Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Going Green!

Last week the Annual Solar Decathlon on the National Mall came to a close, with the innovative entry from Team Germany taking the top prize. I had a chance to pass through the competition and was very impressed with the line up of well designed "green homes." It also got me thinking about one of Washington's first "green" buildings (and my favorite place in the city, hands down) the Old US Pension Building, better known today as the National Building Museum.

Built between 1882 and 1887, the structure was designed by US Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, who was commissioned by the government to create a fireproof structure to hold the US Pension Bureau's offices and important records. Following several major city fires (The 1871 Great Chicago Fire being perhaps the most memorable), fireproofing was of utmost concern to architects and engineers in the 1880s. The use of terracotta, brick, and steel rather than wood became prevalent during the time period. At the same time, following the Industrial Revolution, many citizens and politicians became concerned about the quality of health and living in cities, and the first US "green" movement was started.

Despite it's relatively small budget, the Pension Bureau was also designed to serve as a grand space for Washington's social and political events. To achieve this Meigs modeled his building after two Roman palaces, Michaelangelo's Palazzo Farnese and Palazzo della Cancelleria, but used brick as his primary building material. To keep up the building's status Meigs used only expert brick layers and a high quality pressed red brick. The exterior frieze, which depicts Civil war soldiers, is made of inexpensive terra cotta, and other decorative elements use painted plaster on brick surfaces rather than stone or marble.

The impressive Great Hall, which has seen many a Presidential inauguration gala, mimics the courtyard of Palazzo della Cancelleria. The enormous interior space is 316 feet by 116 feet, and is 159 feet at the peak of the roof. Four colossal Corinthian columns divide the space, and are modeled after columns in Michelangelo's church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The central fountain is 28 feet across and still has its original terracotta trim.

The Great Hall served it's purpose well as a grand entertainment venue, but many of it's decorative elements also served to provide the large space with natural light and air. After connections were established between disease rates and the crowded and squalid living conditions that industry and immigration the had brought to US cities, new efforts were made to make buildings more open. The roof's system of windows, vents and open archways allowed for natural ventilation through the space and the water in the fountain kept cool air on the lower levels. Since the Great Hall is open from floor to ceiling, all offices were pushed to the perimeter and therefore had air flow from both the Hall and the exterior. The building was a model of clean, natural, healthy engineering - very "green" for it's day!

The Pension Building was used as office space by various government offices until the 1960s when it became apparent that the building was badly in need of repairs. The space was not ideal for government offices, the Great Hall was no longer needed as a natural ventilating system with the advent of central air, and this "wasted space" was filled in with drop ceilings and standard office cubicles. (The horror!) In 1969, the Pension Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and under pressure from the preservation community who saw the beauty and ingenuity of the aging structure, the government commissioned architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith to rethink it's use. It was under her suggestion that the structure was converted into a museum for the building arts, and a 1980 Act of Congress mandated the creation of the National Building Museum as a private, non profit educational institution. The building was officially renamed in 1997, and is today a fantastic addition to the DC cultural landscape.

Source: National Building Museum Web site: http://www.nbm.org/about-us/historic-building/
Photos taken by the author

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jury Duty Week

United States Tax Court

So I've been stuck in Jury Duty all week in the oh so typical DC Superior Courthouse. I've decided there are only two good things about Jury Duty - being close enough to the National Mall to eat lunch there and having random spots of down time to write blog entries. Perhaps it’s just the boredom, but we’re going to shake things up here by going modern - mid century modern! A neighboring building to the DC Courthouse, the U.S. Tax Court Building was built by architect Victor Lundy in 1965 (dead smack Mad Men era). Government construction in the 1960s was heavily influenced by the 1962 "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture"; created for President Kennedy by the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space in an attempt to improve the quality of federal buildings. This was a significant step for the government to take as the committee correctly assessed that citizens would take more pride in their government and employees would take more pride in their jobs if their buildings were attractive.

The original Tax Court was located in the Internal Revenue Service Building that was built in the 1930s. By 1962 the need for the Court to have it’s own space was great, and the U.S. General Services Administration allocated $450,000 for the design of a new building. Architect Victor Lundy was so well respected in the field for his modernist sensibilities and inventive engineering that he was awarded the contract without competition. Lundy’s Modern design is best expressed in the striking cantilevered courtroom, which made use of technological advances in construction to achieve its dramatic appearance. The 4,000-ton courtroom block, which projects over the entrance, is supported by compression and post-tensioned bridges and steel cables located within the building’s walls. This innovative engineering is conveyed on the building’s interior as the compression and tension bridges are also used as interior circulation bridges.

In 1967, New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable described the plans for the U.S. Tax Court Building as "a progressive, sensitive, contemporary solution fully responsive to Washington's classical tradition and yet fully part of the mid-20th century--a period of exceptional vigor and beauty in the history of structure and design." Today the Tax Court is still regarded as one of the most sophisticated examples of Modernism in Washington.

Photo by Carol Highsmith for GSA


GSA Building Overview, U.S. Tax Court http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/gsa/ep/buildingView.do?pageTypeId=17109&bid=1264&channelPage=%2Fep%2Fchannel%2FgsaOverview.jsp&channelId=-25241&reason=bldgNameNos

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Other White House

I recently took a trip south of Washington to visit the other Capital with the other White House. Strange to think the Confederates chose their capital to be only 98 miles from Washington, but early in the Civil War the iron mills and factories of Richmond, Virginia were of tremendous strategic importance to the South. So it came to be that the Confederate capital was situated on a bluff overlooking the James River, and the executive mansion on 12th and Clay Streets became known as the White House of the Confederacy. Not to be picky, but the Confederate White House is actually pale grey (pictured at left as seen now and below right during the Civil War).

Originally constructed in 1818 for a prominent physician, the third story of the federal period house was added when it was purchased by the Crenshaw family in 1857. When the war commenced the Confederate government purchased the home and furnishings for $42,000, and CSA President Jefferson Davis and family moved in shortly thereafter.

Davis’s wife and first lady Varina became the official hostess of Richmond society, and the home was used for entertainment. At first the levees and balls were lavish, as the Southerners had many early victories to cheer on. Nonetheless, Varina Davis preferred to keep a “Quiet Set” and tended to keep gatherings small and intimate. She feared Richmond to be full of dreadful gossip.

As the war progressed, Richmond began to feel the strain of tough economic times. The price of a gallon of eggnog was over $100 at Christmas in 1863. “Starvation Parties” soon became the talk of the town, where the only expense was hiring the band and attendees refreshed themselves with a glass of water from the James River. Despite this privation, Mary Chesnut—the wife of General James Chesnut—noted that she attended one of Varina’s “Luncheons for Ladies Only” where they were served “gumbo, ducks and olives, lettuce salad, chocolate cream and jelly cake, claret cup, champagne, etc.” But on the whole, social gatherings at the Confederate White House became fewer and far between.

By 1864 the Confederate First Lady confessed to Mrs. Chesnut that the Davises could no longer live on the income provided by the Confederate government, and had begun selling off the horses and carriages kept in the carriage house at their White House.

Most of us know how the Civil War ended. The Union Army seized Richmond burning about 10% of it. Jeff Davis and Varina fled for their lives. The southern White House became the headquarters for the occupying army, with Lincoln personally visiting the mansion on April 4, 1865. He sat in Davis’s chair and helped himself to some of the wine left by the Rebel First Family.

It’s interesting to consider the lives of these two presidents living in their own “White Houses.” Aside from the struggles of the War, both as heads of state used their homes to entertain. Both had wives who presided over the local society and were frequently the subject of gossip. My image of Jefferson Davis has always been that of a slave holding villain. I had not considered him to be a family man, so visiting the house he briefly resided in humanized him. Like Lincoln, Davis suffered tragedy in his White House as well. In Washington, Lincoln’s son Willie died in 1862 of disease at age 12. Perhaps more horrifying was the death of five year old Joseph Davis, who fell from the East Portico of the Davis's White House.

2 Presidents. 2 First Ladies. 2 Capitals. 2 White Houses. The Confederate house is currently in the care of the Museum of the Confederacy; an interesting place where you can learn about the “Second American Revolution,” States Rights, the valor of the Confederate troops, and the vast superiority of their cavalry. I guess there are 2 ways of looking at things.

Sources: Mary Chesnut, Diary from Dixie.

Nelson Lankford,
Richmond Burning.

Museum of the Confederacy.

Emory M. Thomas,
The Confederate State of Richmond.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fight for Ol' DC!

The beloved Redskins currently stand at 1-2 after a defeat to the abysmal Lions…. Oh the Humanity! How can it be that a once dominant team has fallen so far? For me there is just one team and that is the Chicago Bears because they are the greatest and T formation and 1985 and Ditka and Monsters of the Midway. I need no elaboration. With that caveat, if there is one thing a Bears fan respects it is tradition—something that struggling Skins have aplenty.

Owner George Preston Marshall moved the team to Washington in 1937 after failing to draw fans in Boston. Head coach Ray Flaherty set out for Texas to recruit a young rookie quarterback out of TCU, Sammy Baugh for $8,000. In a time when the forward pass was used infrequently, Baugh was an odd choice for a quarterback, but his arm would change the way football was played, and he became known as Slingin’ Sammy. When the Redskins attended their first practice in Fairlawn Park in Anacostia, over a 1,000 fans showed up to cheer on their powerful linesmen. By August of 1937, the Redskins had their own volunteer marching band and even a fight song, “Hail to the Redskins” written by Marshall’s second wife and silent film star Corinne Griffith. Yet, Flaherty knew that the Redskin’s welcome would soon ware thin if they could not deliver out on the gridiron. Before the first game he told his team that if they wanted to keep their jobs they had to go out there and win.

And win they did, earning their first championship that season defeating the Bears at Wrigley Field 28-21. George “Papa Bear” Halas’s team did not take well to losing at home, and before long one the first NFL rivalries ignited. For the Redskins the success ’37 meant that Flaherty and his team had found a home.

As for the rivalry, payback came the following year later, when the Bears smashed the Redskins 31-7. After the game Halas commented to the Redskins, “That’s too bad, girlies…What say we all go down to the corner for a double banana split and a fistful of chocolate ├ęclairs?” Ouch. That’s harsh, Papa Bear.

The Redskins let their hatred simmer until they teams met again in 1940. Both teams struggled back and forth, when finally the Redskins claimed a 7-3 victory, won by an ankle tackle by running back Dick Todd, stopping the Bears at the one yard line. It was three weeks until the Championship game. Marshall predicted that should the Bears play the Redskins for the championship, they’d have to win big or not win at all. As if fated, the teams would indeed meet for the championship at Griffith Stadium (at Georgia Ave and W Street, NW). Taking Marshall’s words to heart the Bears unleashed a fury, ending the game with a 73-0 victory over the Redskins (who unlike the current Lions, were playing in the championship—the Redskins were no shabby team). The score still stands as the largest margin of victory in NFL history.

Admittedly, this has turned out to be biased posting on the prowess of the Chicago Bears, but I find myself incapable of singing the praises of another team. But cheer up Redskins fans you still have: 5 championships, 3 Superbowl titles, the NFL first marching band, and the first NFL fight song. So when times get tough, think about Slingin’ Sammy and the championship in 1937, and the later days with Coach Gibbs. You have tradition! Now get out there and beat your current rival the Cowboys, whom you play in seven weeks!

Sources: Redskins: A History of Washington’s Team.

Redskin’s Homepage.

Sports Encyclopedia.