Do You Know the Other Watergate?

Before “Watergate” became synonymous with a group of buildings and a scandal, it was the name applied to something else. And it’s something that most of us are very familiar with, especially if you’re an avid runner who heads down to the Lincoln Memorial, on the Potomac side.

Watergate steps (source: SmugMug user George Calhoun)
Watergate steps (source: SmugMug user George Calhoun)

There are a series of steps between the Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac River, which give the odd impression that one is supposed to either ascend from the river or descend into it. Well, that’s because they were in fact built for that purpose.

The steps were originally intended for grand arrivals of dignitaries and heads of state, who would arrive by boat. They would pull up to the steps and be greeted by the grandeur of our shining new monument to the greatest president of them all.

Well, it didn’t really work out that way and they weren’t really put to their intended use.  They were eventually used after a proposal to park a barge on the Potomac as a stage for concerts. The steps made an excellent venue for summer music concerts.

On July 14th, 1935, the first concert was to be held there and the national Symphony Orchestra would perform. The Washington Post had the following article in the paper that morning.

Wagner’s dramatic overture, “Die Meistersinger,” will open the concert by the National Symphony Orchestra this evening at the Watergate, thus launching a summer symphony series for Washington.

Arrangements for accommodating the expected listeners have been completed. The barge and orchestra shell, anchored off the Watergate banks, has been equipped with modern sound amplification devices which will carry the music to all sections of the Watergate without tone distortion.

To expedite the seating of patrons, it has been requested that holders of the cheaper tickets enter from the upper level of the Watergate or the plaza of the Lincoln Memorial, and occupy places on the steps. Patrons holding higher priced tickets are to enter through the underpasses on the lower level. Box offices on both upper and lower levels will be open each concert evening at 6:30 P. M.

All tickets purchased in advance will have rain checks attached. If rain forces cancellation of a concert or interrupts a program before intermission time, the checks will entitle holders to admission at the following concert without additional cost.

The concerts had to stop in 1965 because jets had started flying into National Airport and the noise was just too loud to overcome.

the Watergate steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial around 1930 (Library of Congress)
The steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial around 1930 (Library of Congress)
The steps leading up the the Lincoln Memorial around 1930 (Library of Congress)
The steps leading up the the Lincoln Memorial around 1930 (Library of Congress)

While the steps never really served their intended purpose, at least they were put to good use for a while.

After being retired as a music venue, it now serves to keep Washingtonians in shape, with painful sprints up the steps.

Jogger running up steps to Lincoln Memorial (Flickr user Bill in DC)
Jogger running up steps to Lincoln Memorial (Flickr user Bill in DC)

The above photo is from Flick user Bill in DC and he has some excellent shots of DC that you should check out.

This post was cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

UPDATE: Kent over at Park View, D.C. sent over a great photo from the Library of Congress. This is a shot of a concert being held at the waterfront on July 12th, 1939. Great find Kent! Thanks.

Washington turns out for open air music. Washington, D.C., July 12, 1939. Sitting on stone steps near the Lincoln Memorial here, and facing a barge moored in the Potomac River, thousands of Washingtonians turned out to listen to the first of a series of summer concerts by the Washington Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Dr. Hans Kindler tonight. To give it his blessing and to enjoy the music, President Roosevelt arrived shortly before intermission accompanied by Brig. Genl. Edwin M. Watson, military aide, and Mrs. Watson (Library of Congress)
Washington turns out for open air music. Washington, D.C., July 12, 1939. Sitting on stone steps near the Lincoln Memorial here, and facing a barge moored in the Potomac River, thousands of Washingtonians turned out to listen to the first of a series of summer concerts by the Washington Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Dr. Hans Kindler tonight. To give it his blessing and to enjoy the music, President Roosevelt arrived shortly before intermission accompanied by Brig. Genl. Edwin M. Watson, military aide, and Mrs. Watson (Library of Congress)

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Chris

    The 1950 film Born Yesterday features a montage of DC scenes that includes the stars of the film attending a NSO concert at this Watergate.

    • In the 1958 Cary Grant – Sophia Loren film “Houseboat” an extended and important scene takes place on those steps during a concert. It appears that at least parts of it were actually filmed there. By the way – Paul Petersen (later in the sitcom cast of “the Donna Reed Show”) plays one of Grant’s children in the movie.

  • Steph Eller

    The music wasn’t all Wagner. I remember attending concerts in the 1950s and early 1960s that featured barbershop quartets and military bands.

  • Check out the original boat-oriented design of the Kennedy Center, very cool:
    http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/1563/1959-alternate-kennedy-center-design/

  • Pingback: On Shaky Grounds: Controversy and New Memorials in Washington DC « Ghosts of DC()

  • before TV and air conditioning, before I-66 & the TR bridge, before the Kennedy Center and Watergate (as we know it today), my parents took us kids (6) to Watergate concerts a lot. I suspect that my father took my mother there on dates before the were married (1940).

  • Paul M. Vanasse

    Nice article, however the actual Watergate is the watergate to the C & O Canal. This gate allowed the canal boats in and out to begin or end their jorney from Cumberland,MD. It is also mile zero of the C & O Canal Trail and National Park. It is a great bike ride if you are inclined to traverse the 185 miles.
    https://ggwash.org/view/42231/you-know-the-watergate-but-what-about-the-water-gate

  • JRL

    Greatly enjoyed everyone’s comments and the pictures of the old Watergate concerts. Remember them well. Seems to me that it was also a favorite place to view the fireworks on the Fourth along with listening to the NSO. However, with all of the comments made, I expected someone to mention, and/or add a picture of the old Watergate Inn!!! A very pleasant and quaint restaurant with pretty good food.