Inside the Beltway

Honestly, Abe?


Photo­graphy by
Jeff Watts

collection of DC souvenirs

Did you know that D.C. boasts one lawyer for every 12 residents or that more wine is consumed in the District—26 liters per person, per year—than any U.S. state?

Did you know that the average annual rainfall for Washington is three inches more than that of Seattle? (The difference: it drizzles in the Emerald City and pours in the Capital City.) And did you know—despite D.C.'s infamously muggy summers—that the city wasn't built on a swamp?

Washington is home to 646,449 people, more than the populations of Wyoming and Vermont, and more Labrador retrievers than any other breed. Seventeen million tourists per year clog the sidewalks; 106 miles of Metrorail track crisscross the city; and 167,000 seats dot four sports venues.

This great city and its suburbs are also home base for more than 40 percent of AU alumni, which means the trivia below will come in handy at your next cocktail party—where wine will undoubtedly be served.

Statue of limitations: Heard of the "hoof code"—the legend that the number of hooves in the air on equestrian statues indicates how the rider died? Well, it's a bunch of horse hooey. Of the 30 equestrian statues in Washington, only 10 follow the code (one hoof raised, rider was wounded; two hoofs raised, rider died; all hoofs on the ground, rider was unharmed).

A sticky situation: While it's true that D.C. is the third worst city in America for mosquitoes (according to a 2013 report from pest control company Orkin), the Federal City wasn't built on a swamp. When architect Pierre L'Enfant surveyed the city 200 years ago, he did discover wetlands near the rivers—however the majority of present-day D.C. was crop land, wooded slopes, and bluffs. In fact, historian Don Hawkins estimates that swamp lands covered only about 1 percent of the total area L'Enfant was tasked with designing. You can chalk up the muggy, swamp-like summers to Washington's humid subtropical climate.

Record highs: Red Line to the record book: Washingtonians needn't travel far to traverse the longest set of single-span escalators in the Western Hemisphere. The Wheaton Metro station's escalators are 230 feet long, with a vertical rise of 115 feet. From platform to street level, the trip takes 2 minutes and 45 seconds—longer, of course, if the escalator is out of service.

Ward's last stand: Although AU students have feted their neighbor, Artemas Ward, with barbecues, concerts, and game shows, the Massachusetts general wasn't always so welcome on Mass Ave. Members of the AU community and the surrounding neighborhood objected to Ward's representation of military power—a distasteful image in the pacifist era of the 1930s, when the statue was erected. The Revolutionary War general wasn't well- known in D.C., causing the Eagle editor to write in 1937, "At least so little is known about the man that his statue can have no evil effects on the minds of the young."

Can you spare a hand? Even sculptor Felix de Weldon, the artist behind the Marine Corps War Memorial, disputes the long-held myth that the statue, based on Joe Rosenthal's iconic, Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, features a 13th hand among the jumble of mitts gripping the flagpole. (Some speculate the extra hand symbolizes the hand of God—or the Corps.) "Who needed 13 hands? Twelve were enough," said the exasperated artist.

A tall tale: When it was completed in 1883, the Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world, but it was eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower six years later. At 555 feet, it's the tallest structure in D.C. but not the highest point (Washington National Cathedral, while only 301 feet tall, is perched on a hill, 676 feet above sea level). Despite popular belief, there's no law that prohibits structures taller than the Washington Monument. While an 1899 cap was based on the height of the Capitol dome (289 feet), the Height of Buildings Act was amended in 1910 to limit a building's height to 20 feet more than the width of the street that it faces—stunting the District's skyline at about 13 stories.

Monumental myth: The Washington Monument, the tallest all-stone structure in the world (and the tallest obelisk), is two different colors—not because of a great flood but because the Civil War caused an 18-year construction delay. When construction commenced, stone from the original quarry was no longer available.

The dark side: A grotesque of Darth Vader looms over the most unlikely of places. Washington National Cathedral held a decorative sculpture competition for children in the 1980s, in the midst of construction on the west towers. Nebraska native Christopher Rader took home third place with a drawing of the Star Wars villain who was to kids in 1983 what Frozen's Elsa is to youngsters today. Sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter, Darth Vader is located on the east face of the cathedral's northwest tower along with other winning entries: a raccoon, a girl with ponytails and braces, and a man with an umbrella.

That's what autocorrect is for: An engraver inadvertently carved an "E" instead of an "F" in Honest Abe's second inaugural address, depicted on the Lincoln Memorial's north wall. The typo was fixed by filling in a portion of the letter.

Face that launched a thousand myths: Rumor has it that Daniel Chester French—a starving, Depression-era sculptor and Confederate sympathizer—carved Robert E. Lee's face onto the back of Abraham Lincoln's statue. Thousands of visitors to the Lincoln Memorial claim to see Lee, looking across the Potomac to his old home, Arlington House. But much like Virgin Mary sightings in toast, there's no truth to this one. The "face" is nothing more than the viewer's interpretation of Lincoln's hair.

Site selection: How the hulking Treasury Building, the third oldest federal structure in the city, came to sit on 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue is the subject of much speculation. Some theorize that President Andrew Jackson, whose relations with Congress were rocky, selected a swath of land immediately east of the White House so he couldn't see the Capitol out his window. Others say Jackson was out walking with his aides when the hotly debated locale of the new Treasury Building came up. Angry, he slammed down his walking cane and ordered, "Put it here!" Unfortunately, the truth is far less interesting: the building was erected on what was cheap government land.

Cracking the code: Sculptor James Sanborn's "Kryptos," a 10-foot-tall copper installation that resembles paper emerging from a printer, has been teasing brains at the CIA's Langley headquarters for 24 years. The sculpture—named for the Greek word for "hidden"—features an 865-character code. Three of the four encrypted messages, which include all 26 letters of the standard Latin alphabet, have been decoded (it took a CIA analyst eight years to crack the first three sections), but the fourth remains one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world. A Yahoo! Group with more than 2,000 active members has been trying to solve the riddle for more than a decade—but if the spies can't solve it, is there any hope for the rest of us?

Street surrender: H, I, K, L: what about J? The omission of J Street on the downtown grid has puzzled Washingtonians and tourists alike for generations. Many believe the city's architect, Pierre L'Enfant, held a grudge against the first Supreme Court justice, John Jay, and thus wiped J Street from the map. (L'Enfant was reportedly irked about the controversial Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation—otherwise known as the Jay Treaty—which was seen as more favorable to Brits than Americans.) The truth? The letters "I" and "J" were often indistinguishable, especially when handwritten. (Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson marked all his possessions with the initials "T. I.") Having both I and J Streets would've been redundant and confusing.

Lobbying for answers: Ulysses S. Grant might have referred to the hangers-on who hounded him for favors and jobs in the lobby of the Willard as "those damn lobbyists," but the 18th president, who frequented the downtown hotel for cigars and brandy, didn't coin the term. It can be traced back to seventeenth-century England and the lobbies in the House of Commons, where powerbrokers mingled with the public. The verb "to lobby" appeared in print in the United States in the 1830s—three decades before Grant took office. (That's not to deny the Willard's storied history: Martin Luther King Jr. penned his "I Have a Dream" speech there, and Abraham Lincoln stayed in the hotel on the eve of his inauguration.)