MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But first, getting personal for a sec here. When I moved to Washington, D.C. from Alaska in fall of 2009, I found myself asking all sorts of questions about my new home. Was D.C. really built on a swamp? Why is there no J street? And what, for the love Pete, is up with all of those traffic circles? To solve some of these mysteries, I embarked on a little audio adventure that soon grew into a series, "The Newcomers Guide to Washington."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
And last spring in the third installment of the series, I decided to look into, what I call, some very monumental myths. I may be new in town, but I'd like to think I'm not nearly as green as some. Like, these people for instance. Okay, so they're actually tourists, fresh off the plane from Great Britain, but they're gathering on the ellipse behind the White House in hopes of seeing...
But the President, he's a busy guy, right? Things to do, people to see. So why would these Brits assume he's actually home?
MS. CAROLYN CROUCH
See, they think he's home because the flag is flying.
This is Carolyn Crouch, founder of Washington Walks. And that, the link between the President's whereabouts and the flag atop the White House is something I found many Washingtonians believe. Do you know what it means when the flag is flying on top of the White House?
MR. MICHAEL KELLY
The President's in.
Is that what you heard?
Do you know what it means when the flag is flying on top of the White House?
That the President is in residence.
Where'd you hear that?
I think I learned that in school. Way to go school, teaching me things.
But in this case, says Carolyn Crouch, not entirely true things. Because the White House flag, it's always flying.
Regardless of who is there, whether it be just the family pet or the whole family.
So we should just, maybe, check the twitter feed for the White House and see where Barack is?
Yes, yes, yes.
Great Britain, though, has its own shorthand for signaling when the head of state is in the house.
When the royal family is in residence in London at Buckingham Palace, their standard flies over that building. And when they're not there, it doesn't.
So it's no wonder our British friends...
Under the white canopy. Someone's moving.
...or, okay, Barack, will pop out of his house any minute.
Behind the Brits, up the hill from the ellipse, stands a tribute to the one U.S. President who didn't call the White House home. Here's a hint. It's shaped like an Egyptian obelisk, it stands, I don't know, roughly 555 feet and five and one-eighth inches tall.
And just the casual passerby, you would say, it's white stone. In fact, it's marble. But then if you stand and you contemplate it longer, you realize it's a tricolor obelisk.
Indeed, about 150 feet up, the Washington Monument shifts from a snowier white to a darker shade. Then a little higher, it changes again. And Carolyn says that's sparked all sorts of rumors.
My favorite is when people say it's a result of a flood. And if that had been the flood, I mean, this would be Noah's Ark all over again. We would not be here today.
But we are, though the Washington Monument almost wasn't. See, back in 1848, a group called the Washington National Monument Society began using public donations to build the structure out of this bright white marble from a quarry in Cockeysville, Md. At the same time, they were collecting engraved stones to place inside the monument from different states, countries, the Pope even sent a stone from Rome. But in 1854, with about 150 feet of the monument done, everything stopped.
Thanks to an anti-immigrant, anti-Roman Catholic political party, the No Nothings.
So in the spring of 1854, there was a building on the east grounds of the monument called the Lapidarium, in which many of its stones were being stored.
The Lapidarium is no longer on the grounds, but this guy often is. In fact, that's where I meet him. His name is Michael Kelly and he's a park ranger with the National Mall in Memorial Parks.
One evening, a group of No Nothing supporters broke into the Lapidarium and found the Pope's stone and stole it. And it's a mystery as to its fate.
But what isn't a mystery is what happened next. The No Nothings formed their own Washington National Monument Society. Public donations dried up and construction didn't start again until 1876.
When work was resumed here, it was undertaken by the United States Army Corp of Engineers who had returned the original quarry, but the quarry no longer could supply enough stone for the final 400 plus feet.
So they tried a quarry in Massachusetts and started building with that marble.
About four or five courses of that and that's the few lines there that you'll see with brown veining running through it.
Hence, the first color change. But the Massachusetts quarry was kind of flaky filling orders on time. So the Corp of Engineers wound up finishing the monument in 1884 with marble from a different quarry back in Cockeysville.
It's a closer match to that below and when newer, it was the similar bright white snowy marble. But one of the things unknown to the engineers at the time was that that stone above has a higher magnesium content. So with direct exposure to air, wind, rain, it darkened.
And there you have it, a tri-colored obelisk, 36 years in the making. Now, I say obelisk, but technically, a true obelisk consists of just one stone. Michael Kelly says the Washington Monument contains more than 36,000.
It then becomes the very definition of e pluribus unum, out of many one. And it does really become a fitting monument to Washington because he was a strong proponent of unity and of union.
Back at the ellipse, Carolyn Crouch sees things a bit differently.
Because democracy is messy, I appreciate that sort of non-blending aspect of it. That's appropriate for America, I think.
And for Washington, D.C., the city that draws millions of people from all around the world to visit monuments and museums and maybe, just maybe, catch glimpses of Presidents. You can find all six parts of the Newcomers Guide to Washington on our website metroconnection.org.
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