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Fellows Field Trip: Paul Kelsch on Two Memorials Less Visited

Posted On November 21, 2014 | 08:57 am | by jessicas | Permalink

Dumbarton Oaks Fellows are no strangers to sharing their academic projects with their colleagues, whether over lunch in the Refectory or during their hour-long research presentations.  However, due to the vast geographical and topical spread of Fellows’ topics, the currency of sharing is typically in ideas, descriptions, and photographs.

But for Paul Kelsch, a 2014–2015 Garden and Landscape Studies Fellow, his topic, “Natural Histories of the Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Memorials,” provides a unique opportunity not only to present his research to his colleagues but to offer an immersive experience. On November 5, Kelsch traveled with ten other Fellows to the Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson Memorials, both lesser-known National Park Service–run memorials located on islands along the Potomac.

After a quick drive from Georgetown to Arlington, the group came to the Pentagon parking lot, where one entrance to the Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial Grove is located. As they crossed the bridge from the lot onto the island, Kelsch explained, “Lady Bird Johnson had a capital beautification program, and the cornerstone of that was this island.” For Lady Bird, who dedicated the memorial in 1976, the spot of the memorial had special significance: as she and her husband drove into Washington, D.C., from Texas, they would often stop at the island to look over the Potomac, their view framed by the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.

But, standing near the granite megalith in the memorial’s center, the Fellows noted one could not see the entire panorama. “Maybe the idea was that, when the trees are big enough, they naturally prune their lower branches, and you can see underneath them,” Kelsch suggested.

The tree cover, combined with the draw of the Potomac panorama, also renders the island invisible from the highway. “I grew up driving this road and I’ve never seen this,” Caitlin Earley, a Junior Fellow, said.

Departing from the Memorial Grove, the Fellows headed to another largely unnoticed island memorial for a president known for his conservation agenda. Theodore Roosevelt Island is a piece of land with a long history. In 1724, American planter George Mason III acquired the land, which was originally settled by Nacotchank Indians in the mid-1600s. His grandson John Mason built a house on the property in 1796, but the family left the island in 1831. The island was used as both a training ground for African-American Union soldiers and as an explosives testing ground during the Spanish-American War. In 1913, the Washington Gas Light Company purchased the island, which remained out of use until the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased it in 1932 for the construction of the memorial.

As the group hiked up a hill on the island, they were surprised to come across a clearing with a giant statue of Teddy Roosevelt in speaking pose in a plaza with inscriptions and two circular pools with fountains. Empty of foot traffic, one member of the group compared the discovery to a scene from Planet of the Apes. “This one does feel like it just landed here,” Kelsch noted of the memorial, which was not completed until 1967, three years after the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge was constructed across the island.

While the initial plan had been to further develop the park, adding a marina to its southern shore, “the bridge basically scrapped any plans to expand,” Kelsch explained. “This park, because of the highway, isn’t even really supposed to be used,” he noted to the group of Fellows as they cleared their way through the brush, heading back across the island.