Ozymandias’s Washington

Though the U.S. capital is home to scores of memorials, just a handful of them command the attention of most visitors. A tour of Washington’s other monuments.

There are more than 200 monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C. A handful of them, mostly around the National Mall, are well known and well touristed: the Lincoln Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the World War II Memorial. Others are out of the way and known only to locals: The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, located on Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River, is obscured by trees and accessible only by a footbridge from Rosslyn, in northern Virginia.

But sometimes even the most well-informed Washingtonian can walk through a forlorn corner of a park and be surprised to find a weathered urn or a small statue dedicated to a once-celebrated figure or event, now long forgotten. They’re everywhere, but also nowhere. Some are out of the way, while others are simply overlooked. Call it Ozymandias’s Washington. Here are 10 monuments you’ve probably never heard of.


The Women’s Titanic Memorial

P Street and Fourth Street SW

Every April 15, about 20 men don tuxedos, eat a sumptuous meal at the Watergate, and then, around midnight, climb into limousines that whisk them south toward Washington harbor. Even in these days of rapid-fire gentrification, the D.C. harbor is not the sort of place to find limos cruising late at night. But these men proceed undeterred—after all, some of them have been doing it for the better part of three decades—to a point along the water near Ft. McNair. There, at the foot of the Women’s Titanic Memorial, they are met by a waiter with Champagne glasses. They mill around, chatting, and at 12:30 the members of the Titanic Men’s Society raise their glasses to toast the sinking of the Titanic.

A few years after history’s most famous maritime disaster, several women petitioned Congress to allow them to erect a monument in Washington to the men who, at least in legend, gallantly allowed women and children first onto the ship’s life rafts, a fatal decision for most. (Though the women quickly raised funds, the sculpture didn’t go up until 1931.) Designed by sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the monument—a striking male figure with his arms outstretched, a la Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie version—was originally located along the Potomac, near the point where Rock Creek Park empties. But the sculpture went into storage in 1966 when its site was requisitioned for the Kennedy Center, and in 1968 it was moved to its present location. “Its current home in Southwest D.C. might be considered out of the way and somewhat obscure compared with the original site, but the location does provide a beautiful setting,” the founder of the Titanic Men’s Society, Jim Silman, recently told the Washington Post. “It’s comfortable there.”


Jim Henson

University of Maryland, College Park

As well as being the creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson was also a Terrapin, and in 2003, after years of fundraising, his alma mater unveiled a monument and garden in his honor (it also renamed the campus drive Sesame Street). Located on a bench front of the Stamp Student Union, the 450-pound life-sized bronze statue depicts Henson, in full beard, sitting deep in conversation with his most famous creation, Kermit the Frog. Henson has his hand out, as if trying to make a point to his green friend, who in turn has his hand (or flipper, or whatever) on Henson’s arm.

In fact, Kermit himself is a Maryland alum of sorts—Henson began performing with the Muppets, including a proto-Kermit, when he was still a student (at first, Kermit was supposed to be a lizard instead of a frog). Eventually Henson’s creations got a spot on a local D.C. TV station, featured on a show called “Sam and Friends.” In the late ‘60s, a public-television executive concerned over the poor quality of children’s programming spotted Henson’s creations and asked him to join a new show called “Sesame Street.”


The Lobsterman Statue

Maine Avenue and M Street SW

In the middle of Congress Square in downtown Portland, Maine, there is a life-size bronze statue of a lobsterman, crouching over a rather large lobster. And why not, given how important lobsters are to the Maine economy (and palate)?

The statue, by sculptor Victor Cahill, was unveiled at the Maine pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair, before coming to rest in Portland (a duplicate was placed on Bailey Island, home to the lobsterman model, Elroy Johnson). Visitors from Portland will be surprised, however, to find an exact replica of the lobsterman in Washington. The monument went up in 1983, thanks to the efforts of a group of Maine Campfire Girls and the Maine State Society of Washington. And why not, given that it’s located on Maine Avenue?


