Monumental Presidents: Exploring the National Mall

Lincoln Memorial

Washington, D.C. is a city of monuments and memorials honoring generals, politicians, poets, and statesmen who have shaped our history. During the month of February, we pay tribute to our presidents, some famous, and some lesser known, memorialized on the National Mall, as well as, unexpectedly, on street corners, parks, plazas, bridges, and traffic circles.

The most prominent structure in the city is the Washington Monument, honoring George Washington, who led our country to independence in the Revolutionary War, and then became our first president in 1789. Located at Constitution Avenue and 15th Streets, the monument is shaped like an Egyptian obelisk, standing at 555 feet, the tallest stone structure in the world. You’re bound to wonder what the view looks like from the top–it looks stunning! On a clear day, one can see 20 miles in all directions to include the White House backyard, the Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial, and the whole length of the National Mall.

The words of Thomas Jefferson, some written more than 200 years ago, have shaped American ideals. Today, these words adorn the interior walls of his memorial. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial stands as a symbol of liberty and endures as a site for reflection and inspiration for all citizens of the United States and the world. Situated on the tidal basin, it commemorates our 3rd president, the author of both the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia. Open daily; 900 Ohio Drive, S.W.

As one of the Library of Congress buildings, The Madison Building serves as the nation’s official memorial to James Madison, the "father" of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the 4th president of the United States of America. It was Madison’s suggestion to form the library of Congress by proposing a list of books that would be useful to legislators. 101 Independence Ave., N.E., Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

No trip to Washington, D.C., is complete without a stop to the Lincoln Memorial to appreciate the breathtaking view east across the Reflecting Pool, toward the Washington Monument and beyond to the U.S. Capitol. This is the nation’s capital at its most majestic. The Lincoln Memorial is a fitting tribute to the U.S. president who steered the country through a bitter Civil War. Architect Henry Bacon designed the building, and Daniel Chester French sculpted the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln, 19 feet tall and carved from 28 blocks of white Georgia marble. On the memorial walls, you’ll find inscribed the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural address. The memorial’s 36 massive columns represent the 25 U.S. states at the time of Lincoln’s death as well as the 11 seceded Southern states. Open daily; park rangers are on hand to answer questions from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Admission is free.

The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is a monument honoring Civil War general and our 18th president. Located at the base of Capitol Hill, it faces west toward the Lincoln Memorial, honoring Grant’s wartime president

Theodore Roosevelt Island, off the George Washington Memorial Parkway, is a 91-acre wilderness preserve that serves as a memorial to the nation’s 26th president. The preserve honors his contributions to conservation of public lands for forests, national parks, wildlife and bird refuges, and monuments. The island has 2 1/2 miles of foot trails where you can observe a variety of flora and fauna. A 17-foot bronze statue of Roosevelt stands in the center of the island.

The William H. Taft Bridge carries Connecticut Avenue over Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. The bridge was built between 1897 and 1907, named after President William Howard Taft in 1931, and added to the national register of historic places in 2003. It is an arch bridge, considered the largest unreinforced concrete structure in the world.

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge was named in honor of the 28th president, who, when elected in 1912, spent an average of two hours a day riding in his automobile to relax, or to "loosen his mind from the problems before him." President Wilson was an advocate of automobile and highway improvements in the United States. In 1916, he stated "My interest in good roads is . . . to bind communities together and open their intercourse, so that it will flow with absolute freedom.” The bridge was planned and built as part of the Interstate Highway System created by Congress in 1956. Construction of the bridge began in the late 1950s, and it opened to traffic on December 28, 1961.

The FDR Memorial, dedicated to our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, meanders through 7.5 acres near the Jefferson Memorial, just off the Tidal Basin. FDR’s accomplishments during his four terms in office are honored through sculptures and words etched in four outdoor granite galleries representing time spans from 1933 to 1945. The president is shown in a bas-relief that depicts him riding in a car during his first inaugural, as well as figures depicted in the sculpture "Bread Line," conveying the mood of the country during the Great Depression. Open daily; park rangers are on hand to answer questions from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. 1850 W. Basin Drive, S.W.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, commonly referred to as the Kennedy Center, represents a public/private partnership, since it is both the nation’s living memorial to President John F. Kennedy and the national center for the performing arts. It includes educational and outreach initiatives, almost entirely paid for through ticket sales and gifts from individuals, corporations, and private foundations. Located on the Potomac River, it is adjacent to the Watergate Hotel. Opened on September 8, 1971, the Kennedy Center produces and presents theater, dance, ballet, orchestral, chamber, jazz, popular, and folk music, and multi-media performances for all ages.

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, off the George Washington Parkway, consists of a grove of trees and 15 acres of gardens. A memorial to President Johnson and a part of the Lady Bird Johnson Park, the grove honors the former first lady’s role in beautifying the country’s landscape. The Memorial Grove is an ideal setting for picnics and has beautiful views of the Potomac River and the Washington, DC skyline.

The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center honors former president Ronald Reagan. As a landmark building, it houses international trade related businesses, the DC Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center, the permanent theater for the comedy troupe the Capitol Steps, a food court, Aria Italian Restaurant and facilities for conferences and weddings. Located above the Federal Triangle Metro Station.

Photo ops abound at each of these memorials. A truly spectacular and unique way to view many of them is by moonlight. So, when the sun goes down, take to the streets, and enjoy the sights and sounds of this magnificent city at night; and while you’re at it, wish all our presidents a Happy Birthday!

By Kathleen Landrum