A Northward Gaze
If you stand at Jefferson’s feet in the memorial built to honor him, and turn your gaze north across the Tidal Basin toward the White House, you might not know it, but your gaze is following the path of one of Washington’s four prime meridians - a circle of constant longitude passing through a given place between the earth’s surface, and its terrestrial poles.
One of four Washington meridians, the 16th Street meridian is as invisible as its siblings. But for those who seek it out, the signs are there. Between the Jefferson memorial and the glimpse of the White House visible through the trees surrounding the Tidal Basin, for example, three spots—the Jefferson Pier, the Meridian Stone, and the Zero Marker—all mark the way.
It’s easy to overlook, this invisible line, in an area so enshrouded in history that even the sidewalks have been stamped with it. Further up 16th Street, however, the line makes it presence known, in landmarks named after it—Meridian Hill Park, a number of apartment buildings and co-ops, and of course, the Meridian House.
The Prime Meridian?
It was Thomas Jefferson who erected many of those points along the meridian, beginning in 1793 when he placed a post on the grounds that now house the Washington Monument. In 1804, the post was replaced by a small granite marker, known as the Jefferson Pier. That same year, Jefferson placed another marker on what is now 16th St. That marker is long gone, but a plaque at Meridian Hill Park commemorates its existence.
The idea of a meridian that would not only be for Washington, but for the world, took hold during Chester A. Arthur’s administration. The forty-seventh Congress held an international conference focused on establishing Washington’s meridian as a global standard.
“Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the President of the United States be authorized and requested to extend to the governments of all nations in diplomatic relations with our own an invitation to appoint delegates to meet delegates from the United States in the city of Washington, at such time as he may see fit to designate, for the purpose of fixing upon a meridian proper to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the globe...”
It wouldn’t be successful, and the grand Washington meridian was officially recognized neither internationally, nor at home.
A Memorial on the Water
The site that is now the Jefferson Memorial was initially set aside in 1901 by the McMillan Commission which called for a “round, domed, Pantheon-like structure around which were to be grouped the statues of illustrious men of the nation...” according to the National Park Service’s Jefferson Memorial Documentation Project of 1994. This building was then to be surrounded by buildings containing baths, a theatre, a gym, and other buildings.
When those plans didn’t come to fruition, an artist named Alice Pike Barney successfully led the charge to put a theatre on the Mall, anyway. Reading the original plans, I wonder what the Mall would look like today if that plan had come to pass, and if instead of massive memorials spread out along a large stretch, we instead had memorials in one large Pantheon on the Potomac. And one only has to see (Park Police chasing sunburnt tourists being out of World War II Memorial fountain in mid-summer to know the bath houses might have remained a major draw, even in modernity.)
In 1925, a design competition was launched for a memorial for Theodore Roosevelt to be housed on the Tidal Basin. The winning entry, crafted by an architect named John Russell Pope, failed to be funded by Congress, and again, the plans faltered.
Luckily, Pope found other ways to keep himself busy.
A Full Circle on an Invisible Line
By the time he won a competition that was a victory in name only, Pope was already well known in Washington. A prominent architect schooled in the Beaux Arts tradition, which still defines much of the historical architecture in D.C., Pope had served for five years on the Commission of Fine Arts, created to oversee the architecture and planning of Washington.
In 1915, his newly-finished temple to the Scottish Rite on Meridian Hill was called the “finest building of the year” by the Architectural League and in 1932, named the fifth most beautiful building in the world by the American Institute of Architects. I’m afraid I couldn’t do the stunning temple justice here. If you haven’t been, do take one of their free tours, and report back. It’s really quite extraordinary.
Pope also designed the DAR Hall, the National Archives building, the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and he would later design, you guessed it, the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin.
Purer Here the Air Whence We Overlook the City
A few years after completing the Scottish Rite temple, Pope built a home just a few blocks away for a diplomat returning to the U.S. from a stint abroad. It was so well received that the diplomat’s friend, also a returning diplomat, requested Pope build him a home, as well. Right next door.
Pope had begun his career designing private homes, and in between designing some of the most prominent icons in the Washington landscape, Pope returned again and again to his early practice. Several of those homes are now home to embassies, and these two particular homes, on 16th Street, and across the street from Meridian Hill Park, are now aptly, the home of the Meridian International Center.
It’s hard to imagine a Washington where two friends could decide they want to be neighbors, buy sweeping tracts of land, and have arguably the most prominent architect in the country build them an estate, but life in D.C. was different in the 1900s, and such things were possible. At this time, Meridian Hill was already taking shape as a neighborhood, willed into being by Mary Henderson, the wife of a former senator who wanted to make the enclave at the intersection of 16th Street and Florida Avenue a haven for senators, ambassadors and other socially "upstanding" people. Henderson owned much of the land in the neighborhood, and would often hire her favorite architect to design a house on her property, then sell it to a buyer who met her social criteria. (For a profit, of course.)
Pope designed the first of the two houses, now known as the White-Meyer House, for Henry White, who served as the Ambassador to France, in 1912, for just shy over $150,000, which won’t buy much in the District these days, let alone a mansion on a hill. After White’s death, the house was sold to Washington Post owner Eugene Meyer, who raised his children, including daughter Katharine Graham, there. (Disclosure: The author's treasured relative, also named Eugene "Gene" Meyer, is no relation to this Eugene Meyer.)
Ambassador Irwin Boyle Laughlin, who served stints in Greece, Spain, Germany, Japan, Russia, and others, bought the neighboring land in 1912, and began building the Meridian House in 1920. Laughlin purchased a massive 17th century tapestry depicting Alexander the Great meeting Diogenes, with the intention of hanging it in the not-yet-built dining room. Pope used the dimensions of the tapestry, still hanging today, to determine not only the scale of the dining room, but of the entire house, “in the interest of balance and symmetry.”
The home stayed in the Laughlin family until 1958. It 1960, it was purchased by the newly formed Meridian International Center, which, among its other roles, serves as the welcoming and orientation center for new ambassadors arriving in Washington. It also offers a variety of public events, including tours upon request. (A video tour is also available.) In 2020, Meridian is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and the 100th anniversary of the Meridian House.
“We are Washington’s home for diplomats,” said Natalie Jones, the Senior Vice President for External Affairs at Meridian. “We are an embassy to all embassies.”
And many of those embassies can still be spotted along an invisible line that runs through Washington, through history, and through the legacy of the architect who designed them.