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Washington, DC's historic landmarks: Then and Now

See the evolution of some of the United States’ most iconic monuments

The National Mall in Washington, DC is a playground for curious travelers and seasoned history buffs alike. The Mall’s monuments were built to honor and preserve moments in U.S. history, but over time many have developed unique histories of their own. Explore how some of the world’s most iconic landmarks have transformed—or stayed remarkably the same—since their creation using the interactive sliders below.

Then, schedule your trip to DC to experience The Mall in person. With a rich understanding of the context surrounding these historic monuments, your visit will be one for the books.

1 Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument

To conclude the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial facing a crowd of hundreds of thousands to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was a fitting spot, in the shadow of President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation exactly one century earlier, freeing millions of slaves as the nation approached its third year of civil war.

Today, the 12-foot-tall statue of President Lincoln still sits gazing over the capital city of the nation he fought hard to preserve, and King’s phrase “I Have a Dream” is now etched into the stone at the spot he stood.

Nearby is the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, dedicated in 2011 and designed to forever serve as a reminder of the freedom, opportunity, and justice for which King stood. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened its doors in 2016, is one of the newest can’t-miss experiences in DC, documenting history from an African American perspective.

From when King gave his speech to today, the Washington Monument remains in view from the Lincoln Memorial. The central anchor of the National Mall, the Washington Monument was completed in 1884 to honor George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army and first president of the United States.

The 555-foot obelisk recently reopened to the public on September 19, 2019, after a three-year renovation that modernized the elevator. Visitors can reach the top in 60 seconds; and on the descent, the ride offers glimpses of the monument’s history with inscribed stones in the walls that were donated by states, civic groups, and others. Visitors can reserve tour tickets in advance online for just $1, or grab free same-day tickets on a first-come, first-served basis at the Washington Monument Lodge.

 

2 Cherry Blossoms at the Tidal Basin

Every spring, about 1.5 million people visit Washington to catch a glimpse of the city’s more than 3,000 Japanese cherry blossom trees in bloom. Timing is everything since the trees bloom for only about 14 days in late March or early April, but get it right and you’ll witness the magical pink and white scene of peak bloom, when 70% of the trees surrounding the Tidal Basin have opened. Rest assured that, even if you miss the exact dates of peak bloom, the weeks of the cherry blossom trees blooming and the weeks of petals drifting through the air as they fall are also magnificent.

With their aesthetic beauty also comes historic significance. The Mayor of Tokyo shipped 3,020 trees to the U.S. in 1912 (after the original shipment in 1910 showed up infested with disease and insects) to symbolize the growing friendship between the U.S. and Japan, and to thank the U.S. for their support in the Sino-Japanese War. First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted the first two trees in West Potomac Park in March of 1912.

Today’s celebration grew from that planting ceremony, with civic groups helping expand the programming to a three-day annual event in 1934. The National Cherry Blossom Festival now spans four weeks and has more than 50 events including the opening ceremony, Blossom Kite Festival, Petalpalooza, a parade, and programming showcasing American and Japanese art and culture. The 2020 festival will run from March 20 through April 12.

 

3 Pennsylvania Avenue

On March 3, 1913, thousands of women gathered in Washington for the Women’s Suffrage Procession to reignite the suffrage movement and call for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. More than 5,000 suffragettes paraded up Pennsylvania Avenue, along with over 20 floats, nine bands, and four mounted brigades. Although not all spectators were kind, the event spurred the momentum that led to Congress passing the 19th amendment in June of 1919. The amendment was ratified a year later on August 18, 1920.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the landmark passage of the 19th amendment, and several museums across the city are celebrating with exhibits and events, in addition to DC's many year-round women-focused attractions. At the Library of Congress visitors can follow the stories of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and other notable suffragists. The National Museum of Women in the Arts will host a musical telling of the fight for the right to vote, and the National Portrait Gallery is showcasing a series of portraits and artifacts from radical women in the 19th and 20th centuries.

More women’s suffrage-themed exhibits are on display at the National Archives, the National Museum of American History, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum & Archives. Or, pay a visit to Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, a 200-year-old house in Capitol Hill that was the epicenter of the struggle for women’s rights. President Barrack Obama designated the monument in 2016.

 

4 Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian museums draw visitors to the Mall from far and wide—and are the result of a very generous gift. British-raised James Smithson, an illegitimate son of a Duke, left his fortunes to a nephew with the stipulation that if the nephew died without heirs the money would go to the U.S. for an establishment that would “increase the diffusion of knowledge.” The nephew died, and The Smithsonian Institution was created by an act of Congress in 1846. Its first building, the iconic red Maryland sandstone castle, was completed in 1855 and initially held the institution’s entire collection.

Today, there are 17 Smithsonian Institution properties in the district including museums, galleries, and the National Zoological Park. The castle now acts as a modern visitor’s center with interactive maps, a coffee and snack shop, Wi-Fi, exhibits on the institution’s history, and a marble crypt holding the remains of James Smithson. The best part: All Smithsonian properties have free admission.

A must-attend event for visitors and locals alike is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a massive celebration of cultures from across the globe held outside on the Mall for two weeks every summer. The family-friendly festival has a different theme each year and features musicians, artists, performers, craftspeople, storytellers, and more who embody community-based traditions. The 2020 festival will take place June 24 to June 28 and July 1 to July 5, and promises exhibitions from Benin, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates.

 

5 Lincoln Memorial and World War II Memorial

Visitors today walking along the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool would never guess that two enormous wartime buildings once occupied the landscape around them. The building on the north side (right side in photo) was one of several “tempos” built throughout the city during World War I to accommodate a rapidly growing military bureaucracy—all meant to be temporary and torn down. The building was still standing during World War II when a second-generation tempo was built on the south side and bridges were built across the pool so workers could move between the two buildings.

It was not until the Kennedy Administration that the buildings were razed and the land began to be restored. Now, the land to the north is the Constitution Gardens with a scenic lake, walking paths, and Signer’s Island, a memorial to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The National World War II Memorial, dedicated in 2004, now occupies the land surrounding the fountain at the east end of the reflecting pool. The design for the memorial was selected from entries to a national competition announced in 1996. Architect Friedrich St. Florian won with a design that set the memorial slightly underground to meet the requirement that the structure not disturb the clear vista between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Many have paid homage at the memorial, and September 2, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.

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