The most amazing thing about Washington DC for me was how much it reminded me of Rome – Rome as it once was, that is. All the buildings (around the National Mall especially) were so Roman, with friezes and thick columns (in a strange mix of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) rising up above grand sets of steps. Huge domes in the middle, reaching skyward towards the gods, pregnant with glory. Full of the symbolic grandeur of Rome (and ancient Greece before it). Pale stone, clean and imposing, shining in sunlight. Huge lettering on the outside, massive doors for entry.
Roman Temples, the lot of them. The Jefferson Memorial, The US Capital (on a kind of Palatine Hill), The US Supreme Court building, The Library of Congress, the US Treasury Building, The National Archives, the Lincoln Memorial, the US Commerce Building, the National Gallery of Art.
And then, of course, the most Roman of them all: the great obelisk of the Washington Monument. But temples worshipping what? Independence? Liberty? Greatness? Or an empire in the making?
And the scale! Nothing had prepared me for Capital Hill enormity. I was blown away by the sheer ambition of it. I wasn’t surprised either when I read the that National Monument was the tallest man-made structure in the world when it was built, only to have been later surpassed by the Eiffel Tower.
And the Department of Commerce, Herbert C. Hoover Building: on 8 eight acres, covering three city blocks, 1.8 million square feet, 3,300 rooms joined by unbroken corridors 1,000 feet long. What the hell? Again when it was built the largest office building in the world, but now surpassed by The Pentagon, which titles itself as a ‘city’ in its own right. Does anybody see anything misplaced about the largest office space in the world being dedicated to a military purpose? In a time of relative peace (when you compare the kind of threat the Soviet Union posed and what American and American leaders had to face in the 60s and 70s especially)? And having 6.5 million square feet and 23,000 employees? A whole city in one building?
I was and still am gobsmacked by Washington DC. Amazed and impressed too, by the way. It’s something to behold. I can safely say there’s nowhere like it in the world, even the Kremlin or the Forbidden City of Beijing.
And this must all have been deliberate. George Washington must have foreseen the United States as this great empire in the making, that would stretch out its influence and rule around the globe for centuries. With himself as its Tiberius Gracchus, as tribune, leading onward to generations of presidents to follow as heads of the Republic. It was no surprise to read of his classical education, with one writer comparing it to that of the Roman Cincinnatus. Likewise Thomas Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin and Hamilton. All classicists.
And that’s what has happened. Now we’re at POTUS number 45 and the influence of the US has hardly waned in the 200 years since independence. On the contrary, it’s grown and grown. Sometimes looking out to the world, it’s true; sometime (like now), looking more inward.
And Pennsylvania Avenue! The great way (you can’t call it a street) that marches its symbolic march from The White House to Capital Hill. With a Trump hotel along the way, in the most incredible building, originally the Post Office Building but you have to see it – the GPO is like a toddler beside it.
Ironically, the White House is one of the more modest of the government buildings, having been originally based on Leinster House in Dublin. And when Washington was living there, it was even more modest (at his insistence), but has been built up by later presidents. Even its columns are a more recent addition. And it’s somewhat dwarfed by the huge Eisenhower Executive Office building beside it to the west.
It all was wonderful, I have to say. I was blown away and I’m so glad I got to see it all, everybody should, really. It was a privilege. A triumph of ambition and scale.
But it gave me pause. The hubris of this, especially looked at hundreds of years later.
I was once at a meeting in Ravensburg in Germany. Where they make the toys and jigsaws. And I went for a cycle outside the city into the countryside. Beautiful rolling hills, fine land. Small lettings with acreage, pasture and every farm had its own little forest for timber.
I asked one of the locals about this and he told me that this was because one of the emperors of Germany (he told me who, but I’ve forgotten) decreed a policy of planting trees so that there would be sufficient wood for 200 years. Now that’s long term planning and one that would only be considered by an emperor, the rule of whose descendants was guaranteed forever. Oops, in his case, but you get the idea.
It appears that Washington was also thinking in such epochal time spans. And he was building a monument, even at the nation’s inception, to last down the ages. And that this monument, in its scale and ambition, would reflect the scale and achievement of the nation itself – in comparable terms with the Roman Republic. So it has proven to be.
But the scary thing is, of course that we all know what happened to the Roman Republic. It became the Roman Empire. Gaius Julius Caesar arrived on the scene and declared himself ‘dictator in perpetuity’. Then he was murdered and the Roman Empire was put in place and the influence of the Roman Senate was diminished and a series of emperors followed on. The third of which was Caligula, who in my mind bears a great resemblance to POTUS 45, now in place. Who was assassinated (Caligula was) on the orders of the senate and was followed by the lovely Claudius, who was murdered by Aggripina, Nero’s mother. Followed by Nero, who killed himself when he was declared a public enemy by the senate. Game of Thrones stuff, for sure.
Joking aside, I don’t think the US will go down this route and in fairness to Washington and the Founding Fathers, their failsafe system of governance, the tripartite system, has served the country well. It has served the country well in this presidency well, too, I think, however much the Supreme Court may be leaning to a certain direction and however much the House and Senate are Republican led, they have reigned in POTUS 45, at least to some extent.
And, architecturally, that’s what the design and building of Washington DC achieved too. It’s one massive manifestation of that political system. The whole thing is glorious and grand, as the physical symbol of this great nation reaching out into the future.
The Supreme Court and the two chambers of Congress are up on the hill and are looking down Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House, in a proprietorial and scolding mode. No, you can’t do that, POTUS. No. Bold. No, you go golfing and leave us to it.
Its founders knew this would be necessary from time to time. So they built the city accordingly. Washington could have used New York as Pennsylvania as the nation’s capital. Instead he build a whole new city just for that single purpose. And it works.
A new whole city which, in one way, is a single temple in itself, a religious structure wherein to reflect and pray and worship. Those men knew exactly what they were doing and what the effect would be then and now, over 200 years later. It’s an incredible feat, I wouldn’t have believed it unless I had seen it.
Next up: the military, over the river to the southwest.