Did you know that half of the 12 top-rated architectural wonders of the US can be found in one small area of the country? And the area can be covered on foot. This amazing concentration of fascinating and varied memorials is found in the center of Washington, DC. Run by the National Parks system, it is known officially as the Washington Mall and Memorial Parks.
The Washington Monument
The obelisk seen from near and far is the tallest freestanding stone structure in the world, built to honor the country’s first president, George Washington. Construction began in 1848 but was interrupted due to war and political arguments. Look closely and you can see that a clear line where the color of the stone changes partway up. This marks the place where the first installment stalled and to continue, builders brought in stone from a different quarry. Wherever you are on the mall, you can see the Washington Monument soaring above the skyline.
Right next to the Washington Monument is the appealing World War II Memorial. It honors the 16 million men and women who served overseas. Granite columns curve around a fountain and represent each of the states and territories at the time of war. A wall of 4,048 stars, each standing for 100 people, represents the more than 400,000 Americans who paid the price to win the war. The memorial built to celebrate the heroes of the Greatest Generation remains one of the most visited sites on the National Mall, with more than 4.2 million visits in 2014.
Continue toward the Reflecting Pool from the World War II Memorial and you will have a long view of the iconic Lincoln Memorial. Inspired by ancient Greek Temples, at first all you see are the columns – 36 to represent the states in the US at the time of Lincoln’s death. As you draw closer, you will glimpse the great man seated in his chair. He sits looking out on the Mall of the government he worked so hard to preserve during the Civil War. The Gettysburg Address is inscribed on the wall beside him, and this quotation sums up the memorial: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
Down a tree-lined path from the Lincoln Memorial, walk a short way and you will find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. This is really two identical walls that are each 246 feet long. The black walls contain more than 58,000 names of those lost in this war. The names are listed in chronological order based on the date of casualty, with names for each day in alphabetical order. You can search online before you arrive to locate a name. Tributes of notes, flowers, and flags line the wall. These are cleared each night, so what you are seeing is the daily outpouring of honor. An unusual feature of this memorial is that visitors see their reflection in the wall imposed on the rows of names. The present and past are connected in this unique way.
Make your way from the Mall west to the Tidal Basin, a man-made inlet off the Potomac River, and you will find three more memorials.
The Martin Luther King Memorial
First, you will arrive at the Martin Luther King Memorial, the newest of the collection. Opened in 2011, the memorial is based on a line from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” which was delivered from the steps of the nearby Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Two large pieces of granite stand behind the chunk taken from them to carve a likeness of Dr. King. The wall behind the granite is etched with quotations from his sermons, writings, and speeches.
FDR is honored here as the longest-serving president of the US, as well as the leader who took the country through World War II. Outdoor rooms portray a scene from each of his four terms. Here is the third term art, which includes a sculpture of First Dog Fala.
You’ll also see bronzes depicting the fireside radio chats and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. With famous FDR quotations and waterfalls, the many parts of the FDR Memorial make an impressive experience.
A favorite of many, the Jefferson Memorial is stunning in its neoclassical architecture. Designed as a smaller version of the Pantheon in Rome, it was built in the 1920s. Inside stands an imposing Jefferson, shimmering in the sunlight. Inlaid in the walls are quotations from Jefferson, including his most famous document, the Declaration of Independence.
We missed only one of the major memorials. We reached this memorial in the dark as the skies opened with blinding rain. So I vaguely saw the shadowy figures, but I couldn’t get a photo. So I must return, right?!
One Way to Tour the Memorials
We enjoyed an evening bike tour of the memorials with Bike and Roll DC. Taking off at sunset, you pedal around the mall while an excellent guide fills you in on the history of each monument. A storm cut our tour short, but we would gladly book this again (even though they made us wear these dorky neon vests and helmets!).
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