I sat there cycling through television channels aimlessly the other day like I do when I’m bored. I came across a famous a scene from one of the Rocky movies where the hero Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) started running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (map). You know the scene I’m talking about.
He’s climbing the steps triumphantly to a soundtrack of "Gonna Fly Now" and you know someone’s about to get a pounding. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which movie it was — apparently Stallone recreated the scene in just about every Rocky movie — although it did get me thinking. Movie locations aside(¹), were there any genuine historical events that happened on steps or stairs?
On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial
The occurrence that came to mind immediately was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (map) in 1963. The site selected by Dr. King was highly symbolic, as it was the 100th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that trumpeted freedom for slaves living within Confederate states then in rebellion. He drew obvious parallels between the Lincoln of old and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, recognizing Lincoln’s achievements while signaling the struggle continued.
Those same steps featured prominently in another Civil Rights milestone a generation earlier when Marian Anderson sang from that spot in 1939. She’d already earned fame as a classical vocalist, a contralto. She performed on those steps because she’d been denied a performance hall in the city.
Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
The DAR refused to relent in spite of withering criticism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, writing "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization failed."
Fifty thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson perform on the Lincoln Memorial steps; many times more than would have heard her at the indoor venue. The Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regretted it actions later and invited Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall several times beginning in 1943.
Many Mesoamerican societies practiced human sacrifice in the centuries preceding European contact. The Aztec of central México took the practice to an entirely new level. There were many varieties of ritual and sacrifice although it was human sacrifices particularly that attracted the most attention of armchair historians. Bloodletting reached its pinnacle at Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, now in modern day Mexico City (map).
At the climax of the ceremony, prisoners of war were taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid leading to two shrines. Held down, the victims’ abdomens were sliced open by high priests wielding ceremonial knives, and their hearts – still beating – were raised to the spirits above and the crowd in the sacred precinct below. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were then kicked down the stairs, and as one followed another, these flowed with blood, bright red against the white of the temple walls. Over the four days of the opening ceremony, some 4,000 prisoners were killed to satisfy the Aztec gods.
That was hardly the only time in history where violence happened on stairways.
The Roman leader Julius Caesar met his demise on a set of steps at the Theatre of Pompey in Rome in 44 BCE, now at the Largo di Torre Argentina (map).
Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.
This was considered a triggering event. Afterwards the Roman Republic (with consuls elected by citizens) that had lasted for five hundred years transitioned into the Roman Empire (led by emperors).
Other noteworthy events
On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building (map): Congressman William Taulbee was shot to death in 1890; and Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita consummated an adult relationship in the early 1980’s (although she now denies it), a sideshow to his bribery convictions.(²)
On the steps of the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach(map): A serial killer murdered famed fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997.
On the steps of the Avon Theater in Stratford, Ontario (map): Last prize goes to a set of stairs in Canada where Justin Bieber often sat busking for tips before he became famous.
I could probably find some more examples although that Justin Bieber thing discouraged me. I can hardly wait for all of the Bieber-related Google Ads that will now start popping onto my screen for the next month.
It dawned on me recently, as I drove around the Washington, DC area, that there seemed to be an inordinate number of reversible road lanes that switched directions on regular schedules. The occurrence that got me thinking about this was a one-block section of Washington Boulevard (map) on the western edge of Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood
I’ve driven through that slot a number of times and I never gave it much of a second thought. It seemed rather self-explanatory. Overhead lights with green arrows and red x’s denoted lanes that could be traversed depending on prevailing morning or evening traffic patterns. It made sense even if it lasted for such a short distance. It was the only three lane segment with four lanes radiating from either end. It saved on construction costs.
The variety of different types of reversible lanes also surprised me as I started ticking-off some nearby examples.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge (map) connecting Maryland’s eastern shore to the rest of the state provided yet another example of overhead lights signaling traffic flow. The bridge accommodated prevailing traffic to and from Atlantic Ocean resorts especially during the summertime. More lanes opened towards the beach on Fridays and pointed back towards home on Sundays, almost like the ebb and flow of tides.
Overhead lights exposed an inherit problem: people needed to understand that lanes could reverse and they also needed to know what the symbols meant. "Stupid Young Driver on Cell Phone" had obvious difficulties with one or both of those concepts.
Chain Bridge (map) had three lanes stretching across the Potomac River between Arlington and Washington, with the middle lane reversible. Only a single sign told motorists about the unusual situation (Street View). Presumably daily commuters traveling over the bridge during critical hours would already understand the situation. Woe to the poor visitor who happened to cross the bridge at an inopportune time and not see the sign.
Another Potomac River bridge between Arlington and Washington, the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge (map) offered a better solution. The reversible section had a concrete barrier to keep drivers from making a mistake. An odd little machine moved the barrier twice a day to accommodate commuters. This unusual arrangement was created by Lindsay Transportation Solutions.
The moveable barrier system enables the DOT to quickly reconfigure traffic lanes and directional capacity on the bridge in less than 15 minutes (the bridge is just under one mile in length). The Barrier Transfer Machine (BTM) safely transfers the barrier one or two traffic lanes at speeds from seven to ten miles per hour. A magnetic tape grooved into the pavement guides the BTM and ensures precise placement of the barrier wall.
That seemed a lot safer than signs or overhead lights.
