Tag Archives: architecture

Moor, Moor, Moor

[N.B. I admit that the title of this piece is a rather bad pun on a classic disco song. I do not apologize.]

Today is the birthday of one of America’s first internationally famous authors, Washington Irving (1783-1859).  He is perhaps best known these days for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or “The Tale of Rip Van Winkle”, but back in his own day he was very much appreciated for his long travelogue-novel-essay collection, “Tales of the Alhambra”, published in 1827.  Irving’s love of Moorish design found its way into the imaginations of the well-to-do in this country, taking tangible form and affecting the American home and landscape.

Irving was already a well-known author when he arrived in the city of Granada in southern Spain in 1828, and moved into an apartment in the famous Alhambra palace, built by the Moors beginning in the 9th century.  His descriptions of its shaded courtyards with playing fountains, colorfully tiled walls and elaborately decorated plaster ceilings, led to sincere efforts to preserve and restore the Alhambra, after many centuries of general neglect.  However Irving also had an impact on Americans’ imagination, since children who read Irving’s stories of caliphs and princesses in Andalusian Spain, grew up to be the tastemakers of the Victorian and Gilded Ages.

Beginning in the 1850′s, and continuing right up through the 1930′s, American architects and designers produced all sorts of variations on a Moorish-themed building or room.  This was often not really Moorish, but more of a fanciful mixture of various Islamic and non-Islamic elements, without any attempt to perceive the differences between, say, Moroccan and Syrian styles.  In the Victorian period, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the great American industrialist, had a magnificent Moorish smoking room installed in his New York City mansion.  Although there was nothing particularly authentic about the result, if you were a Rockefeller, no one was going to correct you on the technical points.

Moorish design elements popped up everywhere over the next several decades, even in the White House, as Louis Comfort Tiffany designed Moorish rooms and decorative objects for wealthy and prominent clients.  Bizarrely enough, given the context, Jewish communities across the country began building exotic synagogues in a supposedly Moorish style, among the most famous being the magnificent Central Synagogue on 55th and Lex in Manhattan.  When movie theatres came into existence after the First World War, supposedly Moorish architecture design turned many of them into pleasure pavilions that could have come out of Washington Irving’s imagination.  Even the movie stars themselves were built bungalows and mansions in the Hollywood Hills that featured Moorish details.

At the tail end of this mania, one of the most spectacular of all Moorish home improvement efforts was Shangri La, the Hawaii vacation home which American tobacco heiress Doris Duke began building in 1937, after honeymooning in countries like Spain, Morocco, and Egypt.  Never mind, of course, that the “Shangri-La” from James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” was a Buddhist monastery located in the Himalayas.  Much had changed in the fifty years that separated John D. Rockefeller, Sr. from Doris Duke, but money had not.  And if Rockefeller’s generation had embraced the trend, Duke’s generation saw it out, with sunken marble bathtubs surrounded by geometric and floral tiles, with colored glass lanterns dangling from wrought iron chains along the ceiling.

Later in life, to his delight Washington Irving was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, a position he served in for five years.  Following his retirement from the post in 1847, he moved back home to his cottage called “Sunnyside”, in the Hudson River Valley.  The home was one of the most famous in America, considered second only to Mount Vernon in its influence on American design at the time.

In his retirement, Irving added a fanciful wing onto the house based on some of the Moorish architecture he had loved in Spain, but simplified for more Yankee surroundings.  After his death, the Irving family continued to live in the house until World War II, when it was sold to – of all people – John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the man whose elaborate, Moorish smoking parlor is today preserved in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  It’s hard to imagine a more fitting completion of the circle that Irving himself began, with his first, written sketches of Moorish Spain.


Frontispiece for the 1851 edition of Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra"

Frontispiece for the 1851 edition of Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra”


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Denver Diary: Darkness and Light

Concluding my brief series of posts on my recent trip to Denver, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to two very different, but very beautiful buildings there, which told me a great deal about the people of that city.

