Meridian Hill Park: or Where’s the Statue to Mrs. Henderson?

I have a real soft spot for 16th Street NW. Drive up from the White House to the Maryland border, and you’ll see every kind of American architectural grandeur you ever dreamed of: fancy hotels; Deco and other modern condos carved from former residential hotels; churches and temples of every stripe, including some of the cahrazy ornate Scottish Rite variety; a bunch of embassies; and mini-mansions, regular mansions, and massive mansions. But my favorite thing of all on 16th Street is Meridian Hill Park, a beautifully landscaped, Italianate, be-statued park that starts at the end of the Alphabet Streets and ends at Euclid in Northwest DC.

Meridian Hill Park

The famous cascading fountain at Meridian Hill Park, bone dry, because it’s winter. But isn’t it pretty?

A note about Washington’s street plan: you can tell how far north you are from downtown by how many syllables are in the non-diagonal street names. When the alphabet runs out (A-W: no J, because Latin), you get Adams, Belmont, Chapin, etc., until you’re waaaaay up near the Maryland border at Whittier. Numbered streets get higher the further east or west you are from North Capitol Street. All this to say that if you find yourself on 34th St. and Macomb NW somehow, you’re going to have to take the Metro or a cab to meet back up with your friends.

Buchanan Statue, Meridian Hill Park

Wake up, sir, the South just seceded.

Anyway, when I lived in the neighborhood, I knew the park as “Malcom X Park” (or “Needle Park,” because it wasn’t particularly safe to be there unless you wanted drugs and surely not then) and remember being surprised to see a seated statue of President Buchanan when I first went in. Buchanan: that old doughface who shrugged at the Dred Scott decision, saying “Waaayll, the Supreme Court knows what’s best. Who am I to judge?” or something like that. An anachronistic relic in a park that served a predominately African-American neighborhood and the location of many a civil rights protest: Angela Davis herself claimed the park for Malcolm X at a rally there in 1969.

It wasn’t until after I left the neighborhood that I learned the park’s official name and only just a few weeks ago, discovered that the meridian for which it is so named was 16th Street: once the prime meridian for the United States — or one of four such meridians, which makes very little sense to me. Meridian Hill was the name given the tract of land purchased by War of 1812 veteran, David Porter, who built himself a nice mansion near the meridian marker at the top of the hill. The view is great, in fact: I watched my first DC Fourth of July fireworks burst over the National Mall from a relatively uncrowded vantage point on a high wall there with some neighbors; thereby avoiding having to actually go downtown and sit with five million tourists so very far from my beloved private bathroom.

John Quincy Adams moved into Porter’s mansion when he left the presidency and the grounds were open to the public until the advent of the Civil War, when Union troops bivouacked there for the duration (see excellent view above). The mansion burned down at some point, and the grounds were subdivided into residences purchased by mainly African-American families, living as they were in what were the outskirts of town.

Enter Mary Foote Henderson, wife of  Senator John B. Henderson, Republican from the (slave) state of Missouri (1862-1869), who introduced the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — the one that abolished slavery. Again: Buchanan? Mrs. Henderson was a tremendously entrepreneurial, real-estate-savvy woman. She and her husband bought up a whole mess of lots around Meridian Hill park and beyond. They built their very own castle on Sixteenth Street (I’m spelling it out because it’s a goddamned castle) and Mrs. Henderson began to lobby congress to convert the land (across the street) into a proper public park, filled with fountains and statues and beautifully landscaped walkways.

Henderson/Boundary Castle as seen from an unfinished parapet of Meridian Park under construction.

Henderson/Boundary Castle as seen from the base of unfinished Meridian Hill Park

Beekman Place Condos, Henderson Castle

A couple hundred condos now stand on the former location of Henderson Castle. All that is left is the retaining wall.

