Day 118

Potomac River / National Mall (December 11, 2020)

On a clear late Autumn day we walked along the banks of the Potomac River which separates the District from neighboring Virginia. In fact, there are two rivers that run through Washington, the other being the Anacostia. However, the Anacostia is less well known and may be one of the country’s shortest rivers with a length of just 8.7 miles. Much more impressive is the Potomac which is approximately 405 miles long, reaching all the way from West Virginia to Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. In terms of area it is the 21st largest river in the United States. Potomac is the European spelling of Patawomeck, the Alonquian name of a Native American village on its southern bank. It means river of swans. The river was very severely polluted up until the later half of the twentieth century. However, since the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972 the river has undergone a massive cleanup. So much so that it is not uncommon to see people fishing along its banks or out on boats.

Potomac River View toward Virginia

In prime location for views over the river is the Watergate apartment and hotel complex.

The Watergate

Next to the Watergate is the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center opened in 1971 and contains a concert hall, an opera house, a theater and numerous smaller performance venues. The massive main building was designed by Edward Durell Stone. Because of its rectangular shape, it is sometimes known as the Kleenex Box.

The Kennedy Center

Along the front of the Center is a beautiful terrace that overlooks the Potomac.

The Kennedy Center Terrace
View from the Terrace

Etched into the marble that lines the outside of the center are a number of JFK quotes referencing the arts.

Recently, the center opened a number of new pavilions called The Reach, that include studios, classrooms and rehearsal spaces.

Skylight Pavilion and Blue sculpture

We loved Joel Shapiro’s monumental sculpture of a dancer, called Blue, that is on the grounds of the center.


Helicopters are a constant sight flying along on the river.

By our count, there are six bridges crossing the Potomac in the District. Hands down the most attractive is Arlington Memorial Bridge, which crosses between the Lincoln Memorial on the District side and Arlington National Cemetery on the Virginia side. Designed by architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, it opened in 1932 at a cost of $7.25 million.

Arlington Memorial Bridge

It is looking particularly good at the moment having just been the subject of a $227 million renovation and cleaning.

Standing at the entrance of the Bridge on the District side are two gilded statues, called the Arts of War. They were sculpted by the American sculptor, Leo Friedlander and cast in Italy. The Arts of War consists of two statues, Valor and Sacrifice, both in Art Deco style. They consist of a bearded, muscular male nude symbolic of Mars, the god of war and a semi-nude female.

Next to the bridge is a broad flight of stairs that reaches down from the Lincoln Memorial to the river. They are a peculiar flight of stairs because they are bisected by a busy road.

The Watergate Steps were originally intended to act as a dock for visiting dignitaries and politicians disembarking off the Potomac and entering the capital. That plan didn’t work out and they then became a concert space. An orchestra would play on a barge docked in the river while the audience listened from the steps. The concerts went on from 1935 until 1965 when they were cancelled because noise from planes flying out from nearby National Airport drowned out the music. So they now stand as a set of stairs leading to nowhere. However, they aren’t completely without worth, as they are popular with exercisers using them to run up and down.

We wrote about the Lincoln Memorial in a recent post but thought we would take this opportunity to show what it looks like from the river and from the side.

Sitting near to the Lincoln Memorial is the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The memorial includes a mural wall, a Pool of Remembrance and 19 larger than life stainless steel statues depicting a platoon on patrol.

The statues were designed by the American sculptor Frank Gaylord. Gaylord served in the United States Army during World War II where he saw action in Africa, Europe and the Middle East and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for bravery.

Near to the Korean War Memorial is another War Memorial, honoring District residents who served in World War I. Built in 1931, it is a domed peristyle Doric temple.

One of the more surprising memorials that we have come upon is this one honoring John Ericcson, the inventor of the screw propeller. Ericsson was born in Sweden but was active in England and the United States. He designed the United States Navy’s first screw-propelled steam frigate, USS Princeton, as well as the USS Monitor, the ship that ensured Union naval supremacy during the American Civil War. The memorial, sculpted by the American sculptor James Earle Fraser was dedicated in 1926.

Tucked in by the river at the end of the National Mall are a number of beach volleyball courts. Normally, this is a bustling place but during these covid times they have now all be closed off to prevent close contact.

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