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.

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.