Friday, March 26, 2010

Past and Present

Check out this website comparing the DC cityscape then and now.

What a cool project! My favorite is below. Yes. That is a rabbit on a leash.

(Photographer: Jason Powell)

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Building Building

I've written about the National Building Museum before, but since it's one of my favorite spaces in the city I don't feel bad giving it a little more attention on this blog. My grandfather actually used to work in the building as building manager before it was converted into a museum, and was involved with some aspects of the building's transformation. During a recent house cleaning he discovered some of the building museum's early promotional materials and mailed them to me.

What a treat! The promotional brochure explains the thought behind turning Montgomery Meig's 1887 Pension Building into a museum for the building arts to, "present the drama of building and to stimulate public interest in the quality, beauty, and livability of man-made America." The National Building museum council was formed in the late 1970s as the offices that existed in the building at the time were slowly being moved to other government agencies, and the massive building with it's impressive great hall was falling into a sad state of disuse and disrepair. It turns out my grandfather was instrumental in getting netting put up around the enormous column capitals to keep pieces of them from crashing down onto the cubicle bound workers below. The committee to save the building was made up of an impressive cast of characters, prominent in the preservation of Washington and beyond, and by 1982 the Old Pension Building was reborn as the National Building Museum. The museum continues to operate today as a monument to preservation and good design

Everyone should visit!

Sources: The Building Building, 1977 Brochure produced by the Committee for a National Museum of the Building Arts, Inc.
Photo courtesy of the author

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tweeting in the 18th Century

Wow, that’s a lot of snow! Plenty more on the way. Today, the Capital Weather Gang linked to the National Weather Service charting historic DC snowfalls. At the top it mentions what has been referred to as the Washington-Jefferson snowstorm of 1772 as both Founding Fathers mentioned a three foot accumulation in their diaries. If the Founding Fathers both independently mentioned this storm, then it must have been something newsworthy. Would it be possible to find these diaries transcribed online…

What!? Was there a doubt? This isn’t 1996; of course it’s online (the university system and Library of Congress are terrific)! Here’s a description of George Washington’s week in 1772:

“27. At home by ourselves the day being dreadfully bad.
28. Just such a day as the former & at home alone.
29. With much difficulty rid as far as the Mill the Snow being up to the breast of a Tall Horse everywhere.
30. At home all day it being almost impracticable to get out.
31. Still at home for the Causes above.
Feb. 1st. Attempted to ride as far as the Ferry Plantation to wch. there was a Tract broke but found it so tiresome & disagreeable that I turnd back before I got half way.
2. At home all day.
3. At home all day alone.”

Initially, I planned to discuss this snowstorm, but I’m realizing that we have much more lofty things to discuss than the weather. I want to put this out there for opinion: George Washington’s Diary and Weather Reports reads like a Twitter page. A thought, an action, a day whittled down to 140 characters or less. Even when starting a new diary Washington writes at the top, “Where and How my time is spent.” Some years he varies this statement with “Where, how, and with whom my time is spent.” Is that phrase not the essence of a Tweet?

I appreciate Washington’s compellation to record the weather. As a farmer, it was important to try to predict weather patterns year to year, especially when a drought or flood could cut in to profits. Understanding why Washington kept a diary is a bit different—he didn’t have others following his entries, yet he kept a diary off and on from 1760 to his death. The Library of Congress (LoC)suggests that his diary was intended to account for his time, which was valuable like the land on his farm. The diary was more a matter of good business practice, rather than a memoir or secret-keeper, or something to increase social status. This is where George Washington’s diaries diverge from Twitter.

Where I think the diaries and Twitter meet is that Washington’s entries are not strictly business. Though most of his emotions are reserved for his correspondence between friends and family, the diary serves as a blank interface, or as the LoC puts it, “He is not on guard here, for he seems unaware that any other eyes will see, or need to see, what he is writing.” This is the same phenomena we see on the internet with Facebook or Twitter, where there is an invisible wall, a disconnect, between the writer and the rest of the world. From time to time in the diaries you see outbursts rage and amusement. However, it does seem that he becomes wordier as time passes. I am not sure if this is due to old age or an indication of the presidency having affected his vanity. In any event, tonight I am left with the thought that George Washington was a natural tweeter (apparently the cartoonist on right agrees with me), and I’d like to know what sorts of hashtags he would come up with. Since I don’t have that luxury, I’ll create a tweet for him. GEorgEwa$hinGtoN: @Col. Fairfax c ya #foxhunt today. Rid to Mill. Gonna b awesome.

Source: The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. 3. Donald Jackson, ed.; Dorothy Twohig, assoc. ed. The Papers of George Washington. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978. Available at the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Good practice for trivia night

So this quiz was pretty fun and very informative - I'll admit I didn't do too spectacularly, although I was able to correctly match the list of famous memorials to their criticisms.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Comment on The Irregulars

I’ve tried to stay away from book reviews because for one, this isn’t a book club blog. Secondly, I like to consult at least two (and preferably more) sources when writing to get some consistency and originality. I’m breaking my rules.

