Articles > People & Politics
If These Stones Could Talk
Washington Was Built With Lots of Beautiful Marble and Granite.Here’s Why the City Looks the Way It Does.
IN THE BEGINNING, WASHINGTON WAS LITTLE MORE THAN WOODS, swamps, and farms punctuated by the Potomac River and the villages of Georgetown and Alexandria—its future as a great city dependent on its designation, in 1790, as the permanent capital of the United States. With the federal government scheduled to move from Philadelphia in 1800, the preceding decade was filled with urgency in constructing appropriate buildings for Congress and the President.
Most houses in the young nation were made of wood, with a few public structures and upper-class homes done in brick. But George Washington, the Virginian who had chosen the site for the new capital and was then president, decided that Washington's most visible official buildings would be built of stone.
Stone was the standard for the finest buildings in Europe, and Washington believed that the United States, having so recently won its independence, would be taken seriously only if it erected a capital that could compete with Old World grandeur. There was a political consideration too: It was possible, in the absence of rock-solid buildings in Washington, that the government would stay in Philadelphia after all.
Ever since the first stones rose to form the walls of the White House and Capitol, this ancient material has helped define Washington's meaning and appearance. Marble, granite, limestone, and sandstone were used to build many of Washington's iconic structures—memorials, government buildings, art galleries, libraries, and churches. In these stones is written much of America's national history, democratic idealism, and mythology—enough to draw millions of people here on pilgrimages each year.
Part of the appeal of stone as a building material is its durability, suggesting permanence amid the ephemeral. Stone endures, which is why we use it to mark events and people we wish to remember, whether it's a natural landmark like Plymouth Rock or the rows of white marble at Arlington National Cemetery. Stone also has gravitas—a seriousness appropriate for grand gestures of patriotism, religion, and culture.
The stones of Washington also have a universal quality, connecting the city to distant places. The marble on the face of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts comes from Carrara, in northern Italy, not far from where Michelangelo selected the stone from which he carved "David" and "Pietà."
Fashioned into buildings and monuments, the cold, hard face of stone has the power to arouse our deepest emotions and senses. At the southwest corner of the National Gallery's East Building, thousands of people have walked up to touch the sharp edge of the marble. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial relatives and friends, sometimes in tears, place paper over the names of the lost, as if in some ancient graveyard, to make rubbings to be carried away as remembrance.
But the stones of Washington—like those of Rome or Athens or Florence—appeal mostly to the eye with their varied colors, textures, and shapes. White stone predominates—with the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, and the monuments to Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson all set off in a backdrop of green parks. Accumulated over 200 years, these structures are both immutable and changeable—their beauty shifting as the light of each day moves from dawn to dusk, with the passing of each season, with the coming of glaring sun or a cooling rain.
Professional critics have not always been kind to these marble monuments, often finding them cold and imperious knockoffs of the classical world. Ada Louise Huxtable, once the architecture critic of the New York Times, was among the harshest: "Nowhere have more banal buildings been erected in the name of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome."
Yet even she had trouble denying their popular appeal or being moved herself. "There is an hour before twilight, with the glow of the sun still illuminating the horizon, when serene white buildings stand luminous against a clear sky, set stagily amidst the flowers or foliage of a warm spring evening or the bare branches of a crisp winter day. Then the city is touched with its own magic. The eye rejoices and the soul expands. It is an act of love between citizen and stone."
SETTING THE BOUNDARY STONES
THE BEST PLACE TO BEGIN EXPLORING THE STONES OF WASHINGton is at Great Falls, just above the DC line, where the Potomac narrows and makes an exhilarating plunge on its way toward the Chesapeake Bay. It is one of the most primal sights in Washington, where great jagged rocks are the result of a process of erosion that began 2 million years ago. It also marks the fall line, where the higher ground of the Piedmont gives way to the low-lying Coastal Plain—a 150-foot drop from the top of Great Falls to Little Falls just downstream. This line is one reason Washington is where it is. If politics dictated that the capital would be placed along the Potomac, the barrier to shipping created by the falls guaranteed it would be downriver.
Besides Great Falls and Little Falls, the best-known geological landmarks along the Potomac are Point of Rocks, where Route 15 crosses the river from Loudoun County into Frederick; Carderock, which is just northwest of the Beltway and is often crowded with climbers; and the Three Sisters, those little islands in the middle of the river just north of Key Bridge.
Braddock's Rock, the most prominent formation in Washington's earliest days, no longer exists. It jutted into the Potomac southeast of the site of the Kennedy Center, so prominent that it was known as the "key of all keys," the point where surveyors began marking off property lines. Over the years it was chipped and blasted away to provide stone for the White House, the Capitol, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, leaving so little that it is now visible only by peering into a dark well, marked with a plaque, that sits along the entry ramp at the east end of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge.
THE EARLIEST OF WASHINGTON'S NOTEWORTHY STONES DATE TO 1791, and they are a reminder that the seat of government was an exercise in urban planning rather than a result of natural economic growth. The Potomac site was the result of a political compromise worked out by Alexander Hamilton of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia—a compromise in which Jefferson got a site straddling Maryland and his home state of Virginia and Hamilton got federal money to pay off New York's debts from the Revolutionary War. Jefferson thought the federal district should include only a few hundred acres, but George Washington and the French planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant carried the day, insisting on something bigger—a perfect square, ten miles on each side.
Establishing the boundary lines fell to a surveyor named Andrew Ellicott—whose family founded Ellicott City, Maryland—assisted by a free black man named Benjamin Banneker, who was a skilled mathematician and astronomer. Ellicott, Banneker, and their crew began work early in 1791 just below Old Town Alexandria at a place near Hunting Creek known as Jones Point. Here they set up a seminal boundary stone, then proceeded with a simple plan. They ran a line ten miles to the northwest, made a 90-degree turn and marked off ten more miles; with two more turns they were back at Jones Point, having created a square. Measurements were taken with a chain, swaths 40 feet wide were cleared through the woods along the lines, and some crewmen were killed by falling trees.
Every mile along the way, the surveyors left behind a boundary stone about a foot square and protruding about two feet above the ground—marked with JURISDICTION OF THE UNITED STATES on one side and either MARYLAND or VIRGINIA on the other. That line is still visible on maps today, even on the Virginia side of the river, though that portion of the federal district was returned to the commonwealth in 1846.
The boundary stones have been subject to vandalism and neglect over the years, though most of the 40 originals have been located and protected with wrought-iron fences, preservation work done by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Many have been engulfed by modern life—moved to make way for streets, isolated on highway median strips, standing on suburban lawns—while others are in public parks; the first stone at Jones Point is encased in a concrete bunker to protect it from the lapping waters of the Potomac. It turns out, according to surveys with modern instruments, that the boundary stones are slightly misplaced—the corners off by as little as 63 feet to as much as 263 feet.
Stones had many other uses in early Washington. They were laid in the streets to overcome the cursed mud that European visitors always sneered at as a sign of the capital's primitive nature—sometimes cobblestones, like those on display today along a small section of Prince Street in Old Town Alexandria, or paving stones like those found on a few streets in Georgetown. Though wood and brick were more common, stone was used for a few homes, like the Old Stone House on M Street, which is made of "rubble stone." In 1822, the city counted 32 stonecutters, masons, and quarrymen among its citizens, nearly the same as the number of tavern keepers (33) and blacksmiths (39).
Stones were used by farmers, who piled them into fences that stood without the aid of mortar. Pierce Mill in Rock Creek Park is a surviving example of the use of stone both for the great circular wheels that ground wheat into flour and for the building that housed it. Several stone bridges in the area became famous during the Civil War as sites of pivotal maneuvers during the battles at Bull Run and Antietam. And stones were commonplace in Washington's early cemeteries, including Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill, which still has many "cenotaphs" commemorating congressmen from the 19th century whose bodies are actually interred back home.
STONE ALSO WAS USED IN THE BUILDING OF THE C&O CANAL, THE engineering project that George Washington promoted as a way of linking the new capital to the developing American frontier. Begun in 1828, the canal proved no match for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, whose construction began on the same day along much of the same route beside the Potomac. A lot of the canal's stonework survives, in locks and lockkeeper houses, protected by the National Park Service. Stone also was used in aqueduct bridges to carry the canal across rivers and creeks, the most impressive of which is a 516-foot span over the Monocacy River in Frederick County.
All of this stone, cut by immigrant Irish workers, came from quarries in the Potomac Valley, especially one that is still visible along the canal near Little Falls. Much earlier, aboriginal people had fashioned stone from such quarries into weapons, tools, and vessels; more than two dozen of these sites have been identified in DC, 17 in the rocky glen of Rock Creek Park.
The stone for Washington's first great public buildings, the White House and the Capitol, came from a Virginia quarry near Aquia Creek, which flows into the Potomac about 40 miles south of the city in Stafford County. It is sandstone, formed during the Lower Cretaceous period, and was known as "Virginia freestone" because it was easier than other stone to extract and cut. It had been used since colonial days for tombstones and decorative elements on brick buildings. Stone steps and walkways at Mount Vernon came from Aquia, as did those boundary stones set by Andrew Ellicott.
Another attraction of Aquia stone was its proximity, a consideration in an age before railroads, when transporting such heavy material over long distances was nearly impossible. Getting stone to Washington was not easy. Cut with sledgehammers and wedges by laborers, including slaves, the big blocks were carried on sledges pulled by oxen and loaded aboard sailing ships for the trip down Aquia Creek and then up the Potomac to the building sites. So much stone was required that the government bought the major quarry at Aquia—a deal struck by L'Enfant, perhaps because he was savvy enough to realize that it was owned by a relative of one of the city's three appointed commissioners.
The White House was started first, beginning in 1792. The walls were faced with the sandstone from Aquia but lined with bricks, manufactured on site in a tradition that went back to Jamestown and derived from the fact that it was economical to take advantage of the clay and sand available nearly everywhere. Skilled stonecutters and masons were in such short supply in America that they were imported from Scotland.
Aquia stone is one of the White House's secrets: The building's brilliant-white appearance comes from a coat of paint, not from the stone itself, which is more creamlike in color. The first paint was applied as a protective measure shortly after construction, when it became apparent that the soft Aquia sandstone was cracking and discoloring when exposed to rain and snow. Dubbed the President's Palace by L'Enfant and changed to the President's House by Thomas Jefferson, the building became known popularly as the White House by the early 1800s, though the name was not officially changed until 1901.
The Aquia quarry also was the first source of stone for the Capitol, whose construction began in 1793 with the laying of a cornerstone by George Washington in a Masonic ceremony followed by an ox roast. Burned by the British in 1814, enlarged and rebuilt several times over the past two centuries, the Capitol still contains some of this original stone, including the unusual interior columns with capitals carved as corn ears. Over the years, stone for the Capitol has come from many other quarries. One near Leesburg provided "calico rock" that was used for columns in Statuary Hall.
AS THE GOVERNMENT PUT UP OTHER BUILDINGS, THE OFFICIAL style was based on a revival of Greek and Roman architecture. Classicism was the preference of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, an amateur architect who used classical designs for his University of Virginia campus and the Virginia state capitol and who advised L'Enfant to look at "models of antiquity" for inspiration. Goose Creek, which ran along the route of modern Constitution Avenue, was renamed Tiber Creek after Rome's famous river, and the Capitol was a term drawn from Rome's Capitoline Hill. All this was thought to link the American capital to classical political ideals, though later critics complained that it made Washington look a bit like a Cecil B. De Mille movie set.
Neoclassical architecture was popular throughout America in the pre-Civil War era but especially so in Washington, where the first of hundreds of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns began to appear. Three examples from those years still stand: the Treasury building, its location decreed by President Andrew Jackson, forever blocking the view between the Capitol and the White House in defiance of the L'Enfant plan; the Patent Office, which now houses the Smithsonian's American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery; and the early City Post Office, which later was headquarters of the Tariff Commission and has now been converted to a hotel. Both Treasury and the Patent Office were built with stone from Aquia.
Eventually this stone fell out of favor, too susceptible to deterioration from moisture. In the late 1950s, when the East Front of the Capitol was expanded, the original 32-foot Aquia columns were removed and replaced by sturdier marble; they were saved and erected many years later in a field at the National Arboretum. The Aquia columns on the east side of Treasury were replaced with granite ones in 1908, the old ones dumped as landfill to support the Lincoln Memorial.
To this day the National Park Service keeps a supply of Aquia stone for the repair of the White House and other public buildings. The original quarry has been bought by Stafford County with plans to turn it into an historic park.
Another early source of stone for public buildings was a Montgomery County quarry where Seneca Creek flows into the Potomac River—which made it accessible by barges via the C&O Canal. The rock there was sandstone but of a darker, redder hue, and it often was called "Washington brownstone." It was the stone chosen for the Smithsonian Castle, the medieval structure on the Mall designed by James Renwick and finished in 1855, but it also was used in the floors of the Capitol, in the C&O Canal, and in the beautiful arched bridge that carries the water supply for Washington over Cabin John Creek.
The city's tallest structure in stone, the white obelisk honoring George Washington, took nearly 40 years to build. From the beginning there was an intention to create a memorial to the man who had served as commanding general during the Revolution and as the country's first president, but the first effort had been a disappointment.
An American sculptor named Horatio Greenough completed a 12-ton marble statue of Washington that created a scandal when it arrived from Italy in 1840 because it depicted the hero of the Republic sitting in a chair looking like a Roman emperor nude to the waist. "The man does not live, and never did live, who saw Washington without his shirt," cried one statesman, and the massive work began a long descent into obscurity. A door of the Capitol had to be enlarged to get it into the Rotunda, which began to sink from the weight. It was then moved to a plaza outside where it became the butt of jokes: "Take my sword if you will, but bring me some clothes." Today it's displayed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
The Washington National Monument Society, founded by a group of citizens in 1833, sponsored a design competition won by Robert Mills, who proposed a 600-foot obelisk surrounded by a 100-foot-high colonnaded temple. The soil at the preferred site, on an axis running due south from the White House and due west from the Capitol, was too soft to support such a heavy structure, so the cornerstone was laid in 1848 about 360 feet to the east and 120 feet to the south. The first marble blocks came from a quarry north of Baltimore owned by an ancestor of the Symington family, which later became politically prominent and included Stuart Symington, a senator from Missouri, and his son James, a Washington attorney who once served as a Missouri congressman and State Department chief of protocol.
Lack of funds forced the abandonment of the colonnaded temple, which made the monument far simpler and which many people consider one of the luckiest accidents in the city's architectural history. One fundraising scheme—getting various groups to donate the engraved memorial stones that were later embedded in the obelisk—led to a political mess. When a stone was contributed by Pope Pius IX, the anti-Catholics of the Know-Nothing Party smashed it and took control of the monument society's records and leadership—prompting Congress to cut off funds.
By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the monument stood just over a quarter of its eventual height. As the war proceeded and Abraham Lincoln ordered work to continue on the cast-iron dome of the Capitol as a sign that the Union would endure, the Washington Monument stood as a forlorn stump. Around its base were cow sheds and a slaughterhouse supplying beef to Union troops, who were encamped nearby. Mark Twain said the monument looked like a "factory chimney with the top broken off."
