...

Reading Lincoln

Like the cathedrals of Europe, many of our monuments in Washington are rich with symbolism, and can be “read,” especially the great favorite of both residents and tourists, the Lincoln Memorial. This majestic monument took nearly 50 years from its inception to its dedication, and one of the biggest problems was site selection. For much of its early history, the National Mall was nearly empty and fairly swampy. In fact, the actual site for the Lincoln Memorial was under water up until shortly before it was chosen. It was only after the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river to deepen it and deposited the silt on the shore, that the area where the memorial now stands was created. When this location was first proposed, the then Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon said that he would never let the memorial be erected in that “g---d--- swamp”. However, after the area was planted and landscaped, it began to look like a real possibility. It lined up beautifully across the Mall from Congress, just as Pierre l’Enfant would have wished it. The architect Henry Bacon was chosen to build the memorial and his friend, Daniel Chester French was selected to create the stature of Lincoln. Bacon designed the building with the Parthenon in mind and the 36 columns of the structure represent the 36 states that made up the newly reunited Union at the end of the Civil War. The states’ names are inscribed over the tops of the columns and above them are all the states added up to the time of the memorial’s dedication in 1922. The three-chambered monument is embellished with eagles and wreaths, symbolizing bravery and victory, as well as cypress trees, which stand for eternity and it is decorated with marble from Colorado, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, limestone from Indiana and granite from Massachusetts, incorporated into the monument to symbolize the union of states.  The statue of Abraham Lincoln is 19-feet tall and 19-feet wide, which creates the overwhelming impression of the solid resolution President Lincoln maintained to preserve the Union above all. French spent years studying photos of Lincoln, so he could depict him as he looked during the Civil War. His large head is bent slightly forward and his sunken eyes seem to look down at the people parading in front of the statue, and at the same time, they look out over the Mall toward Congress. His large hands rest on the square arms of the massive ceremonial chair decorated with ancient Roman emblems of authority and draped with the flag, another reminder of the union. Lincoln’s one hand is clenched to show strength, and the other is open to show compassion. Legend has it that the back of Lincoln’s head is actually a profile of Robert E Lee, looking backward at his former home, the Custis-Lee mansion in Arlington Cemetery. The National Park Service discredits that story as well as the much more believable tale that Lincoln’s left hand is finger spelling an “A” and his right hand an “L”. This is credible because Daniel French had already designed the statue in front of Gallaudet University which shows teacher Thomas Gallaudet signing the letter “A” for student Alice Cogswell. Furthermore, it was Lincoln who approved the bill that made Gallaudet the first college for deaf people, and finally, French knew sign language and used it often since his own son was deaf.  It is appropriate that there should be mystery surrounding the statue of Lincoln, because it is one of the most inspirational in the city. The memorial is one large homage to the union of the states and one of its beautiful murals celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the memorial dedication ceremony in 1922 was presented to a racially segregated audience. The eternally patient expression that French managed to carve into Lincoln’s face conveys the feeling that he understood all too well the irony of the situation.  After all, here was a man who was able to convey the necessity of the terrible sacrifices of war to save the union of our country in the ten sentences that make up the Gettysburg Address, whose words carved in stone share the sanctuary with him. Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.; and a devoted student of Washington area history.

One Hero’s Sad Fate

Unfortunately, we live in an era where heroes are suspect. Larger-than-life figures like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln have been deconstructed and put in their place by professors and writers, and it doesn’t look like this trend will be over anytime soon. There are also heroes who do themselves in, with no help from their audience. One doesn’t have to wait until they’re dead and gone to hear about their sins and mistakes, because their fall from glory takes place during their own lifetimes. Such was the case of Charles Lindbergh. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly non-stop and solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The 27’ plane he flew can be seen at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, where it seems much too small to have made the 3600 mile journey. The flight lasted 33 1/2 hours and during that time, the 25-year old Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris with a few bottles of water and some sandwiches. He had to fight to stay awake and there were times, he wrote later, when his plane was barely 10’ above the waves of the Atlantic. When he landed at the Le Bourget airport outside of Paris, the cheering crowds nearly trampled the skinny young man as he climbed out of his airplane. He won a $25,000 prize for his historic feat, which at that time, was enough money to make him rich. He married a woman he loved and he was adored everywhere he went, with ticker tape parades, postage stamps in his honor, and endless awards. Then, the young couple endured a terrible tragedy. Their baby son was kidnapped from their home and murdered. The “crime of the century” as it was called, meant that now the grieving Lindberghs were in a limelight that was unendurable for them. They moved to England to escape and have some privacy. During their stay abroad, Lindbergh became an isolationist, opposing any U.S. involvement in the growing storm that became World War II. He made several visits to Nazi Germany, and was enamored with their military and air force. He seemed to admire Hitler, who took it upon himself to award Lindbergh an Iron Cross complete with decorative swastikas. Lindbergh gave speeches that were anti-Semitic, and by 1940, appeared to be an apologist for the whole Nazi regime. Soon, he was criticized and ridiculed in the U.S.. Even Lindbergh’s home town in Minnesota took his name off the water tower. When Lindbergh returned from abroad, there was no hero’s welcome awaiting him. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh changed his mind. He volunteered in the military and flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific. Although he threw himself into the war effort, he never recovered his reputation or regained his status with the American public. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” One of the most published photo’s of Lindbergh shows the thin young man with the shy smile after he had just completed the record-breaking flight that would change people’s perceptions about what a single individual could accomplish. With his luminous and inspiring flight succeeded by his spectacular fall from grace, Lindbergh wrote his own tragedy. Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com, is the broker and owner of Evers & Co. Real Estate Inc., and a devoted student of Washington area history. [gallery ids="102483,120319" nav="thumbs"]