James Buchanan

Florida Avenue and 15th Street NW (Meridian Hill Park)

There are 45 memorials to U.S. presidents situated around Washington, but they represent only 15 presidents. It’s the usual suspects: Washington, Madison, the Adamses, Lincoln, Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Wilson. And then there’s James Buchanan. Our 15th president, best known, if at all, as the only bachelor to occupy the White House, is hardly monument material. In fact, Buchanan is noteworthy for what he didn’t do—serving between 1857 and 1861, he failed to ease the tensions pushing the southern states toward secession and refused to stop them when, in the waning days of his presidency, they began to break away.

Yet there he sits, tucked into a shady corner of Meridian Hill Park, triangulated between the Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, and Shaw neighborhoods. The terrace at his feet is popular with Tai Chi practitioners and the occasional Kendo swordsman. For a man who fought in the War of 1812, Buchanan, cast in bronze, looks surprisingly contemporary—his collar is popped, and on his right side sits a bare-chested woman in flip-flops. Well, maybe they’re sandals. In any case, it’s a nice reward for this one-termer, and it helps vault him ahead of the pack of our long-forgotten executives. Eat that, Millard Fillmore.


Orlando Letelier

Massachusetts Avenue and Sheridan Circle NW

On Sept. 21, 1976, a car bomb exploded in the middle of Sheridan Circle, a tree-lined round at the northwestern edge of the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Inside the car were Orlando Letelier, his assistant Ronni Moffit, and her husband, Michael. Only Michael Moffit survived. Letelier was a high-profile refugee from Chile; he had been the defense minister under Salvator Allende, and after the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, he was imprisoned and tortured for a year before being sent into exile. He settled in Washington and became a leader of the anti-Pinochet forces—he lobbied Congress and European governments, and managed to get several loans to Chile blocked. Less than two weeks after Chile revoked his citizenship, he was dead.

While several suspects—including three former members of the Chilean secret police—were convicted in the bombing, the complete story of who ordered the bombing and whether Pinochet knew of the plan has never been uncovered. The Clinton administration reopened the investigation, but the case has languished.

The memorial to Letelier and Moffitt, shaped like a short tree stump with a round plaque on top, sits at the southeast corner of the circle, close to the point where the car came to rest, against a Volkswagen Beetle, after bursting into flames.


Taras Schevchenko

P Street and 22nd Street NW

Embassy Row, the strip of Massachusetts Avenue between Dupont Circle and Wisconsin Avenue, is studded with statuary celebrating foreign national heroes. Mahatma Gandhi stands on a spit of grass outside the Indian embassy; up the road, Winston Churchill stands across the street from the British. But the most obscure—and most interesting—is the monument to Taras Schevchenko, the Ukrainian “poet patriot,” located just south of Massachusetts and across the street from the Brickskeller, a bar listed in the Guinness Book for having the world’s largest beer menu.

Born in 1814, Schevchenko was an internationally renowned poet and painter who was exiled to Siberia after he turned to Ukrainian nationalism and reformist politics. He eventually returned, but his health had deteriorated and he died in 1861. Since his death, Shevchenko memorials, including a monument in Syracuse and an honorary street name in New York City, have sprung up around the United States, largely thanks to the efforts of Ukrainian exiles and immigrants. In 1954, Congress approved a bill to fund a monument in Washington, and the towering bronze statue—slightly larger than life-size, set on a large stone block—was unveiled in 1964. A concurring statement by Sen. Jacob Javits makes the Cold War undertones of the project clear: “Taras Shevchenko was a bard of freedom. In 1917 it was the poetry of Shevchenko that inspired the Ukrainian movement for independence and encouraged the Ukrainian National Republic in its desperate struggle, alone and unaided, to protect itself against the aggression of the Russian Communists.” Now the only people the Shevchenko statue inspires are drunks stumbling out of the Brickskeller.


Sonny Bono

New Hampshire Avenue and 20th Street NW

The actor, singer, and politician Sonny Bono is immortalized by a small plaque set in the ground of a small triangular park, one of countless formed by the intersection of Washington’s gridded streets with its diagonal avenues. After spending the late ‘70s and ‘80s in relative obscurity, Bono went into politics, first as mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and later as a Republican U.S. representative. He was killed in a skiing accident in 1998.

