Every once in awhile my proximity to the nation’s capital results in interesting opportunities. I got a chance to visit the White House somewhat by luck to see the 2015 Christmas decorations displayed for public viewing. This was the standard public tour — I’m no VIP just an average citizen — although it happened to occur during a particularly scenic time of the year. It also served as a reminder that the White House was more than a residence for the President; it was also the people’s house and a museum.
I won’t be discussing any geo-oddities today so feel free to come back when I post the next article, or enjoy some holiday photos I took as I walked through rooms on exhibit.
I’d been to the grounds of the White House several times before, most recently for the Easter Egg Roll in 2013, although I’d never been inside the actual building. I’d never gotten around to it in spite of living in the Washington, DC area my entire life. Getting tickets always seemed like such an chore. However this time I practically had tickets handed to me so I couldn’t turn them down. Now I believe I’ve completed perhaps every tourist attraction in my hometown, which is saying a lot.
National Christmas Tree
We arrived with plenty of time to spare so we began our adventure by strolling down to the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse. The wife and kids enjoyed wandering amongst the many state and territorial trees while I took a short detour over to the Zero Milestone marker to pay my respects. Certainly there was time to find the closest piece of weird geography before starting our tour.
East Visitor Landing
Envision the strictest possible airport security imaginable and that’s what it was like trying to get onto the White House grounds. They’d collected enough personal information ahead of time to completely steal my identity if that’s what they’d really wanted. I guess we checked out because we saw ourselves on the list and they let us proceed to the first of several sequential security lines. This included two separate positive identification checks, a stroll past sniffing dogs, and finally a passage through the magnetometer. I joked that we’d probably get through all of the lines only to discover that we’d reach the end of the tour; we’d find ourselves back on Pennsylvania Avenue after the final check. The ordeal of getting into the White House took longer than the time we actually spent inside, although I wasn’t complaining. I’d actually been concerned ahead of time that maybe the tour might be canceled due to recent events so I was fine with it taking as long as necessary.
Finally we made it up to the East Visitor Landing, greeted by giant cutout penguins as we entered the doorway.
One recent change made me happy, and made this article possible. The White House had prohibited visitor photographs for more than forty years before lifting the ban in July. I wasn’t allowed to bring my good camera or use a flash, although my mobile phone camera passed muster and served well enough. I began snapping as soon as I entered the East Colonnade and I didn’t stop until I exited on the front lawn. I figured I might never get another chance.
The colonnade featured hand-cut paper snowflakes dangling from the ceiling. Naturally I had to find the Virginia snowflake.
East Garden Room
I felt sorry for the bust of Abraham Lincoln stuck behind a Christmas tree. He had a better view during the rest of the year, of the south lawn and the Washington Monument in the distance.
Vermeil seemed to be an unusual word. What was it, and why would anyone name a room for it? The explanation was pretty mundane: it was a fancy name for gold plated silverware. Someone gifted of set of silverware to the White House that was placed in the room. The name stuck.
The East Room was the largest room in the White House. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a reception held by the President it’s likely to have occurred within this room. It occupied the entire short width of the White House with views both of the north and south lawns from its windows. That’s when I realized that the White House may be a large residence although it wasn’t a particularly large building. Those famous receptions must get pretty crowded. The average ballroom in a mid-tier hotel would likely be larger than the stately East Room. I imagined the East Room was probably decorated a lot nicer, though.
Then we came to three rooms named for different colors, the first being the Green Room. Notice, indeed it was green.
Following came the Blue Room. The tree here was considered the "official" White House Christmas tree. I don’t know what distinguished it from the several dozen other trees spread throughout the house, or whether the title went with the Blue Room itself. This tree, according to the brochure we received, was a Fraser fir from Lehighton, Pennsylvania. It certainly looked resplendent.
Could the Twelve Mile Circle audience guess the name of this room? Why yes, of course, it was the Red Room, the most distinctly hued of the three colored rooms. The Red Room was associated with Dolly Madison in particular, wife of the fourth President of the United States, James Madison. Christmas decorations mirrored the crimson theme, with strands of cranberries and garlands of red apples and pomegranates. I know it was probably terrible that all I could think of was REDRUM from The Shining whenever I heard Red Room. I didn’t want to say anything out loud though. I’m sure the Secret Service agents wouldn’t have appreciated it.
State Dining Room
I think I liked the State Dining Room most off all, with its giant nutcrackers and a scaled version of the White House made of gingerbread. This was a smaller space than the East Room and was used for more intimate receptions.
Before long, once completing our leisurely stroll through the public rooms, we found ourselves out on the front lawn. It amazed me to stand right there in front of the White House at such a famous, iconic position. What an incredible privilege. How many other nations open the homes of their leaders to public tours?
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours.
