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It’s like a giant tree museum.

Actually, museum isn’t quite the best word. Museum generally refers to a building or structure, and the things worth seeing at National Arboretum are mostly outdoors. They have a Bonsai museum on-site, but that’s a tiny part of the sprawling expanse of trees in Northeast D.C. Also, museum denotes a space for things to be displayed and observed. The National Arboretum, though enjoyed by the general public, was originally built as a research institution. There’s still plenty of work going on here. They’ve managed to cultivate 150 species of boxwood.

In fact, the National Arboretum isn’t like a museum at all.

In 1927, the United States Department of Agriculture secured the funds and the space to open the National Arboretum through an act of Congress. However, it took another twenty years for the space to become a public space. The main goals of the Arboretum were research and study. Word got around in early spring of 1947 about the remarkable azalea displays, which prompted the Arboretum to open their doors to the public. It’s only continued to grow over the years, and attract more visitors.

Shortly after the expansion of the Capitol in 1958, the columns that once held up the Eastern portico were moved to the hilltop at the heart of the Arboretum. Corinthian columns, when flanked by stone, are meant to be stately, elegant, and slightly imposing. John Russell Pope’s columns that support the exterior of the Archives are a good example of this. The Capitol columns at the Arboretum instead look eerily out of place when surrounded by trees. The weathered stone reminds us of the temporary nature of the things we build, and the permanent nature of the trees older than us all. They stand less as a ruin, and more as a reminder.

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The District of Columbia is an eclectic city, a hodge-podge of a town in most respects. One could find better examples of Federalist, Neo-Classical, Art Deco, Modern, Post-Modern, or Brutalist architecture almost anywhere else. However, it would be difficult to find a town in which all of those styles are located within such close proximity to one another. None of the architecture here matches, but it’s become part of our identity.

The Arboretum reflects that jumbled patchwork identity. There are trees, plants, and flowers here from all over the world. Some have been here for awhile, and some were born yesterday. They’re a bit like us, to some degree.

After the dust settles from this election, it would be good for all of us, citizens of the District or otherwise, to go out and enjoy the trees. The sugar maples and red oaks are putting on a firework display for us right now.

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