Capitol Memories

Pope Francis pauses in front of a sculpture of Spanish-born Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC
The Holy Father in the U.S. Capitol, September 2015, looking at the statue of St. Junipero Serra in Statuary Hall

My newlywed parents lived on 4th Street, S.E., Washington, D.C., around the corner from the U.S. Capitol, in the 1960’s.

In those days, the park east of the capitol building still had a grove of elm trees at the western end of East Capitol Street. The trees were over a century old. They chopped down a couple dozen to build the underground Capitol Visitors Center in the mid-2000’s–supposedly enhancing security.

(Frederick Law Olmsted designed the U.S. Capitol park in 1874. He also designed Central Park in New York City.)

In the 1970’s, tourists entered the Capitol through the east door, at the top of the main steps. On weekend afternoons, you might have to wait in line for fifteen or twenty minutes. There was a single guard at the door.

Our family walked through those doors to see the beautiful building on occasional Sundays, after church. There is a Kirkwood in Statuary Hall, a native Marylander who became governor of Iowa during the Civil War. He is a distant kinsman of my father’s clan.

Samuel Kirkwood in Statuary Hall Capitol

The painter who produced Apotheosis of George Washington in the capitol dome died in 1880. His grave is in Glenwood Cemetery, off North Capitol Street. My dad lies buried about thirty feet away.

In the blizzard of 1979, my brother and I sledded down the hill to the west of the capitol. The streets were clogged with parked farm tractors covered with three feet of snow. The farmers had arrived in Washington to protest something, right before the snow began to fall.

79-1700
Tractors on the Mall in Washington during the blizzard of 1979 (Smithsonian archive)

I lived in the 400 block of East Capitol Street as an undergraduate at the Catholic University of America, from 1992-1994. I had a movie poster on my wall, which had the same view of the Capitol that my roommate and I had, when we walked out our front door.

Good to Go movie poster

Every day I ran to the Lincoln Memorial and back, stopping to stretch in the Capitol park. In those pre-9/11 days, you could walk right up to the capitol building and lean on it to stretch your quads. There were no barricades. My friends and I had picnics under the elms on springtime Saturdays.

In the summer of 1993 I gave the tours on the Tourmobile that circulated around the mall. Sometimes I explained the history of the U.S. Capitol building and it’s expansion through the nineteenth century.

Original US Capitol and now

As a priest I was assigned twice to parishes on Capitol Hill. I lived within walking distance of the building from 2004-2006 and from 2009-2010. I did the same daily run down the mall, but it had grown a little longer, because you had to run around the security perimeter around the capitol that had been imposed after 9/11/2001.

President Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, gave his inaugural addresses from the east side of the capitol, facing the Atlantic Ocean. I remember listening to Jimmy Carter speak on the east side in January 1977. (I didn’t understand it; I hadn’t turned seven yet.) Ronald Reagan was the first president inaugurated on the west side, facing California, in 1981.

…I don’t think we should sacralize our political institutions. The invasion of the building today was not a “desecration.” Politics is not a sacred business. It is, by definition, worldly. The U.S. Capitol is not a temple.

What we can say is this: we have reached Act V of our own tragic American Macbeth. We deserve stability in our land. President Trump has become, in the words of General Jim Mattis, a “man without a country.”

May our children and grandchildren have picnics on the capitol lawn, with malice towards none and charity for all. May the good Lord help us keep peace for them to inherit.

One thought on “Capitol Memories

  1. Beautifully written with evocative visual descriptions and personal experiences that drive home how dramatically our “free society” (in DC and across the nation) has changed within our lifetimes.

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