Nowadays the steps are mainly used by overachieving fitness buffs. In fact, a couple of days ago Shira and I took a run into DC and I went out of my way to hit those steps for some stair-master action. I'm sure I didn't look as impressive as I thought I did, but it was fun to at least play Rocky.
Still, what's up with the steps?
Here's the story: When construction began on Arlington Memorial Bridge in 1926, plans included a curved set of steps leading down to the Potomac on the Washington side. This was envisioned as a ceremonial entrance to the city, where VIPs could arrive by barge. It would also, The Post reported at the time, "afford a landing place for small boats."
Instead of welcoming dignitaries, the steps were put to use for what Americans do best: sitting around:
Well, it didn't really work out [as a welcoming location] 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
Apparently, for about 30 years the steps were used as part of an improvised venue. The practice only stopped when air traffic in DCA put a damper on things.
Believe it or not, you actually know these steps, even though you don't think you know them. Check out how the Washington Post described the first concert on the steps:
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.
That's right, these steps were the original Watergate. In fact, many think that it's these steps which gave the name to the Watergate complex, which in turn gave us the famous scandal name, watergate. (Another tempting explanation for the name Watergate is the fact that the complex is quite close to Lock #1 of C&O, which is literally a gate that controls water.)
Here are some pics from our run to the area: