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.
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.
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.