Mary Foote Henderson also envisioned 16th Street as a grand avenue on which to build embassies and stately homes to flank the park. The embassies would be constructed as a natural, symbolic extension northward from the White House on land that coincidentally and conveniently was owned by the Hendersons. Although she only managed to get a few embassies and mansions built in the end, Mrs. Henderson succeeded in transforming Porter’s land into the beautiful park it is today. Congress approved the park in 1910, forcing the eviction of the many African-American families already living there. Construction began in 1912, and after two decades of tweaking and funding problems, Meridian Hill park was officially dedicated in 1936.

The park was designed in the style of an Italian noble’s garden. Its central fountain is the largest in the United States and stone carver, John Early, invented a whole new material (aggregate concrete) to mimic Italian mosaic tile and it was used to construct urns, walls, benches, and other decorative elements of the park. Meridian Hill Park is known for its eclectic collection of statues, not the least of which is a mounted, armored Joan of Arc, a gift from the women of France to the women of the United States on the occasion of their finally getting the right to vote. It is the only statue of a woman on horseback in the city.

Jeanne D'Arc Leberatrice, Joan of Arc, Meridian Hill Park

Thanks, Women of France!

Here are two locally updated statues: Diplomacy and Law, each of which flank the seated, sleepy Buchanan:

Statue of Diplomacy, Meridian Hill Park

Statue of Diplomacy, rendered less Graeco-Roman by a Sharpied Third Eye

Statue of Law, with artful graffiti makeup, courtesy of local wags.

Statue of Law, with artfully applied graffiti makeup, courtesy of local wags.

But my favorite is the worn out statue of Serenity, erected in honor of a commander in the U.S. Navy, I know not why. Here she is in happier days:

Serenity statue, Meridian Hill Park

Early photograph of the statue of Serenity looking actually serene.

And here she is today, minus one hand, some breast definition, and a nose:

Serenity statue, Meridian Hill Park

The statue of Serenity today, looking infinitely more beleaguered and in need of a giant glass of wine.

The park underwent a huge transformation in the 1990s, thanks to neighbors and parks people who got together the funds to spruce the place up tremendously. I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the fact that there’s a fairly famous drum circle that has happened every temperate Sunday since the 1950s, and which I’m sure is fabulous, if not my particular bag. There are concerts, exhibits, and audio tours at the park, now governed by the National Park Service; it is undergoing continual renovation.

Mary Foote Henderson in 1923.

Mary Foote Henderson, Real Estate Tycoon and City Beautifier in 1923

While we’re on the subjected, and as long as Buchanan is sitting there between Law and Diplomacy, perhaps it’s about time someone dedicated a statue to Mary Foote Henderson, builder of buildings, dreamer of dreams, displacer of locals, and reaper of reward.

I suggest putting her next to Serenity, thumbing her nose at bygone residents with the statue’s missing hand.

Let’s call it “Destiny” —  the “manifest” is silent.

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Vive La Liberte



The First Amendment Writ Large – The Newseum


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A Fine and Public Place: Congressional Cemetery


I don’t know who this is. I just think she’s pretty.

For a person who loves a good boneyard as much as I do, it took a surprising amount of time for me to learn about, let alone visit, Congressional Cemetery. The site had to be grafted onto Pierre L’Enfant’s city plan for D.C., because 1) there were no designated burial grounds in it; and 2) the roads to existing cemeteries were pretty awful going.

By the time Congress held its first session in the new city of Washington in 1800, it was pretty clear that carting off their deceased colleagues to Holmead’s Burying Ground on the western edge of the city or to Rock Creek Parish Cemetery in the north over potholes, through thickets, and across the creeks, did not make for very dignified funeral processions. In 1807 a group of prominent burghers formed an association to establish a burial ground closer to the Capitol and purchased a 4.5 acre section of land in Southeast Washington, between E & G Streets.

Officially, this cemetery was part of Christ Church, Washington Parish, to which many members of the association belonged. Unofficially, the location was to serve as the go-to graveyard for members of Congress and the executive branch and would remain a national cemetery for the next 60 years. Congress authorized Benjamin Henry Latrobe (the guy who designed the U.S. Capitol) to design a special federal marker to be placed above all members interred there. Although the graveyard was a municipal, not a federal site, Latrobe’s cenotaphs were to be the only federal monuments of their kind for decades.

