Adams’ monumental absence

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Poor John Adams gets no respect.

Oh, sure, our second president was praised 175 years after his death by historian David McCullough in his adoring 2001 biography. And his reputation no doubt will rise again as the HBO miniseries “John Adams” unfolds, beginning Sunday (Reviewed on Page D7).

However, when it comes to more lasting tributes, our second president has been sorely overlooked both inside the Beltway and beyond. Monuments on the Mall and Tidal Basin commemorate George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but not a single one in the District honors Adams, who pushed for independence in leading the Second Continental Congress and served as the nation’s first vice president.

Why the neglect?

“He was difficult and cantankerous and not as charismatic as the Virginians,” says Benjamin Adams, a New York investment banker and the fourth great-grandson of the Founding Father. “He was a one-term president, and many of his greatest contributions to the country came before his presidency.”

Mr. Adams is president of the Adams Memorial Foundation, created in 2001 to build a monument to his ancestor. However, like Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Mass., the only site devoted to the Founding Father’s life, the future memorial won’t focus solely on John Adams. Besides the second president, it will commemorate his wife, Abigail Adams; his son John Quincy Adams, our sixth president; and his wife, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams.

“We want to honor this family’s commitment to public service across generations, pride in the written word and the ideal of sacrifice for our country,” says former Rep. Tim Roemer, who introduced the bill to establish the memorial and serves on the foundation’s board of directors.

The design won’t be a grand obelisk or a domed rotunda, but a modest library filled with Adams’ books and letters and set into a garden. “The memorial will serve the nation rather than being a heroic work of art,” says Atlanta architectural designer Rodney M. Cook, who is coordinating a design competition for it. “It will be a traditional building with a New England Colonial feeling.”

He envisions a simple stone or brick pavilion with a cupola rather than a marble neoclassical monument like the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. Inside, exhibits devoted to the family’s service to the country will “make history cool to our young folks,” Mr. Cook says.

The memorial, however, won’t occupy the prime real estate on the Mall. According to Mr. Cook, the foundation has narrowed its search from more than two dozen locations around the city to three sites: Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets Northwest; Rawlins Park at 18th and E streets Northwest near the Department of the Interior; and a parcel near the Bureau of Engraving and Printing facing the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial. The foundation’s board will select the final site by the fall in consultation with the National Park Service and federal regulatory agencies and then proceed with a design competition, Mr. Adams says.

Like the proposed memorial, the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Mass., is a modest family affair. The 14-acre site is home to John Adams’ birthplace, a saltbox built in 1681, and a neighboring 1663 farmhouse where Adams lived and worked and his wife Abigail gave birth to John Quincy Adams. These humble cottages are the country’s oldest presidential birthplaces. Inaccessible to the public until 1979, they attract about 225,000 visitors annually.

In contrast, Monticello, the grander, Palladian home of Adams’ rival, Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, has been open for tours since 1924 and draws about twice the number of visitors.

Modest, too, is Adams’ presence inside the White House. He was the first resident of the executive mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but only a portrait and a few pieces of china and silver testify to his time there.

Lincoln has his bedroom, and a West Wing room is named for Theodore Roosevelt, but Adams is remembered merely with an inscription on the State Dining Room mantel from a letter he wrote to Abigail on his first night in the White House. “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof,” it wishfully concludes.

Now that the HBO miniseries “John Adams” is refocusing attention on the accomplishments of his patriotic ancestors, Benjamin Adams says he hopes the proposed Adams family memorial will draw the support it needs to succeed.

“In Washington, John Adams is completely unrepresented,” he says. “There’s nothing on the scale that is warranted, given his pivotal role in the road to our independence.”

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