Completely Reversible with a Sign
IMG_4012 by bankbryan, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Some of our local roads were completely reversible. The Rock Creek Parkway (map) — actually called the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway in official terms, which I didn’t know until a few minutes ago — operated with two lanes in both directions most of the time. However in the morning all four lanes headed towards Washington and all four lanes returned traffic to the suburbs in the evening. Monday through Friday. Except Federal holidays. Make an error reading a sign (Street View) and find oneself heading towards the wrong way on a four-lane highway.
I would stay away from here on Columbus Day. Federal government employees are about the only people who get the day off. Imagine everyone else forgetting about that quirk and thinking it was a normal Monday commute. Yikes!
A stretch of Interstate 95 and Interstate 395 (map) from Northern Virginia into the District featured two High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that switched directions for the morning and evening commutes, sandwiched between and completely separate from the regular highway lanes. These are being converted into High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes although the concept will remain largely the same.
These seemed considerably safer. Barrier arms blocked access to ramps that led to these special lanes so that cars traveling in the "wrong" direction couldn’t make a mistake. The arms raised when the lanes reversed and it was safe to travel that direction again.
There were several more reversible lanes in the area that I didn’t have space to mention. Also Wikipedia had an entire article devoted to reversible lanes in other parts of the world so I imagined they were rather prevalent. It was funny how I’ve grown so used to seeing them that I never considered how weird they seemed conceptually.
After examining birthplaces for the Presidents of the United States, I shifted gears and did the same for the places where they died. This proved to be a little more problematic because greater attention had been focused on their exact places of birth, undoubtedly because it’s a more cheerful subject. I began with the shared spreadsheet compiled in the prior article and added columns for all of the presidential death locations, including as many exact latitude/longitude coordinates as I could find and links to appropriate websites for more information.
I then overlaid presidential death locations onto the earlier birthplaces map. Some sites might be worth visiting. They included palatial estates later converted to museums and often co-located with presidential libraries. Others, well, I’m not convinced I need to visit the hospital room where Richard Nixon died of a cerebral edema.
I could imagine a subset of macabre presidential trivia aficionados focused on the eight Chief Executives who died in office. That would be a bit morbid for my tastes, and yet I’ve trudged over to Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House to see where Abraham Lincoln was shot and died. James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy were also felled by assassins. The other four, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt died of natural causes.
Garfield barely served as President, elected just a few months before he was shot by a delusional office-seeker in the waiting room of a Washington, DC train station in 1881. He may have been killed as much by the inept medical attention he received after his injury as by the bullet itself.
Had Garfield been left where he lay, he might well have survived; the bullet failed to hit his spine or penetrate any vital organs. Instead, he was given over to the care of doctors, who basically tortured him to death over the next 11 weeks. Two of them repeatedly probed his wound with their unsterilized fingers and instruments before having him carted back to the White House on a hay-and-horsehair mattress.
Doctors eventually brought the suffering Garfield to a summer cottage on the New Jersey shore in a last-ditch hope that fresh air and cooler temperatures might revive him. Nothing remains of the original cottage and only a granite marker records the place where Garfield spent his final few days.
Woodrow Wilson’s House by JB, on Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
Presidents died in a more dispersed pattern than where they were born. Nonetheless two clusters demonstrated the opposite extreme and offered much tighter groupings than any of the birthplace clusters. Neither location surprised me, nor will they likely surprise the 12MC audience.
Many former presidents remained politically active as they grew older and retained their ties to Washington, DC. One might expect that some of them died there. I counted seven. Three died in office within the physical boundaries of District: Lincoln, W.H. Harrison and Taylor (the last two passed away in the White House). John Quincy Adams died in the Speaker’s Room of the US Capitol Building. Dwight Eisenhower died at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Woodrow Wilson and William Taft died at their post-administration mansions. Wilson’s home included 39,200 square feet of livable space. Taft’s home became the Syrian Embassy (until ordered closed in March 2014). Maybe I’ll undertake a Presidential Death Location tour for an upcoming 12MC Bicycle Ride.
If not politics, then financial power would seem to be attractive to people of this elevated stature. Four of the former presidents ended their days in Manhattan: James Monroe; Chester Arthur; Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon.
Ulysees S. Grant Cottage by Selbe & Lily, on Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
I scratched my head in bewilderment at some of the places where presidents died. I never would have guessed that Garfield died at the Jersey Shore. Monroe in Manhattan seemed odd too. He’d spent the bulk of his retirement in Virginia and moved-in with his daughter Maria only after his wife passed away. Maria had married Samuel L. Gouverneur, a New York City attorney and politician.
The placement of Ulysses Grant’s death also seemed out of context, a cottage in the woods north of Saratoga Springs, New York. Grant spent the final six weeks of his life at the cottage rushing to complete his memoirs. He died of throat cancer three days after finishing his task. The book provided financial comfort for his family after his death and remains in print.
Some former presidents managed to escape office and retired to lifestyles with less pressure. Many of them resided on sprawling estates and lived well as they grew older and eventually passed away there: Thomas Jefferson at Monticello; Andrew Jackson at The Hermitage; Rutherford Hayes at Spiegel Grove; Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill; Lyndon Johnson at his Johnson Ranch. Even later presidents like Gerald Ford seemed to live in style, with Ford’s home situated conveniently along a golf course in Rancho Mirage, California.
There were other gems. I’ll leave the rest of the spreadsheet to the 12MC audience to explore.