D.C. Diary: A monumental excursion

Originally Published 03/06/00

Feb. 27, 2000
D.C.’s great wide open
3 p.m.

Sick of the conventional monuments in this city, and also with a mind to the approaching tourist season, I decided to seek out a couple of rather unusual memorials in this shrine-happy city. Fortunately I had help from Alex Padro, a New York City native, who is releasing a 960-page encyclopedia of monuments in the District in May. His weighty volume includes 750 memorials, monuments, shrines and tributes but interestingly does not include a number of well-known landmarks.

For a monument to be included in Padro’s book, the sculpture must commemorate an individual or group or a significant event. One of the most famous and prominent works in the city, the figure of Freedom atop the Capitol dome does not make the cut. In his answer to critics, Padro offers only this, sometimes a statue is just a statue. After all, he is right.

Now maybe a statue is just a statue, but if Padro was so taken with them that he composed this massive book, I figured I could humbly visit a few. Nine hundred and sixty pages is a lot of space to talk about memorials, when some of them are definitely insignificant. But I tried to pick out a couple of works that had some bearing on life here at GW. So here they are:

1. Guglielmo Marconi Monument – a monument to the man who won a Nobel Prize developing the forerunner of technology that sustains life for many GW students. Yes, Marconi is the founder of wireless communication and the father of the modern cell-phone craze. It all began with his experiments in the early 1900s transmitting messages across the Atlantic Ocean. Now for a man so important to a city where irritating mobile conversations are commonplace, his memorial is, well, how do I put this delicately – well it is somewhat lacking. The monument consists of a gilded bronze bust of Marconi beneath a nude angelic-looking woman who appears as if she is flying. The graffiti makes a beautiful addition to the man who was responsible for the expansion of the news and telecommunication industries.

But in case you’re interested in paying homage, the memorial is easily reachable. From the brand-new Columbia Heights Metro station, follow Irving Street to 16th Street, NW. It lies in a neighborhood of contradictions, where the dilapidated, boarded-up post office is surrounded by the Abraham Lincoln Middle School and a number of late-model vehicles. Continuing down 16th to the intersection with Lamont Street, the monument is visible from a distance in a small grassy park. While this is not exactly the most ideal spot to crack a book and study for upcoming midterms, it does deserve distinct recognition.

2. Temperance Fountain – located at Indiana Plaza at the intersection of Indiana Avenue and 7th Street, NW, the fountain was designed and installed in 1884 by a California dentist named Henry Daniel Cogswell. The fountain used to offer thirsty travelers a drink of Adam’s Ale, at no charge.

Unfortunately the tap has long since run dry and the nearest source of liquid refreshment is the Starbucks across the street. Cogswell created the fountains in an attempt to keep citizens from frequenting nearby taverns and eagerly offered them to any city that would take one. Washington, D.C., in an apparent search for horrible artwork, took up Cogswell on his offer and installed the virtuous (it’s supposed to represent faith, hope and charity as well as temperance) fountain at its present location directly across 7th Street from the Archives/Navy Memorial stop on the Green and Yellow lines.

3. Three works at Union Station – those frequent GW train travelers have a lot to thank these people for. Visiting their memorials while waiting for the next Amtrak delay is a good way to start.

William Frederick Allen (in the West Hall) Memorial – after a number of deadly accidents, and even more close calls, in 1881 Allen was given the task of making sense out of the mess of 50 existing railroad time standards. Apparently no one before Allen had realized that two trains hurtling along the same track at the same time, while making for a good algebra problem, doesn’t make for a lot of repeat customers.

So, on November 18, 1883, Allen’s system of four east-west time zones went into effect, and Amtrak has found itself with many more satisfied travelers.

Asa Philip Randolph (baggage claim area) Memorial – Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, he made U.S. leaders aware that black people had political as well as physical muscle. In 1941, by threatening to call a massive protest in Washington, Randolph persuaded former President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ban discrimination in hiring by federal agencies. In 1963 Randolph, as the grand old man of the civil rights movement, led the March on Washington. The bronze statue, donated by the AFL-CIO in 1990, portrays Randolph holding his glasses in one hand.

Amtrak Employees Memorial (off Claytor Concourse near the baggage claim area) – How often when relaxing with footrests on the Metroliner en route to New York do we think of the employees who have given their lives in the name of Amtrak? This is a handsome and dramatically lit black marble wall that memorializes the 67 Amtrak employees who have died in the line of duty so far.

So there you go, a brief list of some interesting, albeit a bit odd, memorials in Washington. If you are attempting to beat the throngs of tourists soon to be encroaching upon the District, these out of the way statues and monuments are a good bet. And remember, a statue is never just a statue.

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