His design got mixed reviews. According to the Congressional Cemetery literature, the Latrobe Cenotaph’s use was discontinued in 1876 after a senator remarked that being buried under one would “add a new terror to death.” I’m not crazy about their general blockiness…


Thaddeus Stevens


John C. Calhoun

…but they do make an impressive array:

A section of the Congressional Cenotaphs designed by Benjamin Latrobe. Some serve as gravestones for members buried beneath; others are markers for congressmen buried elsewhere; and others are not used at all.

There are 168 of Latrobe’s memorials throughout the cemetery: some arranged in neat rows, others in clusters, and others just showing up here and there. I know what you’re thinking: “168? Isn’t that the same number of hours in a week?” Yes, yes it is. But before we call Dan Brown, I think we can assume that that even in 1817 no one associated the notion of round-the-clock, “24/7” with Congress, secret Masonic mysteries notwithstanding.

In addition to famous congressmen and their families, a number of other notables are buried there, including Matthew Brady, John Philip Sousa, J. Edgar Hoover (with his companion, Clyde Tolson, tucked discreetly down the hill), and Adelaide Johnson. At its inception, the cemetery did not allow “infidels” or “coloreds” to be interred on the grounds, but those rules relaxed late in the 19th century. You don’t even have to be a member of Congress or a white person to be buried there anymore. As the excellent FAQs on the Congressional Cemetery website state, all you have to be is dead.

The Congressional Cemetery ceased to be the de facto national cemetery by 1876, the Civil War and better roads contributing to its diminished popularity. Eventually, only a handful of prominent Washington families chose to be buried there. As the city grew up around it and membership of the Christ Church congregation (and funding for maintenance) declined, the grounds and monuments descended into a colossal state of disrepair, falling victim of the same urban blight that afflicted many of the city’s parks in the 1970s.

In 1976, a tenacious group of local volunteers formed an association to preserve the spot as an historic city landmark. For the next twenty years they taxed themselves to mow the lawns and clean up the grounds, and created some very clever fundraising activities. Since 1997, the group has run the “K9 Corps,” which allows members, for an annual fee, to walk their dogs off-leash in the cemetery. Ingenious. Not only did it provide a much-needed space for local dog owners — and there are a lot of them — the K9 Corps helped chase out the drug dealers and prostitutes who had opened shop on the property during the leaner years.

Today, the Congressional Cemetery is well-cared for and beautifully maintained. If you, like me, are a graveyard aficionado, you can’t beat this weird little collection of styles and moods. Situated between the DC Central Detention and Correctional Treatment Facility to the north and the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail to the south (from which you can see the site of the Bonus Marchers camp), you’ll be treated to as much Washington history as you care to absorb.

Plus dogs.

Draped Urn Monument at Congressional Cemetery

What looks like a shrouded headless figure from the back turns out to be a draped urn from the front. Spooky.

Obelisks Congressional Cemetery

Obelisks are a popular motif in Congressional Cemetery, lest one forget where one is.

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Parades End: The Bonus Army March on Washington

Veteran’s Day in Washington, DC is always a big deal, but this year we had a massive concert sponsored by three emblems of American exceptionalism: a premium cable network, a coffee conglomerate, and a bank too big to fail. The preparations were grand and long-tailed to the extent that one might easily have ignored them on one’s drive to work for days on end until the actual day, which one might completely have forgotten about until discovering all routes to the office were inaccessible and one might have had to give up after 45 minutes of cranky-making detours and work from one’s home instead.

One might have done that, but one would never admit it.

I am 100% in favor of Veteran’s Day, make no mistake. The men and women who served our country — whether recently-freed, foreign-born, or LGBT; conscripted or volunteer — deserve at least one day of national recognition. No question. But I find it particularly creepy of Washington to throw such a big party one day, and effectively ignore veterans the other 364 days of the year, year after year after year.

