Washington, DC is best known for its monuments to the nation’s founders and forebears, those grand marble memorials along the National Mall. But there are other statues worth your attention sprinkled in and around the nation’s capital – many more unexpected than you might think.
This striking 1931 monument honors the men who died on the Titanic so women and children might live © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Women's Titanic Memorial
Where: Washington Channel Park, Fourth and P Sts SW
The outstretched arms of this red granite figure seem to mimic Rose’s in the movie Titanic, but this statue at Fort McNair’s northernmost tip, overlooking the Washington Channel, was installed long before the 1997 blockbuster hit the silver screen. Designed by socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (who opened the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC) and unveiled in 1931, it’s dedicated by female survivors ‘to the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.’ Every April 15, formally dressed members of the Women's Titanic Society convene here to sip champagne and lay a wreath honoring those who perished that night.
Where: Section E, Lot 202, Rock Creek Cemetery, Petworth
Perhaps one of DC’s most chilling statues, this seated, shrouded bronze figure, tucked away behind a ring of tall conifers in Rock Creek Cemetery, captures the complex mingling of grief and serenity upon death. It's also known as 'Grief' – and rightly so. Novelist Henry James commissioned it from esteemed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1886 to memorialize his photographer and socialite wife, Clover Adams (1843-1885), who committed suicide at age 42 by drinking a photography-developing chemical. The inspiration derives from James’ travels in Japan, where he stumbled upon the notion of the profound peace of mind that results following Buddhist enlightenment – a unique philosophy during those Gilded Age times.
Insider Tip: You’ll find a replica of the statue at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
One of the first statues of Abraham Lincoln, this monument depicts attitudes toward free Blacks in the late 19th century © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Where: Lincoln Park, Capitol Hill
Standing in the heart of one of Capitol Hill’s prettiest parks, the Emancipation Memorial was one of the nation’s first memorials to honor Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). It’s also one of the most controversial. Sculpted by Thomas Ball and dedicated in 1876, the towering bronze statue depicts Lincoln as a generous, self-assured leader. The former President is holding the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand, lording over a half-dressed formerly enslaved man, his broken chains by his side. Yes, it was paid for by formerly enslaved people, beginning with a five-dollar donation by the formerly enslaved Charlotte Scott, but the African American figure’s subservient stance reflects the era in which it was created. Today, some see it as an example of the ultimate failure of Reconstruction.
Insider Tip: You’ll also find the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in the park, DC’s first statue dedicated to an African American woman.
Kids and adults alike love to clamber over this larger-than-life Einstein © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Albert Einstein Memorial
Where: National Academy of Science, on Constitution Avenue, NW
Anyone who has sat in the lap of this larger-than-life bronze statue of a relaxed, seated Einstein (1879-1955) states this is their favorite statue in DC. Yes, that’s right, sat. Kids love crawling all over it; well, adults do, too. Dedicated in 1978, on the 100th anniversary of the scientist’s birth, the giant figure holds a bronze paper containing his three greatest scientific contributions: the photoelectric effect, the theory of general relativity and the equivalence of energy and matter. In front, a star map – an expanse of emerald pearl granite studded with accurately placed planets, sun, moon and stars. But really, visiting this one is mostly about having fun (and a great photo op).
This eerie statue of Mary Magdelene emerging from Jesus' tomb is by one of the sculptors of Mt Rushmore © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Where: Section B, Lot 164, Rock Creek Cemetery, Petworth
A bronze Mary Magdalene reaches toward the risen Jesus Christ on Easter morning in what must be one of the city’s most startling statues. Black streaks run down her face, and her hollow eyes look into the empty void. The aging effects on the bronze – creating a green-black patina – adds to the effect. Sculpted by Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame and located in Rock Creek Cemetery, it memorializes the family of Charles Matthews Ffoulke (1851-1909), a prominent DC banker and tapestry collector. According to scripture, ‘Rabboni' – teacher in Hebrew – is what Mary cried upon seeing Jesus.
Batter up at this lively monument to baseball © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Where: Federal Reserve Bank courtyard, 20th and Virginia Ave NW
Right in the heart of downtown DC, mere blocks from the White House, a pitcher, batter, catcher and umpire are caught up in a game of baseball on the courtyard of the Federal Reserve Bank. They’re in perfect, game-correct positions, waiting for the pitch … graceful bronze statues all. The sculptor, John Dreyfuss, who created the group in 1988, once stated, ‘Baseball is still the lens through which Americans see themselves and debate controversial issues.’ Fitting, in the nation’s capital.
The lead statue of the daughter of Senator Seward is a haunting memorial © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Olive Risley Seward
Where: Just off Seward Park, 6th St and North Carolina Ave SW, Capitol Hill
She stands graceful and somewhat obscure in someone’s front yard, just off Seward Square on Capitol Hill. Sculptor John Cavanaugh decided that statue-less Seward Square, named for William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state (best known for the purchase of Alaska, known as ‘Seward’s Folly’), needed a monument. Just why he chose to memorialize Seward’s adopted daughter is anyone’s guess, especially given the fact that he did the work, fashioned from hammered lead, in 1971, long after her death – with no photos for reference. The thick dark lines that striate her face, like pools of black tears, are downright creepy.
A. Philip Randolph
Where: Union Station
It may seem odd that this stately statue was placed at Union Station, in front of a Starbucks and amid the hustle-bustle of Amtrak’s boarding gates. But considering the fact that Randolph (1889-1979) served as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the first labor unions led by African Americans, it makes perfect sense. Randolph went on to become a key Civil Rights leader, partnering with Martin Luther King Jr to become one of the chief organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. Ed Dwight sculpted the bronze statue in 1990.
The sculpted head of poet Kahlil Gibran emerges from a stately stone wall, alongside doves © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Kahlil Gibran Memorial Garden
Where: Massachusetts Ave NW
Along Massachusetts Avenue toward Observatory Circle, a series of statues honors some of the world’s greatest men, Gandhi and Mandela among them. Kahil Gibran (1883-1931) is there too, the Lebanese poet and philosopher who wrote The Prophet (fun fact: he’s the third best-selling artist after Shakespeare and Laozi). The thing is, this statue, designed by Gordon Kray on the 100th anniversary of Gibran’s birth, is not your typical monument. It’s a floating bronze head affixed to a stone wall embracing a fountain, with bronze pigeons flitting about. Gibran was a proponent of all religions, so it doesn’t go without notice that his memorial is within walking distance of both the Islamic Center and the National Cathedral.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.