Publication Date

December 1, 2007

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting


State & Local (US)

Designed by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, Washington, D.C., was to be a capital to rival the world’s greatest, with ceremonial spaces and grand diagonal avenues surrounding the National Mall. Yet the federal city is also a city of neighborhoods. The variety of parks, memorials, and historic sites in the city might surprise visitors familiar only with the monumental core anchored by the Capitol, the White House, and the Washington Monument.

The National Park Service (NPS) maintains 35 different parks and historic sites in Washington, D.C. (see for details). For every national memorial to a president or war, there is a small triangle park with a plaque or statue memorializing some other aspect of our shared histories. Near Dupont Circle, for example, a monument to Mahatma Gandhi sits across from the Indian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, while a plaque marking Duke Ellington’s birthplace lies just off 21st Street NW. Between the two, the Christian Heurich mansion, a Richardsonian Gothic listed on the National Register of Historic Places, tells the story of the local brewing family that lived there and the broader history of the Gilded Age in Washington.

A few blocks (or a quick subway ride) away in Foggy Bottom, statues of the great liberators of Latin America—Símon Bolivar, José de San Martin, Benito Pablo Juárez, José Gervasio Artigas, and Bernardo de Gálvez—stand along Virginia Avenue. These statues tell of the struggles for independence in the Western Hemisphere, while highlighting the ever-growing diversity of the city. Within Rock Creek Park, NPS is restoring Peirce Mill, a water-powered flour mill that harkens to an industrial period that most would never associate with Washington. The mill, built and operated by Isaac Peirce and his son, operated from the 1820s to 1897. Further into the park is NPS’s only observatory, a favorite of school groups and children.

To the east of Rock Creek is the historic Shaw neighborhood. The African American Civil War Memorial on U Street NW honors the over 100,000 African American men and women who served in the Civil War. A short walk will take you to Meridian Hill Park (administratively, a part of Rock Creek Park). So named because it sits on the exact longitude of the city’s original milestone marker, Meridian Hill served as a camp location for Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s Union troops during the Civil War. It was later the site of Columbian College (which became George Washington University) and also once housed an African American seminary school. It now hosts weekly drum circles, soccer games, and leisurely walks for families of all nationalities and ethnicities. Statues in the park commemorate historic figures such as President James Buchanan, Joan of Arc, and Dante Alighieri. The park is designated a National Historic Landmark for its landscape architecture, which features 13 concrete basin cascade fountains leading down to the lower formal gardens, which provide a place of respite to residents and visitors.

Washington’s history is as layered as an onion, with each peeled skin revealing more points of interest. See the beautiful Neoclassical architecture and pay respects at the World War II Memorial, but also take time to observe the city’s grandeur from the steps of the recently restored Frederick Douglass Historic Site in Anacostia. Visit the waterfront in Georgetown, then take a cab to the National Arboretum off of New York Avenue NE, and another to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, surrounded by Kenilworth Marsh, a remnant of the original marsh of Washington, D.C. The trick to touring Washington is to approach it like a tourist, but love it like a local.

Brian D. Joyner is an editor at the National Park Service.