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Monday 26 March 2018 -- Memorials

Southwest District of Columbia
© Google Maps

On Monday we ventured south of the Mall to the Tidewater area, where an extension of the Potomac river floods into a basin and forms a tidal pond. This area is where the famous cherry trees of Washington, DC, are concentrated, and we hoped to catch some of the bloom. Alas, it had snowed about a week earlier, there were still patches of snow on the ground, and that day it was cold and windy. The cherry trees were thinking about blooming but hadn't gotten around to making any real effort yet. It was sunny, though, and nice weather for walking around, since we were bundled up.

About a week too early!
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Jefferson Memorial  Our first stop was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. We skipped the Washington Monument because it didn't look very interesting and I didn't want to wait in the line to go up to the top, from where the view must be spectacular. I did, however, take the obligatory photo of the monument itself.

Washington Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Jefferson Memorial occupies a beautiful spot along the tidewater shore. It must be truly beautiful when the cherry trees are blooming.

Jefferson Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Inscription from interior of the Jefferson Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Inside the rotunda the walls are inscribed with some of Jefferson's writings. The walls are curved and tall, making them difficult to photograph. Another difficulty I had with this memorial was reconciling Jefferson's words about freedom with the knowledge that he was a slaveholder. While I do think it's unfair to judge historical personages by the moral standards of today, I can't really wrap my brain around that particular cognitive dissonance. This one particular inscription, though, I thoroughly agree with. It seems pretty clear to me that Jefferson never intended the U.S. Constitution to be a static document that could not be amended as required. Rather the opposite, in fact.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial  My favorite memorial of the day was the one for FDR. I liked it because it didn't have present me with any of the minor squicks that I got at the Jefferson memorial. Not only that, but unlike the other presidential memorials this one isn't a single giant edifice that people walk up to and then away from. The FDR memorial consists of life-sized sculptures mounted at eye level, so passersby can interact with them as they wander along the path. Several of FDR's quotes are inscribed along walls interspersed with fountains. All this gives us a memorial that we can experience at a human level and gives us a feel for who FDR was as a person, not just a president.

FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I liked how Eleanor Roosevelt was memorialized, too.

Sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

My favorite part of the FDR Memorial was at the far end. Walking along the path you first encounter a series of columns that appear to be covered in bronze plates. The columns and the frieze behind them commemorated FDR's federal public works projects, a response to the Great Depression.

Bronze frieze and die rolls at the FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The really cool thing about this part of the memorial is that the columns are actually the die rolls used to make the panels on the frieze wall. I didn't see any signage explaining what was going on, so the visitors have to figure it out for themselves. This was another of the things that made this particular memorial feel personal.

Here's one part of one die roll:

26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

and here is the panel cast from it:

26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Isn't that cool?

Martin Luther King Memorial The MLK Memorial consists of a single large sculpture of the man in front of a wall inscribed with bits of his writings and speeches. The sculpture itself is very imposing and grand, very different from the more personal and humble feeling I took from the FDR Memorial.

Sculpture of Martin Luther King, with the Washington Monument in the background
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From the front of the sculpture he really seems to be looking down on us. He was a preacher, and this expression makes me feel like I'm about to hear a sermon. I don't enjoy being preached to, so this is not a comfortable feeling for me.

MLK Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Like the Jefferson Memorial, this one left me feeling cold. It imparts a feeling for who MLK was as a preacher and leader, but nothing about who he was as a person. Most of the inscriptions on the wall were ones that we're all familiar with. The one that struck me most strongly was this one:

MLK Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I like this particular quote because I think we often forget how easy it is to be a good person when things are going well, and how bloody difficult it is when things aren't going well. It may not be fair to judge people by how they behave in times of adversity, but it is fair to say that we are generally not at our best in those situations. And yet, there is something to be said about how having to endure hardship often shows us our true selves. It can be a difficult thing to face up to. For me, the power of MLK's message comes from his exhortations to us to be better people, and a society, than we have been. We may have come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go.

Spring break for me this year was the last week of March. I generally don't travel far for spring break because it's nice to have a week of nothing to do but not be working. This year, though, we decided to visit Washington, DC, for most of the break. I had never been before and had always felt in the back of my mind that every responsible citizen should pay a visit to the capital of his or her country. I have a friend who works at the Smithsonian, too. He said he would be in town for the week and could give us a special tour of the National Museum of Natural History, so we went. More on that tour in another post.

Washington National Cathedral

We arrived on Saturday, the day before Passion Sunday. Flying across the country from west to east consumes an entire day, so even though we left San Francisco on an 08:00 flight by the time we got to our apartment and settled in all we had time to do was walk down the street and grab some dinner from a food truck. The March for Our Lives had finished an hour or two before our arrival; on the train into the city from the airport we passed many train cars going the other way that were jam packed with people leaving DC after the march. There was a fair amount of post-march detritus littering the streets, but not nearly as much as I had expected. And the trash, as well, as the enormous bank of portable toilets around the Navy Memorial, cleaned up the following day. Well done, Washington! I guess they're used to cleaning up after big events like this.

Gargoyles waiting to take their places
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Knowing that we'd be in DC for the right date, we decided to attend the Passion Sunday service at the National Cathedral. The day was cold and clear, with a bright sun that made outdoor photography of the church difficult, at least from the angles that I was interested in capturing. Parts of the building are being restored/rebuilt after major damage sustained in the 2011 earthquake.

I have always found gothic architecture to be extremely beautiful, especially for churches. The well-thought use of line and proportion draw the eye upward, and the use of flying buttresses to support the towers creates the impression of height without weight, making them appear even taller. It really is amazing how the medieval builders figured out ways to make such tall buildings that make the viewer think of light rather than heaviness.

Just a taste of the gothic architecture
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The gothic style is also evident inside the cathedral. The rib vaulting is both graceful and strong, transferring the weight of the roof to the supporting columns. Rib vaulting, pointed arches, and flying buttresses are--to my inexpert eye--the hallmarks of gothic architecture.

Ceiling of the nave
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Nave and high altar
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Immediately after the service the church staff asked everyone to leave so they could start setting up for a concert later in the afternoon, so we didn't have much time to look around. We did, however, sneak down to the crypt, where there are several small chapels as well as the tomb of notable persons such as Helen Keller.

Joseph of Arimathea Chapel (also called the St. Joseph Chapel):

Joseph of Arimathea Chapel
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And the much showier mosaic in the Resurrection Chapel:

Resurrection Chapel
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Good Shepherd statue in the crypt
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Given my love for simplicity in art, it is probably not surprising that one of my favorite items in the entire cathedral was this statue of Jesus as Good Shepherd, tucked into an alcove in the crypt. There was no sign or plaque indicating who the artist is, or when the statue was carved. There were other carvings in similar alcoves throughout the crypt, but none caught my eye like this one did.

We did not stay for the afternoon concert. Instead, we went to a play that evening: a fabulous performance of The Winter's Tale in the iconic Folger Library. That is one fantastic venue for Shakespeare's plays. We hadn't planned on visiting the Folger Library, and it was only by chance that we happened upon a listing for the play. I studied Winter's Tale in college but had never seen it staged, so it was doubly enjoyable. The Library currently has an exhibition on illustration in the time of Shakespeare, and there were many very cool artifacts on display. The play in the evening made for a long day, but everything was worth it.

Next installment: All memorials, all day

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