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70 years after the laying of the cornerstone, the Jefferson Memorial still promises awe and comfort to those who make the trek

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."

***

The face of the memorial is its portico, which flashes a toothy smile of eight Ionic columns. Pope's entryway mimics the Pantheon in celebration of Jefferson's love for Greco-Roman culture. When the design was unveiled, some found this devotion too unwavering. As Michael Kammen documents in "Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture," Frank Lloyd Wright described it as a "gangrene of sentimentality." The League for Progress in Architecture termed it a "pompous pile."

Skeptics need not have feared the memorial's formality would prove unwelcoming. "Portico" shares its root with the word "porch," and folks hang out on the portico steps as if on their own front stoop. On a typical September night, it's mostly locals here -- a federal worker postponing her commute back to Lorton, a jogger stretching, two Goth-looking kids with dyed hair and skateboards. Georgetown University freshmen, deep in a talk on social justice, perch on the stone platforms on either side of the building.

Eight years ago today, I was one of those idealistic college students. Ten of us from the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society had trekked out that evening fresh from a debate with the Georgetown Philodemic Society. After Sept. 11, we worried this might be yet another place shuttered each midnight. But the memorial was and remains open round-the-clock. We circled Jefferson in an elephant-line, hugging one another's waists and reading aloud the passages from the rotunda chamber's walls.

I've since learned that those passages are not so much Jefferson being quoted as Jefferson being quilted. Saul K. Padover, assistant to the secretary of the interior under Roosevelt, arranged the texts while working on his 1939 book, "Thomas Jefferson on Democracy." On the southwest panel, an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence needs proofing -- a missing "that," some dropped commas. The northeast panel (ostensibly Jefferson's take on slavery and education) samples Jefferson's autobiography, letters to George Wythe and George Washington, "Notes on the State of Virginia" and "A Summary View of the Rights of British America."

My favorite quotation is the single unadulterated one, from an 1800 letter to Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Reading this requires turning 360 degrees, inducing dizziness as you follow the frieze around the ceiling's rim.

***

Pope's ceiling, in the "saucer" style of the Pantheon, is the crowning link to Jefferson's design for the U-Va. Rotunda. It also happens to be spider heaven.

"What kind?" a woman asks one muggy August night. "Brown recluse? Nasty?"

The spiders congregate to feed on midges spawned in the Potomac. They dangle along the walls in the hundreds, spinning webs between each bronzed letter of text. Another kind nests in the dome's waffle pattern, a security staff member tells me. A temperature drop below freezing can trigger a hail of corpses.

I can't help but like a man who calls spiders bouncing off his head "part of the job." These guards are privately contracted and distinct from the U.S. Park Police who, in April 2008, arrested a woman dancing silently in the rotunda with a group of friends on Jefferson's birthday. People ask the guards questions, mistaking them for National Park Service rangers (who clock out at 11:30 p.m.). The guards point out the corn and tobacco sculpted at Jefferson's heels or suggest that if you squint at those bronze details, "some folks see an eagle shape in there."

A ceilinged memorial creates shelter. Unlike at the somber open-air V of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- always approached, never entered -- we come into the Jefferson Memorial. The Washington Monument's obelisk is about the climb; the Lincoln Memorial stages the president against a wall to make us his audience. But here you can't eye Jefferson without eyeing visitors on the other side of him. This central focal point, under one roof, puts us all in conversation.

Later that spidery night in August, the only people on hand are a few families, two guards and a couple -- he in black suit, she in white pearls -- who have chatted quietly on a bench for the last half-hour. I've been observing a dark-haired boy in a striped T-shirt, about 10, who is zooming his toy helicopter across the horizon of the Declaration of Independence, when a guard gestures toward the man in the black suit. He has sunk to one knee, looking up at his date. The question. The Yes.

The boy turns to me in surprise. "Did he just propose?" he asks. "Did he just propose?" Soon I'll walk over to get their names (Sarah Balch, Tony Green). But for a moment, I just watch. We are all watching. She leans toward him, blond hair obscuring their faces as they touch.

"The earth belongs to the living," Jefferson said in a 1789 letter to James Madison. He believed the present should not be burdened by debts of the past. But sometimes the past requires upkeep. A 2009 federal bill authorized the Park Service to spend $10 million repairing the memorial's north plaza and a portion of its sea wall, a project that may cost as much as $10 million more in 2010. Just as people asked 70 years ago during an economic struggle similar to today's, how can millions spent on commemorative marble satisfy the needs of the living?

Except that I am the living, and I need this place. I claim it for the many romantics and pilgrims, and for the hours when it's just two guards, 500 spiders and me. Maybe it's all those mornings when I stepped out onto the Lawn and gazed up at the same rotunda shape. Maybe it's that my bed, even today, is a 12-minute drive away. But when I see that silhouette by the Tidal Basin on a moonlit night, what comes to mind is not "pompous pile." Nor, as my friends say, "pretty."

What comes to mind, always, is home.

***

Sandra Beasley is working on "Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life," to be published by Crown. She can be reached at sandrabeasley@earthlink.net.

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