Frederick Law Olmsted’s plant-painting at the Capitol

This weekend kick-started WalkingTown DC, Cultural Tourism DC’s ten-day celebration of city exploration in the capital, including over 175 free tours. It coincided with National Museum Day on Saturday and the National Book Festival all weekend, which meant quite the smorgasbord during a quick trip to visit my parents. Before my bus back to NYC on Sunday, my dad and I took the tour called “Frederick Law Olmsted and the US Capitol Grounds,” led by Steve Livengood, the US Capitol Historical Society’s director of public programs.

As I’ve written previously, I’m not a stranger to the Capitol grounds and Frederick Law Olmsted’s legacy there (especially Summerhouse), but the tour provided me with a lot of new information and an improved sense of the grounds’ cohesive design and the narrative of their development. The grounds, Olmsted’s only landscape meant to enhance an already-existing building, exemplify his origination of landscape architecture. As opposed to landscape gardening, this field entails placing a building within the frame of a landscape, or as our guide put it (paraphrasing Olmsted’s friend David Burnham), “painting with plants.”

The tour began with a historical overview of the building Olmsted intended to put on display. The iconic Capitol was designed by William Thornton, who won the commission through a competition in 1793, and his plan for a new Pantheon with wings was later modified by Henry Latrobe and Charles Bullfinch. The construction of the building, the largest stone building in the US at the time, encountered a number of obstacles, including being burned by the British in 1814. By the time it was completed in 1824, the country had tripled in size, necessitating expansion of the building. In 1850, Thomas Walter added new chambers for the House and Senate, setting these additions perpendicular to the original building to avoid overwhelming it. He replaced Bullfinch’s dome with a cast iron one (cast in Brooklyn) in 1863; the wood of the old dome was burned to feed the steam engine used in constructing the new dome. The Capitol’s expansion included enlarging the grounds from 30 to 59 acres; enter Olmsted.

Commissioned in 1874, Olmsted worked on the grounds for 15 years. His design capitalizes on the 21 streets and 47 walkways that feed into the square and strategically guides visitors through the site. He was assisted by Thomas Wisedell, who brought a sense of Chinoiserie to the benches and lampposts and helped with the plans for Summerhouse. Speaking of my favorite place in DC, I learned that, although it may be years before Summerhouse is restored because of budget constraints, the historic structures report was recently completed and restoration plans are indeed in the works — most notably including replacement of the concrete floor with brick, as originally intended.

Here is more of what I saw and learned on the tour :

Olmsted wanted to line the path to the east entrance with tulip trees, which were the tallest species in the area and not usually grown near buildings...

...so these squares at each tree's base can be removed to adapt to the tree's growth.

Original red granite lamp piers

Terra cotta benches designed by Wisedell

Olmsted's wrought-iron streetcar shelter; right across from the building, but I'd never noticed it before

Olmsted designed details down to the tree placards. He never used flowering trees that would distract from the building (though some have since been planted).

The subtle approach to Summerhouse

This little replacement tree was recently planted outside of Summerhouse.

I learned that the hooks on the side of the fountain (one is towards the top left in this photo) once held ladles for the drinking water. The newer drinking fountains (bottom right) might be replaced in the restoration with something more historically appropriate.

"Olmsted's most successful tree," a willow oak

Olmsted added terraces to the west entrance, containing storage spaces and topped with palmettos, because he felt the building otherwise appeared top-heavy.

The tour ended at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial with this view of the Capitol amid Olmsted's carefully painted plants.

Joel Sternfeld on photographing the High Line

The High Line, an elevated rail line reincarnated as a park, is a new mecca for historic preservation in New York City, and one of my favorite places on the planet. Climbing up the stairs in the rain felt tonight, as it does every time I visit the park, like ascending to a secret dimension threaded through the top of the city, both suspended in time and crystallizing time’s passage. Joel Sternfeld created a similar effect through his photography of the park before its transformation, an assignment the Friends of the High Line gave him in 2000. Tonight he spoke about the images he captured of the wildflowers and weeds that had claimed the rails after the last train passed through in 1980 (notoriously lugging frozen turkeys). These photos helped to seed the movement that rescued the High Line from demolition.

These days, the High Line is rarely empty, but Sternfeld had the place to himself as he pursued the perfect images to tell the High Line’s story. “It was my own private park for one year,” he said, because “the money shot takes time.” He photographed on days when the sky was “neutral, so that if there were any beauty in the picture, it couldn’t be attributed to my ability as a photographer, or to the day: it was emanating from the High Line itself.” He recalled one day in particular when it seemed to be his personal utopia: “There was no place else on earth that I would rather be…it was exquisite.”

