Growing up, I got used to seeing the U.S. Capitol on the evening news, usually rising majestically behind Dan Rather as he reported on some national crisis or other. Over the years, its domed-and-colonnaded form has assumed almost mythical proportions. It is, after all, the focal point of the world’s most powerful nation.
Yet when I finally visited Washington, D.C., in my thirties, I was a little let down to find that the Capitol, too, was a merely mortal and somewhat tired-looking building – one with crooked light switches, runs in the paint, blocked-up windows, and all the other infirmities of an aging structure occupied and continually modified by humans.
That visit made me realize that the real emotional power of man-made structures – even monumental ones like the Capitol – lies not so much in their physical splendor as in the record of human events they represent.
Of course the Capitol is physically impressive. Yet what really transcends all that marble and mortar is the sum of what’s transpired there during the last 200-odd years. Crossing the echoing rotunda beneath the Capitol dome, for example, who could help but recall the grainy TV images of John F. Kennedy’s flag-draped casket at its center? It’s this human record that gives the Capitol its mythical proportions – the cavalcade of people and events, and the traces they leave behind over the passage of decades and centuries.
Yet such emotional power isn’t confined to monumental structures like the Capitol. In the New Mexico desert west of Alamogordo, for instance, is a barren spot where you’ll find nothing more imposing than some rusted steel bars and broken concrete jutting from the ground. They are the sole vestiges of a 100-foot-tall steel tower that was boiled away to vapor in an instant by the world’s first atomic bomb. “The gadget” – as the bomb was known by its designers – was exploded atop the tower on the early morning of July 16, 1945. The cataclysmic fireball, which one observer described as “the brightest light I have ever seen, or that I think anyone has seen,” fused the surrounding desert sand into a sea of glass.
In 1965, a small stone obelisk was built at the exact center of where the tower stood, marking the world’s first Ground Zero. Yet it is the tower’s ravaged foundations that carry the real emotional force, standing in mute testament to one of the seminal moments in all history – that frozen split-second in which the atom’s terrible power was first unleashed on humankind.
But better to conclude with a more upbeat example: your house. No doubt you remember the day you moved in – how slightly odd it felt hanging your clothes in an unfamiliar closet, and stowing your Bisquick in a stranger’s cupboard. Yet every event that’s transpired there since that day has served to strengthen your ties to the place. However humble its physical structure might be, its emotional importance is, in its own way, monumental.
Whether we’re talking about the U.S. Capitol, Trinity Site, or your house, the emotional power of place springs not just from what we see, but from everything we’ve come to know.
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