February 6, 2014

George Washington Underfoot


When it is it acceptable to tread on the face of George Washington? The senator from Samoa thought the answer was “Never.”

“This is terrible,” he said, hanging back in the foyer of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion while the rest of his tour group moved on. “So disrespectful—walking over George Washington. This is an important man, a man who fought for freedom. He shouldn’t be here on the floor where people step on his face.”

The docent in the foyer explained that this particular decorative feature—a mosaic interpretation of the Great Seal of the State of Washington—is meant to be walked upon. Worked in Italian marble and measuring more than four feet across, it takes up the whole dang entryway. It would be almost impossible for guests to enter the Mansion without stepping on at least part of it, and the artwork is specifically designed to handle such traffic.

But the senator from Samoa didn’t care about durability. His point, which he made repeatedly, was that George Washington deserves our respect.

The docent gamely tried again, assuring him that the mosaic was very respectful indeed. It was, in fact, commissioned by a descendant of one of the brothers who designed the state seal in 1889.  (A lovely bit of history, actually, involving an inkwell, a silver dollar, and a postage stamp of George Washington, though fortunately the docent didn’t attempt to give all the details.)

The senator didn’t care about that, either. He cared about George Washington, and the fact that the first U.S. President was eating the dust of our shoes.

At that point I was compelled to step in. It was one of those tremendously busy days at the Mansion when I’m left directing traffic and dealing with small emergencies—like a grumpy senator from Samoa—instead of conducting tours. We needed to get the good senator caught up with his tour group, and we managed to mollify him, in part, by nudging him toward the portrait of George that hangs in the Mansion drawing room. It’s a work by the famous American portraitist Rembrandt Peale, and it’s very, very respectful. Heroic, in fact. Almost god-like. The Samoan senator liked it. But he made it clear that he didn’t like seeing George Washington on the floor.

This was, I realized in retrospect, a classic case of two parties viewing the same situation and reaching different conclusions. I look at that floor and I see an architectural feature inspired by the state’s formal emblem. The fact that the emblem incorporates the face of our namesake President is wholly incidental. (Designed in another era, the seal might have featured a Douglas fir or Grand Coulee Dam or a salmon.) But the visiting senator saw something else. He looked at the mosaic medallion and saw George Washington himself, the great American patriot, reduced to a the role of doormat, trodden upon by wing-tips, rain boots, and stiletto heels.

If it’s any consolation to him, some folks around here felt much the same way when the Washington State Capitol was built in the 1920s.  Local and regional chapters of  the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, The United Spanish American War Veterans, the Sons (as well as the Daughters) of the American Revolution, and the Federation of Women’s Clubs all objected strenuously to the architects’ plans to embed a bronze version of the Great Seal in the floor of the new rotunda, where any sort of riffraff could walk all over George Washington.

Governor Roland Hartley, who fought the capitol’s architects at virtually every other turn, oddly took their side in this case. “Have no brief to speak for [the architect]” he wrote in a letter to the Seattle Chapter of the DAR, “but do not believe he intended any disrespect or indignity. Perhaps he figures that the public could show its patriotism and respect by not walking on the plaque.”

Alas, they could not. In less than a decade George Washington’s noble bronze nose was flattened, forcing the state to install a permanent roped-off enclosure. But the precedent was established. A Great Seal in the floor is simply that, with no disrespect intended (although, as it turns out, bronze may not be the best choice for the task). In 1975, when the marble mosaic was installed in the entry of the Governor’s Mansion, no one appears to have made a fuss about George going down on the floor.

He has greeted visitors ever since, a steady and dignified presence just inside the double front doors. (Governor Locke’s daughter Emily, who spent her first eight years in the house, learned to read in the foyer by tracing the letters around the Great Seal, in what her family and Mansion staff soon dubbed “The School of George.”) No doubt he’d be touched by the feelings of the senator from Samoa, but I don’t think he minds the shoe leather. There is, after all, only one American state named for a U.S. President—and it isn’t Adams or Jefferson.

No matter how you look at it, that’s a big dose of respect.



 Heather Lockman’s The Indian Shirt Story, an irresistible novel from the Pacific Northwest, is now available as an ebook from Amazon, Musa Publishing, and most other ebook stores.



2 responses to “George Washington Underfoot”

  1. Bruce says:

    Glad I’m not a famous president, don’t think I’d want hundreds of people walking over my face on a daily basis. I guess I’d much prefer to be a lesser known and get a big bronze statue that the pigeons could land on.

  2. Sue Lean says:

    Love it! Great story! Sometimes the ubiquitous presence of images of George Washington in the state of Washington seems to make the great man almost invisible.