Many Washingtons: “Unbuilt” monuments on display

I’ve written before about my appreciation for the remarkably interdisciplinary nature of the preservation field, but it took a visit to the National Building Museum yesterday to show me that one of those disciplines is quantum mechanics. Wait, what?

Some physicists believe in Many Worlds, created when the universe splits into branches to accommodate an action’s possible outcomes. (Fuller explanations sail over my head, and often involve Schrödinger’s poor boxed cat; google if you dare.) The National Building Museum’s “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit, which opened this past weekend, provides archival insight into what might be called Many Washingtons, the parallel capital-universes created by the numerous architectural proposals that have gone unrealized in the city’s history.

A palimpsest of sorts: my notes from the exhibition. Another note to self: always take notebook to Building Museum.

Upon entering, I overheard someone who represented the exhibition telling a reporter that its greatest value lies in inspiring “appreciation for what the city looks like.” Indeed, after spending three hours in “Unbuilt Washington,” I felt glad to live in a world where the Lincoln Memorial is not a ziggurat, the Jefferson memorial is not a skinny skyborne spout, and the Old EOB was not replaced with a twin of the Treasury (no offense to ziggurats, fountains, or the Treasury). Moreover, I gained heightened appreciation for the work that went into sculpting the city’s built environment. I hadn’t realized that so many of the capital’s landmarks resulted from design competitions, which were the source of many of the alternative designs featured in the exhibition — not only rejected proposals but also winning entries that never came to fruition. The executed structures resulted from often decades-long efforts to procure funding and finalize designs, including disagreements over which architectural styles would best reflect both the site’s intended symbolic value and the era’s ideals of how to manifest democratic government in the built environment.

James Diamond's Capitol, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society and National Building Museum

Some of the residual designs appear now — and in some cases surely did when first proposed — to be laughably absurd. Interestingly, the easiest laughs perhaps come from much more recent designs: Jim Allegro and Doug Michels’ 1996 “National Sofa” across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, complete with Jumbotron, and their 1989 Dolphin America Hotel, part of an effort to improve dolphin-human relations. Equally entertaining, however, are the otherworldly monuments that could have been. Amateur architect James Diamond appears to have thrown every architectural feature he knew onto the central bay of his Capitol building contest entry — columns, arched entry, Palladian window, round windows, pediment, frieze, balustrade, dome — and the cherry on top is an eagle weather vane that more closely resembles King Kong’s precarious pet pelican (1792). In her entry for completing the Washington Monument, stalled for decades mid-construction, Vinnie Ream Hoxie suggested converting the obelisk stub into a severely distended sculpture base, topping it with a figure of Washington requiring the balance of a pointe dancer (1876-1878). Alexander Esty’s design entry for the Library of Congress took too seriously the suggestion to avoid tall elements that might detract from the Capitol dome; he somehow burdened the Victorian Gothic style with swampy horizontality, picturing an overwrought cathedral sunk neck-deep in quicksand (1880).

Alexander R. Esty's Library of Congress, courtesy of LOC and National Building Museum

Still, other showcased ideas make a lot of sense. For example, the Kennedy Center’s unrealized curvilinear design would have been better integrated with the riverfront than the stark, rectilinear form that replaced it for budgetary reasons. In his review for The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott observes, “Some of the prize pieces in the “Unbuilt Washington” exhibition remind us what could have been if the Mall had been treated as an urban amenity rather than a national symbol.” As he points out, designs for the Mall by Robert Mills and Andrew Jackson Downing would have created pleasure gardens in place of what in recent years has received criticism as a neglected turf of trampled grass.

Vinnie Ream Moxie's Washington Monument, courtesy of LOC and National Building Museum

Kennicott begins his review by predicting that this exhibition is “the National Building Museum’s best chance at drawing blockbuster crowds in years.” I agree. The exhibition’s greatest strengths are its appeal to the imagination and accessibility to anyone who has one. As a preservationist, I especially appreciated it as an example of storytelling through archival material, and I found its stories to be directly related to our field. Preservationists often find ourselves facing multifurcations, standing at the thresholds of diverging options and outcomes. Which alterations and additions would be appropriate? Which structures should be built, kept, razed? Which side of each split will we follow; which world do we prefer? The unbuildings on display at the National Building Museum demonstrate that historical value lies not only in the decisions we convert to reality, but also the alternatives that get left behind, those ideas that slip away to get built in other worlds.

From museum to stage: Alice Austen’s larky life

courtesy of Sundog Theatre

House museums, the root form of the historic preservation movement in the US, seem often to face questions regarding continued relevance in an ever-evolving field. But for me, house museums have always been a favorite way of engaging with history, and played a significant role in my becoming a preservationist. Since moving to New York, one example I’ve become fond of is Clear Comfort, the home and studio of Alice Austen (1866-1952), who has been called “the earliest American woman of importance in photography.” The house on Staten Island (a c.1700 Dutch farmhouse remodeled as a Gothic Revival cottage) is now a museum under the Historic House Trust.

It’s also the setting of a new musical: Sundog Theatre‘s original production, If You Could See: The Alice Austen Story. I was fortunate to sit in the front row for the musical’s Manhattan opening this week, and it was surreal to watch a house and story I’ve researched and written about, transformed to song and stage. The show spans decades and interweaves the stories of young Alice, living what she called the “larky life” with partner Gertrude Tate at Clear Comfort, and Alice in her late 80s, discovered in a poor farm by Oliver Jensen of LIFE Magazine, who sought permission to print her photographs. Alice’s life, love, and work play out against a backdrop of the arrival of immigrants in New York, the rise of industrialization, and the stock market crash, which ultimately tore Alice and Gertrude from Clear Comfort. Provided by the house museum, the show’s physical backdrop is a series of Alice’s photographs projected on a screen. While I tend to resist the use of digital images in theatre productions, in this case it was one of my favorite elements of the show; the archival photographs bring the house to the stage, and are especially poignant when juxtaposed with the actors’ restagings, little tableaux vivants of Alice’s friends alongside her own own visions of them.

Clear Comfort

The house museum has been criticized in the past (including, admittedly, by me) for its arguably outdated interpretation of Alice’s life, but its story has increasingly emerged to light, and If You Could See represents a renewal of much-deserved appreciation for Alice as a groundbreaking woman and artist. After the show, I overheard audience members expressing eagerness to visit or revisit Clear Comfort. The house museum musical seems to me to be a pretty promising new genre!

As Sundog Theatre says, “Alice’s world is remarkably similar to ours, making If You Could See a musical for our time – celebrating a significant artist and true American iconoclast.” Catch the final performances of If You Could See at Manhattan’s Five Angels Theatre this weekend, and visit Clear Comfort on Staten Island, the actual stage set of a remarkable larky life.

Flower bulbs, light bulbs, and wet paint at Dyckman Farmhouse

Yesterday, I sat in a giant bed of ivy behind Manhattan’s only remaining Dutch colonial farmhouse, digging a trowel between the roots, burying daffodil bulbs, and being grateful that preservationists seem often to find ourselves in such unexpected places. The Dyckman Farmhouse was this year’s location for the annual Fall Work Day sponsored by Preservation Alumni, the nonprofit organization and alumni network supporting my graduate program at Columbia. While some of us planted daffodils, others braved bugs to replace light bulbs, raked leaves, cleaned gutters, and painted fences until the site was looking as good as new — well, preferably, as good as two centuries old.

bulbs and ivy behind the Dyckman Farmhouse

fellow Columbia preservationists working on the building

wet paint, courtesy of Preservation Alumni!

In addition to the chance to spend a lovely November day digging around in some history-rich dirt, we had the privilege of exploring the c. 1784 house and grounds with the museum’s director, Susan De Vries. Since my thesis involves the reinterpretation of house museums, I was especially interested to learn that the Dyckman Farmhouse now presents not one period of significance, but two: 1815-1820, the period in the house’s history about which the most documentation has been found, and 1916, when the house was first interpreted and opened as a museum. While some rooms have been used to convey the realities of farmhouse life in the early 1800s, others have been left to show the 1916 version of a New York interior in 1800, which the building’s first preservationists based on oral tradition and their own imaginings. As such, the museum tells an important story not only about early 19th century New York, but also about the history of preservation itself. Now that it’s had a bit of autumnal cleaning, head to Inwood to see the Dyckman Farmhouse for yourself!

the Military Hut amid the formal garden; reconstructed by an amateur archeologist in 1915 using remnants from British and Hessian occupation of this area during Revolutionary War; bottles left by soldiers are included among original stones in the walls

second-floor bedroom as it would have appeared when museum opened; 1916 depiction of an 1800 interior

first-floor bedroom; current understanding of how an 1815-1820 interior would have actually appeared

Ship log: interpreting the Lilac

Preservationist Richard Nickel famously said, “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” But for my Interpretation of Architecture workshop this semester, we are focusing on a historic structure that has long depended on water for its — or rather, her — livelihood. The U.S. Lighthouse Tender Lilac dates to 1933 and was built to serve and maintain lighthouses, lightships, and buoys on the Delaware River. In 1939, she became a United States Coast Guard vessel, and she spent World War II as an armed member of port security. She was ultimately decommissioned in 1972, acted as a stationary training facility until 1984, and from 1985 to 1999 was a floating office on the James River in Virginia. Today, Lilac is the oldest lighthouse tender in the United States and the only steam-powered tender to survive with steam engines intact. Lilac received National Register listing in 2005 and is currently berthed at Manhattan’s Pier 25 under the care of the non-profit LILAC Preservation Project.

What are the challenges of preserving and interpreting a waterborne structure? What is a ship if not a floating building?