Posts Tagged ‘President Dwight D. Eisenhower’

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New York Avenue Presbyterian Church 

The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.  It is located at the intersection of 13th Street and New York Avenue at 1313 New York Avenue (MAP).  It is situated among several tall modern building in D.C.’s Downtown neighborhood.  However, its tall steeple helps it stand out.  And on this bike ride I stopped by and spent a little time there learning more about it.  

The church was formed in 1859-60 but traces its roots to 1803 as the F Street Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and another congregation founded in 1820 on its current site, the Second Presbyterian Church. After the merger the church was named the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, taking its name from the avenue that separated it from a tannery across the street at that time, and the original church building was constructed in the Colonial Revival style with Italianate details as designed by Architect Edward Haviland. The current church building was built in 1950 and is a replica of the original 19th century building designed by Haviland.  

The church is located four blocks from The White House.  And due to its proximity to the White House, a number of U.S. presidents have attended services there. In fact, eleven sitting presidents have worshiped in either the existing church or the original one, beginning with John Quincey Adams. The others were Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Benjamin Harrison, Dwight D. Eisenhower and, most recently, Richard Nixon. Members of presidents’ cabinets, congressmen and senators, and the Supreme Court justices have also attended over the years. 

Of those who have attended, Abraham Lincoln was the most active and prominent presidential parishioner. President and Mrs. Lincoln first visited the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church shortly after he took office on March 4, 1861 and just after the church’s original building was completed. Lincoln rented a pew for $50 a year, and even had a reserved hitching post outside for the family’s small horse-drawn carriage.  The Lincoln hitching post is still there today.  The family worshiped regularly there during the  Civil War.  And while attending, President Lincoln and the pastor at that time, Rev. Dr. Phineas Densmore Gurley, developed a relationship in which they frequently discussed theology.  Gurley presided over the funeral of Lincoln’s son, William Wallace Lincoln, in 1862, and then over the funeral of President Lincoln himself three years later.  

Later after President Lincoln’s death, the church’s steeple, then the tallest in the city, was destroyed in a storm and rebuilt through the generosity of Mary Harlan Lincoln, widow of the president’s son Robert Todd Lincoln. When the original church building was replaced in the early 1950’s the Lincoln Memorial Tower with its belfry and four-sided clock was disassembled and rebuilt.  Additionally, the bells in steeple tower were a gift to the church in 1929 from Mary Lincoln Isham, one of Lincoln’s granddaughters.  The largest bell bears an inscription in the president’s memory.  And inside the church in addition to the the family pew, there is a Lincoln stained glass window, an early emancipation document, and other memorabilia.

The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is more than just a building or historic church.  It has remained active over the years, and continues to do so today.  From the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking from the church’s s pulpit to warn about the consequences of the war in Vietnam in the late 1960’s, to voting in 1998 to become a “More Light” congregation and work toward “the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+) people in the life, ministry and witness of the church and in society”, to its current online worship services due to the coronavirus pandemic, the church continues to be active in the community.  In fact, approximately 1,200 people currently come to the church building on a weekly basis for a wide range of purposes, including meeting with a tutor in Community Club or a social worker at the McClendon Center, receiving a cup of coffee or an article of needed clothing through the Radcliffe Room ministry for the homeless, attending one of a number of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or worship with one of the four congregations the church hosts.  The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is a church that is reformed and always reforming.  

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Statue of Taras Shevchenko

In addition to numerous statues that pay homage to famous Americans, D.C. is also home to many that honor foreign heroes.  Some examples I’ve already visited are well-known, such as The Nelson Mandela Statue in Front of the South African Embassy and the Statue of Sir Winston Churchill.  Many others are less well-known, such as the Statue of Crown Princess Märtha, the Statue of Elefthérios Venizélos, and the Statue of Brigadier General Thaddeus Kościuszko.  But I haven’t yet visited many of the city’s hundreds, if not thousands of these statues.  And I think I better start prioritizing them during my bike rides so I can see them before angry mobs of rioters eventually tear them all down.

On this bike ride, I saw one of these statues that I hadn’t visited before – the Taras Shevchenko Memorial, which is located in the 2200 block of P Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s DuPont Circle neighborhood.  It is the 83rd statue to be profiled in this blog.

Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko was a Ukrainian poet, writer, artist, public and political figure, as well as folklorist and ethnographer.  His literary heritage is regarded to be the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature and, to a large extent, the modern Ukrainian language. Shevchenko is also known for many masterpieces as a painter and an illustrator.

The idea of a U.S. monument honoring Shevchenko began with the American Shevchenko Society, founded in 1898. The society did not achieve its goal of erecting a monument, but the idea did not die out, and many Ukrainian-Americans continued to pursue the creation of a Shevchenko monument.

The inscriptions on the memorial best describe the man and the reasons for the statue.  The inscription on north face of statue base reads:

Dedicated to the Liberation, Freedom and Independence of all Captive Nations

This monument of Taras Shevchenko, 19th century Ukrainian poet and fighter for the independence of Ukraine and the freedom of all mankind, who under foreign Russian imperialist tyranny and colonial rule appealed for “The New and Righteous Law of Washington,” was unveiled on June 27, 1964. This historic event commemorated the 150th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth. The memorial was authorized by the 86th Congress of the United States of America on August 31, 1960, and signed into Public Law 86-749 by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States of America on September 13, 1960. The statue was erected by Americans of Ukrainian ancestry and friends.

And an inscription on reverse face of the relief sculpture of Prometheus reads:

“…Our soul shall never perish. Freedom knows no dying.
And the greedy cannot harvest
fields where seas are lying.”

“Cannot bind the living Spirit
nor the living Word.
“Cannot smirch the sacred glory
of Th’Almighty Lord.”

 

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NOTE:  A second Ukrainian monument was approved by the U.S. Congress in 2006.  The monument honors the millions of Ukrainians who died as a result of the 1932–1933 Holodomor, a famine-genocide caused by the Soviet Union.  The memorial site is located on a triangular lot on Massachusetts Avenue near Union Station.  On December 2, 2008, a dedication ceremony was held at the future site for the Holodomor Memorial, with Ukraine’s then-First Lady Kateryna Yushchenko among the speakers.  Formally dedicated on November 7, 2015, it is also the second memorial in D.C. to honor victims of Communism, the other being the Victims of Communism Memorial, also located near Union Station.

Today is Flag Day, and in recognition of that designation I took some of the photos I’ve taken during my lunchtime bike rides, 76 of them, in fact, and set them to music to make the above slideshow.

In the United States, Flag Day is celebrated on June 14. It commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States, which happened on June 14, 1777, by resolution of the Second Continental Congress.  But the first Flag Day was not celebrated for another 108 years. until in 1885 a 19-year-old school teacher in Fredonia, Wisconsin, named Bernard J. Cigrand placed a 38-inch star flag in a bottle on his desk to observe the “flag birthday,” and gave his students an assignment to write essays about the flag and its significance.  After that, Cigrand enthusiastically advocated for several years in numerous magazines and newspaper articles and public addresses the observance of June 14 as “Flag Birthday”, or “Flag Day”.  For his efforts, Cigrand generally is credited with being the “Father of Flag Day.”

It took another 31 years, until 1916, for President Woodrow Wilson to issue a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day.  Finally, in August 1946, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress.  Flag Day is still not an official Federal holiday, however.  Neither is it a state holiday outside of Pennsylvania and New York. Furthermore, New York’s official observance of Flag Day isn’t June 14, but rather the second Sunday in June.

Since its inception there have been 27 official versions what many fondly call the “Stars and Stripes” , starting with the first one in 1777 which displayed 13 stripes and 13 stars (for the 13 original colonies). When Kentucky and Vermont joined the union, the flag took on two more stars, so that from 1795 to 1818, 15 stripes and 15 stars graced the flag. It was this version of the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Star-Spangled Banner,” during the battle at Fort McHenry.  For a while, the U.S. added stripes and stars to the flag when welcoming new states. At one point, the flag has 15 stripes and 15 stars. But n 1818, as the country continued to add new states, lawmakers, anticipating a crowded field of stripes, decided to honor each new state with a star, and leave the stripes at 13. Today the flag has 50 stars for the 50 states, and the designated 13 stripes.

There are Federal regulations governing the handling and display of the flag, referred to as the U.S. Flag Code, including restrictions on using the flag’s likeness for advertising, or printing it on anything intended “for temporary use or discard,” like cocktail napkins or paper plates. Under the Flag Protection Act of 1989, there are also Federal laws that call for criminal penalties for certain forms of flag desecration, although the Supreme Court found this act to be unconstitutional under the First Amendment in 1990.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of surprising and interesting facts surrounding the Stars and Stripes. And many of those facts are not found in history books. The following are some examples.

  • A 17-year old student named Robert G. Heft designed the flag as it currently appears today as part of a project for his history class.  He received a grade of B- for the project. He later submitted it to Congress for consideration, and in August of 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Heft’s design over 1,500 other applicants. His teacher subsequently changed his grade to an A.
  • According to the U.S. Department of State, the names of the flag’s official colors are “old glory red,” “white,” and “old glory blue.” “White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness and valor, and Blue, the color of the Chief, signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”
  • Old Glory was actually the nickname of a specific U.S. Flag, namely, the one owned by sea captain William Driver. He was previously given the flag by the women in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, but he only named it Old Glory upon seeing it flying on his ship’s mast in 1831. The name later went on to become synonymous with any American flag.
  • In July 1969, Neil Armstrong placed the first American flag on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission, the first manned landing. Five more Apollo moon landings—from missions 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17—resulted in five more flags being planted on the lunar surface. Despite the harsh temperatures and conditions of the moon’s atmosphere, five of the six flags that were planted during the Apollo missions are still standing. According to Buzz Aldrin, the one that fell was blown over by the exhaust from Apollo 11 during its liftoff from the moon’s surface.
  • Richard Williams, the animation director for the movie entitled “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” said that he modeled the title character’s colors after the American flag. Roger Rabbit dons red overalls, has white fur, and wears a blue tie. “It looked like an American flag — subliminally speaking — so everybody liked it,” stated Williams.
  • Karen Burke of Walmart’s Corporate Communications revealed that Walmart stores sold around 115,000 American flags on September 11, 2001, as compared to 6,400 flags on the same date in 2000. In the year following 9/11 (September 11, 2001, through August 19, 2011), they sold 7.8 million American flags as compared to 2.5 million the year before.
  • During the opening sequence, at about 22 seconds in, of first-season episodes of “Gilligan’s Island,” the U.S. Flag can be seen flying at half-staff off in the distance. According to a 1994 audio book co-authored by Russell Johnson, who played the Professor, this is because the show’s pilot episode finished filming on November 22, 1963 — the same day President Kennedy was assassinated.
  • Lastly and most assuredly bigly, our current President, Donald Trump, was born on Flag Day in 1946.

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Mama Ayesha and the Presidents

During this lunchtime bike ride as I was riding across the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge in northwest D.C.’s Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, I saw a mural on the side of a building on the eastern end of the bridge.  So I rode over to get a better look at the mural.  I discovered it was on the side of Mama Ayesha’s Restaurant, located at 1967 Calvert Street (MAP), and depicts the restaurant’s namesake standing in front of The White House.  She is flanked on either side by eleven different presidents standing in chronological order, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower and ending with Barack Obama. The content of the public artwork is so unusual that I just had to find out more about it.

The mural was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and private donors.  It was created in 2009 by Karla Rodas, also known as Karlísima, who is a native of El Salvador but moved with her family as a child to nearby Alexandria.  After graduating from Annandale High School and Washington University, she returned to D.C. and has since become one of the capital city’s most well-known and respected muralists.

The initial concept for the mural was planned by Mama Ayesha’s family members, who have run the restaurant since its opening in 1960. However, the original plan did not have Mama Ayesha as the centerpiece of the work. Instead, the family wanted Helen Thomas, a renowned White House reporter and regular customer at the restaurant, to be at the center of the mural. She was envisioned to be seated at a desk with pen and paper in her hand. However, Thomas politely declined the family’s request, opining that Mama Ayesha should be portrayed instead.

The final design depicts Mama Ayesha in traditional Palestinian garb standing in front of the White House. With six presidents on her right and five on her left, she stands in the middle between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, with their arms interlocked. Interspersed throughout the mural are other symbols and additional scenes and landmarks from the national capital city. They include a bald eagle, the city’s famous cherry blossoms, as well as the Lincoln Memorial and its Reflecting Pool, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol Building.  And representations of the U.S. flag appear on the sides of the painting.

With President Obama’s successor to be determined in tomorrow’s election, I hope the mural will be updated.  There is sufficient space in front of the Reflecting Pool for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  I very much look forward to the election being over.  And I also look forward to being able to come back to see the updated mural at some point in the near future.

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The Bernard Baruch Bench of Inspiration

On today’s bike ride I stopped in Lafayette Square Park (MAP) to eat my lunch.  And as I was sitting on a bench near the Andrew Jackson statue in the middle of the park, I noticed a bronze plaque on a granite base next to the bench. The plaque reads: “The Bernard Baruch Bench of Inspiration; Dedicated in Honor of Mr. Baruch’s 90th Birthday – August 19, 1960 For His Inspiring Devotion to Country And Distinguished Service to Boyhood; By Both The National Capital Area Council and The Boy Scouts Of America; The Boy Scout Motto — Mr. Baruch’s Philosophy; ‘Be Prepared’.”  So naturally, I had to look into who Bernard Baruch was, and why he had a bench in the park dedicated to him.

Bernard Mannes Baruch was born in August of 1870, in Camden, South Carolina. He grew up in New York City, where his family moved when he was eleven years old, and graduated from the City College of New York.   After graduating in 1889, Baruch initially worked as an office boy in a linen business before later starting work as a broker and then a partner at A.A. Housman & Company. With his earnings and commissions, he bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, where he amassed a fortune while he was still in his twenties.

After his success in business, Baruch left Wall Street in 1916 to become an adviser President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. Three years later President Wilson asked him to serve as a staff member at the Paris Peace Conference, where Baruch supported Wilson’s view pertaining to the creation of the League of Nations. In the 1920s and 30s, Baruch remained a prominent government adviser, and supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives after his election, which included being part of the President’s “Brain Trust” during the New Deal.  During this time he also expressed his concern that the United States needed to be prepared for the possibility of another world war. Then when the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt appointed Baruch a special adviser. And after World War II, President Harry S. Truman appointed Baruch as the United States representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, where he played an instrumental role in formulating policy regarding the international control of atomic energy.  The designation of “elder statesman” was applied to him perhaps more often than to any other American of his time, and he continued to be active until his death in June of 1965 at the age of 94.

While I found the information about this successful American investor, financier, philanthropist, statesman, and political advisor interesting, I was still curious about why there was a “bench of inspiration” dedicated to him.  It turns out that Baruch was well-known, and often walked or sat in Lafayette Square Park across from The White House.  And it was not uncommon for him to passionately discuss politics and government affairs with other people and passersby while sitting on his favorite bench in the park.  He even preferred to meet with Presidents and other important people in the park as well.  In fact, this became one of his most famous characteristics, resulting in him coming to be known as the “the Park Bench Statesman.”

So in 1960, within days of his ninetieth birthday, a commemorative park bench in the his favorite spot across from the White House was dedicated to him by the Boy Scouts.  When told of the bench and the planned ceremony to dedicate it, “Baruch said he hoped ‘the young people, who are the future of our country’ might receive inspiration from sitting on this bench in the future, as he had over the years.”  So maybe I have some things I need to think through or a big decision to make, I’ll head over to Lafayette Square Park, sit on the bench and hope for a little inspiration.

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NOTE:  Some of the quotes attributed to Bernard Baruch gives us some insight into the advice he provided to Presidents and others.  It who Baruch who is quoted as having said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  He also said, “Every man has a right to his opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”

More of Baruch’s wisdom is evident by what he said the bench.  Baruch said,”In this hectic Age of Distraction, all of us need to pause every now and then in what we are doing to examine where the rush of the world and of our own activities is taking us. Even an hour or two spent in such detached contemplation on a park bench will prove rewarding.”

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The Empty Grave of Frank Kameny

On today’s lunchtime bike ride I stopped by Historic Congressional Cemetery, located at 1801 E Street (MAP) in southeast D.C.’s Barney Circle neighborhood, where I visited the gravesite of Frank Kameny. Known as “one of the most significant figures” in the American gay rights movement,” Kameny’s lived an impactful public life. But as was suggested by the title of this blog post, his story doesn’t end there.

Franklin Edward Kameny was born on May 21, 1925 to Ashkenazi Jewish parents in New York City. He grew up in New York City and graduated from high school at the age of 16, and went on to college to study physics. Before he could complete his education he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the European theater throughout World War II. After being honorably discharged from the service, he returned to college and earned a degree in physics in 1948. He then went on to enroll in Harvard, where he studied astronomy and earned a master’s degree in 1949, and doctorate in 1956.

After a year teaching at Georgetown University, he obtained a civil service job as an astronomer with the U.S. Army Map Service in July of 1957. It wasn’t long afterward that an investigator from the U.S. Civil Service Commission came to question him about reports that he was a homosexual. That fall, only a few months after being hired, he was fired for being gay.  And in January of 1958, he was barred forever from Federal government employment. Kameny formally appealed his firing, first through formal channels, then all the way to the House and Senate Civil Service Committees, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  After not prevailing through those channels, he filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court to get his job back. But he lost that too, as well as a subsequent appeal in the Federal Court of Appeals. Then after being abandoned by his lawyer who declared his cause hopeless, Kameny personally brought and represented himself in a landmark albeit unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Although he lost the case, the proceeding was notable as the first known civil rights claim based on sexual orientation pursued in a U.S. court.

For the vast majority of people during that time, homosexuality was seen as abhorrent, sinful, and criminal. Even most homosexuals thought so too. So there were not any gay rights organizations in D.C. for Kameny to turn to. So in a move that would begin a lifelong role as an organizer and an advocate, Kameny decided to start one of his own. He was a cofounder of the Mattachine Society of Washington, and later the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the National Gay Task Force, and the National Gay Rights Lobby, which was the first national political lobbying organization for the gay and lesbian community. He also led the first gay rights protests at The White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Civil Service Commission, and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He would also become the first openly gay person to run for Congress, help lobby the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, create the first test case against the military ban on gay service by Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, and be appointed a Commissioner of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, thereby becoming the first gay municipal appointee.

In 2007, Kameny’s death was mistakenly reported by The Advocate, an American LGBT-interest magazine, alongside a mistaken report that he had HIV. The report was retracted with an apology. A little over four years later Kameny died from natural causes due to arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.  He died on October, 11, 2011, coinciding with National Coming Out Day, an annual awareness day pertaining to the voluntary self-disclosure of one’s sexual orientation.  His body was subsequently cremated, and Timothy Clark, his legal heir, took possession of the ashes. Because Clark and the Kameny estate lacked the financial means, a burial plot was purchased by a LGBT charitable group named Helping Our Brothers and Sisters. But Clark would not allow the interment of the ashes to take place until ownership of the cemetery plot was signed over to the estate. And after years of fighting between the Kameny family, friends, and Clark, his ashes have still not been interred in the plot. However, the headstone, along with a footstone bearing the slogan, “Gay is Good,” which Kameny coined in 1968, were placed at the plot last year. Clark subsequently interred the ashes at an undisclosed location, and has asked the public to respect “his wishes and his privacy.”

The area of the cemetery where the Kameny memorial headstone is located has in recent years become somewhat of a tourist attraction, particularly to those in the LGBT community.  Kameny’s plot is located right behind that of Leonard Matlovich, as well as the nearby gravesites of J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson.  A growing number of other out gays, including veterans and couples, have also chosen to be buried in the same once obscure graveyard such as gay rights pioneers Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen.  Also, members of American Veterans for Equal Rights have purchased eight nearby adjoining plots to create a LGBT veterans memorial.

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Tomb of the Unknowns

Although it is one of the most universally recognized of the numerous monuments and memorials located within the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery (MAP), the memorial I rode there to see on this lunchtime bike ride does not have an official name. It is most commonly referred to as either the Tomb of the Unknowns, or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but it has never been officially named.

In March of 1921 the United States Congress approved the burial of the unidentified American soldier in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery. So an unknown soldier was exhumed from an American military cemetery in France, and transported back to the United States, where he laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Armistice Day of that year. Then, in a ceremony presided over by President Warren G. Harding on November 11, 1921, the unknown soldier was laid to rest and the Tomb of the Unknowns was dedicated as a monument to all those who had fallen during World War I.

Over the years the monument has changed a number of times in regard to both its appearance and purpose. In July of 1926, five years after its dedication, Congress authorized and appropriated money for the completion of a superstructure on top of the Tomb. A design competition was held and won by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones. The Tomb was completed without formal ceremony in April of 1932. But the biggest change to the Tomb took place in August of 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknown soldiers of World War II and the Korean War. Finally, on Memorial Day in 1984, President Ronald Reagan presided over the internment of an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War.

Interestingly, with subsequent improvements in DNA testing, the remains of the unknown from the Vietnam War were identified as those of Air Force Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Lộc, Vietnam, in 1972. The identification was announced in June of 1998. The following month, Blassie’s remains were sent home to his family in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Today, the slab over the crypt that once held the remains of the Vietnam Unknown has been replaced. The original inscription of “Vietnam” and the dates of the conflict has been changed to “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen” as a reminder of the commitment of the Armed Forces to the fullest possible accounting of missing service members.

One of the most distinctive and unique features of the Tomb of the Unknowns is that it is guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in any and all kinds of weather.  In fact, there has been a sentinel, as the guards are known, on duty in front of the Tomb every minute of every day since 1937. Sentinels, all of whom are volunteers, are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the U.S. Army. Also known as The Old Guard, the Sentinels are headquartered at nearby Fort Myer, which is adjacent to the cemetery. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

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The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge

You would think that a mile and a quarter long, multi-span drawbridge which carries a twelve-lane interstate highway used by more than a quarter of a million vehicles every day would not be a very good location for riding a bicycle, but that is not the case with the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge.

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, commonly referred to as the Wilson Bridge, was planned and built as part of the Interstate Highway System created by Congress in 1956. Construction of the bridge began in the late 1950s, at which time it was called the Jones Point Bridge. It was renamed the “Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge” in honor of our country’s 28th President in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as part of that year’s centennial celebration of Woodrow Wilson’s birth on December 28, 1856. President Wilson was an advocate of automobile and highway improvements in the United States, and during his presidency reportedly spent an average of two hours a day riding in his automobile to relax and, as he would say, “loosen his mind from the problems before him.”

The Wilson Bridge opened to traffic on December 28, 1961. First Lady Edith Wilson, the widow of President Wilson, was supposed to have been the guest of honor at the bridge’s dedication ceremony honoring her husband on what would have been his 105th birthday. However, she died that very morning at the family home they had shared in northwest D.C.

The Wilson Bridge as it was originally constructed was designed to handle between 70 and 75 thousand vehicles a day. But by 1999 the bridge was handling 200,000 vehicles a day. This caused not only traffic issues but serious maintenance problems as well. Despite undergoing continuous patchwork maintenance beginning in the 1970’s, and being completely re-decked in 1983, the overuse took its toll and in 2000 construction began to replace the bridge with two new side-by-side drawbridges. The massive $2.357 billion construction project utilized 26 prime contractors and 260 subcontractors employing 1,200 full-time workers.  The 230 thousand ton, 1.2-mile long structure was completed almost a decade later.

The Wilson Bridge currently consists of two parallel bridge structures, each with 17 fixed spans and one 270-foot twin double leaf bascule span. The northern span carries the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway, which is comprised of Interstate 95 and Interstate 495, while the southern span contains the beltway’s Outer Loop.  And with eight leaves, each weighing four million pounds, giving the drawbridge 32 million pounds of moving mass, it is the biggest drawbridge in the world.

Connecting the city of Alexandria, Virginia, with National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Prince George’s County, Maryland, the Wilson Bridge also crosses the tip of the southernmost corner of D.C., giving it the distinction of being the only bridge in the United States that crosses the borders of three jurisdictions. The 300-foot mid-span of the western portion of the bridge is also the shortest segment of Interstate Highway between state lines.

But to me, one of the most impressive features of this massive structure was the forethought to make it bicycle friendly. The northern span of the bridge includes a pedestrian and bike passageway known as the Wilson Bridge Bike Trial. The 3.5-mile trail extends from Oxon Hill Road across the Potomac River to the Huntington Metro Station in Virginia. The trail connects to the network of trails, including the Mount Vernon Trail at Jones Point Park in Virginia.  And future plans call for it to connect with the Potomac Heritage Trail in Maryland. The trail has a steel railing on the north side called the bicycle barrier and a concrete barrier with a short steel railing on top called the combination barrier to separate the bikeway traffic from the highway traffic. The trail, which opened on June 6, 2009, is approximately 12 feet wide, with “bump-out” areas where users can stop to observe views of D.C. and Old Town Alexandria.

The Wilson Bridge Bike Trial has a speed limit of 10 m.p.h., which is a good idea due to the bridge’s many steel joints that can damage bike tires and rims at high speeds. The speed limit for bikes is also a good idea since the trail is also used by many pedestrians.  While riding on the trail it’s also a good idea to remember that it is a drawbridge and may open periodically, so paying attention to warning lights and bells is necessary. The trail is closed between midnight and 5:30 a.m.  It is also closed during snowstorms, so much like the D.C. area, it has had a rough go of it this winter.

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The Bureau of Engraving and Printing

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing

On this day in 1956, two years after successfully pushing to have the phrase “under God” inserted into the pledge of allegiance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto. The law also mandated that the phrase be printed on all U.S. paper currency. The phrase had already been placed on U.S. coinage starting in 1867, when the “Union” side during the Civil War started the practice.

In recognition of the anniversary of our official adaptation of this motto, on this ride I went by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  Paper currency is printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is a component of the Treasury Department.  The Bureau of Engraving and Printing is located at 300 14th Street (MAP) in southwest D.C.  Coins, however, are produced separately by the United States Mint.  So I also rode by the headquarters for the U.S. Mint, which is located at 801 9th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.  Although the headquarters for the Mint is in D.C., production facilities are no longer located here. The production facilities are located in Philadelphia and Denver. Production of proof coin sets and commemorative coins also take place in San Francisco and West Point, New York.

Although some historical accounts claim Eisenhower was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, most presidential scholars now believe his family was Mennonite. Either way, Eisenhower abandoned his family’s religion before entering the Army, and took the unusual step of being baptized relatively late in his adult life as a Presbyterian. The baptism took place in 1953, barely a year into his first term as President. He is the only president to be baptized while in office.

Although Eisenhower embraced religion, biographers insist he never intended to force his beliefs on anyone. In fact, the chapel-like structure near where he and his wife Mamie are buried on the grounds of his presidential library is called the “Place of Meditation” and is intentionally inter-denominational. At a Flag Day speech in 1954, he elaborated on his feelings about the place of religion in public life when he discussed why he had wanted to include “under God” in the pledge of allegiance: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

The first paper money with the phrase “In God We Trust” was not printed until 1957. Since then, religious and secular groups have argued over the appropriateness and constitutionality of an official national motto that mentions “God.” “In God We Trust” also became the official motto of the state of Florida in July of 2006, where the same arguments take place on the state level. The debates will continue, and may someday result in a change to the motto and our national currency.  However, more important than what constitutes our national motto or a state motto is what constitutes your personal motto.

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The Federal Election Commission Headquarters

The Federal Election Commission Headquarters

Election Day in the United States is the day set by law for general elections, and occurs on the day after the first Monday in November. (Note that the “day after the first Monday” does not equal the “first Tuesday” in a month when the first day of the month is a Tuesday.) The earliest possible date is November 2nd and the latest possible date is November 8th.   On this bike ride, in recognition of today being Election Day, I stopped by the headquarters for the Federal Election Commission. It is located at 999 E Street (MAP), across from FBI Headquarters and next door to the Hard Rock Café in northwest D.C.

Historically, when an election day for a Presidential election falls on today’s date, November 4th, it was generally very good for Republicans throughout the 20th century. The streak began when Election Day fell on November 4th back in 1924, and Calvin Coolidge was elected to the country’s top office. Coolidge was already in the office of President, having to complete the term of Warren G. Harding, who died while in office. This time, and on this day, he was voted into office by the people of the U.S., and served another four years. History repeated itself in 1952 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was running against Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Once again, Election Day was on November 4, and “Ike” won. It was the first Republican presidential victory in 24 years. Eisenhower became the 34th U.S. President. When Election Day fell on November 4th again in1980, it was a good year for Republicans all around. Most of those Republicans running for seats in the U.S. Senate were victors, winning a majority of the seats. And in a landslide, Ronald Reagan won the race for President against the Democrat incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

Before 1924, it was a different story: Democrat Grover Cleveland made it to the top in 1884; and Democrat James Buchanan was elected President of the U.S. on November 4, 1856. Unfortunately, the Republican victory streak did not continue into this century either. It ended five years ago today, on November 4, 2008, in the first presidential election held on November 4 in the 21st century. In that election, Democrat Barack Obama was elected President. The next November 4 Presidential election will be in 2036.

However, there is not a presidential election this year. The general elections being held today are considered “mid-term elections.” These elections include all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate; along with the governorships of 36 of the 50 states and three U.S. territories, 46 state legislatures (except Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia), four territorial legislatures, and numerous state and local races.

Voter turnout in national elections varies in countries throughout the world. In Belgium, which has compulsory voting, and Malta, which does not, participation reaches 95 percent. Voter turnout in this country averages only 48 percent. And voter turnout in this country decreases for midterm elections. Only 39.9 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot during the last mid-term elections, and estimates indicate voter turnout could be even lower this time around. So if the predictions are correct, more than 6 out of 10 eligible voters will not participate in today’s elections. That makes each vote even more important. So make sure you vote early. And as is the tradition if you’re in Chicago, vote often.

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