last lunchtime bike ride of the year before I take a little time off from work for the holidays, I time I decided to break from tradition and write about the Capitol.

It was Pierre Charles L’Enfant who chose the location within the new capital city for the building in which Congress could meet. Tasked with creating the city plan, he chose what was then known as “Jenkin’s Hill” as the site for the “Congress House”, with a “grand avenue” that would later be named Pennsylvania Avenue connecting it with the “President’s House”, and a public space stretching westward to the Potomac River. That public space is now known as the National Mall. However, in reviewing L’Enfant’s plan, Thomas Jefferson insisted the legislative building be called the “Capitol” rather than “Congress House”.

In the spring of 1792, Jefferson proposed a design competition to solicit designs for the Capitol and the President’s House.  A four-month deadline was set, with a prize of five hundred dollars and a lot of land in the new capital city to go to the winner.  Of the 17 submitted designs, all of them were turned down.  A Scottish doctor named and amateur architect named William Thornton submitted the design which was eventually chosen, although it came in after the deadline for the contest.  The following year Thornton was appointed to serve as the first Architect of the Capitol, a position that still exists today.

Thornton’s original design was later modified by the famous British-American architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Sr., and then Charles Bulfinch.  On September 18, 1793, first President George Washington, along with eight other Freemasons dressed in masonic regalia, laid the cornerstone for the new Capitol Building.  The original building was completed in 1800, and Congress met for the first time in the newly-created Capitol in November of that year, approximately 11 months after the death of George Washington.  Eventually, the current cast-iron dome was added.  A new southern extension for the House of Representatives and the Senate’s new northern wing, designed by Thomas U. Walter and August Schoenborn, were added in the 1850’s, giving us the building we see today.

Like the principal buildings of the executive and judicial branches, the Capitol is built in a distinctive neoclassical style and has a white exterior.  Both its east and west elevations are formally referred to as fronts.  However, the east side of the Capitol is the only one with level ground for a proper entrance, so it was intended for the reception of visitors and dignitaries.  This gives the appearance that the building faces away from the Mall instead of toward it, like most other important buildings and monuments.  But the Capitol and the statue on top face toward the east so that it faces toward the people who are entering it.

Books could be written about the complete history of the Capitol, its appearance, and other aspects of the building.  But rather than go into that kind of additional detail, I decided to simply provide some of the information I find most interesting about the  building that is the seat of the legislative branch of the Federal government and serves as a symbol of American democracy.

  • The Capitol covers well over 1.5 million square feet on five separate levels, has 540 rooms, contains approximately 850 doorways, and has 658 windows, with 108 of those windows in the dome alone.
  • The Dome is 8,909,200 pounds of cast-iron and was constructed between 1855 and 1866.
  • The The building covers a ground area of 175,170 square feet, or about 4 acres, and has a floor area of approximately 16-1/2 acres. Its length, from north to south, is 751 feet 4 inches; its greatest width, including approaches, is 350 feet.  Its height above the base line on the east front to the top of the Statue of Freedom is 288 feet.
  • There used to be a law that no building in the capital city could be taller than the Capitol.  But that law was short lived, and today it is only the fifth-tallest building in D.C.  The Capitol is shorter than the Washington Monument, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Old Post Office and the Washington National Cathedral.
  • The Capitol has its own subway, which has been there in some variation since 1909, and carries politicians from House and Senate office buildings to the Capitol.
  • There are marble bathtubs in the basement of the Capitol where members of Congress would take baths back in the 19th century.
  • The Capitol has its own crypt, which is located on the basement floor directly under the Rotunda. It is called that because President George Washington’s body was supposed to be entombed here. They even had holes dug for a viewing chamber where you could walk by and see him.  But Washington’s wishes were to be buried at his home on the Potomac River, Mount Vernon.
  • A bust of Abraham Lincoln located in the crypt and sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, has only one ear. The ear on the bust was originally supposed to face to the north because the sculptor believed Lincoln listened to Northern views and not those of the South. The ear now faces the South with its placement in the room.
  • Directly below the crypt there is a nuclear fallout shelter.
  • At any given time, several United States flags fly over the Capitol building and the flags have been flown continuously day and night since World War I.  Two flagpoles are located at the base of the Capitol Dome on both the East and the West sides.  Two other flagpoles are located above the North Wing (the Senate side) and the South Wing (the House side) and are flown only when the Congress is in session.  There are also several additional flagpoles located west of the Dome and are not visible from the ground, these flagpoles are used to meet the congressional requests for flags flown over the Capitol.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court also convened in the Capitol Building for 135 years, until moving into its own building in 1935.
  • There is a myth that the Capitol is haunted by an evil demon cat. The reason this myth exists is because of mysterious paw prints in the sandstone floor just outside of the former Supreme Court Chamber. They still have not found an explanation for the paw prints.
  • The Senate chaplain’s office has a rare oval window and it is one of the very few windows that still opens.  It can be seen on the left side of the west front.
  • For the first couple of decades, beginning in the fall of 1800 when the Federal government moved to D.C., the Capitol building was used during the administrations of Presidents Thomas  Jefferson and James Madison for Sunday religious services as well as for governmental functions.
  • Today there is still a private, locked chapel that is for the exclusive use of members.  According to the architect of the Capitol: “Its only purpose is to provide a quiet place to which individual senators and representatives may withdraw a while to seek divine strength and guidance, both in public affairs and in their own personal concerns.”

I’ve seen the Capitol Building almost every workday for the past thirty years.  But I learned new things about it as a result of this bike ride.  That’s just one of the reasons I ride.  And I look forward to more rides next year.  There are currently 435 posts on this blog about different places I’ve been to, events I’ve attended, or other interesting things I’ve seen throughout the city while out and about on my bike.  But I have an ever-growing list of more places to which I still want to ride.  And that list contains more places than the number places where I’ve already been.  So I anticipate that I will continue to be riding not only next year, but for the foreseeable future.

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The West Front of the United States Capitol Building

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Note:  The following historic photos obtained from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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Top Left – Historic American Buildings Survey Copy of old photograph East Front of Capitol Dome under Construction, Showing Clairvoyee and Gates. (Library of Congress Call Number: Habs DC,Wash,1–1 .
Top Middle – West front of the United States Capitol, with the new cast-iron dome under construction. In the foregrd. is the Tiber Creek or Washington City Canal and the octagonal greenhouse for the Botanic Garden (Library of Congress Call Number: Lot 12332 [item] [P&P]. Contributor: Montgomery Meigs. Date Created: November 16,  1860.)
Top Right – Construction of Capitol Dome. (Library of Congress Call Number: Lot 12251, p. 49 [P&P]. Contributor: Benjamin Brown French. Date Created: Between 1860 and 1863.)
Bottom Left – Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln,
Photograph shows crowd attending ceremony; construction on dome of U.S. Capitol in background.  (Library of Congress Call Number: LOT 12251, p. 41 [P&P].  Contributor: Benjamin Brown French. Date Created: March 4, 1861.
Bottom  Middle – Photograph showing Capitol building with scaffolding surrounding Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom atop the dome.  (Library of Congress Call Number: Unprocessed in PR 13 CN 1995:149 [item] [P&P], Date Created: between 1860 and 1863.)
Bottom Right – Photograph showing Union soldiers with rifles at attention in front of the Capitol.  (Library of Congress Call Number: Lot 12251, p. 55 [P&P]. Contributor: Benjamin Brown French. Date Created: May 13, 1861.)

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Note:  A complete renovation and restoration of the iconic Capitol dome was just recently completed.  In 2014, scaffolding was erected around the Capitol Building’s massive dome for a three-year restoration project, the first major overhaul of the dome in more than half a century.  After removing 14 layers of lead paint, applying 1,215 gallons of “Dome White” paint, the fabrication and replacement of exterior ornamentation, repairing deficiencies and over 1,300 different cracks in the cast iron and, finally, removing more than a million pounds of scaffolding, the Architect of the Capitol announced just last month that the restoration effort is officially complete.  So the freshly painted and restored Capitol Building and dome will look pristine next month when it serves as the backdrop for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.

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Scaffolding for Restoration of the Capitol Dome

[Click on the photo to view the full-size version]

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The Washington Monument

I most often tend to ride to and then write about the D.C. area’s lesser-known, off-the-beaten-path monuments, memorials and other attractions. But for this lunch time bike ride I chose to do the opposite. I visited one of the most well known and widely recognized monuments in not only D.C., but the entire world – the 555-foot and 5-inch obelisk known as The Washington Monument. But what I find most interesting about the monument are details about it that are not well-known. Not only did the simplistic appearance of the monument turn out significantly different than what was originally envisioned, it is not located in the place where it was originally intended. And it isn’t even the first Washington Monument in D.C.

Just days after Washington’s death in 1799, a Congressional committee proposed that a pyramid-shaped mausoleum be erected within the Capitol which would also serve as a monument to the nation’s first president. However, a lack of funds, disagreement over what type of memorial would best honor him, and the Washington family’s reluctance to move his body from his Mount Vernon home prevented progress on the proposed project.

Years later, on the 100th anniversary of President Washington’s 1732 birthday, the Washington National Monument Society was formed by former President James Madison and then current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and began accepting donations to build a monument. Four years later, a renewed interest in construction a monument resulted in a design competition being held by the Society. The winning design came from architect Robert Mills, who also designed a number of Federal buildings in D.C., including the Department of Treasury building, the U.S. Patent Office Building, and the old General Post Office. Mills’ design featured a flat topped obelisk topped, with a statue depicting a Roman-like Washington in a chariot in front of it, along with a rotunda and colonnade, all surrounded by 30 statues depicting the country’s Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War heroes. Excavation and initial construction of the monument began on July 4, 1848.

However, a lack of funding resulted in the need to redesign the monument. In 1876 the current obelisk design was proposed. It was also during that year that President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill for the Federal government to fund completion of the monument, which had been stalled by the Civil War. The monument’s construction took place during two phases, from 1848 to 1856, and from 1876 to 1884. A horizontal line of different colored marble from Massachusetts which was used when marble from the original quarry in Maryland was not available is visible approximately 150 feet up the monument, and indicates where construction resumed in 1876.  There is actually a third, less-noticible shade of marble that was used when the builders, dissatisfied with the Massachusetts marble, switched to another quarry in Maryland for the final marble used in the monument.  Thus, there are actually three shades to the exterior of the monument.

In addition to a change in design, a change in location also occurred. Originally, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the city’s architect, had planned for the memorial to be placed due south of the President’s Mansion (now known as the White House), and directly West of the Capital Building. However, the soil at that spot proved too unstable to provide the necessary support for the massive obelisk that had been proposed. So the planned site was moved. The present day monument is 119 meters southwest of the planned site, which is marked by a stone and plaque called the Jefferson Pier.

Delays in construction of the Washington Monument were due to the halting of construction between 1854 and 1877 due to a lack of funds, infighting within the Washington National Monument Society, and the intervention of the American Civil War. It was finally completed in 1888 after more than 40 years of construction, which had begun in 1848. During the interim, however, a comparatively modest monument in the form of an equestrian statue depicting Washington riding his horse during the Battle of Princeton was constructed.  Now known as The Lieutenant General George Washington Statue, it was completed in 1860, more than a quarter of a century before the completion of the more well-known monument.

Located at 2 15th Street (MAP) near Madison Drive in downtown D.C., there are many other details and things you may not know about the monument that has become a centerpiece of the National Mall. For example, it held the title as the tallest structure in the world at the time it was completed. It lost that title in 1889 with the completion of the Eiffel Tower. However, the Washington Monument remains the world’s tallest stone structure as well as the world’s tallest obelisk. The monument stands as the tallest structure in D.C., and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because, by law, no other building in the national capitol city is allowed to be taller than Washington Monument.

Some other interesting facts about the Washington Monument include the following.  The Masonic gavel previously used by George Washington in the laying of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol Building in 1793 was also used in the Washington Monument’s 1848 cornerstone ceremony, that had an eclectic guest list which included three future presidents, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, as well as Dolley Madison and Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Betsey Hamilton and, of course, the then-current President, James K. Polk. Also, there are numerous items and copies of important documents contained in a zinc case in the recess of the monument’s time capsule-like cornerstone, including: the Holy Bible; copies of the Constitution of the United States Declaration of Independence; a portrait of Washington; a map of the city as it was at that time; the 1840 United States Census; all national coins then in circulation including the $10 gold eagle; an American flag; the Washington family coat of arms, and; newspapers from 14 states.

Additionally, the obelisk rests on an artificially constructed knoll that was designed to hide the original foundation. The monument is hollow on the inside, but its inner walls are set with 189 carved memorial stones, which were donated by individuals, cities, states, Native American tribes, companies, foreign countries, and even the pope. There are 897 steps in the staircase that leads to the top of the monument. The walls at the monument’s base are 15 feet thick. The Monument’s 36,491 white marble ashlar blocks, weighing a total of 90,854 tons, are held together by just gravity and friction, and no mortar was used in the process. And lastly, there are lightning rods at the top to protect the structure from lightning strikes, as well as eight synchronized blinking red lights, two on each face, which serve as warning lights to keep aircraft from striking the structure.

So now that you know a little more about the monument that is not quite as simple as it initially appears, I recommend you go see the Washington Monument for yourself.  Whether it is your first time or you have seen the monument before, you may find that you have a new appreciation for it.

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B Street

B Street

During a portion of this two-wheeled outing I rode up and down Constitution Avenue, which is a major east-west street located on the north side of the National Mall, running parallel to Independence Avenue on the Mall’s south side. Constitution Avenue spans the northwest and northeast quadrants of D.C., with its western half extending from the U.S. Capitol Building to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. Its eastern half continues through the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Kingman Park before it eventually terminates at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

Constitution Avenue was not always known by its current name, however. And had it not been for a traffic jam, it might still be known today by the name it had under the structured naming convention of the city’s original architectural plan developed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. That name was B Street.

Back in November of 1921, President Warren G. Harding was travelling to the dedication ceremony for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery when he was caught in a three-hour traffic jam which resulted from the inability of the existing bridges at the time to handle traffic. Resolving to prevent that from happening again, President Harding sought an appropriation to fund the work to design and build a more adequate bridge. Congress subsequently approved his request in June of the following year, which would eventually result in the construction of Arlington Memorial Bridge.

However, B Street was a smaller, narrower street at the time, and extensive widening and reconstruction was needed to accommodate the traffic. Eventually, after years of planning, the vision for B Street had expanded for it to be a ceremonial gateway into the national capitol city from the magnificent new bridge, as well as one of the city’s great parade avenues, similar to Pennsylvania Avenue. And as the nature of the B Street project became apparent, there were calls to rename the street. But nothing is ever easy in D.C., and renaming B Street was no different.

In early 1930, legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives to rename the street L’Enfant Avenue. City officials opposed the name, however, advocating instead for Lincoln or Washington Avenue. Congressman Henry Allen Cooper then introduced legislation to rename the street Constitution Avenue. The proposal met with strong support from city officials, but was rejected by the House of Representatives. The bill was resubmitted the following year. During discussion on the floor of the Senate, it was suggested that the street be named Jefferson Avenue in honor of President Thomas Jefferson. Representative Cooper opined that the name Constitution Avenue in a way paid tribute to our third President as the author of the Constitution, and that a national presidential memorial to President Jefferson should be built.  By the end of the decade, President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of The Thomas Jefferson Memorial. This time the legislation renaming B Street passed both the House and Senate before being signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in February of 1931, and it has been known as Constitution Avenue ever since.