TEMPLES OF WHITE MARBLE
AFTER THE CIVIL WAR, WASHINGTON BEGAN TO EMERGE AS A real city with new streets, trolley lines, and a bureaucracy staffed by civil servants. Statues of Union generals began to appear in the city's parks, some of stone, others of bronze atop stone pedestals. On the hills below Robert E. Lee's mansion in Arlington, which had been commandeered for a military cemetery during the war, were thousands of graves marked by wooden headstones. But their deterioration and the cost of replacement forced the authorization in 1873 of the marble markers that stand there today.
The war also led to the construction of the Pension Building to house the clerks who did the paperwork for veterans' benefits—a building that now houses the National Building Museum. Stone was considered too expensive, so Montgomery Meigs, the Army engineer who had built the Washington water-supply system before the war and was involved in the creation of Arlington National Cemetery, designed the world's largest building made of bricks (15.5 million in all). In the soaring space within, long a favorite place for inaugural balls, stand eight Corinthian columns 25 feet in circumference and 75 feet tall. They are made of brick—70,000 in each column—plastered over and painted to look like Siena marble.
The Washington Monument was finished under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, but not without difficulties. The foundation had to be widened and deepened—to 36 feet—to prevent an imitation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the height was shortened in accordance with the proportions of ancient obelisks. Marble for the upper portion was acquired from a different quarry in Maryland, the original marble being too expensive. That created a clear change in color over a quarter of the way up the shaft—a continuing bafflement to tourists, more than one of whom has asked National Park Service rangers if it is a "flood mark."
The capstone was put in place in 1884, tipped by a small $225 pyramid of aluminum. The completed work, an elegant tribute to the father of the country and the object of a million phallic jokes to come, stood at 555 feet, then the tallest structure on earth.
Not for long. Five years later it was surpassed by the Eiffel Tower, constructed in iron as the signature landmark of a Paris exposition and a symbol of modernity. The Washington Monument remained—and remains—the world's tallest masonry structure. It is an obelisk like those erected by ancient Egyptians to their deities and constructed of stone like the monuments of the ancient world. Perhaps it was typical of Washington that it looked to the past for inspiration just as the world was about to be overtaken by modernism in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Usually conservative in matters of art, the city would stick with tradition over the next 60 years, erecting great stone buildings based on Greek, Roman, Gothic, and Byzantine models.
One of the first was Washington National Cathedral, conceived at a meeting of prominent citizens in 1891 at the home of Charles Carroll Glover, president of Riggs Bank and a prominent Episcopalian. Stone has always been a favorite material for religious expression, from the temples of Egypt, Greece, and Rome to the mysterious works of Stonehenge and Easter Island. National Cathedral was modeled on English Gothic churches of the 14th century and was built in the old way, without structural steel, stone laid upon stone—each from a limestone quarry in Indiana.
It was big—the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, second in the United States only to Manhattan's St. John the Divine—and it took a long time to build. The cornerstone was laid in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt with the same trowel and mallet George Washington used at the Capitol in 1793. It was finished in 1990. Though nondenominational, the cathedral is the seat of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, and about half of the money to build it came from Episcopalian checkbooks.
Erected to the glory of God, the cathedral also testifies to the glory of stone. Hidden behind stone encasements are the remains of Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Green, pink, and red marble decorate the floor, and stone steps show the wear of thousands of visitors. It has commemorative stones from Mount Sinai and the Appian Way. In the Bishop's Garden are stones from the old quarry at Aquia, and high above are gargoyles and other sculptural elements fashioned by Italian stone carvers.
American Catholics began their own great church in 1914 on a site near Catholic University. The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic church in the Western hemisphere and the eighth largest church in the world. It too is built of Indiana limestone, without structural steel, using the skills of craftsmen from throughout Europe. But its style is drawn from Romanesque and Byzantine models, the latter reflected in its colorful mosaics.