After the High Line’s metamorphosis, Sternfeld felt disoriented in the place he had come to know so intimately; he compared the impression to losing a limb: “Every now and then, I feel a little bit of phantom pain for the old High Line.” In a sense, though, this is a sweet sort of pain that any visitor to the High Line can experience to a degree; the ghost of the High Line’s past life remains in the park by invitation. Sternfeld came to see the power of the rail line’s new form, especially as the product of a passionate group of people overcoming opposition, as well as for its link to his interest in environmental conservation. “The great value of the High Line now is as a symbol,” he said. “This is hope symbolized.” He stressed the importance of completing the park; Section 2 opened in June, but Section 3’s development is pending. “I don’t know which is harder: to solve global warming or to get something done in New York City,” he said, “but I hope that we’ll all join in this fight to truly save the High Line.”

Next week, my architectural photography class is making an excursion to the park. It will probably be a lifetime before I get anything approaching a “money shot,” but I think I will benefit from remembering Sternfeld’s approach: translating the insistent history of the place, but first quietly letting the High Line speak for itself.

Ezra Pound and sensor soldering

Yesterday (for five hours), my classmates and I sat in a sprawling circle in our presentation gallery and introduced our nascent master’s theses to the faculty. Topics veered around the room from house museum interpretation to dolomitic limestone, from analyzing historic building forms to designing additions. My sense of preservation’s interdisciplinary inclusiveness is so often renewed in this program. After all, good old James Marston Fitch said that “preservationists must also be generalists. That is, they must see their own special area of expertise as being only one strand in a larger fabric, the warp and woof of which consist of many other coequal and coexistent specialties.”

The experience that has most memorably illustrated this point for me, in an almost absurd way, came during a course that I took in my first semester, “Interactive Environments + Preservation.” Taught by new media leads from the innovative design firm Rockwell Group, the class explored the technologies that create interactive architectural environments, the use of sensors in spatial storytelling, and how interactive interventions might facilitate preservation. One of the first class meetings was held at Rockwell Group’s offices. Gathered in a lab lined with material samples, at a table next to a model of the set for the 2010 Oscar telecast, we gave brief presentations on why we had chosen specific spaces for which we would develop hypothetical interventions. (I had chosen my subway station.) We then discussed the basics of sensor technology and began to construct our first prototypes. Only in a field as interdisciplinary as preservation would I find myself giving a spiel on Ezra Pound and learning how to solder electronics within the span of an hour.

Here is how I started my presentation:

As an English major who enjoys finding ways to prove the relevance of my degree, I’d actually like to begin with a poem by Ezra Pound. Don’t worry, it’s only two lines.

In a station of the metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

This poem was Pound’s attempt to capture an epiphany he experienced at the instant of this “apparition” in a Parisian metro station, and it is hailed as the prime example of the Imagist movement of poetry with which he has come to be identified. The main goal of Imagism is to capture and precisely render the sensations of a moment. Pound himself said, “In a poem of this sort, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” He defined an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” One of the tenets of Imagism is that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry,” so followers of this movement were attempting to concentrate the essence of an entire sensory experience into a single, succinct, intensified, usually visual image. I believe that this aim of making the abstract concrete, making the invisible visible, recording the experience at the moment of transformation from outward to inward as Pound described, is exactly what we talk about in considering how interactive environment technologies capture the friction between the physical and the virtual, and record and amplify an ephemeral sensory experience in the moment…

(What are these interactive environment technologies of which I was speaking? Check out the Interaction Lab at Rockwell Group.)

9/11 at a Decade: built memories and a shattered plant

As the September 11 attacks were unfolding, I was in Houston and could not have imagined that I would find myself living in NYC on the tenth anniversary, much less studying historic preservation of buildings. To be honest, I didn’t even know at first that the World Trade Center buildings were located in NYC. When the substitute teacher in my English class received word that “someone had flown into the World Trade Center,” my immediate image was a parachutist in Chicago, all broken silk and glass, and I wondered why this strange news merited interrupting first period. Even as the true scope of what had happened began to reveal itself—first through whispered exchanges on the stairwell between classes, then when a teacher (world history, as I recall) finally succumbed to turning on the television—I was not thinking of a tenth anniversary. I was only four years into my own second decade, after all. Still, I had an awareness that I was witnessing an event that would not be forgotten—that even as we all were living it, was staking its claim of significance in the soon-to-be past. This idea persisted as I sat in my pink rocking chair watching the news with my parents and sister in our living room, after school and into the night, and as I wrote in one of my half-empty attempts at a diary an entry that consisted of only the date, which seemed sufficient. It was a sense that I had never before experienced, and have only since approached on rare occasions. Yesterday was one of them.

Yesterday morning, as I sat in the windowsill of my NYC apartment, the city clamor had a changed vibration, the cathedral bells ringing new times—8:46, 9:03—and the sirens layered with distant bagpipes and the chanting of names from my computer’s live feed of the ceremony downtown. Because my loved ones had asked that I avoid public gatherings, I planned to respect both their concerns for my safety and the gravity of the date by staying at home and willing myself back to Houston, trying to revive and relive my memories of September 11, 2001. I found myself distracted by the fragmentation of the story, the images bound by a shapeless space. The parachutist, the stairwell, the pink chair. The towers, the fires, the ash. Perhaps I had not done enough to preserve the day; I’d had the privilege of being alive for it, yet I had let it so much of it die. I shifted in the sill and knocked my jade plant to the ground, and only then did I begin to cry. Dirt and pebbles spilled across the carpet; juicy round leaves cracked, and a branch split from the stem. I gathered the green debris, set it back in the window, and stared at it until I could no longer bear to. Down the street, as I reached the florist’s block, I wove through dozens of firefighters drinking beers on the corner outside of a pub; the FDNY had held their official ceremony at the Firemen’s Memorial a few blocks away. I knew how absurd I must have looked, clutching a broken plant to my chest, given what was surely on their minds. In the flower shop, the owner declared my jade an emergency and called over one of her plant caretakers. He pulled out the plant, dangling strings of dirt, and replaced it in a refilled pot between green support sticks, then dipped my stem shard in white powder and planted it to grow roots of its own. When I returned my reconstructed little succulent once again to the window, it somehow seemed more whole, set and spread across the soil, than it had before the collapse.

I hadn’t intended to mark the day this way and worried, at first, that I would regret having been in NYC for the tenth anniversary and allowing the emotional climax to be crying over chlorophyll. But in hindsight, I don’t think that I will. I have realized that, while September 11 led to a lot of confusion, what it brought me closer to understanding was the nature of history. It seems to me that we are not the creators of history; history creates itself, and the best that any one of us can do is to cultivate our disparate experiences of it such that whatever memories we manage to keep help it to grow in the direction of light. Historic preservation is memory reconstruction, digging, rooting, salvaging pieces to create a new whole that in its fragmentation honors the truth. On the tenth anniversary of the tenth anniversary, I think this is what I will remember: a windowsill, a street corner, and a pieced-together plant. And somehow, that seems enough.

Happy Jacobs Day: Fifty years of Death and Life

Dick Loek/Toronto Star

I am back from my sojourn in Toronto to begin a second year of classes in New York City. In 1968, Jane Jacobs, one of the great matriarchs of historic preservation, traveled in the opposite direction (though probably not on a Greyhound bus), moving her family from NYC’s Greenwich Village to Toronto’s Annex out of objection to the Vietnam War. Built on the revolutionary urban development ideas she developed in NYC, her work in Toronto continued to break ground for the rest of her life. She became a Canadian citizen, was inducted into the Order of Canada, and remained in the same house on Albany Avenue until her death in 2006. On today’s date twenty years ago, in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Jane’s pivotal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the city of Toronto declared “Jacobs Day.”

It seems fitting, then, to acknowledge her legacy there. We are awfully proud of her here in NYC, especially in my field, and perhaps forget that we share that pride with another city, one of which she herself was proud: in 1969, she said, “As a relatively recent transplant from New York, I am frequently asked whether I find Toronto sufficiently exciting. I find it almost too exciting. The suspense is scary. Here is the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled, still with options.” (See Barry Wellman’s “Jane Jacobs, the Torontonian”) Of course, her impact on modern urban planning reaches beyond these two cities; wherever we fight for the human vitality of our neighborhoods, every day can be Jacobs Day!

Barnhopping: Ontario vernacular

North of Toronto, along the southwest coast of Lake Simcoe, the roads dip through farmland and yellow fields to stop, unexpectedly, at rocky shoreline. As we wandered around the countryside in search of hidden bits of lake, my lovely and patiently obliging partner pulled the car to the shoulder in front of every old barn we passed — some with flaking wooden planks, some green with ivy — so I could snap phone photos of these quiet bearers of Ontario’s history. Here are a few of them: