Remembering National Mall's Symbol Of Great Depression (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Remembering National Mall's Symbol Of Great Depression

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir, and this week, we are sidestepping our usual thematic approach, and bringing you one of our wildcards shows. In just a bit, we'll hear from another local author in our monthly series, "Bookend." And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg will take us to the National Gallery of Art, as we revisit a time when art danced with music.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:29
But first, we'll revisit another time at the National Gallery, or, rather, where he National Gallery stands today.

MR. PAUL DICKSON

00:00:35
It's one of those little pieces of history that are lost, and the reason I love it so much as a piece of Washingtoniana is it reminds us, when we take a look at something like this, that Washington was just as severely struck by the Depression as any other place in America.

SHEIR

00:00:53
This is historian Paul Dickson. He's co-author of the series, "On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington D.C." And the spot we're checking out today is on the north side of the National Mall, right in front of the National Gallery's west building. But as Dickson points out, in the 1930s, before John Russell Pope built his majestic, neoclassical structure, the site featured a little piece of lost history, known as the wood yard, or wood lot.

DICKSON

00:01:16
And most of this country loved the image of the guy on the corner, or the woman on the corner selling apples for a nickel. And in Washington, the big image of the Depression were people coming down and sawing wood.

SHEIR

00:01:27
But a wacky thing about the wood lot, Dickson says, is you have all these sweaty guys hacking and sawing away, and then right next to them, there's this set of grand marble steps, leading, well, leading to nowhere.

DICKSON

00:01:42
This spectacular piece of land had been earlier earmarked for a great, huge monument to the military career of George Washington and the veterans of World War One. And in 1921, President Harding dedicated this magnificent memorial.

SHEIR

00:01:56
What did it look like?

DICKSON

00:01:57
It was gonna be a big, huge Greek style, limestone crusted, and it was gonna have epic proportions. And they put in the foundation, and they built a series of marble stairways leading up to it. So it was all there ready to go. And they just ran out of money. Along comes the Great Depression, and Washington is suffering just like the rest of the country. And somebody gets the idea that they will clear what's ever on this land, put a few little shacks on it, and start bringing in big piles of wood, as trees come down and people -- they take down trees.

DICKSON

00:02:30
And other pieces of wood that are brought in. And anybody who needed some money, mostly male, could come in and saw wood. And what the irony would be, would be some poor guy who'd lost his job with a bank or as a clerk in some white-collar job, shows up with his three-piece suit and hangs his suit jacket on a hook and goes and cuts wood so he can get enough money to buy dinner for his family.

DICKSON

00:02:55
And to me, it was interesting, because it is one of the most visible things that was here, and it was here for a long time. If you look on old maps, say, from '34, '35, there'll be this big square right here, and it'll say, the wood lot.

SHEIR

00:03:10
And when did they take the wood lot away?

DICKSON

00:03:12
As soon -- they took it away as soon as the approval was made to build the National Gallery of Art, so that was the end of the wood lot. And that started in 1938. And it was opened in 1941. And again, it was symbolic, because here we are at the depths of Depression, and all of a sudden they're going to build this phenomenal monument to creativity, to art, to the higher spirit of humanity. And so it becomes sort of first, a surcease for the poor and the downtrodden, and then it becomes sort of an element of elevation.

SHEIR

00:03:45
And before it was the wood lot, isn't this spot famous for being where President James Garfield was shot?

DICKSON

00:03:50
Before that, this had been -- there were railroad yards all during the Civil War. It crisscrossed the Mall, right across from it, Armory Square Hospital, there were hospitals down here. The railroad trains were bringing in the people from the battlefields. They were coming in by boat and being taken north. Some of them are kept here. So it was crisscrossed with railroad tracks, and the old Baltimore Potomac Railroad station was right here on this same area that the National Gallery of Art is now located, the west wing of the National Gallery.

DICKSON

00:04:19
And what happened was, in July of 1881, President Garfield -- he was on his way going back to Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass. for his 25th reunion -- and he stepped into the station and was shot by a disgruntled office seeker named Guiteau, shot twice, and died some months later. And there has always been a little marker here that tourists sort of ignore, that this was where one of our presidents was shot.

SHEIR

00:04:48
And yet, once upon a time, this was the wood lot.

DICKSON

00:04:50
Yeah, this was the wood lot. Yep. I can hear the saws now, grinding away, like bees in a hive.

SHEIR

00:04:58
Paul Dickson is the author of many, many books on Washington history, including "The Bonus Army: An American Epic," and "Words From the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents." He's also co-author of the series, "On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C."
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