Architect Pierre L’Enfant envisioned a memorial in the capital to “celebrate the first rise of the Navy and consecrate its progress and achievements.” However, it never took shape until 1980 when Rear Admiral William Thompson, USN (Ret.) received blessing from Congress to construct a Navy Memorial on public land.
The Memorial Foundation, formed in 1977 by Admiral Arleigh Burke and other Navy colleagues, selected Market Square – across the street from the National Archives – as the site of the memorial. Construction started in 1985 and was officially dedicated on October 13, 1987, the 212th birthday of the US Navy.
There are two parts to the Navy Memorial, the public plaza and the Naval Heritage Center, which occupies one of the two buildings that flank the memorial. Just inside the entrance is a sculpture by Stanley Bleifeld, The Homecoming. The Center caters to building personal links between naval service personnel, both veterans and active-duty, and their families.
The plaza is more well-known. Built around the central idea of an amphitheater, the center is a grand, 100-ft diameter engraving of the world, with the Lone Sailor sculpture standing silent watch. Surrounding the rim of the plaza are fountains, pools, flagpole masts and sculptured panels depicting the historic achievements of our nation’s sea services.
Admiral Thompson had a great quote describing the memorial: “To passersby, the appearance of the Memorial is not unlike that of America’s perceptions of the sea. Even though it is vast and broad and unmistakeably there, you could miss it if you are not paying attention. But when you walk on this site, it engulfs you with its scale and grandeur.”
Many DC residents use the plaza as a ‘resting area’; it’s not uncommon to walk through the memorial on a warm spring or summer day and see people lounging by the fountains or sitting on the benches, enjoying lunch from the nearby delis. Contrasted with the everyday office crowds are the tourists, who roam about the massive inlaid globe while their kids dip hands into the fountains and pose by the Lone Sailor.
Its one of my favorite places to just site and absorb, where history, locals and visitors all collide every day. Truly a DC-centric experience.