At 555 feet the Washington Monument is the tallest thing in the capital city. It was completed in 1885. The authorities long ago decreed that no other structure in the District of Columbia was to come near it in height. Hence, architects strain to create originality in the 12-story boxes that fill the capital's downtown.
Now, the National Park Service, which manages the monument, has decided to go in the opposite direction, underground. Worried that a terrorist might stroll up to the monument with a rucksack full of explosives, the NPS is proposing to dig a 400-foot tunnel under the greensward that surrounds it. A new 20,000-square foot visitor center -- with the kind of "screening facility" airplane passengers have come to enjoy -- will be built that distance from the monument. Like airport screeners, these can be expected to single out 70-year-old grandmothers for secondary security checks. If you pass their test, you will be allowed to burrow your way to the spire itself. The NPS's stated goal is to bring you to the monument without "interaction with unchecked individuals."
The tunnel plan is not without its skeptics and opponents. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall has come forward to question possible soil instability and contamination, as well as impediments to public access. They are calling for a full environmental impact study.
When it comes to building new monuments in this city filled with them, controversy is more the rule than the exception. Arguments over the design of a World War II monument have been going on for years, with no sign of abating. Franklin D. Roosevelt asked that the only monument to him be a simple slab of granite the size of his Oval Office desk. That was installed near the National Archives, but it wasn't enough for latter-day FDR fans. We now have a monument consisting of several bronze tableaux from his career, careful to show him in a wheelchair, at the insistence of groups of disabled citizens.
What if someone proposed a monument that would not block any view, would not require the uprooting of trees, would not pit various advocacy groups against one another, would not cost a fortune and would not tie up city streets for months? Someone has. His name is John Johansen.
Johansen, who spent a number of years in the corporate mergers-and-acquisitions field, about four years ago hit upon the idea of commemorating ordinary citizens who did extraordinary things for society by honoring them with plaques in the sidewalks of Washington. He called it the Extra Mile monument because, as he puts it, "One of my principal motives in founding this initiative is to celebrate the power of the individual to effect change."
Johansen created a foundation to raise the funds and get the necessary approvals for the project. It worked its way through the process, first with legislation by the D.C. Council, then the National Capital Planning Commission and the Fine Arts Commission. A year-and-a-half ago, he merged his organization with the Points of Light Foundation, inspired by President George H.W. Bush's famous call for increased volunteerism during his term in office. The project's budget is $3 million, modest by Washington standards. It is scheduled to be dedicated in April 2004.
Seventy Americans will be honored in The Extra Mile National Volunteer Pathway. About half have been selected thus far, according to Johansen. Among these are Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross; W.D. Boyce and Juliette Gordon Low, founders of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, respectively; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his civil rights leadership; suffragette Susan B. Anthony; Edgar Allen, founder of the Easter Seal Society; Ballington and Maude Booth, founders of Volunteers of America; Dorothea Dix, who campaigned for reforming mental institutions; Harriet Tubman, heroine of the Underground Railroad movement; Helen Keller, founder of the American Foundation for the Blind; Ernest Kent Coulter, founder of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America movement; abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and Edgar J. Helms, founder of Goodwill Industries.
The spirit that motivated each of these Americans will soar from a circular bronze medallion embedded in a six-by-six-foot piece of granite set in the sidewalk. The Extra Mile will begin opposite the U.S. Treasury at 15th and G Streets (a block from the White House), heading eastward to 11th, then south one block to F, then west back to 15th. Each medallion will include a bas-relief portrait of the person honored, a description of his or her accomplishments and a quotation.
What better way to spend an hour or so on a spring or summer day in Washington next year than walking a mile to honor those who have gone "the extra mile" for the rest of us? If you have a nominee, send an e-mail to: JJohansen@PointsofLight.org.