The reader will recall that I was out in Colorado for a wedding, which took place at Holy Ghost Church in downtown Denver on Saturday night.  Because it was an evening event and I was serving as an usher, there was not a great deal of time nor any daylight available for me to wander around the church and pick up on the subtle details of the architecture, which this building has in spades.  I was told by those who had been there during the day that because the windows are not very large, there was not much more I could have seen, but nevertheless any building looks different depending on when you visit.  The play of darkness and light changes as the hours progress.

The present Holy Ghost Church was built between 1923-1943, with the long period of construction explained by the bane of many large and sumptuously decorated churches, insufficient funding.  It is an idiosyncratic mixture of both early Italian Renaissance and Spanish Plateresque elements, though the net effect put me more in mind of something Tolkien might have imagined, rather than the hill towns of Tuscany or the plains of Castile.  The mixture of different shades of beige and pink marble is very pleasing, and particularly for an evening wedding there was a glimmer and shine about the sanctuary which added to the formality of the occasion.

If I was to pick a single notable feature of the building to draw the visitor’s attention to however, it would be the arcade located in the narthex.  Two rows of short columns flank the main doors which give entrance to the nave, so that even before one enters and has to bless oneself, the high altar with its huge monstrance can be seen.  The arcade itself is very beautifully proportioned, but what I found particularly unusual was a series of geometrically carved oak panels between them, which are set into a kind of soffit hidden above the arcade.

These panels can be pulled down almost like overhead garage doors, to close the spaces between the columns.  Presumably these were designed for the environmental purpose of helping to keep out the chill of winter from the nave.  However for the wedding they worked perfectly as a kind of screen, to let people know that the bride and her attendants had arrived, since the panels were pulled down to keep the ladies of the wedding party hidden until that moment when the doors into the nave were opened and the procession began.

If Holy Ghost is a somewhat dark building referencing the 15th-16th centuries in Italy and Spain, Denver’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is a structure completely flooded with light, recalling the glories of 13th-14th century architecture in France.  Built between 1902-1911 and just a block away from the Colorado State Capitol, this is a very grand church, tall and wide but not particularly deep, put up in a remarkably speedy period of time for a prosperous and growing city.  Unlike Holy Ghost, the Cathedral obviously suffered a bit at the hands of the tambourine and felt banner crowd after Vatican II,  but the damage is not completely horrid nor ultimately irreparable.

The visitor is struck by two distinct yet related elements of the Cathedral upon entering the nave.  The first is the sense of height, particularly at the crossing, which is only accentuated by the many, enormously tall stained-glass windows from Munich that surround the space.  Second, the interior is almost blindingly white stone and marble, with very little color employed in either the architecture itself or in the furnishings and statuary.  Even the aforementioned windows, while featuring the rich colors typical of the Neo-Gothic movement in the figures themselves, are dominated by white stained glass forming the framework for the scenes.  It is surely appropriate for the Cathedral of the Mile High City to be not only a lofty structure, but one which calls to mind the snow-covered Rockies.

I attended Sunday mass at the Cathedral the morning after the wedding with several friends, both fellow wedding guests and some Denver tweeps (i.e. Twitter followers, for those of you not using Twitter) whom I had known for years but was finally able to meet for the first time.  Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila was the celebrant and yes, I got to kiss his ring and chat with him briefly after mass.  However the thing I will remember most about this church was something rather simple.

In a corner over to the right of the sanctuary in the Cathedral hangs a reproduction of the famous Polish icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, so dear to the late Blessed Pope John Paul II.  The reader may recall that JPII came to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day, and during his stay celebrated mass at the Cathedral.  Hence the presence of a rather attractive and dynamic statue of him in the grounds of the Cathedral, and also of this icon inside the church itself.  The unexpected success of the Denver WYD had a tremendous impact on many young Catholics, particularly in this country, and one cannot underestimate its lasting influence on those collectively known as the “JPII Generation“, i.e., those of us who grew up knowing no other pope than John Paul II due to the length of his pontificate.

I left some flowers before the icon of the Blessed Mother and her Divine Son, and took a moment to pray for a couple of special intentions, as well as to reflect briefly on my trip to Denver – a place which in all honesty I had never planned to visit in my life.  Certainly now, following this experience, I would not say no to a return visit sometime, so that I could hang out with Greg and Jennifer Willits a bit longer, for example.  And a repeat stay at the Brown Palace Hotel would certainly be most welcome.

