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Protest Highlights History of Washington Monument Politics

Weekend demonstration on National Mall joins rich tradition of dissent.

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Kaylee Cantrell, left, 13, from Lexington Park, Md., with Sherry Cantrell and Michael Cantrell, both from Crossville, Tenn., pose for a photo in front of a sign and removed barricades at the World War II Memorial in Washington on Oct. 13, 2013.

This weekend, an unusual hodgepodge of veterans, truckers, Republican lawmakers, and others converged on the National Mall to protest the government shutdown, including the closing of the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and other federal shrines.

This is hardly the first monumental controversy the Mall has ever seen. In fact, politicians, veterans, and everyday citizens have long battled over how, why, when, and where to commemorate public figures and events, starting with George Washington—an indisputable American hero if ever there was one.

"[Monuments] are good for nothing," said one congressman on the House floor in 1800, in response to a proposed memorial tomb for the father of our country; he later labeled monuments as "pernicious acts of ostentation."

Since then, "almost every memorial built in Washington, especially on the Mall, has been the subject of some sort of protest or dissent," says Erika Doss, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. "People don't like its location, its style, its cost—there are all sorts of reasons."

Kirk Savage, a professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, believes that's because these shrines tend to have the final say—carved in stone—on our national history: "This is the time when people get to decide what this event or what this person, what their significance is going to be for all time, and all the various divisions that come out in a democratic society are going to come out—political, racial, and so on," he says.

"Unlike histories or biographies, which can be perpetually revised and countered over time, a monument achieves a kind of sacred, untouchable status."

With the Reflecting Pool area cleared of demonstrators, at least for now, it seems as good a time as any to revisit D.C.'s most monumental disputes, according to Savage, who is also the author of Monument Wars: Washington, D.C, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape.

1. The Washington Monument. The first serious federal discussion about a national monument—the aforementioned 1800 proposal to build a memorial for our first president—quickly erupted into a political mêlée. "The gist was that the federalists wanted a big tomb monument to Washington as a symbol of federalized centralized power, and the democratic republicans didn't want to have Washington's example or memory used to legitimate a symbol of strong central power," says Savage.

Flash forward to 1833, when the quest to build a shrine to Washington resurfaced—initially funded by a private group and later taken over by the federal government—but was still contentious, with critics questioning the obelisk design. "A lot of people thought it was going to look like a chimney, and questioned the scale of it, as well as the cost," says Savage, who notes that it ultimately took more than 50 years to complete.

2. The World War II Memorial. In addition to public debate over the grand scale and neoclassical appearance of this shrine to the "greatest generation"—which was once compared to the "pompous" architecture of Hitler and Mussolini—its location smack dab in the middle of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial threatened to derail the entire project.

"This memorial radically changed the whole landscape created by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.," says Savage. "The fact that it was going to be a visual intrusion on the Mall but also a physical barrier that interrupts the circulation between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial—that area that has historically been so important for demonstrations and protests—people did not like that."

3. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Given that Vietnam is one of the most controversial wars in American history, it's no surprise that the memorial dedicated to its soldiers was so contentious and divisive. Vicious criticisms were targeted mainly at the design, including the fact that the long, black granite wall slopes underground, resembling a dark tombstone or burial pit that many opponents labeled antiwar and antipatriotic, says Savage.

"Some of the right-wing opponents had problems with the decision to inscribe all the names of the dead because they felt that was focusing too much on the enormous cost of war and American lives, and not giving significant recognition to the veterans who fought and survived," he explains. In a concession meant to keep the project on track, a flagpole and statue of soldiers were later erected close by.

4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Memorial. Another long project 50 years in the making, the final version of this memorial was criticized for its large size, its cost, and the absence of any sign of FDR's polio or resulting disability. Some also disagreed with the choice of inscriptions, like one that seemed to indicate that he was antiwar.

"There was a good deal of political controversy over his legacy ... with right-wing critics saying he was basically being turned into a politically correct 90's liberal," says Savage, who notes that the inscriptions weren't altered but a statue of FDR in his wheelchair was eventually added.

5. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial. What started primarily as a debate over the 30-foot-high (9-meter-high) white marble sculpture of King, from its appearance and massive size to the fact that it was carved by a Chinese architect instead of an American or African-American artist, turned into a national furor over a paraphrased inscription on its base. "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness" became a lightning rod for a range of critics, including poet Maya Angelou, who said the shortened verse made King "look like an arrogant twit."

This sort of outcry "gets more to the issue of monument content and decision making—how the inscriptions were chosen, who edited them, and the lack of transparency," says Savage. But proving that even things set in stone aren't always, well, set in stone, the offending inscription was removed this summer. "To my knowledge, that [type of change] is unprecedented," says Savage.

What's the next monumental battle in store? Assuming the shutdown ends reasonably soon, the most contentious fight on the Mall today continues to be the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, which was authorized by Congress in 1999 but has been held up by disagreements over its Frank Gehry design (which the 34th president's granddaughter likened to "a theme park") and $142 million price tag, among other issues.