The Irregulars. The reason for my delay in blog postings (that and the holidays, and the daily 9 to 5—so there are lots of excuses). The problem with The Irregulars is that it should be awesome. Espionage, World War II, Washington, British Embassy, AND it centers on author Roald Dahl of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame. His autobiographies are on my bookshelf. He’s a favorite and always has been.

However, this is one of those books where you tell yourself, “I’ll get through a chapter tonight. At this rate that book will be done by Sunday. Success!” Sunday rolls around and you read ten pages, put it down for a few days. Read ten pages, put it down. At the same time it is not a bad book, but the way the book is marketed is that you think you’re getting a continued bio on Dahl and his days as a spy in Washington, his connection to Eleanor Roosevelt who would have him to the White House for tea, his days as a womanizing playboy, or his connection to Bond creator and co-worker Ian Fleming. Instead you get are vague tales of a Washington society with vapid cocktail parties in the midst of war and of paper-pushing memos which go nowhere or have minimal effect (Doesn’t that sound like Washington today?). In fairness, there is not much author Jennet Conant can say. Lots of the dealings with the British Embassy remain confidential, leaving room for speculation. Despite this, I am left with the feeling that British propagandist Dahl was no grand spy, but a mid-level embassy employee, who had good connections as a budding writer. He was only about 28 at the time—too young for a diplomat.

Is this all to say that there is no redeeming factor in the book? No, absolutely not. Conant’s work shows the level of access the Roosevelt’s had. You could be 28 and have tea with Eleanor for tea, or get invited to Hyde Park. I get the sense that the author thought to herself, “Roald Dahl, a spy? This will be a terrific book.” She followed the documents, but could not get enough information to make it gripping. To compensate for that Conant spins a tale of an American government who was lost in a war with little intelligence. She demonstrates the influence of Britain’s embassy over both the legislative and executive branches, over the democratic process, and over the value of friendships in DC as well.

My favorite tidbit gleaned from The Irregulars? It’s rumored that one wild night Dahl went out and painted red the errrr “nether regions” of the Bison statues by the Dumbarton Bridge leading from Dupont to Georgetown. It was written up in the gossip columns. I’ll look in to it this month and let you know what I find out (or at least let you know the history of the bison).

Monday, December 28, 2009

It's cold outside

Central dome of the old main conservatory in the late 19th or early 20th century

As Washington sets into it's annual deep freeze, it seems like as good a time as any to start highlighting some beautiful building interiors. If you are looking for a place to visit in the cold, the United States Botanic Garden has the added benefit of high tech temperature controls to make every visit a trip to the equator. The building itself, located at the east end of the National Mall near the Capitol Building, was built in 1933 with a nod to the palm house conservatory architecture made famous in Victorian England. The soaring glass structure of the palm house - now referred to as the Jungle - was one of the first large buildings in the country to use aluminum for its structural supports.

The garden's collections date back as far as 1816, when the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences in Washington DC proposed the creation of a botanic garden, "to collect, grow, and distribute plants of this and other countries that might contribute to the welfare of the American people." In 1820 Congress passed legislation allowing for the Institute's garden to be planted to the west of the Capitol Grounds, approximately where the Capitol reflecting pool is located today. This garden existed until 1837 when the Columbian Institute disbanded. In 1838, American naval officer and explorer Charles Wilkes was commissioned by Congress to circumnavigate the globe and explore the Pacific as part of the United States Exploring Expedition. While abroad Wilkes carefully amassed live and dried plant specimens, returning in 1842 with an impressive collection of plants previously unknown in the US. News of his findings reestablished interest in a national botanic garden, and his collections were displayed in a specially constructed greenhouse behind the Old Patent Office Building. A new structure was built in place of the Columbian Institute's garden in front of the Capitol in 1850, and the collections were developed and maintained there until moving to their present location in 1933.

The 1933 building was designed by Architect of the Capitol David Lynn. The 56,000 ft conservatory was originally conceived of as as a complex of glass greenhouses connected by brick galleries. The austere limestone facade was typical of government building during the New Deal, but the airy glass greenhouses were a novelty and a delight. By 1997 the collections had outgrown the aging structure, and the building underwent a four year multi-million dollar restoration. While the glass greenhouses were modernized to accept state of the art climate control systems, many of the building's details (including the exterior limestone, fountains, and exterior windows and doors) were restored or recreated to match the original designs.


Photo source:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teens Crash White House Dinner

The gossip blogs are afire this week with posts about the White House Crashers. More relevant to TMS rather than TMZ, Henry Morgenthau III (son of FDR's Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau) contributed an Op-Ed to today's International Herald Tribune found here. In it he recalls a time in 1938 when two teens crashed a White House party on a dare to get President Roosevelt's autograph.

Morgenthau concludes with the point, "In this time for change, some things have not changed very much." The Op-Ed has a nice link to an online collection of Eleanor Roosevelt's My Day column, which is hosted by George Washington University--some good reading to do in your free time.