Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Better Homes and Gardens

She may not be the first of the First Ladies to start a garden or open the White House up to the public, but I have learned that I owe gratitude to Pat Nixon. It was she who first opened the White House to the public twice a year for the Spring and Fall Garden Tours; it is because of her (and a friend who had tickets) that the Secret Service opened their wrought iron gates and let me in to see the garden a few weekends ago.

As Richard Nixon noted in his memoirs when Pat Nixon entered the White House she did so without “breaking stride.” Mrs. Nixon committed herself immediately to the building and its grounds, adding more antique American furnishings than any other First Lady—it was she who had the Gilbert Stuart copy of John Quincy Adams replaced by the real McCoy.

Mrs. Nixon first opened the White House up for the garden tours in 1972. Over 10,000 people attended, the event was a success. Despite the initial confusion over why there was a Rose Garden that in fact had no roses, over the years the popularity of the garden tour expanded. This autumn, attendance peaked at 25,000. However, attendance was particularly high this year due to Michelle Obama’s “Victory Garden” aka the White House Kitchen Garden. Though she never had the appeal of a Kennedy (Jacqueline Kennedy garden above left), Mrs. Nixon preferred to work quietly behind the scenes. She added the exterior lights to the White House, so it could be seen glowing at night on Pennsylvania Avenue. She changed the White House Tours, adding speakers while people stood in line so that visitors might learn the history of the house while waiting.

Having never attended a tour of the White House, this is the closest I’ve been to the Oval Office. I was surprised to see how high the land sits. From the backyard you can see the Jefferson Monument clearly, something you can’t do from Constitution Avenue, which sits below the South lawn and the Ellipse (see below center). Also, the Andrew Jackson Magnolia!!!!! Planted in 1830 and dedicated to his deceased wife Rachel!!!! It’s still there (see above right to the left of the portico)! Amazing! Yes, I did have thoughts of taking a leaf from it. No, I did not take a leaf because I feared crossing the Secret Service and National Park Service. I made the right choice.

Sources: Bonnie Angelo, Time Magazine, “Pat Nixon: The Woman in the Cloth Coat,” July 5 , 1993.

Jonathan Movroydis,
Pat Nixon and America’s White House, 2009.

White House Historical Association. “The White House Gardens and Grounds” (Fall 2009).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Under the city

Talk about creepy. Just in time for Halloween, the Washington Post Answer Man reported recently on rumors of buildings in DC that had underground doors leading into the dark and swirling remains of Washington's old Tiber Creek. Naturally, many of these are unfounded claims, but it prompted me to do a little investigating of my own.

The creek was originally known as Goose Creek before it became part of the territory of Washington DC and was renamed in honor of Rome's Tiber River. Early maps show that its course ran south from around the intersection of today's 1st St NE and North Capitol Street down towards the Capitol building before turning west and following today's Constitution Avenue and meeting the Potomac near the Washington Monument.

Historic image of the city showing Tiber Creek, and present day Washington

In his master plan for the city L'Enfant actually proposed using the Tiber as a canal to the Potomac, and in 1815 the part of the creek that ran along Constitution Avenue was added to the Washington City Canal system. Unfortunately, without sufficient infrastructure, by the 1870s the Washington Canal had become little other than a giant sewer and was eventually paved over as part of a city improvement project. Board of Public Works lead architect Adolf Cluss was responsible for the construction of the giant brick tunnel which housed the river and allowed for the construction of the roadway above it. Parts of the tunnel still exist in deteriorated form today, and the Old Post Offce building does indeed have a manhole cover in the basement which reveals the much diminished creek trickling by when opened. There are also the remains of an historic C&O canal lock keeper's house at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, which is where the mouth of the Tiber Creek once opened into the Tidal Basin.

Because of the instability of the old creek bed, many of the buildings on or near Constitution avenue, including the IRS building, The National Archives, and the Warner Theater had to be built with deep pier like foundations. The Warner Theater was actually supposed to be named the "Cosmopolitan Theater", but after its owners spent so much money on the construction of the foundation, they ended up having to seek investors and named it the Earle Theater after one of their investors instead. It was later renamed the Warner after being bought by Harry Warner. Engineers working on the construction of the massive Ronald Reagan Building in the 1990s appeared to have finally found a way to successfully divert the water, but their methods actually reduced the water level so significantly that the IRS building's foundation lost stability and began to sink.

