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Plans Unveiled for National Mall Makeover

America’s front yard—as Washington’s National Mall has been nicknamed— needs some work. Upwards of $600 million worth, according to the draft plan recently put out by the Mall’s minders, the National Park Service. In the words of Susan Spain, the project executive in charge of the plan, the Mall is “a little ratty looking.” Hey, your lawn would be too if it had suffered decades of deferred maintenance.

The draft plan runs 600 pages long, but don’t mistake it for Extreme Makeover: Mall Edition. “The buzzword is ‘respectful rehabilitation’,” says Spain, whose staff took into account about 30,000 public comments, as well as input from the Mall’s neighbors along the 684-acre green space that stretches west from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial with a thick dogleg to the south.

The draft offers five overlapping alternatives, and a final summary plan is due this fall. The park service prefers transforming the Union Square area at the east end into a more adaptable space, adding a welcome center near the Smithsonian Castle and building multipurpose facilities (more shopping! more refreshments! more bathrooms!), all without interfering with the sweeping grandeur of Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 master plan or the rights of Americans to gather and sound off.

“There’s a lot going on,” says Spain, “but frankly it’s a wonderful juggling act.” If she and the park service pull it off, the American people should give them a standing O.

Amistad Returns to Cuba

Amistad, a replica of a 19th-century Cuban slave ship, recently sailed into Havana harbor, reviving memories of a high-profile incident that served as a rallying cry for abolitionists. Slaves shipped out of Havana in 1839 on the original La Amistad revolted and took over the ship, eventually making their way to the United States and gaining their freedom after John Quincy Adams argued their case before the Supreme Court.

Built in Connecticut, the replica schooner traveled to Cuba for the United Nations’ International Day of Remembrance that commemorated the 203rd anniversary of the British law that began the extended worldwide movement that would make slavery illegal.

And, not surprisingly, the rare appearance of a boat under the United States flag in Cuba sparked discussions of the historical relationship between the two countries. “Cuba and the U.S. were trading partners, and they share a history of being slave-trading countries. Our visit pointed to a common humanity that has a painful and morally offensive history,” says Gregory Belanger, president and CEO of Amistad America, which hews to the motto “Confronting the Past, Transforming the Future.”

Jefferson Talks Turkey With the Unkechaugs

Thomas Jefferson has been dead for more than 183 years, but that hasn’t stopped him from helping to revive an American Indian language. A vocabulary list of hundreds of words spoken by the Unkechaugs, collected personally by Secretary of State Jefferson in 1791, will help breathe life into the language of Indians who have lived along an inlet on southern Long Island, N.Y., for hundreds of years.

Jefferson’s word list—núp for water, nahiam for turkey, squah for woman, wúhnsa for killing—represents a rare documentation of the Unkechaug language, even if part of it is mattateáyuh (bad). “He did a good job,” says Robert Hoberman, chair of the linguistics department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which is part of a new initiative to bring back the language of the Unkechaugs and another Long Island nation, the Shinnecocks. “Some of it is pretty confusing. Not all of the words can be identified.”

For Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug nation (pop. 400), the work has tremendous significance: “It’s important for us to understand who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Language is essential in that journey.” In a sense, Jefferson’s work has become the cornerstone of a declaration of linguistic independence.

Mother Nature Lays Claim to Grant Cottage

Time—as well as most Americans—may have forgotten the place in upstate New York where Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885, but nature has not. Located atop Mount McGregor, near Saratoga Springs, Grant Cottage suffers from extensive water damage and a severe lack of maintenance. Paint is coming off exterior walls, and support beams are cracking, among other signs of decay. “Mother Nature has sent her tentacles into the structure,” says Lance Ingmire, who recently became president of Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage.

Struggling with chronic money problems and advanced throat cancer, Grant moved to the cottage in June 1885 to finish his memoirs. He died on July 23, a few days after completing the project. One of his sons, Frederick, stopped a clock at the exact time of his death— 8:08 a.m.—and the frozen timepiece remains on display. So do 125-year-old floral arrangements created at the time of Grant’s death and the same bed linens— unchanged—on which he passed away.

The historic site suffers from choking bureaucratic entanglements. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation controls the cottage, and has underfunded maintenance for decades. The New York State Department of Correctional Services controls the grounds, as the cottage shares Mount McGregor with a men’s prison. The Friends must cover operating expenses, and the group is strapped for funds. “We are in a quandary as to what we should do,” says Ingmire. “When does everyone realize that we cannot allow this museum to continue this way into perpetuity?”

Letters Recall Flood of Sympathy for Jackie Kennedy

Frances Nash was one in a million and a half. Back in November 1963, she joined a mass outpouring of grief—expressed one letter at a time— by writing to the widow of President John F. Kennedy. Her letter recently surfaced as one of about 250 collected in the book Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation by historian Ellen Fitzpatrick.

On the day Kennedy was killed, Nash, then 33, worked alone at the post office in tiny Custer, Mich. When she heard of the president’s death, Nash went outside to lower the American flag to half-mast, and the act brought her to tears.

“Never even with the loss of several of my family,” she wrote the next day, “have I been more deeply touched than with the loss of President Kennedy.” Now, she says, “I guess my letter will remain in history. That is really what has humbled me, very much.”

Bizarre Bits Tell Big Stories

A lock of James Madison’s hair, a piece of fungus carved to show Robert E. Lee on his horse, a smallpox scab and the bullet that killed the first Confederate officer—these are the makings of an exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond through next February called “Bizarre Bits: Oddities From the Collection.” “You can learn a lot about what was valued at different times,” says the show’s curator, William Rasmussen. “All sorts of things were collected back then,” including the letter from an early 19th-century sailor to his wife that came with what supposedly were endearments: his fingernail clippings.


Originally published in the August 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.