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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The Samuel Francis Du Pont Memorial Fountain at Dupont Circle

The Samuel Francis Du Pont Memorial Fountain at Dupont Circle

As a prologue, I should state that if in the following narrative you notice discrepancies in the spelling of the family name, it is because there is a lack of agreement on one correct way to spell it, even within the family.  For purposes of the traffic circle, the park, and the surrounding neighborhood, the city spells is Dupont.  Samuel himself used Du Pont.  And various family members go by Du Pont, du Pont, or duPont.  They all, however, refer to the same family.  With that out of the way, let’s move on to the memorial fountain.

In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a traffic circle, then named Pacific Circle, as called for in architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for the national capitol city.  It was constructed in northwest D.C. at the confluence of five streets – Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire Avenues, and P and 19th Streets (MAP).  Its name was changed to Dupont Circle approximately a decade later, when Congress renamed the circle and authorized the placement of a statue there in order to memorialize Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, in recognition of his military service.

A statue of Samuel Du Pont was sculpted by Launt Thompson, and subsequently erected in the traffic circle in 1884.  The interior of the circle was also turned into a park, and landscaped with flowers and ornamental trees.  However, a number of members of the prominent Du Pont family thought that the statue was an insufficient tribute to their ancestor, and obtained permission to replace it with what they thought would be a more fitting memorial. This is thought to be the only instance in which a group managed to remove a statue from a location in D.C. and replace it with their version of a more proper monument.  The original statue was subsequently removed, and later erected in Rockford Park in Wilmington, Delaware, where it remains today.

The Du Pont family commissioned Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French, the architect and sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, to create a memorial to more fittingly capture the significance and stature of Samuel Du Pont.  The resulting memorial was a double-tiered white marble fountain, which features carvings on the fountain’s shaft of three allegorical nude figures symbolizing the arts of ocean navigation:  the sea; the stars, and; the wind.  The marble carving was executed by the renowned Piccirilli Brothers, who also sculpted the colossal Abraham Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial, worked on the National Archives Building in D.C., and fashioned the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Formally entitled The Samuel Francis Du Pont Memorial Fountain, the fountain includes an inscription which reads, “Samuel Francis Dupont – Rear Admiral, United States Navy, 1803-1865, This Memorial Fountain Replaces a Statue Erected by the Congress of the United States in Recognition of His Distinguished Services.”  It is owned by the National Park Service, and is a contributing monument to a group of statues entitled, “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.,” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city.  They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

The man memorialized by the fountain, Samuel Du Pont, began his long and illustrious naval career at an early age through his family’s close connections with President Thomas Jefferson, who helped secure him an appointment as a midshipman by President James Madison at the age of 12.  Ironically, by the time he became an officer he had begun to openly criticize many of his senior officers because he believed they had only received their commands through political influence and were incompetent.

Despite going on to eventually be in charge of the largest fleet ever commanded by an American officer at that time, the theme of political connections would continue to recur throughout his career.  As an enthusiastic supporter of naval reform, he oversaw the removal of over 200 naval officers.  But when those under fire called upon friends in Congress, Du Pont himself became the subject of heavy criticism, and a subsequent review of the dismissals resulted in the reinstatement of nearly half of those removed.  And near the end of his career, when he was removed from command as a result of being blamed for a significant defeat during the Civil War, Du Pont attempted to enlist the help of Congressman Henry Winter Davis, as well as garner the support of President Abraham Lincoln, in persuading the Navy to adopt his official report of the incident that led to his removal.  The Navy did not.

Despite intended as a memorial to his otherwise long and distinguished naval career, I find it also appropriate that the fountain that memorializes a military man so intrinsically involved in the political realm and patronage throughout his career is located in the city that is our nation’s hub for political influence.

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