“Put yourself in the map”. That’s what I always tell my friends when they’re feeling turned around and lost. But not everyone has the appreciation for maps that I do, which is why I was so excited that I could literally put myself in the map at Freedom Plaza, and maybe take a friend or two with me to show them how it’s done.
Located just east of the White House at 14th and Penn between the Ronald Reagan building and the National Theatre, Freedom Plaza is one of those places in DC that you’ve probably already been to and never really noticed. The first time I was there was for the “Light the Night” walk for blood cancers which used the plaza as the basecamp for the start of the walk. It was dark out, and I had that feeling of: “This is probably somehow important – I mean it IS in the heart of Washington – but I can’t really tell in the dark.”
Different colored stones and brass inlays create a smooth, flat, and rectangular depiction of L’Enfant’s plan. The layout, the inscriptions, and the history are subtle and easily missed – unless you know why you’re there. Similarly, ironically shaped patches of grass stand out as awkward additions to the plaza until you realize they symbolize the National Mall.
The plaza’s architects designed Western Plaza according to L’Enfant’s original plan of the city in which Pennsylvania Avenue was a direct link between the Capitol (which is inscribed as L’Enfant referred to it as “Congress’s House”) and the White House (as L’Enfant called the “President’s House”). This connection is now clouded by the Treasury building, which was built long after L’Enfant’s plan was constructed, which is why it is so important for us to remember his original plan for the city through Freedom Plaza.
Not only can you stand on a mini-layout of the streets and the buildings, but there is incredible history here that you also may not have realized. The plaza, built in 1980, was originally named Western Plaza, but was renamed Freedom Plaza in 1988 in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. who composed his “I have a Dream” speech in the Willard across the street. A time capsule containing relics of MLK Jr. was planted at the site to be opened in a hundred years. However, I could not find the dedication to this time capsule or its location. (Have you seen it?)
So the next time you are on a run by the White House or ice skating in Pershing Park, swing by Freedom Plaza – and put yourself in the map.