Wednesday, May 27, 2009

All aboard!

Union Station, circa 1969

There are several major turning points in the history of architecture. When the Romans discovered concrete, when the recipe for concrete somehow got lost in the dark ages, when they rediscovered concrete, and when Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. In a world that was obsessed with opulence and drapery, the streamlined clean lines of the Fair's buildings spawned a whole new generation of thinking about cities and building design. Set into an inspired landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the Exposition's enormous structures harkened back to Classical styles, and their white plaster finishes gave the fairgrounds the nickname of "The White City". The fair was a raging success and had an even more spectacular finish when its temporary structures all but burned to the ground in 1894. Regardless, the history of building was forever altered.

The finest example of this style of Beaux-Arts inspired design in Washington (and actually in the United States as a whole) is Union Station, constructed by none other than Daniel Burnham himself, the lead architect of the Chicago Fair. The station was completed in 1908 at a time when the train was king (having experienced a recent major growth in popularity as the most convenient way to access the Chicago Fair) and the train station (not I-395) was seen as the gateway to the city. When the McMillian Commission, of which Burnham was a part, was established as part of a city beautification in 1901, it was immediately decided that the train tracks that crossed through the National Mall should be removed and replaced with a more significant station elsewhere.

Burnham intended for this main train station to be nothing short of monumental. Thought of as the "vestibule of the capital", the completed building had the largest footprint in the United States, and for a time, was the largest train station in the world. The space for such a massive building was carved out of an area once known as "Swampoodle," a shantytown located on the swamp like remains of Tiber Creek north of the Capitol.

In true Beaux Arts fashion, Burnham turned to the majesty of the Roman Empire when looking for references for Union Station. The central pavilion is a tribute to the Arch of Constantine, and the main interior takes its design from the massive Baths of Diocletian. The general waiting room, now the main lobby of the building, was an impressive 120 feet wide by 219 feet long. There were no short cuts on the materials used in this grand space, 70 pounds of 22-karat gold leaf were ordered to embellish the coffers in the 96-foot barrel-vaulted ceilings. The central exterior pavilion is covered in white Vermont granite, and atop the six massive exterior columns are Louis Saint-Gaudens sculptures representing Fire, Electricity, Freedom, Imagination, Agriculture, and Mechanics.

At 760 feet long and 130 feet wide, the grand concourse at the back of the station extended the entire length of the structure and allowed direct access to all trains. In it's heyday, approximately 285 trains on 32 tracks carried about 30,000 passengers in and out of Union Station on a daily basis. But the station did more than just move people from place to place. As a monumental entry into Washington the station housed such entertainment facilities as a YMCA, a hotel, liquor store, Turkish baths, and a first-class restaurant, and at various times was also home to a baker, butcher, ice house, mortuary, nursery, police station, and a silver-monogramming shop.

As with most train stations in the U.S., as other modes of travel became more prevalent and railways fell into a decline, Union Station entered a period of disuse and neglect. The station was closed in 1978 and eventually, in a horrifying turn of fate, water damage caused parts of the gold gilded roof to cave in and toadstools began to grow in the grand interior. Thankfully, in 1981, Congress enacted the Union Station Redevelopment Act which helped establish a plan for a building overhaul. After a three year renovation valued at $160 million dollars, the station was reopened as a transportation hub, a retail center, and a museum. Today, restored to its former glory and frequented by over 32 million visitors each year, Union Station continues to be a major part of Washington DC life.

Columbus Circle in front of Union Station, Courtesy of Christine Ruffo

Union Station History,
National Park Service, Department of the Interior. National Register Nomination, 3/24/1969.

Photo Sources:
Union Station Photo: National Park Service, Department of the Interior. National Register Nomination, 3/24/1969.
Columbus Circle photo: Christine Ruffo. Visit to see and purchase more images of Washington DC!

Bocks, Brews, and Ale

Politics isn’t the only thing brewed in Washington. In 1873, German immigrant Christian Heurich purchased the old Schnell Brewery and Tavern on 1229 20th Street, NW and began the Christian Heurich Brewing Company. Within 10 years, he had become the largest brewer in Washington. After 3 accidental fires caused by sparks and malt explosions, Heurich moved his brewery to 26th and D Street (pictured above, now the Kennedy Center) in 1895, constructing the first fireproof brewery. Heurich relied heavily on German labor and artisans for the construction of the new brewery complex. The brewery featured living quarters for employees, a bottling factory, and an ice plant. At the same time, Heurich built a mansion for himself and his wife near Dupont Circle. Known as the Brewmaster’s Castle, the house is now open to tourists. The house features 31 rooms, furnished in the Victorian style.

