While most do not see the green square of Lafayette Park as much more than another monument in an area saturated with similar memorials, the space holds a rich history and speaks leagues of the areas disposition. The space, now called Lafayette Square, has not always technically been utilized as government property, the square has always been a staple of its surrounding community. Originally used as a cemetery, a racetrack, and even a slave market, Lafayette square was a public space used until it was purchased by the government in the 1700’s (Lafayette Square, Washington, DC). The space’s first official governmental purpose was to serve as the original construction site for the White House and then again for repairs after the British destruction during the War of 1812 (Lafayette Square, Washington, DC). Since then, the square has seen numerous changes, undergoing its latest update in 1970, when the square became an official historic landmark.
Lafayette Square, often referred to as Lafayette Park, originally went by the name of ‘President’s Park’ in the 1800’s, when it first became a landmark of significant use to it’s community (Lafayette Square, Washington, DC). Likely, the locations original name was a result of the proximity of what is now Lafayette Square to the white house and the National Mall. Marquis de Lafayette, for which the square was named, was a French revolutionary, holding a large role in the American Revolutionary war as well as revolutions in France, particularly, the revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution of 1830 (The Marquis de Lafayette). Lafayette, often referred to as “The hero of two worlds”, helped shape not only American as a country, the patriotism and attitude that has lived inside American citizens since the revolution. The square in his honor is home to five statues, one in each corner of the Square commemorating a significant European figure in the revolution and Andrew Jackson in the center on Horseback (Monuments to the American Revolution in Lafayette Park). One statue, situated at the corner of the square farthest from the White House, shows Lafayette standing above three other men in a position of triumph. This statue aligns clearly with his image of a successful revolutionary and greets you as you enter into the Square. The second statue is erected precisely in the middle of the square. This statue shows President Andrew Jackson sitting on his horse, his stance and positioning connoting less a sense of victory and more a sense of honor and patriotism and pride.
Two of the Squares monuments, while both the same in their message of honoring and patriotism, are entirely different in their structure and in their subliminal, covert messages. The placement of these statues and how they are situated so differently also symbolic in the meaning of the Square as a whole. The statue of Lafayette is situated in the Southwest corner of the park (Monuments to the American Revolution in Lafayette Park). The monument is not fenced off from the public. Tourists and locals alike can go as close to the statue as they would like, many even climbing onto the base of the structure to take photos or sit down. The statue is also incredibly close to the busy street, with strips of sidewalk bordering two of the four sides of the monument. The placement of the statute ensures that it is not the centerpiece of the Square while also creating a less monumental, sacred tone around the space that is so often seen in and around historical monuments. Unlike the placement and construction of the monument of Lafayette on the southwest corner of the square, the monument to President Andrew Jackson sits in the center of the square, eluding a very different message and level of importance. Fenced off and surrounded by a circular, pristine patch of grass, President Andrew Jackson sits on top of his horse. The parks guests are not permitted to pass through the fence that separates this monument for the rest of Washington D.C.. The closed off nature of the monument in comparison to the more open monument at the corner of the park, subliminally relays to the citizen that this central statue is to be viewed as something placed in the park, and the four corner statutes are to be experienced as a part of the park. As the first statue to be placed in the Square, its central location seems only logical. Though, the placement along with the fact that it is the only statue that passersby are not permitted to get close to as well as the fact that not only is it the only American depiction in the park but an American president says something different. While the Square is named for the French revolutionary who helped gain American independence, it is the American President who holds the dominant place in the square. This, matched with the placement of the Square in regards to the white house solidifies national dominance over foreign influence in the area. The few blocks surrounding Lafayette Square, speak of more nationalism, patriotism and American pride than almost any other space in the country. While this Square is named for a foreigner who helped fight for those three things, the foreign influence is far from overshadowing the American influence in the park, as seen through the monuments.
The square, to me, has a layered layout. The innermost layer of the park, The statue of President Andrew Jackson, depicts a core of American emphasis. As the first statue erected in the Square, the monument displayed a sense of dominance over its space, creating a museum in which the spectator viewed. The next layer, which would be installed in the years to come, consisted of four statues, each of foreign influence. This layer, while responsible for the naming of the Square, holds less physical influence over the space. The layer trades in the experience of viewing for a more holistic experience. The third layer, the surrounding area, which holds everything from the White House to Historic Washington DC homes. This layer corresponds with the core of the square, reinstating the American dominance of the space, despite it having been named for a foreign ally. I see this layering effect as a measure of containment. By creating a strong American presence on either side of the international Tribute that is the perimeter of Lafayette Square, the foreign tribute is politely contained to its space. The strength of the American history that resides over the space directly outside of the square as well as at the core keeps the tribute to Lafayette and other foreign dignitaries relatively minimal. This, along with the fact that the square is placed in an area that is so saturated with American monuments, history and symbolism, ensures that the strength of the American Presence in the area will far outheign the strength of the foreign presence.
While I do not see this layering effect of dominance and containment as particularly negative, the effect of it is certainly evident when looking at the Square by itself, and in connection to its surrounding environment. The monuments erected in honor of these men, Lafayette included, do not extend passed the sidewalks in which the are situated next to. They are not tall enough to see from a great distance away as are other monuments, nor do they demand a great amount of space. All of the elements of the construction and the placement of these figures serves to pay tribute to their subjects, while not overpowering any aspect of American tribute or honor in the nearby area.
This is further emphasized by the fact that each of the foreign honoring statues subjects are being honored due to their service to the United States of America to begin with. This shows not only the containment of the foreign influence in their placement, but in their message as well. In this, not only is the layering effect in full force, but and intrinsic containment is also present. This containment, as I see it, is done to maintain consistency within the area that the park sits. As the very center of our nation’s capitol, the purpose of the area is, at its core, to convey the strength, patriotism and core of The United States of America. This message of strength would be undercut by a such a strong message of international aid. In maintaining this image of American national pride, strength and unity, the introduction of such a strong foreign presence would be contradictory and alter both the consistency of the space and the message of the area as a whole.
“Biography of the Marquis De Lafayette.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association,
www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/served/lafayette.html. Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.
“Lafayette Square, Washington, DC.” GSA Home, www.gsa.gov/portal/content/214547.
“Monuments to the American Revolution in Lafayette Park.” The White House Historical Association , Library of Congress,
Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.
“Why ‘Lafayette’?” New Lafayette.org, 13 Aug. 2010,
www.newlafayette.org/lafayette-history/why-lafayette/. Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.