Ever since the Revolutionary War, we have reneged on promises and obligations to our veterans with an appalling consistency. The rates of suicide, homelessness, and joblessness for our most recent veterans are horrifying and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs — the federal government’s agency for helping them — has had a long and depressing history of scandal and difficulty. Thankfully, among the rights our veterans fight to protect (the very First, in fact) are the rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, which groups are wont to do in the Nation’s Capital.

And for someone like me, who has an unnatural fondness for old movies and a deep interest in all things World War One, it is impossible to walk around the National Mall or the Capitol without thinking of the tens of thousands who protested there in the spring and summer of 1932 as part of the so-called “Bonus Army.”

BonusArmyPayIt had long been a practice for demobilized soldiers to receive compensation above their military pay for differences in what they would have earned in private life had they not joined up. A bill to give such a “bonus” to First World War veterans was passed by Congress in 1924, vetoed by Calvin Coolidge, then enacted by override. Because there were millions of people eligible for this bonus, it was decided to issue “Certificates of Service” to qualified personnel that would mature in 20 years, financed by a trust fund established for that purpose. A certificate holder was allowed to borrow up to 22.5% of its face value, an amount that increased to 50% as the Great Depression worsened.

In 1932, the House introduced a bill that moved to pay out the bonuses early. This bill was opposed by President Hoover and Republicans in Congress on the grounds that taxes would have to be raised to meet the expense, and that just wouldn’t do. As the vote drew near, groups of veterans and their families from all over the country organized to march on Washington to show support for the bill, calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.),” known popularly as the “Bonus Army.”

For eight weeks over the spring and summer of 1932, thousands of the B.E.F. camped out all over Washington to await the results of the vote. Knowing even more protesters were going to descend on the city and afraid of insurrection (seriously), local police and the military were mobilized and armed with tanks, machine guns, and tear gas in case things got rough.


Bonus Expeditionary Force Encampment, Anacostia Flats, DC

After the House passed the Bonus Bill, the ranks of the Bonus Army swelled to about 43,000 and crowds gathered at the Capitol to await the results of the debate that raged in the Senate.

Bonus Army at Capitol 1932

Bonus Army protests on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

However, the Senate overwhelmingly defeated the bill by a vote of 62-18 and a stunned crowd, urged by organizer Sgt. Walter W. Waters, began to sing “America,” while dispersing peaceably to their encampments. Waters also urged the Bonus Army to stay in Washington, which was fine by them, since many of the veterans and their families were homeless and had nowhere else to go.

On July 16, 1932, behind the doors of a Capitol surrounded by angry protesters, the 72nd Congress adjourned, forcing frightened congressmen to leave by back doors and tunnels. Finally, President Hoover ordered the evacuation of the nearly 11,000 Bonus Army marchers camped in the city. By July 28, police began removing unresistant protesters from their makeshift structures and all was proceeding peacefully until someone threw a brick at a policeman and everything went to hell. Two veterans were shot and killed and a bunch more were wounded.

BonusArmyTearGasThe military was called in, led by none other than General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur ordered the cavalry, the infantry, and a squadron of tanks under the command of then Major George S. Patton to descend on the marchers and clear them out. Armed with bayonets, sabers, and tear gas, the troops pushed the B.E.F. to their main camp across the bridge. President Hoover gave the order NOT to pursue the protesters, but MacArthur decided to ignore that “piece of paper,” and sent troops over the bridge to evict the Bonus Army and set fire to the encampment.

Bonus Army Evicted

The fire still being extinguished the morning after MacArthur’s push into the B.E.F. encampment.

It was a pretty horrible spectacle that turned public sentiment against Herbert Hoover in a big way and helped sweep Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the White House. Not that Roosevelt was any great ally of the veterans when it came to the bonus either. Every year, they came to Washington, and every year they left empty handed. Eventually, FDR sent a bunch of them to “rehabilitation camps” in the Florida Keys, where a couple hundred of them were killed during a massive hurricane. Attitudes about paying the goddamned bonus finally turned in the veterans’ favor, and a new Bonus Bill was introduced, passed, vetoed by President Roosevelt, then enacted by override (again) in 1936.