Soon after, a local friend of Bono, Geary Simon, petitioned the city to build a memorial park in the late congressman’s honor—or, rather, to let him build it, something the city encourages through a program called Park Partners. As journalist William Beutler chronicled in the Washington Monthly, “Simon threw himself into the project, tearing out not just the weeds, but the sidewalks as well. He installed a sprinkler system and lighting, and flew in authentic Kentucky bluegrass, plus a Japanese maple from a nursery in Sonny’s congressional district.” There is even a vault under the memorial filled with Bono paraphernalia, including sheet music, letters, and campaign materials. And it only cost Simon $25,000 to build, plus between $4,000 and $5,000 a year in maintenance. Now that’s a good friend.


Samuel Gompers Memorial

Massachusetts Avenue and 10th Street NW

One of the only memorials in Washington dedicated to a former Marxist sits along Massachusetts Avenue in its own park—indeed, its own square—just northwest of the new convention center. Born in London, Samuel Gompers came to the United States as a teenager during the Civil War; he later became a cigar maker and a member of the Cigarmakers’ International Union. After the union collapsed he played a central role in rebuilding it, which gave him prominence within the labor movement and helped spur him to found the American Federation of Labor in 1886. (From then until his death in 1924, save for one year, he served as its president.)

Needless to say, the Cuban American Friendship Urn is not of recent vintage.

Though in his youth Gompers had espoused aggressively Marxist views, by the end of the 19th century he had moderated his opinions and often struggled with socialists within the labor movement. He helped cement ties between labor and the Democratic Party, and he was an adamant supporter of U.S. entry into World War I (unlike his more left-leaning fellow labor leader, Eugene V. Debs).

In thanks for his long support of a government not always kind to the labor movement, Congress erected a grand memorial in his honor, with a life-sized Gompers seated in contemplation, surrounded by various figures representing the American laborer. Through a strange mix of coincidence and perhaps oversight on their part, the leaders of the Cato Institute, the libertarian (and vehemently anti-union) think-tank, built their headquarters just across the street.


City Canal Marker

Constitution Avenue & 17th Street

Not really a monument, this plaque commemorates the completion of the City Canal in 1815. Though it’s hard to believe today, Washington was once a relatively bustling port city, with markets, warehouses, and docks ranging along the Potomac. It was the terminus of the C&O Canal, which connected the city to the Ohio River and brought goods from the nation’s interior, and it was (and still is) the northernmost navigable point of the Potomac. The heart of the city was also a lot closer to the water—until a massive earth-building project in the early 20th century, the Potomac reached almost to the base of the Washington Monument.

The City Canal—which ran along what is now Constitution Avenue, then cut south in front of the Capitol to connect, finally, with the Anacostia River—was intended by its planner, George Washington, to bring goods from the banks of the Potomac to the giant Central Market that once sat between the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue (it supposedly held 1,000 stalls and a slave market). But the completion of the Erie Canal put a big dent into the C&O Canal’s traffic, and over time the city lost its ambitions for waterborne commerce. In 1928, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad sold the canal to the federal government, which soon paved over it to create Constitution Avenue, home today of the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the National Archives.


Cuban American Friendship Urn

14th Street and Ohio Avenue, SW

Needless to say, the Cuban American Friendship Urn is not of recent vintage. Originally located in Havana in commemoration of the 266 U.S. sailors killed in the 1898 U.S.S. Maine explosion, a precipitating factor in the Spanish-American War, the marble urn (contents unknown) was moved to Washington after it was knocked over in a 1926 hurricane. At first it was placed in front of the Cuban embassy, but after Castro came to power—and the embassy was shut down—it was moved to its present location, an obscure corner of East Potomac Park, itself a relatively obscure spit of land running south from the Mall. Not only is the urn located away from the tourist streams—the memorial sits almost a mile from the closest Metro stop—but once found it’s not easy to find out what the urn actually commemorates: The explanatory plaque is in Spanish. On the other hand, since there isn’t much Cuban-American friendship to commemorate these days, it’s not clear that it matters.

Monuments are intended to remind us of important figures and events in history. But if the monument itself is forgotten, does that mean the object of its commemoration is forgotten as well? Not necessarily, of course; most educated Americans know James Buchanan was a president, just as millions of people don’t need a monument to remind them of Sonny Bono. So put it a different way: What are we saying about the subjects of commemoration when we build a monument, but build it in a way that almost guarantees its obscurity?


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen