To live in Washington is to be surrounded by majestic buildings and inspiring monuments. Even after 30 years here, I can think no more dignified and fitting tribute to anyone than the Lincoln Memorial,and I still get chills whenever I walk by the Capitol. (Thinking about what our clown-like politicians are doing inside it gives me a different kind of chill, but that's another story.)
But I still cringe when, riding across the Arlen D. Williams Bridge (named after a victim of the 1982 Air Florida crash) into town, the road curves around that architectural monstrosity, that slap in the face, that crumbling piece of shit known as the Jefferson Memorial.
Why do I hate it so much? Here's why:
- Architecturally ludicrous. Jefferson was a big amateur architect. He especially loved Italian precedents, such as the work of Palladio and the Roman Parthenon. In both his home at Monticello and the Rotunda of the University of Virginia, he expertly took the notion of a spherical substructure and scaled it appropriately for both sites. The Lawn and Range rooms at UVa also convey a dignified sense of "less is more," a restraint that has kept these buildings alive and beautiful 200 years later.
So when the incredible hack architect John Russell Pope was assigned to design a memorial for Jefferson in the late 1930s, he decided to go with the obvious and work from Jefferson's own architecture in designing his building. Of course, being a hack, the notion of perspective and restraint meant nothing to him. If six columns on the front and back of the building were good, why not more? Pope was stuck on the notion of an open-air memorial, with a 360-degree view of the city, a design that the Fine Arts Commission had already rejected for Pope's never-built Teddy Roosevelt memorial. (Although it couldn't have been worse than the junky statue they ended up building on Roosevelt Island.) On the other hand, a lot of people didn't want a closed structure, afraid that it would be too similar to the new (dedicated in 1922) Lincoln Memorial. So he ended up with an incredible pastiche of a design, an open, pedestal-like structure with 36 columns surrounding it and surmounted by the spherical Jeffersonian dome.
The overall effect could not have been worse if he had stuck tailfins and chrome on a horse. Leaving aside the pure ugliness of the result, the open design ensured a perpetual chill wind off the Tidal Basin, a lot of rain damage and a shitload (literally) of pigeon droppings. Standing under the domed roof on even a calm day, the effect is as if you are standing in a wind tunnel, with various side eddies and dust devils stirring up scraps of paper and throwing dirt in the eyes of those trying to read the various inscriptions on the walls. (More on them later.)
Fittingly, however, Pope never survived to see the thing built. He died in 1937, before construction even started, and his open design, much criticized at the time, was given the official seal of approval by FDR. FDR's other architectural fantasies, such as the main building of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, show that he knew no more about building design than he did about the Constitution.
- Misleading and Misquoted Writings.
What do you think of when you think of Jefferson's philosophy? Individual liberty? Freedom from government tyranny? Governing best by governing least? Well, that's not what the folks who picked the quotes for the interior walls of the Jefferson Memorial were thinking of.
The memorial was built during the reign of the most vociferous proponent of meddlesome government intervention in the lives of the citizens the country had seen to date (although he looks positively libertarian compared to today's elected oafs). While wanting to give lip service to Jefferson's role in the founding of the country, FDR did not want to highlight his own differences with Jeffersonian philosophy. So his folks dug up the following quotes to adorn the memorial, often running two or three different quotes together to distort their meaning. The following quotes and sources are from the official National Park Service Jefferson Memorial site:
"I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Taken from a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We... solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of aright ought to be free and independent states... And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour." Taken from the Declaration of Independence, 1776.
"Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens... are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.... No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively." Taken from A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1777 (Passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1786). The last sentence is taken from a letter to James Madison, August 28, 1789.
"God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate that these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan." Taken from Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785. The last two sentences are taken from a letter to George Washington, January 4, 1786.
"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." Taken from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.
What a perfect hodgepodge of quotes, put together by a president who was in the process of trying to pack the Supreme Court and impose federalism on our educational and welfare systems. If TJ could see to what effect his quotes have been used against him, he might be forced to use one of the 60,000 hemp plants at Monticello for medicinal purposes.
You'd think this would be bad enough. But it gets worse. A lot of the quotes are, believe it or not, misquoted and misspelled. The Washington Post ran an article about 10 years ago detailing about 30 instances of misspelling, bad punctuation, and misquoting. There was a lot of hue and cry about the tackiness of the errors, but the NPS has never gotten around to fixing it. What kind of memorial is it when the honoree's words are misspelled?
Bad enough that the quotes are misleading and misspelled. They are also made of separate little bronze letters which have a tendency to fall off on occasion, making it look as if the father of the Declaration of Independence was dyslexic.
- Lousy statue.
I don't know art, the old saying goes, but I know what I like. And I hate the Rudolph Evans statue at the center of the Jefferson Memorial. This picture is a little murky (I got it from the NPS site, and it may be murky on purpose), but you can see the total lack of form, feel and life in it. TJ stands with a constipated look on his face, his body language seeming to convey a vague disgust with the viewer, the lack of character in the bronze castings making him look like a computer-generated special effect. It's sad enough on its own, but when it's compared to the brilliant Daniel French sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial, it makes one wonder who had it in for TJ in approving it's installation. Amid the perpetual wind and the weird echoes caused by the shape of the interior, he looks decidedly uncomfortable.
So what do we do? As I've mentioned before, TJ is one of the few heroes in my personal pantheon. In a city named after the physical hero of the Revolution, there should be a better rememberance of the man who provided the Revolution's heart and soul. The only bright point in all this is that the memorial may be falling down on its own. There has not been a month in the last 10 years in which there hasn't been some kind of scaffolding sounding one part of it or other, trying to keep the cheap marble and granite from fizzing away in the jet exhausts from Reagan Airport just across the river.
Tear it down, and do it right.