Heurich became one of DC’s elite businessmen, the second largest landholder in the District (the first being the federal government), and the largest private employer in the area. The brewery maintained a continued presence in DC even during the prohibition years, when Heurich relied on the ice plant for income. After prohibition ended, Heurich successfully returned to the beer business, marketing his products under the Senate Beer label. Alas, low taxes which allowed for outside producers to dump cheap beer on DC and the growth of mass producers such as Budweiser and Pabst, led to the decline of the company. In an effort to boost sales, Heurich (who ran his brewery until his death at age 105) released a label called Old Georgetown Ale. Though this brew was met with short-term success, it was not enough to save the brewery. The board of directors opted to close the brewery before it started to see losses in 1956.

Amusingly, the government had a rather difficult time demolishing the brewery in the early 1960s. Heurich built the factory to be strong and withstand fire. Initial attempts to destroy it with dynamite failed. In the end, only a wrecking ball through the ice house walls, lined with twelve inch thick cork walls, succeeded.

Hasia R. Diner and Steven J. Diner, “Washington’s Jewish Community: Separate but not Apart,” in Ed. Francine Curro Cary, Washington Odyssey.

Rusty Cans, Christian Heurich.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Poetry of Presidential Wit

So, I've been on kind of a Lincoln kick lately. To compound the fact that I teach kids about Lincoln three days a week, my reading material of late has been Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James McPherson. Having finished that, I've moved on to my favorite Civil War history, Shelby Foote's The Civil War -- a three-tome 3,000-page behemoth that dotes equally on the leadership of both Lincoln and his presidential rival, Jefferson Davis, throughout the war.

Living in a city with so many Lincoln-related places to see doesn't help, either. Between the Soldier's Home (Lincoln's get-away while president), Ford's Theatre, and the Lincoln Memorial, there are lots of options for an Honest Abe tour of the city. All these relics, however, are shrines to a hero; monuments to the Defender of the Union, the Great Emancipator. Yet Lincoln, who did so much to carry the United States through its greatest crisis, was more still: he was funny.

It turns out, he liked to tell stories; not droning or moralistic stories, but poignant anecdotes with a touch of tall tale -- like the kind your wily great uncle used to tell you. General George McClellan, when he was commander of the Army of the Potomac, wrote to his wife, "I have just been interrupted here by the President and Secretary Seward, who had nothing very particular to say, except some stories to tell, which were, as usual, very pertinent, and some pretty good. I never in my life met anyone so full of anecdote as our friend." Once, when asked how he liked the job of being president, he responded with the story of a man out West who had been tarred and feathered. "As he was being ridden out of town on a rail, [he] heard one among the crowd call to him, asking how he liked it, high up there on his uncomfortable perch. 'If it wasn't for the honor of the thing,' the man replied, 'I'd sooner walk.'"

It seems Lincoln always had something witty up his sleeve. Later in the war, the President was leaving the company of an Illinois editor who claimed to be the first to have suggested Lincoln for the presidential nomination. "Goodbye," Lincoln said, "I hope you will feel perfectly easy about having nominated me. Don't be troubled about it. I forgive you."

Lincoln's way with words extended to the metaphor, as well. Lincoln employed analogies to explain concepts in terms everyone could understand. Arguing for harsher policies against the Southern states, Lincoln said that the war could no longer be fought, "with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water." Later in the war, as General Sherman was wreaking havoc in the lower South while General Grant's Army of the Potomac held the South's largest army near Richmond, Lincoln remarked, "Grant has the bear by the hind leg while Sherman takes off the hide."

So, should you visit any of the many Lincoln shrines in Washington, remember that Honest Abe was not carved from granite, but was a likable fellow, with a "fund of humorous anecdote."

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 66, 140, 166, 409.
James M. McPherson,
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), 106, 255.
Photo Source:

Creating Mayhem

"The aim of Mayday actions is to raise the social cost of the war to a level unacceptable to America's rulers," recorded the Mayday Tribe in their tactical manual. This would take some organizing… (below: protest poster)

Mayday Tribe To Do List:
· Coordinate with the National Peace Action Coalition and agree to sponsor acts of civil disobedience from April 24th, 1971 through the first week of May
· Establish plans to block entry points in to the heart of Washington, DC thereby preventing federal employees from getting to work. Shut down the government!
· Form “affinity groups,” of 6-7 people to act together and create mayhem on May 3, 1971
The anti-war protesters were organized, and they should have been. Protests against the Vietnam War occurred annually since 1963. The call to descend on the District in April was largely successful; over 200,000 showed up. There were performances with John Denver and Pete Seger. In May, a smaller group remained in DC. This group was different; the Mayday Tribe was a more militant faction willing to create chaos by force, but this time the Police and National Guard were ready. They too, had had nearly a decade of riot experience.

Law Enforcement To Do list:
· Infiltrate groups with undercover police agents to learn of protest plans
· Go to the courts to determine what minimum requirements are needed to make mass arrests. Establish how many people an officer can arrest in one day and still remember the details
· Create fill-in-the-blank arrest forms
· Supply paddywagons with Polaroid cameras to help officers recall arrestees and events
· Use new kind of handcuff, called a “flexicuff,” pre-marked with the arresting officer’s badge number
· On day before protest, evacuate 30,000 protesters camped in West Potomac Park, citing raging drug use. Use tear gas if necessary.

Madness ensued on May 3rd. 20,000 thousand protestors, many decked out in army fatigues, took the streets early, blocking key intersections from Dupont Circle to the Tidal Basin Bridge. At the Memorial Bridge they blocked entry using bike racks and other barricades. In Georgetown, one affinity group commandeered a pickup truck, by releasing the parking brake and riding it down hill on M Street eventually parking it in the middle of an intersection. 1,400 members of the DC National Guard mobilized, reinforces with 4,000 army soldiers. Using helicopters to monitor the protests, law enforcement tracked the movement of the mobs. By the end of the day over 7,000 individuals had been arrested. Police began ignoring the arrest forms and simply sticking anyone who looked like a protester into vans. When local precinct jails filled to capacity, the police held arrestees at RFK stadium. Despite the chaos, the federal government did not shut down.

Fall-out from the event is interesting. The Mayday Protest marked the last major anti-war protest as well as the largest mass arrest in DC History. Beginning that year, the Nixon administration began the first withdraw of troops. The public attitude toward the protest was mixed. Many condemned its violence as anti-American, while others saw the arrests a breach of first amendment rights. The mass arrests triggered several court cases regarding false arrest and infringement of free speech and assembly. The last case was settled ten years later, and resulted in the government paying protesters between $750 to $2500 for false arrest and violations of the first amendment.

Sources: Lucy G. Barber, Marching on Washington.

Jeff Leen, “The Vietnam Protests: When Worlds Collided,” The Washington Post (September 27, 1999), Page A1.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

If Only it Were a Dodecahedron

Yet again, my misconceptions of Washington and government run abound. I had always presumed that the shape of the Pentagon was symbolic of American defense. Each side was a different branch, and if you had asked me I would have said it was the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Department of Defense. Then too, I figured that a pentagram is a symbol of freemasonry and George Washington, who lived nearby, was a freemason and was also the first general of the military--so the Pentagon shape was the obvious choice. There. Solved. I’m sure Tom Hanks in The da Vinci Code would agree with me.

Unlike so many of the democratic themed federal buildings, there is no symbolism behind the pentagonal shape. In fact, when the government purchased Arlington Farm as the site for the Department of War building, the design was chosen simply because the farm was an irregular pentagon. Engineer Lieutenant Colonel Hugh J. Casey and architect George Bergstrom was told that his design could be no more than 5 stories tall and use as little steel as possible. These constraints meant that the space would need to be sprawled out. More space was needed in order to house all the employees, so the government purchased land around the Potomac, including the former slum of Hell’s Bottom—leveling it to make space. The shape of the Pentagon became a regular-sided pentagon. Upon completion it would be the largest office space in America, covering 29 acres and accommodating 40,000 workers and a parking lot for 8,000.

Construction began September 11, 1941 (coincidence?). After the December attack on Pearl Harbor, construction sped up. As part of the war effort, the building was redesigned to minimize materials needed. For example bonze doors were eliminated and concrete drainpipes were installed instead of metal. The building was completed in 1943. The three year project was accomplished in just 16 months, which just goes to show that when the government wants to “Git Ur Dun” they really can.

Source: The Pentagon

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Duel of the Month Club: Alternate Weapons Edition

Thus far, all of the duels we've mentioned have been pistol duels. If I remember my chivalrous movie scenes correctly, it's generally the challenged party who is allowed to choose their weapon. When Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) delivered a two-day-long speech beginning on May 19, 1856, he inadvertently became the challenger in an impromptu duel.

Sumner's speech, an hours-long tirade focused on Kansas, which had become a battleground after Congress had decided to make slavery in the state subject to a popular vote. Sumner accused the South of conspiring to make Kansas a slave state, and peppered his speech with personal accusations aimed at several of his fellow senators. Among them was Andrew Butler of South Carolina, whom Sumner described as having taken "the harlot, Slavery," as his "mistress."
Two days later, on May 22, Butler's nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC), seeking to "avenge the insult to my State," walked into the mostly deserted Senate chamber. Finding Sumner working at his desk, Brooks began beating the Senator over the head with his cane, with enough force to snap the cane into pieces.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat one-sided duel. On the other hand, the public recognized that Sumner had struck a sound enough blow verbally, that his opponent was obliged to respond with physical assault. The fight had far-reaching consequences, polarizing those in the North and the South. For his part, Sumner's speech was printed, with a million copies distributed. Though suffering concussions and severe headaches, Sumner eventually recovered and was able to return to the Senate. As for Brooks, he was sent several new canes, with inscriptions reading "Hit him again," and was even reelected to Congress.

Source: David Brian Davis and Steven Mintz, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through The Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pockets of Judaism in DC

In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, a look at Jewish Life in DC…

Arguably a “Southern City,” Washington never relied on industry to build itself. Absent were the mills and factories that built New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago in the nineteenth century. Government was (and is) the business of Washington. For this reason Jewish immigrants faced a different experience than they would have in other US cities.

Though Jews began immigrating to the US in fairly substantial numbers after the 1820s, the Jewish population in DC remained small. Part of this is explained by the aforementioned lack of industrialization and trade. To work in government you needed to know English, and as a consequence Jewish immigrants in DC often came from other American cities first where they had gained exposure to the English language. This meant that Jewish individuals in DC were already on their way to assimilating American culture; being an Eastern European Jew or a German Jew was not as significant as it would have been elsewhere.

After the Civil War, the absence of immigrants, coupled with discriminatory practices against African-Americans, provided a unique opportunity for Jews to find a niche in the market. Long accustomed to working as peddlers (one of the few businesses they were permitted in Europe), Jews used their business skills to set up Mom-and-Pop groceries. Because Jews typically preferred to live near their businesses, small Jewish neighborhoods, with synagogues emerged in DC, particularly near 31st and M (NW), 4th Street (SW), 7th (NW). Al Jolson of “The Jazz Singer” fame lived at 208 4 ½ Street (pictured above), SW where his father was Rabbi of the Talmud Torah on the Southwest Waterfront.

The stores and neighborhoods served as a vehicle for upward mobility, allowing Jews to enter the middle-class and escape poverty. It allowed them to form collectives to negotiate prices of goods and contribute to society through philanthropic organizations, such as the Hebrew Home for the Aged. The Jewish population continued to grow well in to the 20th century; by 1956 there numbered 40,000 in the Washington area. The 50s brought movement to suburbs and Jewish life shifted in to Maryland and parts of Virginia. However, there is still a strong Jewish presence in Washington today; the Historic 6th and I Synagogue (built in 1906) is ranked as one of the Top 25 most vibrant congregations in the country.

Sources: Hasia R. Diner and Steven J. Diner, “Washington’s Jewish Community: Separate but not Apart,” in Ed. Francine Curro Cary, Washington Odyssey.

Herbert G. Goldman,
Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life.
Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington,
Half a Day on Sunday.
Picture Source: Harris and Ewing collection, Library of Congress.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

DC's First Race Riot

Even today, DC is a city of segregation and has certainly had its share of racial violence. The District permitted slavery until April 16, 1862. At its peak there were about 4,000 slaves living and working in DC. One slave was eighteen year old Arthur Bowen, who on one drunken occasion in 1835 put events in motion that would lead to DC’s first race riot.

Bowen was owned by the wealthy widow Anna Thornton, wife of the first Architect of the Capitol, William Thornton. Out drinking late on August 4th, Bowen went home to the Thornton house on the 1300 block of F Street. Seeing an ax by the doorway, he carried the ax up to Anna Thornton’s bedroom and stood at the door, reportedly shouting that he had an equal right to freedom as Ms. Thornton. Scared witless, Anna fled the room. Bowen’s mother grabbed him, urging him to flee in to the night. On the run for four days, Arthur was apprehended on the 8th and taken to the city jail in Judiciary Square. With the Nat Turner Rebellion, in which runaway slaves massacred 60 villagers in 1831, still fresh in the minds of whites, fear of uprising was palpable. An angry mob gathered outside the jail, calling for the hanging of Bowen.

The mob consisted mainly of Irish laborers, known as the “Mechanics,” who believed they had much to lose with slaves and free blacks taking their jobs. District Attorney Francis Scott Key—yes, the “Star Spangled Banner” guy—sought to restore the peace by obtaining an arrest warrant for a white doctor said to be in possession of abolitionist literature. The doctor was placed in jail alongside Arthur Bowen, but the crowds were not appeased. The Marines were called in to defend the prison.

Meanwhile, down at The Epicurean Eating House on 6th and Pennsylvania, all hell was about to break loose. Beverly Snow, the proprietor, was a man of mixed-race who got along well with society and ran a profitable restaurant. Now, he had been accused of using very inappropriate language regarding the wives and daughters of the Mechanics. The mob 300 to 400 strong moved from Judiciary Square over to Snow’s restaurant, where they shattered windows, broke furniture, and consumed mass quantities of whiskey. The Mechanics then directed their rage towards black tenements houses, churches, and schools. A “house of ill fame” was torched near Capitol Hill. The mayor of Washington was forced to organize a local militia of 60 men to restore order.

As quickly as it had erupted, the violence ceased on August 13th. Order was restored, and soon it was business as usual. But what happened to the characters of this episode? Francis Scott Key pressed for the death penalty against Bowen, and it was granted. However, it turns out that Anna Thornton was fond of her slave; she changed her story (Bowen never said anything about freedom and rights at all) and appealed to President Jackson to have Bowen pardoned. Ever partial to widows, Jackson granted the pardon. As for Beverly Snow? He returned to DC just long enough to sell his business, then moved to a place where he declared a man can live free. Canada.

Sources: Jesse J. Holland, Black Men Built the Capitol.

Jefferson Morely, “
The 'Snow Riot',” The Washington Post: February 6, 2005.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Oration Nation

Do you ever watch CSPAN? It's OK to say no. The coverage of the floor of the two bodies of our legislature is really dull. Much of the time is devoted to procedural monotony, the shuffling of papers and feet, and the occasional speech delivered by someone you've never heard of before. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the chambers always seem empty. Sure, there are some aides running around, maybe a few congressmen here and there, but nobody seems to be paying any attention to what's going on. The aides are rushing to deliver papers; the senators are checking their Blackberries; the congresswomen look bored. Even the important moments, the ones that make the national news programs, are ignored by most everyone in the room.

This brings me to one of the many reasons I love history, especially eighteenth and nineteenth century history: People were so often passionate about things that matter. Of course, there was procedural nonsense and people who didn't care in the past, as well. Yet, I can't help but romanticize a time when delivering speeches was an art, and one could actually sway the opinion of another with rhetoric.

Daniel Webster was the kind of orator who could do that. Webster hailed from Massachusetts, and though he wasn't much to look at (but what politician ever is), his voice could hold even his opponents in rapture. In January of 1830, Senator Robert Hayne delivered a speech denouncing federal interference with the South, specifically a tariff that largely protected Northern industry at the expense of Southern landholders. Webster, who had been passing by on his way back from the Supreme Court, stopped to listen to Hayne speak. Hearing Hayne's impassioned denunciation of the federal government, Webster was displeased. The next day, he responded with an impassioned, eloquent defense of national policies. "[I cannot] regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs of this Government," Webster declared, "whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering, not how the Union should best be preserved, but how tolerable might be the condition of the People when it shall be broken up and destroyed."

Webster continued, pleading with his fellow Americans not to put their own interests before that of their country. Imagining a future in which the South took the drastic action of breaking up the Union, Webster hoped aloud that he would not see such a day: "When my eyes shall be turned to behold, for the last time, the sun in Heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union... Let their last feeble and lingering glance, rather behold the gorgeous Ensign of the Republic... its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured -- bearing for its motto, no such interrogatory as What is all this worth? Nor other words of delusion and folly... but... that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart -- Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable."

If you go to the Capitol today, you probably won't hear anyone speak like this. Admittedly, Webster's speech was considered exceptional even at the time: Hayne, his opponent, reputedly responded by telling Webster, "A man who can make such speeches as that ought never to die." Nevertheless, should you find yourself sitting in the galleries of the Senate chamber, close your eyes, and recall all the persons and words that have echoed through that hall. Maybe, just maybe, you can imagine Webster, standing with one hand in the small of his back, the other on the podium (the oratory style of the time), humbling his foes with fiery rhetoric and sweeping imagery.

Perhaps then you won't notice that the senator next to you is Twittering.

Source: Jon Meacham, American Lion: Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2008).