Image by George Calhoun on SmugMug.

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 River side.

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 steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial around 1930. Image from the Library of Congress.

The steps leading up the the Lincoln Memorial around 1930. Image from the 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. Photo by Bill in DC on Flickr.

Cross-posted at Ghosts of DC.

Tom Cochran runs the blog Ghosts of DC, which reveals the fascinating history of people and places in Washington, DC. He was born in Falls Church and now lives in Columbia Heights with his wife and dog.