If Walter Rothe had gotten his way, today would have been Sunday, Oct. 28, and a person's birthday would occur on the same day of the week every year.
Five years after his death, Rothe's legacy is the stone garden he built in his backyard at 5060 McArthur Blvd. NW. It has become a fixture in the changing Palisades community west of Georgetown.
Rothe dreamed of replacing the present Gregorian calendar system with his own simpler and mathematically precise one. He built a garden with Alice-in-Wonderland walkways between eight-foot-tall stone numbers decorated with mosaic tiles, to illustrate the calendar to the dozens of onlookers that marvel at the statues in his garden every month.
Rothe, a former Georgetown University mathematics professor, spent almost a quarter of a century perfecting his 13-month calendar and came close to changing time -- literally.
His was one of only two (out of 400) calendars acceptable to the United Nations in 1954, when an effort was made to reform the current calendar. It was also the inspiration for a bill in Congress in 1967. But the measure never got out of committee.
Rothe was convinced that his calendar would simplify the problem of not knowing on what day of the week a major date falls. "The present calendar is planless, replete with caprice and quirks, lacking order and dependability," he used to say. "We've gone to the moon and developed computers and yet we're still using calendars from 46 B.C."
Rothe's motto still hangs on a sign in front of the garden: "The calendar is the most important item in our lifetime. It is a guide from the cradle to the grave. Is it not obvious we should be adhering to the best calendar available?"
He was an energetic, white-haired, barrel-chested German immigrant who would not settle for mediocrity in anything he did.
"I guess some people may have thought he was an eccentric," said Steve Kelly, a District fireman who lives in Rothe's old house and takes care of the garden. "Really, this guy was a genius who was just way ahead of his time."
Today, while visitors are commonplace at the garden, the Palisades neighborhood has almost completely changed. And most of the newer residents have little understanding of the historic significance of "The Calendarium" garden.
The Palisades has always been a neighborhood steeped in tradition. Although urban, it has maintained a small-town flavor while partially resisting being overtaken by the city.
The biggest estates in the District, once clustered on the North side of the Palisades by Reservoir and Foxhall roads, are slowly becoming as obsolete as the small houses of the poor. Bulldozers continue to rearrange the area in favor of upper-middle-class housing, and yet there is still the annual small-town Fourth of July parade with a single fire engine.
Eccentrics, mostly lovable ones like Walter Rothe, have always flourished in the Palisades, and the neighborhood reflects the wildness, breadth and originality of their lives and careers even with them long gone.
Rothe used to wow the curious, especially the older men from the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Dana Place NW, an old neighborhood hangout, with his knack for taking any date in history and instantly telling them what day of the week it fell on. He even took into account the shift from the Julian calendar to the present-day Gregorian calendar in 1582, done to correct an annual error of more than 11 minutes. Rothe liked to point out that that was the last time our present-day calendar was changed.
Rothe's calendar was almost his whole life, his step-daughter Mary Jane Jackson recalled recently. She said he would talk about other things, like world politics, but when the subject turned to his calendar, "it was like he had blinders on." That was because Rothe insisted the other ideas were inferior, she said.
As a child, Rothe was fascinated with numbers and dates. At age nine, he asked his mother why his birthday came on Tuesday one year and Wednesday the next. Getting no satisfactory answer, he started examining the subject. He grew such a fondness for it that later in life, he spent seven years perfecting his calendar mathematically and another nine building the garden.
The calendar consists of thirteen 28-day months. Each month has four even weeks, always beginning on a Monday and ending on a Sunday, to coincide with the first 24-hour rotation of the earth on its axis. The 365th day of the year is called Earth Orbit Day, but it does not belong to any week. Rothe thought this day was special because it marked the finish of earth's annual journey, 687,803,131 miles through space at 66,000 miles an hour.
Once every four years, Rothe's calendar calls for an adjustment day, like leap-year. The extra month is called Solarius (the month of Sunshine) and is placed between June and July to equalize the four seasonal periods.
Statistically, Rothe's Universal calendar is light-years ahead of the Gregorian calendar we now use and is much simpler. For example, each month and each week ends on Sunday. Under the present calendar, there is no such consistency.
Rothe's garden, a maze of shrines dedicated to "Miracle Days," has seen better days. While the 200-pound "Sundays Forever" sign still stands in the garden and gargoyles still honor the seasons, the chimes in the bell tower, which used to ring during the equinox, no longer sound.
The various plaques, sundials and monoliths in the garden have become overgrown with vines. A handful of broken stone blocks and a mosaic tile that once said "Eternal Perspection" have started to weather, not from neglect, but because of natural aging.
Rothe logically thought out every conceivable argument for and against his calendar. He could always turn a negative point into a positive one, his relatives said, but he also realized that his calendar would not be adopted in his lifetime. He pointed out that the elimination of calendar periods could save time and money. The federal government (and now most businesses) operates most of its payrolls on a biweekly, 14 day-cycle. This coincides with Rothe's calendar.
His calendar is so mathematically sound that it would need an adjustment day only once every 3,323 years to make up the 26 seconds it leaves unaccounted for each year.
After immigrating to the United States, Rothe became an inventor and a real estate agent. Among his other inventions were a flower pot with a controllable air supply, the first set of colored house keys and a necktie that expressed the wearer's emotions, similar to the so-called "mood ring" which uses color-changing crystals, but created long before the ring became popular.
One of the calendar's problems, according to Jackson, his step-daughter, "was that people feared that they would lose their birthday. It's like the conversion to the metric system. If it's different, people are skeptical." To solve that problem, Rothe made up a calendar with both universal and Gregorian calendars on it.
Rothe's greatest obstacle in getting his calendar accepted was that it was as if he looked at the sky and saw it blue, and everone else saw it as pink. But he knew that society eventually would catch up to him.
The sign leaving the garden says: "Someday this place of history will become public property. . . . Preserve it."
Perhaps someone will.