18 Wacky Facts You Never Knew About Washington, D.C.
From monumental mishaps (literally) to unusual voting laws, our nation’s capital has a strange history.
The district is only partly named for the first president
In 1791, George Washington chose 100 square miles of land, formerly of Maryland and Virginia, to be the final site for our nation’s capital. This entire district was named Columbia—a patriotic nickname for America that honored Christopher Columbus—and the new federal city added to the territory was called Washington, for good ol’ George. Georgetown and Alexandria were also cities included in the district.
George Washington never lived there
Turns out there are many George Washington facts you never learned in school. John Adams was the first president to live in Washington, D.C. Washington died before the White House was finished, though he did lay its cornerstone on October 13, 1792.
Only one president is buried in DC
This presidential trivia is actually true—and that president is Woodrow Wilson. His body has been in the Washington National Cathedral since his death in 1924.
There’s a crypt under the U.S. Capitol
George Washington was supposed to be buried in it, but he wanted to be laid to rest at Mount Vernon instead. So now the U.S. Capitol is home to an empty crypt. Creepy.
And atop the Capitol building…
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There’s a bronze statue called the Statue of Freedom. It’s more than 19 feet tall and weighs around 15,000 pounds. It depicts a woman wearing a headdress in the shape of an eagle’s head, feathers and all.
D.C. residents are a diverse bunch
Of the 672,000 people who live in D.C., 15 percent speak a language other than English. (They probably mastered this secret to learning a new language.) The city also houses more than 175 embassies and international cultural centers.
If you live in D.C., your voting rights are fairly new
Before 1961, residents of Washington, D.C. couldn’t vote in presidential elections because of the Electoral College. (Don’t know what that is? We answered 15 political questions you’ve been too embarrassed to ask.) The number of electoral votes each state gets depends on how many senators and members of the House of Representatives it has. Since D.C. isn’t a state, it has no representatives in Congress, so for years D.C. couldn’t take part in elections. The 23rd Amendment to the Constitution (passed in 1961) let D.C. have the number of electoral votes it would have if it were a state, but no more than the number of electors the least-populated state has. Currently, Wyoming is the least-populated state with three electors. So D.C. gets a max of three electoral votes.
Jefferson and Jackson have unique statues
The original statue in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial was made of plaster, because metal was rationed during WWII. It was later replaced with the 19-foot bronze statue seen today. There’s a statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square directly across from White House—and it’s partially made of British canons used in the War of 1812.
Only one memorial on the National Mall is dedicated to World War I
That is the DC War Memorial, which honors locals from Washington, D.C. who fought in that war.
The Washington Monument used to be the tallest structure in the world
At 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches tall, the memorial held this title for five years after it was completed in 1884. Then the Eiffel Tower came looming in at 984 feet. (Don’t get alarmed, but the Washington Monument reportedly does sway .125th of an inch when the wind blows at least 30 miles per hour.)
The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library
It has more than 162 million objects in the collection, including a top secret FBI interrogation manual—just another secret the FBI doesn’t want you to know. Some guy copyrighted the secret document, and according to the law, anything copyrighted must be available to anyone with a library card at the Library of Congress.
The U.S. Capitol isn’t totally American
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It was designed by a Scottish doctor named William Thornton. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson held a contest to design the building, with a winning prize of $500, but they didn’t like any of the 17 entries received. Thornton submitted his designs after the deadline, but Washington and Jefferson liked it enough to choose it anyway.
Neither are D.C.’s famous cherry blossoms
The 3,000 cherry trees lined along the Tidal Basin make D.C. a top spring travel destination, and they were a gift from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo in 1912. The National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates this event and the relationship between the U.S. and Japan every year.
Washington, D.C. is missing a street
All lettered streets in Washington, D.C. occur in alphabetical order—except for J, because there is no J Street. The most likely explanation is also the reason why J was the last letter added to the alphabet. People thought it would be confused with I Street, since the two letters were frequently used interchangeably during the 18th century.
The Washington Monument is actually two different colors
The Washington National Monument Society ran out of funding during construction, so the project was put on hold. Eventually, the U.S. government took over 25 years later, but it used marble from a different quarry. Over time, the stones have reacted differently to rain and erosion, which is why the bottom looks slightly different from the top.
Building the Lincoln Memorial took way longer than expected
Congress created a Lincoln Memorial Association two years after the president’s assassination, but construction didn’t start until 1914. It eventually opened in 1922. Now it stands proud with 36 columns, representing each of the states in the Union when Lincoln died, and it made up of stones from Massachusetts, Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. Architect Henry Bacon purposely did this to show that a country torn apart by war can still unite to create something beautiful.
Other things about the Lincoln Memorial you never knew:
There’s a glaring typo in the inscription of Lincoln’s second inaugural address etched into the wall. Also, Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
And speaking of MLK…
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The sculptor behind the statue in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was Chinese artist Master Lei Yixin. He sculpted 80 percent of the artwork in China, had it transported to the U.S., and then finished the rest on site in D.C. The memorial is one of four monuments on the National Mall dedicated to a non-president.