Growing up in Baltimore, I was a occupant of the family car on many Sunday trips to Washington, D.C. My parents exposed me and my brothers to the Smithsonian, to many of the national art museums, and to the national monuments and memorials. I especially loved the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. Both were elegant and powerful and evoked the aura of the great men whom they memorialized.
I was, therefore, quite excited to be in Washington this past weekend to visit two relatively new memorials, those of Martin Luther King and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I had heard mixed reviews of the King memorial so we went there first. This memorial held special significance for my husband and my brother-in-law. They each bussed to Washington in the summer of 1963, one from Cleveland and one from Cape Cod, to join the March on Washington. I wanted to go too but was pregnant with our first child. The prospect of extreme heat and humidity in August plus the fear of violence persuaded me that I should stay home. Little did they know that they would hear one of the most eloquent speakers of any era and that his “I Have a Dream” speech would go down in the annals of oratory as one of the most inspiring.
Sad to say, none of us were inspired by the memorial.
Visitors are supposed to enter the memorial between two huge pieces of stone. The opening is created by moving the missing piece into the plaza that faces the Tidal Basin. Into this third piece partially emerges a carved figure of King.
His stance is that of a man with his arms crossed, holding a scroll of paper, and looking very stern. Into one side of the rock is an inscription that says, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” while the inscription on the other side says, “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
This central focus of the memorial was the antithesis of my expectations. Having seen and heard King both before and after that speech, I imagined a figure speaking, with arms in movement to emphasize his words. Arced around the plaza is a granite wall with many of his words inscribed. As a person, I was disappointed that this memorial is not as powerful as I think it should be.
As a landscape designer, I was horrified. The plantings are as bland as they can possibly be and so unrepresentative of King’s persona. One of his mantras was “black and white together”. The plant kingdom has hardy plants that have black or nearly black foliage and many others with green and white foliage. There is a plethora of hardy plants with white flowers. I emphasize hardy plants because I say no annuals here and I assume this was due to keeping maintenance expenses as low as possible.
Without doing further research, I immediately thought of the black-leaved Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ and Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’, the green and white variegated Liriope ‘Silver Dragon’, Carex ‘Ice Dance’, and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cabaret’, the white inflorescence of Nasella tenuissimus, the huge white flowers of Hydrangea quercifolia and Buddleia davidii, and a few trees with white flowers such as Lagerstroemia and Heptacodium miconioides.
King was also known for welcoming people of all colors and genders. Thus another landscape color combination presents itself – beds of multicolored flowers and foliage. The landscaping at this memorial really needs to be changed.