When it comes to Washington, D.C., it feels like there's a historic site, memorial, or significant statue around every corner. Of course, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial seem to get the most attention (with good cause, admittedly) but there are dozens of other monuments worth paying tribute at as well. Here are a few lesser-known but super interesting D.C. memorials!
The abstract design of the U.S. Air Force Memorial is a departure from the usual statues, columned buildings and obelisks that make up most memorials. The three swooping spires, which stand at an impressive 270 feet high, mimic the contrails of Air Force Thunderbirds performing a bomb burst maneuver. Other details include a Runway to Glory, a glass contemplation wall, honor guard statues, and an Air Force star.
This lovely tribute commemorates one of the forgotten Founding Fathers: George Mason of Virginia. He penned the Virginia Declaration of Rights and was a member of the 1787 Constitutional Convention... although he abstained from signing the US Constitution because it didn't abolish the slave trade and he felt it didn't protect the rights of the individual from the government enough. He's known as the "Father of the Bill of Rights", which definitely makes him one of the more important, if lesser known, Founding Fathers.
There are a lot of cool details that make the FDR Memorial really unique. A path takes you past four scenes that each represent one term of FDR's presidency, which spanned an incredible 12 years, from the Great Depression to World War II. Another interesting bit is that it's the only memorial to honor a First Lady as well: a scene shows the prolific Eleanor Roosevelt with the United Nations emblem. It's also really awesome that the memorial was designed with those who have disabilities in mind (given Roosevelt's polio, which left him wheelchair bound). The memorial even pays tribute to FDR's beloved Scottie dog, Fala. Aww!
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the most dramatic and effective memorials in the city: the way it starts off small, and then soars to an overwhelming height is incredibly moving. However, it's really nice that the women who served as nurses in the war get their place of honor as well, at the Vietnam Women's Memorial. It shows three women, fittingly named Faith, who is praying, Hope, who is looking up, and Charity, who is tending to a wounded soldier.
Not all memorials are dedicated to Presidents and wars-- case in point: this statue paying tribute to genius Albert Einstein. The larger-than-life bronze memorial features Einstein sitting on some steps and holding a paper with his three most important mathematical equations on it: the photoelectric effect, the theory of general relativity, and the equivalence of energy and matter. He looks pretty deep in thought-- I wonder what he's supposed to be pondering!
The African Americans who fought in the Civil War probably have some of the most fascinating stories in American history, but they're a little harder to find than the well-documented lives of, say Grant and Lincoln. This monument was dedicated in July of 1998, and features a large statue depicting soldiers and sailors as well as a family. The statue is surrounded on three sides by a Wall of Honor, which lists the names of the 209,145 known members of the US Colored Troops. It's definitely a thought-provoking alternative to the Lincoln Memorial!
The Monument to a Ran-Over Fireman is just plain quirky. Benjamin C. Grenup was a fireman in D.C. way back in the day who died after being run over by a water wagon. The obelisk has tons of details calling to mind his profession, like the fire hose and nozzles, the fire axe, torch, and spanner wrench and the fire hydrants that adorn the memorial. It also features a relief that illustrates his death, which is a little disturbing if you think about it.
The gargoyles around the Washington National Cathedral are little monuments unto themselves! Gargoyles, elegantly carved creatures that decorate buildings, also serve a practical purpose-- they deflect rainwater through a pipe running through their mouths to prevent erosion. They're mostly found on Gothic-style buildings, but even Greeks and Romans used these often-creepy creatures in their architecture as well. Carved sculptures that decorate but don't have water pipes, like our old friend Darth Vader (yes, there's really a Darth Vader on the cathedral), are technically called "grotesques".
The Cathedral has hundreds of gargoyles and thousands of grotesques adorning the building's exterior, and they're all unique. Besides Vader, which earned a spot on the dark, North side of the Cathedral after the design won a contest to create a new grotesque, there are unicorns, caterpillars, elephants, skeletons, dragons, monsters, three-headed dogs, and even people. There's a horned, stone man dubbed "The Crooked Politician", and another is nicknamed "The Yuppie". One gargoyle is a caricature of former master carver Roger Morigi and another unusual sculpture features a toothy duck wearing a heart-adorned tie that has a tourist, camera at the ready, peeking out of its mouth. Creepy. The Cathedral offers gargoyle tours, or you can take a self-guided one with the help of a brochure.
It also has cool stained glass windows, which depict scenes from American history (rather than scenes from the Bible). The most notable window? The one with a moon rock. The 3.6 billion year old sample (which contains a mineral that was previously unknown on Earth, pyroxferroite) was donated to the cathedral by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. The window itself, which features an abstract design of stars and planets, was donated by Dr. Thomas O. Paine, who was the NASA administrator during the Apollo 11 mission. The 7 gram rock was sealed in a nitrogen chamber between two pieces of glass, each 2.5 inches thick and banded together with steel. It was then set inside the window.