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.

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.

A miniscule bright side of natural disaster

It’s beginning to feel like an East Coast apocalypse… To be clear, there isn’t a lot of obvious brightness to serious natural disasters. And okay, this week’s earthquake didn’t quite qualify in that category (although the hurricane currently heading towards my NYC apartment might be a different story). But as someone who was in DC at the time of the tremble, I feel that I have the authority to say it was pretty scary…at least for a few seconds there.

For hours afterward, hypnotized by the short yet unceasing CNN news cycle, I found a bit of bittersweet satisfaction in the fact that all of the repeated stories centered on buildings. The news was not good: cracked limestone in the Washington Monument, statues and pinnacles pitched from the National Cathedral, DC school buildings closed for inspection, at least three structures — including a historic church — facing condemnation in the lovely town of Culpeper. I try to force myself to seek positive in the negative, though, and in this case, I appreciated the recognition that buildings can be casualties that deeply affect communities. From the shaking walls of the earthquake to the hunkering down for the hurricane, my fellow East Coasters have spent the week describing our experience in terms of our buildings. Such situations renew awareness of our interconnectedness with and reliance on the built environment, and that, to me, is a miniscule bright side.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that this weekend’s damage won’t be as drastic as projected. Be safe, New York friends and buildings, and everyone else in Irene’s path…I’m grateful to be sitting in Toronto and sending sunny thoughts your way.

Cracks in the Washington Monument, Charles Dharapak/AP

A statue toppled at the Washington National Cathedral, Courtesy of the National Cathedral, The Washington Post

Spring Grotto, Summerhouse: my little brick secret

Last week, I mentioned that I have a number of beloved places in Washington, DC. One of them I would place among my favorite buildings in the world, right up there with Florence’s Duomo, albeit on a very different scale. Because much of its charm derives from the subtlety of its location, I would hesitate to advertise the secret without a disclaimer: read no further if you’d rather discover this paragon of hexagons on your own.

I first stumbled upon Summerhouse during a family trip to DC, a decade or so ago. On a path just northwest of the Capitol building, we began to pass a little whirlpool of shrubbery, then found ourselves within it, down through an arch, one of three rising from woven brick. Inside, the red room was symmetrical (I’ll admit to a weakness for six-sided spaces) with the green of a courtyard garden and, encircled by stone benches and scrolled niches, the quiet energy of a Gothic church. Bound by a waving roof of Spanish mission tile, the structure’s center opened to a sky of trees and a round fountain. Above one set of seats was a mossy grotto behind a wrought-iron grille, a window to a spring-fed planet buried in the Capitol grounds.

Since my family moved to the area several years ago, I have often returned to Summerhouse and finally sought out its story. Constructed from 1879 to 1881, the building was a featured folly in Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscaping plan for the Capitol grounds. His Riverside and Central Parks here in New York are spectacular, of course, and I frequent them. Still, I tend to prefer paler glimpses of grandeur; Summerhouse is, to me, his most elegant work. He intended to fold within this busy site a source of respite and water for visitors and their horses; what he created was a tiny sunken cathedral. According to the Architect of the Capitol, an intended twin on the Capitol’s south side was never built, due to inevitable “congressional objections.” Olmsted also planned that the fountain’s overflow would play a chiming carillon, but the device didn’t function and wasn’t installed. Both of these exclusions are just as well, I think. The space’s solitary sense probably wouldn’t survive being doubled, and its unnatural calm is, in fact, natural—in this red brick heart of DC, minutes from the National Mall, you hear only water and the occasional bird.

Through my many visits, I’ve become a bit possessive of the building. I’ve taken to perching beneath the grotto, like a scrawny blonde gargoyle, reading or watching the spring, and always looking to the doorways when I hear anything that is not water. Sometimes runners appear through one arch, drink from the fountain, and disappear through another. Sometimes families trickle in, staring, photographing, paraphrasing my family’s own discovery; I am often asked if I “know what this place is,” and giving an answer feels like folklore. Despite its name, I tend to prefer it in winter, when snow makes the grotto seem all the more unreal. The building was stabilized in 2009, including repair of its historic walls, and I hope that it will continue to receive attention in the years to come—but not too much. In a city known for its monuments, Summerhouse is my little brick favorite.

By Chip Somodovilla, Getty Images, for Life Magazine

Spring Grotto, Summerhouse, me in winter

Tesserae and talking walls

I have a number of favorite places in the Washington, DC, area— the first, naturally, being my family’s home. Not far down on the list is the monumental National Building Museum, where this past weekend I went to see Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière. (The exhibit is up through January 2, 2012; see it for yourself!) Meière was a noted figure in the Art Deco movement who collaborated with architects and craftsmen to create painted murals, wool tapestries, marble floors, and especially glass and marble mosaics. From her initial pencil sketches, full-size studies (“cartoons”), and models that were featured in the exhibit arise, as advertised, several narratives: first, that of Meière’s own life. After studying at an Academy of the Sacred Heart (like me!) in New York, and later in San Francisco, Chicago, and Florence, she worked as a mapmaker and architectural drafts-woman for the navy during World War I. She then made a career of integrating art into built spaces and was the first woman elected to the New York City Arts Commission, as well as the first to receive the Fine Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects. She served on the boards of various organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, as Vice President of the Architectural League of New York, and as President of the National Society of Mural Painters.

Nebraska State Capitol Ceiling, by Dave Parker, Wikimedia Commons

Acclaimed for the almost exclusively narrative nature of her work, Meière combined material innovation with an affinity (one I would like to call “writerly”) for portraying symbol and story. Her first architectural commission, for the National Academy of Sciences in 1924, was to interpret scientific concepts as imagery, painted over Guastavino’s Akoustolith tile to resemble glazed ceramic. Soon afterward, she completed the work that would endure as her personal favorite: scenes inspired by Hartley Burr Alexander’s iconography, ceramic tile surrounded by Akoustolith in the Nebraska State Capitol. She went on to study and illustrate a wide range of subject matter, from a dome’s worth of apostles and six-winged seraphim, drawn with tiny glass tesserae in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, to her painted mural for Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, with three vignettes celebrating women’s progress from 1833 to 1933. Perhaps most well-known are her iconic roundels on the facade of Radio City Music Hall, which used a new process for exterior mixed metals to depict drama, dance, and song. With paint, metal, and bits of glass, Meière made storytellers of ceilings and walls.

Ultimately, “Walls Speak” refers to, and itself is part of, an overarching preservation narrative, one that pieces together and perpetuates Meière’s life story and the stories contained in her work. The museum walls speak, too—of the need for such history to be valued and maintained. For her last commission, she proposed a series of vignettes for wall niches in the National Cathedral; rejected in favor of a more abstract design, they survive through her saved drawings. Her final commercial commission in 1960, a year before her death, told the legend of Hercules through marble mosaic at Prudential Plaza. The work, irreparably harmed during a 1996 remodeling, now endures through photographs and cartoons. Likewise, Meière’s sculpture on the exterior of the RKO Theater, which showed “talkies” as part of Rockefeller Center, had been destroyed with the building in 1954; her drawings, however, preserve its memory. The exhibit describes her large-scale works for the New York World’s Fair, which now exist only as models: “At the close of the 1939 Fair, all of the art work was destroyed. This did not disturb Meière, who believed that the fun was in creating the objects, whether or not they endured.” (Her attitude sounds rather similar to that of a certain gum-wad painter we know, doesn’t it?) With all due respect to Meière’s beliefs, I will admit to being disturbed, but simultaneously relieved that the narrative art of Hildreth Meière will persist, with some assistance from the narrative art of preservation.