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Remembering National Mall's Symbol Of Great Depression

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The wood lot on the National Mall once served as a source of income for men struggling during the Great Depression.
Collection of Douglas E. Evelyn and Paul Dickson
The wood lot on the National Mall once served as a source of income for men struggling during the Great Depression.

The National Mall suggests the rich cultural and political history of the nation's capital. But one of the things historian Paul Dickson enjoys about the Mall is that once upon a time, a specific part of it symbolized how "Washington was just as severely struck by the Depression as any other place in America." The spot was where the West Building of the National Gallery of Art stands today. It was known as the wood yard, or wood lot.

"Most of this country loved the image of the guy on the corner, or the woman on the corner selling apples for a nickel," Dickson says. "And in Washington, the big image of the Depression was people coming down and sawing wood."

But a wacky thing about the wood lot, Dickson says, is you had all these sweaty guys hacking and sawing away, and then right next to them, there was this set of grand marble steps, leading to nowhere.

"This spectacular piece of land that been earlier earmarked for a great huge monument for the military career of George Washington and the veterans of World War One," Dickson explains. "And in 1921 President Harding dedicated this magnificent memorial."

The enormous memorial was designed in the Greek style, replete with a series of marble stairways leading up to the base. But before builders could erect anything beyond the steps, the project ran out of money. The Great Depression came along, and Washington started suffering just like the rest of the country. That, says Paul Dickson, is when someone had the brilliant idea of converting the memorial's site into a wood lot.

"Somebody gets the idea 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," Dickson explains. "The irony would be some poor guy who lost his job with a bank or as a clerk in some white-collared job shows up with his three-piece suit. And he 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 says if you look at maps from 1934-1935, you'll see a big square representing the wood lot. But soon after, the wood lot became a distant memory. In 1938, construction began on the National Gallery of Art.

"It was opened in 1941," Dickson says. "And 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 painting, to the higher spirit of humanity.

"And so it first becomes a surcease for the poor and the downtrodden, and then it becomes an element of elevation."

[Music: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" by Leo Reisman & His Orchestra from Poor Man's Heaven: Blues and Tales Of The Great Depression]

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