But FDR came around during the Second World War, agreeing that the veterans of that and subsequent conflicts should be compensated for opportunities missed during their service to the country.

And that, kids, is how we got the G.I. Bill.

Remember My Forgotten Man (Gold Diggers of 1933)

How I learned about this in the first place:

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DC Votes to Keep Pot Smokers Out of Prison

Tuesday’s election results were no big surprise to those of us who have a memory longer than four years. I am a Democrat by inclination, which is not to say I am inclined toward those Democrats who ran this time around, and by run, I mean as far as possible from their own President. Baffling! People cite President Obama’s allegedly terrible popularity rating, which at around 41%, is not great, but is about par for the second term if you aren’t Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or Dwight Eisenhower, and your country isn’t completely fed up. It’s also a hell of a lot better an approval rating than, say, that of Congress, which, at 13% is the second lowest it’s ever been, beaten only by Itself last November, when it was at an all-time low of 9%.

So the country decided to believe that the President’s alleged failed policies (arguably false) and Congress’s inability to do anything (demonstrably true) merited a change in the balance of power. As we do, every mid-term election.

What is interesting about this particular election is that when actual policy came up for vote in state ballot initiatives, the results reflected positions considered to be traditionally Democratic: Yes to raising minimum wage; Yes to decriminalize marijuana for personal or medical use; Yes to background checks for guns; Yes to requiring insurance to cover birth control; and No to constitutional “personhood” amendments. I kind of don’t care if some of the governors in these states are Republican, if the people who live there are finally voting in their own best interest.

Washington, DC also overwhelmingly passed an initiative to legalize marijuana for personal use this time around, not because it’s a city full of potheads, but because a disproportionate number of black people are arrested and jailed for possession, even though the rates of use among blacks and whites is equal. The vote in DC — like Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington — was about treating weed like booze and tobacco, substances that are not particularly healthy for you, but do not rise to the level of getting shot over or jailed (and sometimes disenfranchised) for, like heroin and cocaine.

No one is suggesting that everyone should now light up all over town. In fact, residents would not be allowed to smoke pot or even carry it on any of the streets that are designated federal land, like the White House or the Mall, because possession is still a federal crime. The law also prohibits the sale of marijuana and restricts the amount you can have on you (or grow) as well as the age at which you can have or grow it (21 and older).

But none of this may get anywhere, because the District has to run any legislation it passes by the United States Congress, which can overturn any of DC’s laws it doesn’t like for any reason at all, even for (or especially) political reasons. In the recent past, Congress has overturned DC laws on restricting gun sales, needle exchange programs for combating spread of HIV/AIDS, and requiring insurance to pay for contraception — positions deeply opposed by most Republicans, who generally lead these override votes. When DC citizens voted for marriage equality in 2010, it was immediately threatened with nullification by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-OH. That effort failed, but DC is often treated as a policy playground for members of Congress who want to score political points in their home districts.

So before anyone gets too excited about the District overwhelmingly enacting a sensible drug policy law, let’s see whether the new Republican Congress will overcome its natural aversion to big government and decide to trample on it.

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Why can’t we trade Election Day for Columbus Day?

My grandmother would have been 102 in about a week. She was born in a world that didn’t think she (or her sisters, cousins, aunt, or mother) had the sense to cast a ballot.

Vote vote vote vote. It was hard won.

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The District of Columbia War Memorial

When I first moved here twenty years ago I spent a lot of time getting lost. Because the original plan of the city was inspired by Baroque, Old World-style Grand Avenues radiating from rectangles spread over asymmetrical quadrants, it is infuriatingly easy to go two blocks in the wrong direction and find yourself 10 blocks away from where you’re supposed to be. Therefore, the most comforting, logical place to wander around is along and around the National Mall: it’s flat, it’s mown, there’s a big old river on one side and a giant obelisk kind of in the middle. Impossible to get lost and impossible to get bored.

In 1994, I was walking off the experience of visiting the (then) new Holocaust Memorial Museum and was heading toward the Lincoln Memorial, when I stumbled across a small, domed, mausoleum-like, marble building with fluted Doric columns tucked in the trees off Independence Avenue. The grounds near there were not in the best shape and a lot of the growth looked unplanned; certainly not maintained.  No one, and I mean No One, was there, probably because at the time it wasn’t really on the way to or from anything.

This beautiful, somewhat crumbly building turned out to be the memorial to the 26,000 men and women from the District of Columbia* who served in World War One. A movement to construct such a memorial began in the early 1920s, fueled by the efforts of a Captain Paul J. McGahan, a DC rep for the American Legion, who was appalled that nearly every other state had already “express[ed] its appreciation of the services of its sons and daughters who ‘went to war’**” but not DC, whose residents (then and now) had to depend on Congress to attend to such local concerns.

Congress eventually did authorize construction of the memorial in 1924, but building funds were raised almost entirely by the citizens of the city, including a campaign to get 5 cents from each of the district’s schoolchildren. The building fund reached its goal in 1927 (thanks to organized labor, I might add) and construction of this shrine and bandstand was completed in 1931.


The DC War Memorial in semi-disrepair before restoration began in 2010.

It still stands as a shrine to the 499 DC citizens who gave their lives in service and whose names are inscribed along the base. The building was to be the first memorial on the Mall to include women and African Americans in with the list of the White fallen, a welcome improvement to a disturbing convention I never knew existed. A few concerts were given there on Memorial and Veterans’ Days until the outbreak of World War Two, but the practice never caught on. In the years since its dedication, the memorial’s meticulously landscaped groves of elm and tulip trees overran each other and the white Vermont marble became pitted, broken, and mossy. By the 1970s, the building was all but forgotten except to graffiti-artists and pot smokers.

The building and grounds had been cleaned up some by the time I ran across it. When I still lived in the District, I went there often to read or write letters or just to relax in peace and quiet. In 2004, the National World War II Memorial was constructed a few hundred yards away to the northeast, but the bandstand remained relatively hidden and under-visited. When plans to build the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on a spot just a few feet across the road, the DC War Memorial was finally on the radar again, lying as it now would, directly on the path between the two more high-profile memorials.

Funds from the federal stimulus package were dedicated to renovate and restore the building to its original glory in 2010. The building was rededicated on November 10, 2011, 80 years almost to the day of its original unveiling.


Detail of the restored dome and columns, 2012.

I still love to visit it whenever I can. As one of only three places on the Mall that host weddings, the DC War Memorial is now occasionally dotted with tuxedos and tripods, but more often than not it’s the site of the fastest double-takes from consecutive sets of surprised tourists taking the short cut from MLK to WWII you’ll ever see.

That’s fun to watch.


* who then, as now, did not enjoy full control over local government or voting representation in Congress.


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Tread on Me Already

In the garage under my office building, I often park near one of those late model, SUV-like Cadillacs. It’s red and shiny and sports a set of Gadsden flag Virginia vanity plates, whose text conveys the driver’s desire to pay less tax. And because we probably work in the same building and we’re all people of good will at this gigantic nonprofit, I’m not going to be too big a jerk about it (like post a photo of the actual car), but insert the word “TAX” in the sample plate below and let your imagination run wild.


I’m also going to go out on a limb and presume that, because this model Cadillac starts at around $37,000 (or about $10K more than the median income of an individual in the U.S.), the driver of this particular vehicle occupies one of our higher tax brackets. Let’s be generous and say he or she is in the top 10% of taxpayers, or anyone with an annual income over $100,000. Maybe the driver doesn’t think paying an extra 3% on earnings above $89K is just. Or maybe this guy or gal is in that bittersweet spot of making more than $100,000 but less than $117,000, when Social Security tax is no longer deducted from your check, which is an irritating place to be once you realize that this actually happens*.