I mentioned that no airport existed within the physical boundaries of the District of Columbia in the recently posted Airport Visits article. That would block me from ever traveling through airports in every state/territory/district in the United States. I wanted to put a little asterisk next to the claim. That certainly held true for commercial aviation, whether general aviation or scheduled airline service. It also applied to fixed wing aircraft. It might be possible if the President ever invited me along for a ride on Marine One and we landed at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling by helicopter. I didn’t think the influence of Twelve Mile Circle would ever grow strong enough to make that happen so it remained an elusive goal.
It shouldn’t have been that way. National Airport (later renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) really should have been part of the District of Columbia. Even the airport itself noted the inherent contradiction.
Was the airport located in Virginia or the District of Columbia? The District "owned" the Potomac River to Virginia, claiming the boundary had been set in 1846 at the high water mark along the shoreline. But since the airport was built on a fill, a new eastern shoreline was created. The question arose as to whether the District’s authority ended at the new shore or the original one. The problem went unresolved until 1945 when Congress approved a bill that fixed the airport boundary at the mean high water mark, regardless of changes, which placed the airport in Virginia.
Certainly the original boundaries would have been preserved had airport construction taken place along a border between two states instead of a state and a Federal district. Open hostilities would have erupted if any state ever attempted such a blatant land grab against another, and it would have been overturned by the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the District of Columbia didn’t have the power to fight back and National Airport became a part of Virginia. In a sense I feel like I’ve landed at an airport in DC a couple of hundred times although the law says I’ve actually landed in Arlington, Virginia.
I wondered if the feat might have been possible during the early days of flight. I couldn’t find a single reference to a commercial airport operating within the borders of the District of Columbia (other than the early ambiguity of National Airport). Perhaps nobody in the entire history of aviation ever took a scheduled airline flight into or out of an airport within the physical boundaries of Washington, DC.
Military flights, well, that was a completely different story.
There was a long history of fixed wing aircraft flights into and out of Naval Support Facility Anacostia and Bolling Field, now joined together as Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling. There were two separate airstrips constructed on the drained mudflats along the eastern side of the Anacostia/Potomac River confluence, very much within the borders of the District. Only a short taxiway separated the two airfields so they were essentially conjoined, although they were operated separately by the Navy and the Army (later the Air Force). I mentioned the situation briefly in More Oddities in Washington, DC back in 2010. I said at the time that "I’ve done some additional research on this topic and I expect to post an in-depth article someday in the future." Well, five years passed and I finally got around to it. I never claimed that 12MC was prompt or efficient.
I found a great resource that discussed aviation history at both facilities, Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: Washington, DC. It included tons of photographs and maps for those who might be interested in the details. Apparently from about 1917 until 1962, fixed wing military aircraft landed routinely at both sites. During the World War II, as the source stated, Anacostia even became "a primary training base for naval aviation." The party ended on July 1, 1962 when "the last fixed-wing flight departed Bolling AFB, a C-54 carrying 33 passengers & 6 crew members, bound for nearby Andrews AFB." The runways had to close for two primary reasons: they were too short for jet aircraft and National Airport stood directly across the river with some of the busiest commercial runways in the nation. The likelihood of a collision between military and civilian aircraft only increased as the years passed until it became an unmanageable risk.
Fear not, aviation continued even after runway removal at Anacostia and Bolling. The focus shifted from airplanes to helicopters. The military constructed a control tower and hangers still used today, clearly visible along the banks of the river opposite from National Airport. For many years "Marine One," the helicopter that transported the President of the United States on short trips, used Anacostia as its base.
Marine Helicopter Squadron One now operates out of of Quantico in Virginia although it continues to maintain a detachment at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling. One can still see helicopters landing and lifting off from their facility within the District of Columbia regularly.
A handful of civilian flights actually landed in the District within the last few decades although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. The latest involved a small gyrocopter landing on the grounds of the Capitol in April 2015 as a protest in support of campaign finance reform. Authorities arrested the perpetrator immediately. As the Federal Aviation Administration warned,
The airspace around Washington, D.C. is more restricted than in any other part of the country. Rules put in place after the 9/11 attacks establish "national defense airspace" over the area and limit aircraft operations to those with an FAA and Transportation Security Administration authorization. Violators face stiff fines and criminal penalties.
Even drones were prohibited "within a 30-mile radius of Ronald-Reagan Washington National Airport." That’s right, I’m prohibited by law from flying a drone anywhere near my own home! Sadly, I believe it would be statistically impossible for me to ever fly into the District in any manner, and even more unlikely to arrive within its borders on a scheduled airline service. Loyal Reader "Peter" mentioned that the state of Delaware lacked any scheduled airline service too, albeit its largest city, Wilmington had been served in the past. There might be some hope that service could return to Delaware someday. I don’t think that will ever happen in the District of Columbia, though.
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.