On the secular side, the Gilded Age of the late 19th century produced buildings that are among the city's most lavish stone structures. The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress has stone from quarries in Italy and Tennessee, including richly veined marble columns supporting a 160-foot-high dome over the main reading room. The Old Executive Office Building, just west of the White House, is built of granite and has 900 columns. The Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue is another granite monument from the era—a building once scorned as "a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill" but saved from demolition by historic preservationists in the 1970s.
GOOD NEWS FOR QUARRY OWNERS EVERYWHERE WAS THE RISE of the City Beautiful movement, an urban-planning concept intended to dress up American cities with parks and grand buildings. The movement originated in Chicago, where the architect Daniel Burnham oversaw the design and layout of the parks and buildings of the 1893 World's Fair, and gathered momentum in Washington with a redesign of the Mall under the 1902 McMillan Commission, of which Burnham was a member. Other roots extended to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Paris academy where many of America's favored architects of the period were trained in the classical style that came to dominate the Washington landscape.
Everywhere you look today are buildings done in what became Washington's official style, most with a framework of steel faced by marble, granite, or limestone. Union Station, finished in 1908 as a monument to the age of the railroad, was designed by Burnham and draws its inspiration from the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. The National Archives (1935) and the US Supreme Court (1935) are as close to ancient Greek temples as anyone would dare, and the influence of the Beaux Arts tradition is apparent in the District Building (1904), the city post-office building that's now the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, the Organization of American States (1910), and lots of others. Another Beaux Arts classic, the Corcoran Gallery of Art (1897), is about to get a jolt of 21st-century style with a curvaceous addition by Frank Gehry.
The Lincoln Memorial, dedicated in 1922, was in the City Beautiful tradition, its design based on the Parthenon, which sits atop the Acropolis in Athens. Though Lincoln warranted lots of marble, he did not claim any high ground. His memorial sits on land claimed from the edge of the Potomac—a "goddamned swamp," in the words of one congressman—and rests on more than 100 concrete piers sunk deep into bedrock. The statue of Lincoln inside, by Daniel Chester French, is of white marble from Georgia.
The stone in the National Gallery of Art, whose original building was erected in the mid-1930s, is a pink marble from Tennessee. This was the choice of the architect—John Russell Pope, the last-of-a-breed neoclassicist who also designed the National Archives and the Jefferson Memorial—and Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh financier, Treasury secretary, and art collector who donated his collection to the nation and paid for the new gallery. Mellon thought white marble would be too bright in Washington's glaring sunlight, and he much admired the pink Tennessee marble he'd seen in the Morgan Library in New York. Money was no object. Informed that blocks of his favorite stone would add millions to the cost, Mellon is said to have replied, "I don't care if they are expensive if they don't look expensive."
The gallery's 11 acres of floor space made it the largest marble building in the world at the time as well as the first building of such size to be air-conditioned. About 35,000 marble blocks, three feet by five feet, made up the load-bearing walls. They could be obtained only from multiple quarries and were transported to Washington by 800 railroad cars. They were numbered and delivered in the order they were to be used in construction, each inspected to meet the gallery's exacting standards of quality and color. Seven shades of pink were used, darker ones at the bottom rising to a nearly white dome.
Though John Russell Pope died in 1937, before the National Gallery was competed, a variation of one of his designs was used later for the Jefferson Memorial, the newest of the three white-marble monuments to presidents. The memorial is modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, a favorite building of Jefferson's. The exterior marble came from Vermont.
It aroused opposition from many modern architects and critics. Frank Lloyd Wright called it an "arrogant insult" to the memory of Jefferson, and the faculty of the school of architecture at Columbia, Pope's alma mater, called it a "lamentable misfit in time and place." Others were upset that it required getting rid of several Japanese cherry trees on the Tidal Basin and chained themselves to the trees in protest. But the design had the support of the Commission of Fine Arts, set up early in the century to review designs in the city's monumental core, and the memorial was dedicated in 1943.
REMEMBERING WARS AND PRESIDENTS
WHEN CONSTRUCTION BEGAN ON the Pentagon in the fall of 1941, the demands of World War II required austerity in the choice of building materials: very little structural steel and no fancy marble. Reinforced concrete, faced with limestone, was used to construct what became the world's largest office building (6.5 million square feet, 17 miles of corridors)—all of it put up in 16 months.
The Pentagon's use of concrete, whose texture and hardness qualifies it as a kind of artificial stone, was a harbinger of architecture to come. Many of Washington's notable postwar building projects use concrete, including Eero Saarinen's Washington Dulles International Airport, Marcel Breuer's Department of Housing and Urban Development, Harry Weese's Metro subway stations, and the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The doughnut-shaped Joseph Hirshhorn Museum is concrete too, though not by choice of the architect. Gordon Bundshaft intended to cover the museum with light-colored travertine marble from Italy, but his plan was torpedoed by budget constraints and import restrictions. In the end, the architect settled for small chunks of marble embedded in the concrete.
But Washington continues to find plenty of uses for stone. Many DC streets are being fitted with curbstones made of indestructible granite, and it is used to dress up the faces of highway retaining walls. In the better establishments, marble adorns the floors and walls of bathrooms, as it did in the public baths of the Roman Empire. And a thin veneer of stone often serves as facing on office buildings.
Stone is expensive—granite tops the price list, followed by marble and limestone—which makes it hard to beat as a status symbol. No Washington law firm could command $500 an hour without a marble foyer. Many are the homes where kitchen counters of granite surround a high-end refrigerator and range. In the horse country of Northern Virginia, stones are still piled into fences that both raise property values and appeal to a taste for the picturesque.
Stone remains a standby in high-profile memorials, public plazas, churches, and cultural institutions. The memorial to Franklin Roosevelt, completed in 1997, is made of granite from Minnesota, and the new World War II memorial will use pink, white, and gray granite. Freedom Plaza, on Pennsylvania Avenue, uses different-colored stones to re-create the L'Enfant plan in miniature, and the Navy Memorial down the street includes a plaza in which stone is used in a map of the world's oceans. The Mormons' Washington Temple, which rises like a white specter out of the green trees along the Beltway in Kensington, is built of marble from Alabama, some of it cut so thin that it allows sunlight to shine through.
One of the best examples of the use of stone in contemporary architecture is the National Gallery of Art's East Building, designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1977 as a companion to John Russell Pope's original gallery. Everything about the East Building is meticulous. The pink marble on its exterior came from the same quarries in Tennessee used in Pope's day—reopened after years of dormancy. The exposed concrete inside, poured into wooden forms fashioned by cabinetmakers, contains a tinge of pink-marble dust.
For all its toughness, stone is not without vulnerabilities. At the National Cathedral, water seepage has left stains on the Indiana limestone in the ceiling. Some of the old Aquia sandstone on the West Front of the Capitol collapsed in the 1980s, and skateboarders have roughed up the edges of the stone walls at Freedom Plaza. Replacing and refurbishing the stone in the Washington Monument, a project completed earlier this year, cost just over $10 million.
THE VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL, dedicated in 1982, represents one of the most radical departures in the annals of Washington stone. In a city renowned for its white marble monuments, it features polished black granite from a quarry in India. In the capital of a nation where wars have always been remembered as victories, it speaks of a war that ended badly. And in a city filled with statues of heroic generals, it is egalitarian—its V-shaped walls listing, without regard to rank, the names of more than 58,000 Americans killed or missing in action.
The names were one of the few requirements of the design competition, which was organized by an association of veterans led by Jan Scruggs. More than 1,400 designs were submitted, the winning one by a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale, Maya Lin, who had done sketches of her idea for a course in funerary architecture.
Lin's design, one of the first important monuments in Washington to embrace trends in abstract art that had been gathering influence for nearly a century, was attacked by traditionalists, who thought a war memorial ought to have a statue and bow to artistic tradition. Ironically, the city's biggest monument, to George Washington, was a simple abstract sculpture, too, but it had roots in the ancient world—something absent from Lin's simple work of stone, earth, and basic geometry. Tom Wolfe said it was a tribute to narrow-minded modernist orthodoxy, and James Watt, the Interior secretary, refused a building permit until a statue of three soldiers by the sculptor Frederick Hart was added to the site.
The critics also hated the memorial's departure from the tradition of symbolizing power, honor, and manhood with vertical structures that reached toward the sky. "Watching the white phallus that is the Washington Monument piercing the air like a bayonet, you feel uplifted," said James Webb, a Vietnam vet and novelist. "That is the political message." By contrast, the Vietnam memorial seemed too horizontal, too defeatist, too feminine—nothing more than a "degrading ditch."
The color of the stone disturbed many veterans too. One called the memorial "a black gash of shame and sorrow."
Today, two decades after the memorial's dedication, all this seems forgotten. It is the most visited site on the Mall, drawing more than 4 million visitors a year, and has the capacity to engage their deepest emotions. They search out the names of loved ones or friends, leave behind flowers or other tokens, make rubbings of the names, or stand before the black granite in tears. The mirrorlike wall seems to link the living and the dead, even the soldier and the protester, in ways the war itself never did.
AT THE KENNEDY CENTER, WHITE RULES. "I would say that Washington is a city of white buildings in a parklike setting," said Edward Durrell Stone when he was chosen as the center's architect in the early 1960s. "I … see no reason for departing from that." So white stone it would be—marble from Italy, acquired by a bit of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Faced with raising money for part of the center's cost, Roger Stevens, its director, and his colleagues hit on the idea of soliciting gifts from foreign countries. High on the wish list was Italian marble for the exterior, an idea that was passed on to President John Kennedy, who made the pitch to the Italian president during a trip to Rome. The Italian parliament approved a gift of $600,000 worth of white marble from quarries at Carrara.
This importation of foreign stone did not sit well with lobbyists for the American marble industry, nor with senators and congressmen from such marble-producing states as Vermont, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio. In protest, American companies refused to cut and polish the Italian marble, so this work had to be done at the source. They also turned down all requests for donations of their own marble for plazas, water fountains, and restrooms.
WASHINGTON OWES MORE TO ITALY than the Kennedy Center marble. That nation supplied many of the immigrants who carved the city's greatest works in stone. Italians came here in the beginning to work on the Capitol, and their craftsmanship can still be seen in many buildings, including the Library of Congress, Union Station, the Supreme Court, the National Archives, the Lincoln Memorial, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and Washington National Cathedral. Roger Morigi and Vincent Palumbo, who served as master carvers at the cathedral for nearly 40 years until its completion in 1990, were among the last of the breed. Their artistry is celebrated in an Oscar-winning documentary by Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wager of the Smithsonian and in Hunt's book, The Stone Carvers.
Morigi, Palumbo, and their colleagues transformed blocks of Indiana limestone into dozens of decorative elements, sometimes using models done by sculptors like Frederick Hart, who designed the Creation tympanum on the west façade, and other times working from their own imaginations. Their gargoyles are one of Washington's splendid secrets, adding a whimsical touch to a sober building imitating those of the Middle Ages. Among these little treasures are a boy with his hand in a cookie jar, a Republican elephant and Democratic donkey, a protester with a placard, a gambler rolling dice, an angel holding an Academy Award, and a pair of hands in a golf grip. Only once were the carvers censored by the cathedral's dean—when they started carving a man with his pants down and a bottle of whiskey in his pocket.
Jokes aside, Morigi and Palumbo knew they were making a serious contribution to the city's landscape. Marjorie Hunt captured how they felt about being part of an ancient tradition. They were aware that the Ten Commandments given to Moses had been carved by God in stone, they were proud to come from those mountains of northern Italy where Michelangelo got his marble, and they both knew that they were working for the ages.
"Our handiwork," said Palumbo, "is gonna be there for thousands of years." *(