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.


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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.