As a dedicated flaneur, I have watched people, buildings, the flora and fauna that blow about beneath, as well as the occasional car-crash and public altercation.
Chief among these pleasures is facade-watching, a habit I developed in New York City and carried with me to Dallas, Texas; Berkeley, California; Lexington, Kentucky; Newburyport, Massachusetts; Syracuse, New York – not to mention cities that do not require a suffix like Memphis, New Orleans, and LA. In every one of these places, it was the native architecture rather than a monumental fringe or center that attracted me.
Here in Washington, monuments comprise an official sector that is perhaps wearily familiar. When the needle of our eponymous monument pricks the sky (as it were), even Midwesterners are not at a loss for its name. The White House is perhaps the most recognizable building in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps the world at large. It is old (by our lights), stately, and off-limits. And it is very white. As is our vaunted Capital, which rises over the neighborhood that bears its name as majestically as you please. It is not so much a local, as a national, possession.
Our Federal Triangle is consonant in design and more or less stable in its aesthetic appeal, which is lukewarm overall. There are, however, sneaky surprises that are worth looking into. The belated Beaux-Arts structure that houses the EPA boasts of a central courtyard through which idlers, strollers, and overachievers pass daily. It spatial organization recalls the mighty town squares of our European forefathers. There are other courtyards, but I especially like this one. It is friendly, somewhat intimate in scale, and surprisingly accessible.
The National Archives building sits by itself and has the solitary grandeur that befits its purpose. It is ascended by a flight of steps that might accommodate thousands. And its Corinthian columns express a continuity of thought and action, which the contents of the building exemplify. It is a good, solid piece of work – though it is also dull.
As is the Federal Triangle generally. Taken all in all, however, it is creditable and that’s all it needs to be.
The National Gallery of Art is worth mentioning as a national symbol, though of an elitist stamp. It was conceived by a wealthy man who’d turned his back on native culture and stocked it with fish from other places. (I wish it were named something else.) Its West Wing is lofty-looking and suitable for a collection of art that belongs not so much to Us as the World Citizen. The East Wing has a dullness entirely its own, with its occasional bids for intimacy amidst a space that is so awkwardly managed that a drunken Piranesi – a drunken Piranesi with fresh concrete on his fingers – might have designed it.
Let us, however, move on to other places.
On Capitol Hill, where I live, individual buildings don’t stand out as much. It is the streetscape that’s worth telling about. Better still, it should be strolled.
East Capitol Street’s canopy of old trees exudes a Main Street quality that is re-enforced by the diversity of its architecture. Wood-faced cottages that stood before the Civil War harmonize with their Victorian neighbors as well as the occasional apartment house. This hodgepodge of eclectic styles is a virtue. As is East Cap’s generous yard-space, which is not a strong suit in this city. As one looks about, his or her eye rests on well-planned gardens as well as erratic ones. Cast-iron fences define boundaries as well as decorate them. Bay windows suggest entertainment possibilities that can be very large indeed. Punch-pattern brickwork leads the eye upward, where turret and gable charm, captivate, and, occasionally, dismay. Toward Lincoln Park, joggers and prams start to appear. And at the intersection of 11th Street, greensward, walking-paths, and reliable trees re-shape one’s vision of urban splendor. Radiating from the park are other small squares and beautiful houses; well-shaped yards; and streets that are paved in cobbles.
In spite of the infamously corrupt presidencies of the Gilded Age, parks were set aside all over the city, some large like Lincoln, others so small that a bench and a statue is about all you get. Stanton Park, which is the gateway to Southeast DC, is a fine-looking place that’s not named after Nathaniel Greene, the Revolutionary War general whose statue, undergirded by a prancing steed, is the focal point and centerpiece of that locale. Such is the logic of Which-Notable Person-Gets-Remembered.
Fanning past it in a northerly direction, one finds smaller Victorians whose brickwork expresses, as well as defines, their aesthetic dimension. There isn’t much granite or limestone, just this brick, which masons loved to shape into arches, dentils and brackets – just as other, “fancier” artisans had done with copper on East Cap. And if one wanders past the park along Maryland and Massachusetts Avenues, he or she might gasp at the wonders of wood-turning as well as Washington’s well-established fluency in brick and stone. There is as much diversity here as anywhere in town.
Yet there aren’t enough landmarks to make the area the tourist magnet Capitol Hill doesn’t wish to become. Eastern Market, which occupies an entire block along 7th Street, SE, is housed in an iconic Adolph Cluss building whose roof caught fire some years ago and caused a mass exodus as well as a temporary shutdown. Yet the vendors have moved back and it is more popular than ever. There is nothing quite like it in DC: an indoor shopping-area that does not so much reek of a mall as set you up for one. On the weekend, its perimeters come alive with craftspeople-on-the-make as well as fruit and vegetable sellers who are possibly waiting for booths inside.
If, among Capitol Hill landmarks, you care to include the Library Of Congress as well as the Supreme Court building, go ahead. (With that, I should also mention The Folger Library – which is as treasured an institution as Washington has.) Both places are worth a look: the LOC for its lavish scale as well as its palatial decoration; the Supreme Court for its bigness on the one hand and classical restraint on the other. I always like running by it. So much history, good and bad, has been made here, I think, as I attempt to regulate my breath and not get hit by a passing car.
Once that appetite is slaked, a dedicated walk is more than worth the trouble. Capitol Hill will yield not only a reassuring profile of mostly good people making the best of a good place, but the vigorous imprint of the 19th century on what was, then, a growing city.
No one who owns a Capitol Hill townhouse takes it for granted. He or she (or they) are too busy making it over; tweaking it; preserving it; overhauling it; re-gluing it. Renovation conundrums are so commonplace that the local rag runs a column that addresses them. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society holds workshops and seminars of a similar character. Come to think of it, there are few shabby properties on the Hill, which makes for a pleasant harmony – if for a kind of monotonous social milieu. Where are the bad neighbors? The uncut lawns? The loud parties? Not that we need them, but they are a feature of American life. Where they do not exist, we wonder whether somebody’s come in and chased them away.
On the Hill, The Market oversees social stability. In an area whose rents are more expensive than almost any other in the nation, the anarchic qualities one finds in Newark or Rochester do not exist. People are too busy earning the money that will not only pay rent or mortgage, but mulch the garden; paint the eaves; put the kids into private schools. Capitol Hill folk don’t have time to party down. They’re too busy having, and working fifteen hours a day for, Everything.
For more information about Capitol Hill, call CHRS at: (202) 543-0425; or email: firstname.lastname@example.org