Today the creek is mostly a silent, hidden piece of Washington's past, but every now and again it rears its head. Before being diverted underground, in 1804 the creek caused one of the most significant floods in Washington's history, sending sewage, livestock, and people racing down Pennsylvania Avenue. More recently, the remains of the riverbed became saturated during heavy rains in June of 2006, and caused terrible flooding in the downtown area, threatening among other things, the copy of the Constitution kept at the National Archives. Thankfully, nothing major was lost.

Kelly, John. Answer Man, Washington Post.Sunday, November 1, 2009. http://www.washingt onpost.com/ wp-dyn/content/ article/2009/ 10/31/AR20091031 01607_2.html

Tiber Creek, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiber_Creek

Image Source: Tiber Creek, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiber_Creek

Evidence of the Capital's Pernicious Past

It’s often difficult to find evidence of slavery in a modern urban landscape. After the 14th Amendment which abolished slavery, the need for slave quarters and shanties in the back allies of streets disappeared. Often lacking architectural flourish, slave quarters were the first buildings torn down to make way for the new architecture. As Washington shifted from a rural town to a bustling metropolis, evidence of slavery within the District all but disappeared. Yet, in 1860 there were 3,185 slaves (4.2% of the total population of the city) living in the Capital. You could be walking by an old slave quarters on your way to work every day and not even recognize it. Fortunately, there are some telltale signs in recognizing an old slave quarter --and what follows is a guide to help you.

Location relative to the master’s house: Unlike plantations, where slave quarters were set apart from the Big House, lack of space in urban areas meant that slaves were located closer to their masters. A typical urban slave quarter could often be found in back of the master’s house or at a right angle to the house. For quarters that were perpendicular and attached to the main house, the idea was to create a confining space for slaves, essentially keeping their view of the outside world limited.

Construction: Architectural design and layout was more crucial in urban areas than on the plantations—a slave quarter could not be an eyesore that could be hid from the Big House as on plantations. In the city the quarters would be seen, and were therefore constructed out of brick and stucco rather than the mud and logs found in the Deep South. Quarters in the City came with glass windows and shutters.

Size: The quarters typically housed no more than 15 slaves at a time. The structures were usually one to two stories and often long and narrow. On a two-story structure the idea was to create a sense of a compound around the slaves who worked in the backyard. The height of the quarters made it difficult for slaves to see the outside world, a further means of control for the slave owner.

Doors: In order to keep slaves confined there were no doors leading to the street. If the quarters were attached to the master’s house, a slave would have to walk through the Master’s house before leaving for the market or entering the outside world. This was done to give slaves the feeling that their actions were constantly under the surveillance of their masters and mistresses.

Interior: In a two story building, the ground floor held the kitchen and household laundry. The top floor contained the living space which could be one large open room, or small bedrooms meant to provide family space.

The overall theme to take away from the design of an urban slave quarter is that of control. The quarters were meant to be confining, meant to limit contact with others outside of the master’s household, and intended to emphasize the degree to which a master was in control of his slave. The urban slave quarter to some extent reveals the fear felt by a white slave-holding society as well. The masters' need for control came from an ever-increasing sense of fear that their slaves would seak freedom, or worse, revolt. Unlike on an isolated plantation, the city provided a chance for free and enslaved blacks to mix and mingle at markets and at church; white owners did not want their slaves to take to the notion that freedom was possible.

Before you go looking around DC for these slave quarters, I’ll point out that there is only one remaining in the District. It’s located at 1610 H Street, NW and is a part of the Decatur House Museum (seen at left now standing admidst cars rathers than carriages). As far as slave quarters go it is a perfect example of what I have just described—right angle from the main house, two stories, stucco, no door to the street (one has been added in modern times due to fire codes), long and narrow.

The slave quarter at the Decatur House is believed to date back to the 1820s, where it started as a single story structure. The second story was added in the 1830s by house owner John Gadsby. The kitchen was located on the first floor, with slave families living above it. In 1844, there were 17 people living on the top floor, which is about 900 square feet, about the size of a single apartment. The preservation of this structure-- one of only a scant handful left in American cities-- serves as a reminder that slavery did exist in Washington and it existed within sight of one of our greatest symbols of democracy, the White House.

Sources: The Decatur House Museum.
Peter Kolchin, American Slavery.
Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities.