Washington DC was a bit of a surprise to me. In some ways, it was exactly what I expected it would be. But in other ways, it was so much … more.
The landmarks were familiar, of course. We see them all the time on the news when TV reporters do their standups in front of the White House or the Capitol. Lots of white marble in those buildings. And columns. So many columns.
It was the scale of the place that took me by surprise. I thought it would be a short walk along the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. But with all the stops I made along the way, it took me the better part of a day to make that walk.
As I walked, I kept muttering to myself, “So this is what a world capital looks like.” Later the word came to me: imperial. The place is rife with imperialism.
I kept comparing the buildings in DC to the ones in other world capitals I’ve been to (London, say, or Paris). The buildings in Europe are just as grand and just as impressive. But across the pond, there is far less open space, and the grand buildings often catch you by surprise as you turn a corner.
In DC, you have this massive front lawn they call the National Mall that lets you take in all the key sights in one glance. From the Capitol, you look down the Mall directly at the Washington Monument. Beyond that, there’s the Lincoln Memorial. When you stand at the Washington Monument, you turn one way and have an unobstructed view of the White House, but when you turn the other way, the Jefferson Memorial leaps out at you.
Washington DC is a city well-planned. Like other world capitals, DC was selected to be the capital of a young country some years after its founding. But what’s unique about DC among world capitals is that it was built from scratch. George Washington selected Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French-born American, to design the city. L’Enfant envisioned a city centred around three points: the government house (which eventually came to be called the Capitol), the president’s house (what we now call the White House), and a monument to George Washington. Grand streets and avenues intersected at grand circles and squares. The Mall, in L’Enfant’s mind, would be the grandest avenue of them all. A narrower avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue) ran between the Capitol and the White House.
Visionary that he was, L’Enfant was no project manager, and he was soon fired by George Washington. He died in poverty, but eventually was honored with a re-internment in Arlington National Cemetery. His true epitaph, though, is the city he designed.
I spent two days in DC and was able to check off most everything (but not quite everything) on my to-do list. It was the Smithsonian that caught me up; I was barely able to make a start on it.
For more on that, stay tuned.