If the National Mall is America’s front lawn, we have some curious lawn ornaments: ghostly white temples, monolithic men, giant bronze birds of prey — not to mention acres of pools that, even in the heat of the summer, are reserved for the exclusive use of waterfowl. The neighbors must think we’re crazy!
Actually, I don’t have to guess what visitors to D.C. think because, for a few hot days, I joined them. I watched how they moved through memorials, I eavesdropped on their conversations and I chatted up anyone unfortunate enough to make eye contact with me. My goal? To rank our eight major monuments and memorials on their effectiveness. Some of these huge structures, which were built to communicate something to future generations or even future civilizations, get their message across loud and clear, while others’ statements are garbled and vague.
If my opinions seem irreverent, please remember I’m critiquing only the statues and buildings, not the people or events they were built to honor. If you disagree, that’s great. Democracy thrives on open discourse — share your thoughts in the comments section or take the poll at the end of this story.
8. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Out of all the tourists I studied, visitors to the MLK memorial seemed the most perplexed. Kids read the engraved quotations in order, trying to make them into a story, while adults puzzled over the main sculpture. “So, what’s the significance of that?” one man asked, pointing to the two hunks of granite behind the statue of King. “It’s the mountain,” a woman explained. “Oh,” the man said, clearly still confused. I’m with him. The memorial is a bizarrely literal rendering of a phrase from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The “stone of hope” quote is carved on the memorial’s Stone of Hope because there’s no hope that anyone would figure it out on their own. Even with this clue, the symbolism is confusing: Why are the two blocks that represent the mountain barely any larger than the stone they calved? And what does it mean to have King emerging from that stone? Plus, like many of the monument’s quotes, the central metaphor isn’t among King’s most inspiring utterances — a clear disservice to a leader known for his eloquence.
Questionable photo pose: I saw some people pushing against the monument stones so it looked like they were moving the mountains.
TripAdvisor zinger: “The sculpture looks like white icebergs. For a black man,
it is surprising!”
7. World War II Memorial
You know how some pop songs pander to crowds by including litanies of city names or area codes? I think that’s the same impulse behind the WWII memorial’s design — specifically the columns engraved with state names. They’re meant to reflect each state’s contribution to the war effort, but their arrangement in two semicircles — anchored by pavilions labeled “Atlantic” and “Pacific” — is geographically confusing. For instance, the Florida column is right next to the “Pacific” pavilion, and if I didn’t know better, I might think that Florida borders the Pacific, or that all Floridians were sent to fight on the Pacific front. Also perplexing are the bas-relief sculptures that most people walk right past on their way to the giant fountain at the heart of the memorial. Even if you know a lot about WWII, these panels are tough to decode — one, for example, seems to show a woman driving a tractor as several smiling men get in her way. Did chatty guys somehow help the war effort by keeping women from plowing fields? There’s no way to know unless you happen to pick up an explanatory pamphlet. Despite these failings, the fountain is a nice addition to the Mall and a good place to cool your feet (which the National Park Service allows).
Questionable photo pose: One guy attempted to make a Boomerang video of his friend jumping into the water. (A volunteer quickly put a stop to it.)
TripAdvisor zinger: “It’s really sad that [a] world war is seen through a self-centered point of view.”
6. Korean War Veterans Memorial
Though this memorial is popular with tourists, I’m not a fan. My biggest problem is the black granite wall chiseled with the bumper-sticker bromide “Freedom is not free.” What, was “These colors don’t run” already taken? Then there are the statues of military personnel slogging through … a tidy landscape of living juniper bushes? The men look so tired, you want to tell them that they have just a few more yards to go before they reach some nice shady benches. That said, I do enjoy the precision-trimmed linden trees that circle the memorial’s “pool of remembrance” — and that part of the memorial appears to be a popular spot for quinceanera and wedding photos, too.
Questionable photo pose: Some teens pretended to march alongside the soldiers.
TripAdvisor zinger: “Derivative, cliched and pathetic.”
5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Locals love this enormous, sprawling memorial and I think I know why: Its size means it’s never crowded. Consisting of four outdoor “rooms” spread across more than 7 acres of land, it’s a weird hybrid monument-museum that attempts to outline the Great Depression, World War II and the New Deal through water features and a motley assemblage of sculptures. The weirdest of the lot are a group of columns with spooky impressions of elfin faces and giant hands that make you think spirits have been trapped inside and are trying to get out. Those same columns also feature Braille that’s too large to be legible, and the whole memorial can be a long slog for mobility-impaired folks, such as your humble reviewer, who is recovering from a foot injury. Overall, it’s surprisingly inaccessible for a tribute to a disabled president. Still, the rushing water and the natural beauty of the site make for a pleasant experience overall.
Questionable photo pose: Kids find it tough to resist joining the Depression-era bread line.
TripAdvisor zinger: “He didn’t want a memorial, this is why.”
4. Thomas Jefferson Memorial
The neoclassical design of this memorial actually makes sense: Our third president revered Greek and Roman architecture, and he’s largely responsible for kicking off America’s ongoing love affair with pediments and columns. His statue, however, could use a little more Greek grace — it’s such a stiff depiction of a famously vivacious man. Inside the memorial, you get a different angle on Jefferson, thanks to a new basement exhibit that discusses his record as a slave owner. It’s a little apologetic (“Jefferson prescribed lighter labor for women and children and proper care for those slaves who were sick”), but it’s a good start. Perhaps all our memorials could use a little extra context, or some space for dissenting views. This is all largely beside the point to most visitors, however. I saw lots of people taking in the view or jogging up the steps, but not many reading the engravings or checking out the exhibits.
Questionable photo pose: Some Canadians got dangerously close to the mean Canada geese that roost beside the memorial.
TripAdvisor zinger: “The Americans have a flaw: They are constantly trying to imitate the Roman Empire’s architectural and expansionist ways, but they’re not very successful.” (Translated from Italian.)
3. Lincoln Memorial
I can’t help but love the Lincoln Memorial, even though it doesn’t make much sense to put the great American president in an ancient Greek temple. (We got the ancient Greeks all wrong, by the way. Their structures and sculptures weren’t bone white — they were a riot of bright colors that faded over time.) Also, have you tried to read the engravings on the walls? Most people take one look at those blocks of full-justified, all-caps lettering and immediately give up. And then there are the weird murals at the top; they’re hard to make out, and that’s probably for the best. One, for instance, shows a white female angel freeing black slaves, and many of the women are topless, for some reason. What has stood the test of time is the sculpture — even though Lincoln is a giant, the worry and exhaustion written on his face forge an intimate connection with the viewer. And though a copy of the Parthenon isn’t a logical choice for Mr. Log Cabin, it fits beautifully into the rest of the Mall’s neoclassical architecture and offers spectacular views of the whole expanse.
Questionable photo pose: Daredevil tourists walked way out on the east-facing ledges to pose with some urns, apparently unconcerned about the sheer drop to skull-cracking stone stairs.
TripAdvisor zinger: “I was saddened to learn that the elevator was not in service. I am handicapped and cannot climb all those stairs. My family went to see Abe but I was left to sit on a wall near the reflecting pool. My heart was breaking. Our government is so wonderful … not.”
2. Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is exactly what it looks like: a huge gravestone. Some people feel this so acutely, they attempt to leave human remains there. I didn’t see anyone scattering ashes during my visits (something the National Park Service explicitly forbids), but I did watch as people searched for their loved ones’ names. “Hi, Shelby. I miss you,” one man said quietly. You’d have to be made of stone to be unmoved by this memorial, which was designed by Maya Lin when she was an architecture student at Yale. Even small children picked up on the solemnity of this memorial, if not its specific meaning, and stopped begging for ice cream while looking at their own reflections in the polished black stone.
Questionable photo pose: A few visitors tried to photograph the engraved names but were thwarted by the glare of the sun. A volunteer helped them make rubbings instead.
TripAdvisor zinger: “Yale design is inferior!” (Translated from Mandarin.)
1. Washington Monument
“What does this have to do with George Washington?” is the question I heard tourists ask again and again. Rangers and volunteers answered by explaining that it’s an obelisk, an ancient Egyptian form that served as a popular shape for 19th-century memorials and gravestones. OK, sure, but that’s skirting the larger point: The Washington Monument is a 555-foot-tall phallic symbol. George Washington is the father of our country, and the Washington Monument is America’s, um, you know. It’s a totem of power, whether realized or aspirational. And, as the monument’s history shows, Americans’ ambitions sometimes outstrip our means. Even after plans for a colonnade at the bottom were scrapped, the monument still took 36 years to complete. Starting something so huge that you don’t know quite how to finish is a bold move and an apt metaphor for the whole American experiment. That’s why the Washington Monument is my favorite structure on the Mall. Future civilizations will know exactly what it means — though they might not be comfortable saying it out loud.
Questionable photo pose: One tourist lay down and lined up the monument so it seemed to be erupting from his shorts.
TripAdvisor zinger: “Ironically, of all the memorials, this is the most pointless.”
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