6 Facts About American Landmarks & Monuments You Probably Didn't Learn In School
America is good at national monuments and landmarks. Trust me on this one: I come from a country where, outside of Sydney, our man-made testimonies to national character include The Big Merino and The Big Pineapple. You guys have marble-carved presidents, symbolic bells, men on the sides of mountains, giant copper ladies with crowns: people just visiting Washington DC must get sheer, overwhelming monument-fatigue. But the elaborate materials and respectable appearance of your most famous monuments don't mean that they don't have some skeletons in their closet. And I'm speaking quite literally.
Monuments gather stories. It's just part of their job. What's the Washington Memorial without Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech? And does anybody look at the Mount Rushmore faces without picturing Cary Grant dangling off them in North By Northwest? (Apparently Alfred Hitchcock wanted Grant to have a sneezing fit while hiding inside Abraham Lincoln's nostril, but the Department Of The Interior refused, because they are spoilsports.)
But there are other, more hidden facts about your most famed national monuments that put them into sharp relief. Whether they've been dragged through manure, held hostage by anti-Catholics, used for tourist scams or built on top of body dumping grounds, they're all still magnificent. In fact, a little edge gives them character, right?
So here's the stuff that your history teacher likely didn't tell you about some of America's most famous man-made symbols of identity. Use them to slay the next history nerd you meet at a party, or just tell everybody on your next visit to your favorite, and thoroughly improve their day.
1. The Statue Of Liberty Was Originally An Egyptian Peasant Woman
The image of the Statue of Liberty is one of the most iconic American symbols around the world, particularly now that people are debating exactly what her "huddled masses" mean for current refugee policy. Most elementary schoolchildren know that it was actually designed and constructed in France rather than the U.S., by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi. But, as the Smithsonian has pointed out, the original concept for the Statue wasn't actually a woman in Roman robes: it was an Egyptian peasant.
Bartholdi's original conception for the Statue of Liberty was as a reference to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Colossus of Rhodes, which stood at the harbor entrance of the Greek island of Rhodes and was probably nearly 100 feet high. In 1855 he proposed a similar figure for the Egyptian city of Port Said, except in the form of a veiled Egyptian peasant woman. The idea was rejected as too insanely expensive, but Bartholdi took the idea and ran with it, and the Statue Of Liberty was born. In the current climate of anti-Syrian fervor the irony is almost suffocating.
2. The Liberty Bell Was Once Hidden In Dung Under Church Floorboards
A lot of the controversy about the Liberty Bell surrounds precisely when the famous crack emerged. (We'll likely never know.) But it also had a particularly ignominious chapter in its history, when it was forced from its original home in Philadelphia, transported hidden in a pile of manure cross-country, and buried under the floorboards of a small-town church. Hardly dignified.
The church in question is now the Liberty Bell Museum, which documents the poor bell's journey in 1777. It was removed so that the British couldn't melt it, or any other bells, down for munitions, piled under dung and hay in a wagon, and buried. It was left under the floorboards for at least a year, which doubtless didn't do much for its luster.
3. The Washington Monument Was Held Hostage By Anti-Pope Protesters
The Washington Monument was originally meant to be far more than just an obelisk: it was meant to be a full-scale Roman-style pantheon full of pomp and fancy marble. But it ran into huge amounts of trouble over the years of its construction, not least being held hostage by a group of anti-Catholic protesters after 1854.
The "Know-Nothing Party," as they called themselves, hated both immigrants and Catholics, and took umbrage that the Pope had donated a stone from Rome for the structure. So they did what any reasonable political party would do, and stormed it to steal the stone and take control of the site. They held onto it until 1858, but only added four feet to its height in all that time, because Congress (reasonably enough) protested against giving them any money to help build it. The country only got it back because the Know-Nothings dissolved. (A lot of them joined the Republicans.)
4. Mount Rushmore Construction Workers Ran A Tourist Scam
This one might be folklore, but it's one of the funnier legends about the construction of Mount Rushmore, which was otherwise a model of efficiency and safety (not one person was killed in the entire process, which involved huge amounts of dynamite and people dangling on a vertical cliff face). The National Parks Service claims that the workers ran a scam on visiting tourists looking to get themselves souvenirs.
After the initial dynamiting, workers had to hand-drill the granite of the mountain surface to remove small parts of it at a time, using a process called "honeycombing," which basically means drilling many tiny holes close together and then removing it in chunks. The result was seriously beautiful, so passing tourists tried to buy it — but the workers apparently pretended they weren't allowed to sell it, at least until the tourists named a truly ridiculous price. A cosy little earner for a piece that commemorates the American Dream.
5. Monticello's Interior Was Painted In Insanely Bright Technicolor
According to Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History Of Private Life , Jefferson's beloved Monticello was less a product of architectural restraint, more an ambitious pet project that lived as a construction site for decades, even while Jefferson was living there. It has a lot of sweet touches, including secret reading spaces or "cuddies" at the tops of stairs, but one of its most astonishing elements was its color scheme.
Apparently, the modern curators came in for a lot of heat when they redecorated it in splashy paint as part of a restoration project. But they were only following Jefferson's original decorating scheme. Monticello's interior rooms were incredibly vividly painted, most notably in a really fashionable "chrome yellow" which was the height of sophistication and cost up to $5 a pound. Visitors may complain of headaches, but Jefferson clearly loved it.
6. The Lincoln Memorial Was Built On A Notorious Body-Dumping Ground
The Lincoln Memorial is a bit like the Washington Monument, in that the original plan was far more ambitious than what was eventually constructed — but what really made headlines at the time was the choice of location. The area where it was raised was a swamp filled with mosquitos, mud, homeless people and, occasionally, a few less salubrious items.
According to the Washington Post, the marshy flats where the Washington Memorial and park were eventually built were originally seriously dodgy. Republican Congressman Joe Cannon, the key agitator against the plan, went so far as to state, "So long as I live, I'll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that goddamned swamp." One of the main problems? Police kept finding dumped bodies in it. The plans eventually went ahead, but Honest Abe might have raised a marble eyebrow.