Whatever. The point is, this Virginia driver feels that the tax burden is so high, that they will spend an extra $20 a year to let everyone in the garage and on the roads** all around Washington know how intolerable it is. That’s a bold choice from among the more than 200 specialty plates offered by the state — plates that range from scenic and historic local interest to university and sports affiliations to the wistful longings for a simpler time:


I see a lot of these Tea Party plates on my commute. They’re not always on luxury vehicles and they’re not always personalized, but they’re pretty much always on cars driven by white people. Just saying. Since I don’t see them much when I drive north, I wondered where else you can get such a plate.

Now I know:

Gadsden flag license plates by state

States that allow motorists to purchase “Don’t Tread On Me” license plates

I, too, live in Virginia (for family not political reasons), and my tax complaints are not about how much I pay, but rather about the kinds of things I’m paying for: executions, for instance. Virginia is the third highest enforcer of the death penalty; numbers one and two also happen to be places you can get Gadsden flag plates (see map above). My taxes help pay for the salaries and health benefits of legislators who don’t believe in 1) government-funded health care (except their own, apparently); 2) reproductive freedom; or 3) equal rights for gay people.***

And that is why my shiny blue Honda’s vanity plates approximate an oath in Yiddish made popular by Mad Magazine, for which I happily pay an extra $10 annually. Also which, now that I think of it, would be much funnier on a Gadsden flag.


* It does. Remember that the next time you see conservative pundits on TV whining about tyranny and consider that they’ve stopped having Social Security deducted from their paychecks sometime around April.

** Paid for with taxes

*** also, 4) evolution

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A Little Bit About the Federal Triangle

Every day on my way to work, I drive down Constitution Avenue along the entire southern border of the Federal Triangle. The whole shebang: from the Department of Commerce to the Federal Trade Commission.

That’s 11 buildings of varying sizes and styles — but mostly the same height — housed along six city blocks of varying length (see below). They’re a sturdy, imposing, generally Neoclassical lot that look somewhat boring and official at first, but which contain details of extraordinary artistry and symbolism if you take a moment to look up.

Federal Triangle, USGS

Aerial view of the Federal Triangle taken by the USGS in 2002. That’s Constitution Avenue at the bottom and Pennsylvania Avenue forming the diagonal at the top.

The complex was conceived to consolidate the explosion of government offices that sprang up all around the city in the early years of the last century into one central location. At the time, building a repository for the nation’s archives was a huge priority, as was finding a place to put the Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. What better location than the swampy, sketchy, brothel-laden part of town where all the poor people and criminals lived?

By the mid-1920s, Congress appropriated the necessary parcels of land and funds to begin construction of one of the largest public building projects in our nation’s history. Between 1927 and 1938, seven humungous, Beaux-Arts/neoclassical-style structures were built and ornamented. Each eventually housed the:

  • Department of Commerce
  • Post Office Department Building
  • Department of Labor/Interstate Commerce Commission
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • Department of Justice
  • National Archives
  • Federal Trade Commission

You’ll notice that at the beginning of this enterprise, 1926-7, there was still a world economy to speak of. By the time the first building, the Department of Commerce, was completed in 1932, the nation was well into the Great Depression. But the Federal Triangle project went on uninterrupted, putting laborers, architects, muralists, sculptors, and other artisans to work for the duration.

Hmm…government-funded public works in time of economic downturn. What good could come of THAT?

Maybe this?


Aluminum door ornament on an entrance to the Department of Justice Building

or this?

Man Controlling Trade Statue

Statue entitled “Man Controlling Trade,” on Constitution Avenue side of the Federal Trade Commission Building at the Apex of the Federal Triangle

or a few dozen of these?


“Contemporary Justice in Relation to the Child,” painting by Symeon Shimin in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice. Inaccessible to general public since 9/11

Lots more to come on this subject.

Meanwhile, if you are in the area, I heartily recommend this walking tour by the U.S. General Services Administration: Federal Triangle Heritage Trail (1Mb PDF).

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