Alice Blue Gown

Lucky the girl who has a best-selling song named after her! In this case, the girl was one of the most talked about people of her era, who remained the talk of this town for over seven decades. “Alice Blue Gown” was written for President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, a beautiful young girl who was the American equivalent of a princess and whose style signature was her azure blue gowns. The pretty lyrics suggest a demure young woman, but young Alice was quite the opposite, in fact, a perfect terror. The press followed her around to record her much-publicized escapades. She smoked in public (a no-no at that time), jumped fully-clothed into a swimming pool, wore a boa constrictor around her neck and shot at telegraph poles from a moving train. Word of her adventures got back to her father, the President, who said, “I can run the country, or I can control my daughter. I cannot do both.” Alice’s marriage to the wealthy, handsome congressman from Ohio, Nicholas Longworth III, had a fairy tale quality, at least in the beginning. They had a large imposing townhouse at 2009 Massachusetts Ave. NW, where they threw lavish dinner parties attended by senators, journalists and society ladies. Alice, who was not one to keep her opinions to herself, had devoted friends and fierce enemies, and she is often associated with the saying embroidered on a pillow in her much-visited salon,” If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me” She and Cissy Patterson, a rival for her husband Nick’s affections, were competing hostesses for the top spot in Washington society. Cissy lived just down the street at 15 Dupont Circle NW, now the Washington Club; her brother owned the New York Daily News, so she often put her cutting remarks about Alice in the newspaper. Alice shot back at every opportunity, and to get even with her husband for his infidelities, caused a major scandal by having a well-known affair with Senator Borah, which earned her the moniker “Aurora Borah Alice.” She could and did verbally slay presidents with one-liners. She said Calvin Coolidge looked like he had been “weaned on a pickle” and dismissed Thomas Dewey as looking like “the little man on the wedding cake,” a comment that many said was so devastating it lost him the presidential election. She told Lyndon Johnson that she wore wide brim hats to his receptions so he couldn’t get close enough to kiss her, and dubbed him “an engaging rogue elephant of a man.” She even took a swipe at her cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, who she described as “two-thirds mush and one-third Eleanor.” Alice lived to the age of 96, much longer than most of her friends and enemies. People who once vied for invitations to her parties stopped coming to visit. Her granddaughter, who lived with her, would get on the phone and call Alice’s old friends to urge them to come by, because “Gammy” was lonely. As Alice got older, her house fell into such a state of disrepair that the few visitors there were had to pick their way through the poison ivy to get into the house. The salon was full of clutter and torn upholstery, and the living room ceiling looked as if it could fall at any minute. Her granddaughter painted the window sills red and decorated the walls haphazardly with poetry. Every inch of Alice’s bedroom was covered with books, newspapers and knick-knacks, so much so that when she returned home one day and the maid announced that the bedroom had been ransacked by a burglar, Alice said, “How can you tell?”  Alice reigned as a maven of Washington society through eighteen administrations, from the beautiful, wild young girl in the azure blue gowns to the elegant old lady with a sharp tongue and the signature wide-brimmed hat. While she was still alive, she was referred to as “the other Washington monument” and when she died, “Meet the Press” host Larry Spivak said, “It is extraordinary to become almost mythological in a city of this kind, just by being yourself.” Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run residential real estate firm in the Washington metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia; and a devoted fan of Washington history. [gallery ids="100412,113366" nav="thumbs"]

HISTORIC D.C.: A Tribute to the Duke

Edward Kennedy Ellington, one of the most accomplished American musicians, composers and performers of all time, was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He got his nickname “Duke” in high school, because of his reputation for being a sharp dresser with elegant manners. Born in 1899 on 22nd Street, Duke grew up in Shaw at 1212 T St., NW, of parents who both played the piano. He dropped out of high school to take piano lessons and soon was playing in the jazz clubs, which were then prevalent in Shaw. In fact, Washington in the early 1900s was a top city for African-American culture and music, and the U Street corridor was its mecca. When Duke was 21, he and his band the Washingtonians headed for New York, where musical and African American culture was booming in Harlem. As his popularity grew, he played at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. But he also came back and played often in theaters on the “Great Black Way” on U Street, where stars like Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte frequently performed. During his 50-year career, Duke wrote more than 1,000 compositions and entertained everyone from presidents to European royalty. He often broke the color barrier by playing for both white and black audiences, which was otherwise unheard of at that time. He is largely responsible for helping raise the prestige of jazz to a high art form, even though he had to start modestly; his first gig was at the famous Howard Theater on T Street, where he was paid a grand total of 75 cents. When he died in 1974, his funeral in New York City was attended by more than 15,000 people. Ella Fitzgerald sang “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and Judy Collins later wrote a song about the funeral. The awards and accolades kept coming after his death, culminating in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999. He had a school, a building, a park and a major bridge named after him in his hometown of Washington, D.C., as well as a street and a circle in New York City. He was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon at an extravagant musical event in his honor at the White House in 1969. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966 and the Legion of Honor from the French government in 1973. Duke Ellington kept his band and his love of music in the forefront of American culture through two World Wars and a recession. He was a brilliant pianist, incredibly prolific composer, recording artist, bandleader and entrepreneur. His whole life was completely dedicated to the art of jazz. Once in an interview, he was asked when he was born, and he replied that he “was born in July of 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival.” When he died in 1974, his last words were, “Music is how I live.” The next time you hear “Mood Indigo” or “Take the A Train,” remember the Duke and his overflowing talent that gave the world an unprecedented appreciation for jazz, or as he liked to call it, “American music.” ? Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington metro area; she is also the proprietor of Twin oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted student of Washington area history.

The Queen and her Castle

Washington’s Gilded Era between 1880 and 1929 had its share of characters, and Mary Foote Henderson was one of them. She was a woman with big dreams, who saw some of them come true, including the genuine medieval castle she built for herself just above Florida and 16th Street at a time when her only other neighbors were herds of sheep. Mary was a real estate speculator as well as a visionary, and her husband made enough money to finance her grandiose projects. She bought up a lot of land along 16th Street, with the hopes of converting the street into “The Avenue of the Presidents,” to be lined with busts of all the presidents, a project which was roundly rejected by Congress. She then tried to turn it into Embassy Row, and gave the plan a head start by hiring her friend and architect, George Oakley Totten Jr. to build several mansions which she planned to sell to embassies. But, Embassy Row continued to flourish along Massachusetts Avenue, which already had numerous grand houses just right to be converted into embassies. Undaunted by her failures with these projects, she went on to lobby for re-locating the Presidential mansion to her neighborhood. That didn’t work either. In relentless pursuit of promoting the value of her real estate holdings, she convinced Congress to buy the 50 acre tract known as Meridian Hill. Hundreds of years earlier, the place had been a sacred Indian burial ground, and because of its commanding elevation, Thomas Jefferson had originally planned to mark the prime meridian from its hilltop vantage point. Mary succeeded this time, and in 1910, Congress paid $460,000 for the huge plot of ground, which is still one of the prettiest parks in the city. Among her other passions, Mary was a suffragette and a fierce opponent of alcoholic beverages. When her husband died, she inherited his priceless wine cellar, which was forty years in the making. When Prohibition came, she held a huge party, and the Evening Star reported that Mary and her teetotaling friends emptied the fabulous wine collection into the gutters of 16th Street. Her dreams of glory died with her in 1931 and her castle became a shoddy rooming house. Then it was a school for a while and finally, in 1976, developer Larry Brandt bought it and turned it into the Beekman Place Condominiums. Washington is a wealthier city now and the current sensibility and laws favor preserving historic sites, so the castle would probably not have been torn down today. Some entrepreneur, as passionate and enterprising in his or her beliefs as Mrs. Henderson, would make it into an inn with a three-star restaurant, and in place of John Brooks Henderson’s illustrious wine cellar, a glamorous wine bar. Instead, you can drive along 16th street, above Florida Avenue, and still see a few remnants of stone wall with a hint of crenellations that are a faint reminder of the castle we can only wish was still there. Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area, the proprietor of Twin oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted fan of Washington history