In Monument-Cluttered District, A Creative Way to Pay Homage
Friday, October 14, 2005
All week long, busy Washingtonians darting to and from lunch dates and meetings, eyes to the ground or glued to their BlackBerry screens, have stopped in their tracks at 15th and G streets NW.
"Has that always been there?" one man said yesterday, late for his meeting but curious about the large bronze medallion in the sidewalk. He had swerved to avoid stepping on it.
"That" was a bas relief plaque roughly the size of a manhole cover honoring Ballington and Maud Booth, the founders of Volunteers of America. Without trying, the man who stopped briefly to read about the Booths had visited the newest monument in the nation's capital.
The project is an outside-the-box way to win approval for a monument in a statue-clogged city wary of creating more obelisks, edifices and memorials, said John Johansen, senior director of the Extra Mile project, which is to be dedicated in a ceremony today that former president George H.W. Bush is expected to attend.
The Extra Mile-Points of Light Volunteer Pathway is a path through Washington that organizers hope will one day have 70 medallions honoring different volunteers. The Points of Light Foundation, which sponsors the mile-long monument, already agreed on 20 honorees whose likenesses and brief biographies were cast in bronze and, without ceremony, embedded in the sidewalk along 15th and G streets NW during the past two weeks.
"People may not visit the entire mile, but they can happen upon it," said Johansen, who spent 14 years trying to make the walk a reality. He sees it as a way to solve the problem of what he calls Mall clutter and make it the kind of monument that comes to the people.
Johansen's idea worked on Rich Brusca, a lawyer on his way to lunch who paused to look at Eunice Kennedy Shriver's likeness on G Street. "It's like it snuck up on me. I'm like any Washingtonian; I don't go to this stuff," Brusca said, between puffs on a cigarette. "Eh. It's not bad," he said, bending to clear the pools of water forming over Shriver's eyes. " . . . The idea is kind of cute," he decided, before heading off.
The concept came to Johansen as he thought about what Washington's monuments symbolized. "If something tragic happened to our civilization and thousands of years later Washington, D.C., was unearthed, they would find a lot of monuments that had to do with wars," he said. "But America has this heritage of volunteering that's not really represented."
He had a hard time finding the funding. So four years ago, Johansen took the idea to the Points of Light Foundation, named after former president Bush's program calling America's volunteers a "thousand points of light." The foundation gave Johansen funding.
"This has always been part of a larger plan. I envisioned an interpretive museum and had ideas of having videos and hands-on exhibits," Johansen said. "Then the reality of funding set in and I scaled back." The result, in its simplicity, is smart, said Pamela Nelson, vice chair of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. "As a monument, it's different, and it's really great to expand the boundary of what public art can be," Nelson said. "I hope they take a long time to fill up the walk, so that different generations have the opportunity to contribute.
The walk begins at the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, goes north on 15th to G Street and continues right on G Street. The line of markers will eventually go to 11th Street, head south for a block to F Street, west along F Street to 15th and back to the beginning. A nine-member panel votes on the honorees, who can be nominated by anyone.
"I knew Martin Luther King. Booker T. Washington. But this one, I didn't know about this one," one woman said, leaning over the plaque depicting William Edwin Hall, founder of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Another woman almost slipped on the rain-slick face of Melvin Jones, before readjusting her black mules and stopping to learn that Jones founded the International Association of Lions Clubs. She pulled her friend back to show her the medallion, and they both stopped for a minute to read the story of the Lions before ducking into a restaurant for lunch.