Following America's Presidents

Following America’s Presidents

If you’re coming to Washington, DC and want to know about our U.S. Presidents, here are some good ways to get to know them ---

Pay a Call on President Lincoln’s Cottage

This was the home where President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary spent their summers. Washington, DC was built on a swamp, which meant summers here were hot and muggy and almost unbearable! So the Lincolns would pack up and make the trip to the outskirts of the city where things were cooler and calmer. The problem was Mr. Lincoln was still the President and had to commute back to the White House each day and then back to the cottage in the evening. See what you think of this commute.

 Visit Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

This lovely setting on the Potomac River in rural Virginia was the home of President George Washington and his wife, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. If you visit try to take in as much of the estate as possible. The mansion is based on Palladian style of architecture (sharing some of the characteristics of the temples of Athens and Rome) but was constructed in a piecemeal fashion. The interior has been restored to the time the Washington’s lived here. In the way of gardens you’ll find a lovely replica of a French parterre garden and a kitchen garden to serve the house. There are several outbuildings that supported life in the main house, the family cemetery, as well as a farm, a gristmill and a distillery. Altogether, it’s a great place to experience life as it was in a young nation.

Stop by the White House Visitors Center

Don’t miss the video here about being President of the United States. In addition there are exhibits that tell about the many functions of the White House and the people who have lived and worked there. The Center is a relatively small space but it’s filled with interesting objects. You’ll want to take your time and explore well and you’ll learn a lot of interesting things! The President’s Park (the White House) is actually a national park and is run by the National Park Service. The Park Rangers in the Visitors Center are very knowledgeable about the White House and very pleased to share what they know. So don’t be shy; do ask them questions.                     

Stroll the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd President of the United States) never wanted a memorial the size of the one on the National Mall today. He had envisioned a small marble block about the size of his desk. And this is precisely what the first memorial to him looked like. It was placed on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the National Archives and Records Administration building where it remains today. But --- this was not enough for Congress. They decided FDR needed a much bigger tribute, after all, he was and is and will be the only United States President to be elected to 4 terms of office!!

Like the Washington Monument, the memorial to President Franklin Roosevelt had several very interesting suggested designs before it was finally constructed as you see it today. Here are the some of the suggested designs. See if you would have liked these designs ---  

  • Vertical bookends (dubbed the National Bookend) that the Roosevelt Family hated --- shelved!

  • Scattered, large, marble triangular slabs (dubbed Instant Stonehenge) that almost every one hated --- shelved!

  • Four connected, outdoor rooms, each representing one of FDR’s terms as president.  --- accepted!

 The four connecting rooms of today’s memorial contain 10 sculptures, 6 waterfalls, many scattered and tumbled rocks, several pools of water and many speeches carved on the stone walls. It is the only memorial to include a tribute to a former First Lady. One of the 10 sculptures found here is of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s wife. And then there is Fala, FDR’s favorite and last dog. He’s here too.

In general the Memorial tells the story of FDR the man and the work he did during his 4 terms as president. He was president for 14 years! Wow! Each of the rooms of the Memorial tells about a different one of his four terms. FDR was president during the Great Depression and also during WWII. There are many stories to tell about these and the memorial tells many of them!!

See the First Ladies Exhibit at the National Museum of American History

The First Ladies’ Exhibit must be explored carefully in order to really get it. Yes, it begins   by presenting some of the lovely ball gowns, dresses and shoes that our First Ladies have worn while living in the White House. But it’s much more than a fashion show. It’s also a time line of the life of women in the United States. By just taking a look at the garments it’s possible to get an idea of what was expected of women as the nation grew and changed --- who probably wore a corset, who was probably not allowed to climb trees, who could chase a runaway dog, etc.  Take a look and come up with your own hypothesis. Watch the fabrics change. See what colors were popular when. You may be quite surprised.

The exhibit also explores the role of the First Lady. She is not elected or voted on by the American people and there she has no job description. Yet, there have been many different expectations since Martha Washington was the first First Lady for what a First Lady should do while her husband is president. 

See! There are a lot of great discoveries to be had in this exhibit!

Hike Roosevelt Island

This memorial is very unique! It’s not like any of DC’s other memorials. It’s an Island! It’s an entire island in the middle of the Potomac River. It’s 88 acres of wooded parkland dedicated to President Theodore Roosevelt or Teddy as many people called him. He was the 26th President of the Unites States and quite a character!

 Any thoughts about why an island would be a fitting memorial for Theodore Roosevelt? It’s so unusual!

Well, he is remembered most for his accomplishments in conserving public lands for forests, national parks, wildlife and bird refuges, and monuments. While he was president he set aside land for 150 National Forests, and 5 National Parks. He created the U.S.’s first 51 Federal Bird Reservations, the first 18 National Monuments, the first 4 National Game Preserves, and the first 21 Reclamation Projects!! In total he conserved 230 million acres of land, which is a land area equivalent to that of all the East Coast states from Maine to Florida. That’s a lot of conservation!  And it was all done at a time when the very idea of taking care of our trees and our land and our water in a way that would leave them in good shape for future generations to use was a new concept.  And it was not a very popular concept either.

Among the National Parks that Teddy Roosevelt established are the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Muir Woods in California, Devil's Tower in Wyoming and Jewel Cave in South Dakota.

The Teddy Roosevelt Island has 2 1/2 miles of foot trails through the natural habitat of all sorts of local flora (plants) and fauna (animals). In a small clearing in the middle of the island there is a 17-foot bronze statue of Teddy Roosevelt himself, as if he’s standing there looking out over the natural things he loved so much. There are also two fountains and four 21-foot granite tablets inscribed with some of Roosevelt’s philosophy. All together they give you an idea of how Teddy thought and what was important to him.

Say “Hello” to Mr. Jefferson (Thomas) As He Stands in His Memorial

I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Thomas Jefferson - From a Letter to Benjamin Rush in 1800

The Jefferson Memorial honors President Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America. It was dedicated on his 200th birthday, April 13, 1943. It is a very grand and stately building with many columns and a round dome on top. It was designed to look like the Pantheon in Rome, Italy, one of Jefferson’s favorite buildings. (He designed the University of Virginia as well as Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, Virginia after the Pantheon.) So a building in this shape was thought to be a fitting tribute to his incredible contributions.  As you explore DC, see if you notice other buildings in that look similar. You know, with the colonnade idea. Many of these buildings were designed by John Russell Pope, the same architect who designed Mr. Jefferson’s Memorial on the National Mall.

Thomas Jefferson was a man who could do almost anything! He was a farmer, an inventor of mechanical things, a gourmet cook, an architect, a musician (He played the violin), a statesman, a lawyer, Governor of Virginia, US Minister to France, US Secretary of State, Vice President of the Unites State, and President of the Unites States. He designed his own house in Charlottesville, Virginia and He donated his own personal library to the Library of Congress!

Such a big man certainly deserved a big statue in his honor. Mr. Jefferson’s statue is 19 feet high and weighs 5 tons! What do you think? Is it big enough? Take a close look at the sculptures in the pediment above the entrance to the Jefferson Memorial. They tell the story of an important event in the history of the United States --- the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the formal resolution that the United Colonies declared their freedom from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston made up the committee of the Continental Congress that was given the responsibility of creating this important document. These 5 men are shown in this pediment sculpture here at the Jefferson Memorial.

Walk the Inaugural Route

From the Capitol, westward down Pennsylvania Avenue to the viewing stands in front of the White House; the trek is made on January 20th.

George Washington began the tradition of an Inaugural Parade when he left his home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia, for New York City to be sworn in as the First President of the United States. The country was so excited by their new president that as he proceeded past the crowds that had assembled to greet him, local militia joined the journey, as did government officials, other military leaders, members of the new Congress and prominent citizens.

Early, official, Inaugural parades were mainly for the purpose of escorting and protecting the newly elected president in route to and from the U.S. Capitol. Thomas Jefferson (3rd U.S. president) was the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, DC.  For his second inauguration the Marine Band was asked to play military music and it has played at every Presidential Inauguration since then. By the time that William Henry Harrison (the 9th U.S. president) was inaugurated, the procession included floats, militia from outside the DC area, Citizen Clubs, political clubs, military bands and groups of college students.

At Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration (16th president), African Americans marched in the parade for the first time --- African American troops, African American Odd Fellows and African American Masons.

Today, newly sworn in U.S. presidents and their wives, the First Ladies, walk at least part of the Inaugural Parade route. But it’s cold in January!! So they often ride part of the way as well. The only inauguration to be cancelled was Ronald Regan’s second (40th president) due to frigid weather.

What do you think the inaugural parade route looks like from the President and First Lady’s viewpoint?

Interview Presidents in Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

I know this sounds exceedingly boring but it’s really not! It’s great fun getting to see what our early presidents looked like and how they dressed. Picture your husband, father, brother, son --- in ruffles. And then there are the wigs!

I bet we’re all glad wigs like these went out of style.

Wonder how all these people in the Portrait Gallery ever sat still long enough to have their portraits painted --- or did they? Hmmm?

John Adams. 2nd President of the United States (March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801)

John Adams. 2nd President of the United States (March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801)