American Idol: The Lure of the Jefferson Memorial

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By Sandra Beasley
Sunday, November 15, 2009

The path is paved but pitted, with stretches washed out by the encroaching Potomac. It's 11 p.m., and -- unless I Jet Ski straight across the Tidal Basin -- this is the way to the Jefferson Memorial, following curved shore from either side. Though I know I'm close, I can't see past the muting dark of trees and burned-out street lamps. I keep pace with the family just ahead, and scrutinize shadows so intently that I don't glance up until we turn.

Ah. I blink at the reflected glow. This never gets old: a moonscape of white marble, dotted with visitors; the memorial raised aloft by its foundation, plaza stacked on plaza. Mr. Jefferson is waiting.

This is no blind date. Thomas Jefferson has been an iconic influence for much of my life. I spent four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, and another four in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia, established by Jefferson in 1819. In my fourth year at U-Va., I lived in one of 54 student rooms that surround the Lawn adjacent to the Rotunda according to Jefferson's original architecture. Every morning, I darted past tourists on my way to the showers; every night I cursed my Room 8 fireplace, too shallow to hold its ash. You don't know a Founding Father until you've crouched over cold embers and shaken your fist at his ill-advised faith in the Rumford fireplace.

Seventy years ago today, on Nov. 15, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for Jefferson's memorial in West Potomac Park, where it completes a north-south axis with the White House, which, along with an east-west axis of the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, is centered on the Washington Monument. He committed the funds to build it despite the Depression, despite activists who chained themselves to cherry trees that would have to be cleared, despite arguments that Jefferson was too partisan to merit such real estate.

In Roosevelt's ceremonial remarks, he declared that the structure, designed by architect John Russell Pope, would honor "not Jefferson the founder of a [Democratic] party, but the Jefferson whose influence is felt today in many of the current activities of mankind."

So the memorial celebrates a man I know as not just president but also as vintner, violinist, paleontologist and inventor. It's my favorite place in Washington, especially at night after the mobs of tourists have dissipated. Visiting friends are curious about the Maine Avenue Fish Market, Sam Le's martinis, unzoned parking hidden away in Adams Morgan. Yet when I bring up the Jefferson Memorial, their eyes glaze over. "Oh, we drove by," they say. "Pretty."

"Pretty" is a two-dimensional word, fit for a postcard. The Jefferson Memorial is so much more complicated than that.

***

Those drawn to this memorial are either romantics or pilgrims. Romantics park on a bench or behind a column. Pilgrims head straight for the statue. From inside, Jefferson gazes out over us like a benevolent landlord. The 19-foot-tall bronze, atop another six feet of Minnesota granite, cuts a stunning figure visible far across the water. He holds a scroll in his left hand and wears a fur-collared coat. Jefferson's posture may seem stiff, even rooster-chested. But in 1941, when sculptor Rudolph Evans's design was chosen, the mere act of Jefferson standing -- unthroned -- was a victory for modernism.

One night, I see two men approach with determined gaits. A month ago, Chief Warrant Officer Tim McWilliams was in Afghanistan; now, he's at Quantico. His dad, Jim McWilliams, has lived in California since retiring from the Navy in 1958; this is his first trip to Washington. Hoping to show off the city but unable to get away from base, the son bought his father a tour bus ticket. But the driver deemed this memorial too remote for a stop. "It's unfortunate that [Jefferson] is located so far off the main Mall," Tim McWilliams says. Then again, "that he's set aside and given so much space is also a powerful statement."

They've made a midnight drive to set things right. McWilliams photographs his father, a history buff, with the statue of Jefferson. When his dad offers to return the favor, his son, a Marine Corps field historian, just smiles. "Nah, I've got a few."

***


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