On a spiritual level, it was good to be able to visit these two very different, but very beautiful churches in the Mile High City, and see how much the Catholic community there cares about the Real Presence of Our Lord.  Both in the darkness of Holy Ghost Church, with its enormous gilded monstrance above the high altar, and in the light of Denver’s Cathedral, its high altar surrounded by gleaming white marble, candles, and flowers, the Divine was there, waiting for us to visit Him.  That Presence remains regardless of the contrast between darkness and light paralleled in our own lives, where just as in these two buildings, Christ is there in our dark moments and in our bright ones as well.


Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa,
Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver


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New Life for the Old Georgetown Theater

When I first moved to Washington as a Georgetown undergraduate many years ago, I would wince as I walked past the old Georgetown Theater on Wisconsin Avenue, with its iconic but crumbling neon sign spelling out “Georgetown” on the facade.  I never knew the building in its original incarnation as a movie theater, since it had long been sold and gutted on the inside, having been turned into a jewelry store where signs in the front window prominently announced that one could buy lengths of gold and silver chain by the foot.  Back then there were still a number of other small cinemas in the neighborhood, which more recent transplants to the city would not be familiar with, but eventually they all faded away, replaced with the rather grand multiplex Georgetown AMC-Loews Theater down on K Street at the waterfront.

Now it has been announced that architect and longtime Georgetown resident Robert Bell has purchased the property, and hopes to redevelop it as a mixed-use retail and residential space.  As happy as I am that this building will be brought back to life, I must admit that I am slightly jealous.  Those who know me well can attest that in conversations about what one would hypothetically do with one’s winnings if one won the lottery, buying and restoring the Georgetown Theater has always been one of the top items on my list.

Of course, while it is probable that Mr. Bell will restore the current mock stone, post-war facade of the building as he renovates and reconfigures the interior, my own preference would have been to recreate the rather unusual – for Washington, anyway – facade of the building from when it began life as the Dumbarton Moving Picture Theater back in 1913.  You can see in this photograph in the collection of the D.C. Public Library, taken about the time the theater was inaugurated, that it was a rather exuberant look for a city not known for innovative architecture.

Named for neighboring Dumbarton Street, the theater as it originally looked would have been perfectly at home in turn of the century Barcelona or Prague.  Its mixture of Neo-Gothic elements, swooping Art Nouveau, and pure imagination, would have fit right in to the urban landscape which those cities took to extremes between about 1880 and 1920.  Washington however, is a city which I overheard several tourists in Union Station yesterday describe as a “city full of rules”, and so perhaps it is not a surprise that this fantastical decoration was torn down in 1949, and replaced with something rather more bland and sensible.

Even though Mr. Bell may not be bringing back the whimsy of the old Dumbarton, his efforts to secure the renovation of this space is of long-standing duration and we should all pleased that someone who cares so much not only about this building but about his community has managed to obtain it.  I am looking forward to seeing what will become of the place, and if rumors are correct that the ground floor may become a second branch of the excellent Politics and Prose bookshop and cafe, so much the better, for Georgetown desperately needs a place where locals and visitors can gather and linger.  Just as the village’s many movie theaters disappeared long ago, so too our many bookshops have, with one or two exceptions, all but vanished as well.

These types of commercial spaces which lend themselves to community interaction are always very much needed to help bring life and a greater sense of neighborliness to urban areas.  They serve, in a modern context, what the old assembly rooms of towns and cities in the 18th and 19th centuries did: as a bridge between the public and the private, where all are welcome.  Given the success of these types of venues in revitalizing corridors in other cities and indeed in other DC neighborhoods, we can hope that this particular stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, which has suffered from retail blight and neglect for decades, will get a new lease one life through a creative and well-executed revival of this local landmark, one which both we villagers and those who visit us can come to enjoy and appreciate.


Current, dilapidated state of The Georgetown Theater

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The Ultimate Wrecking Ball

At long last, the architectural monstrosity known as the Third Church of Christ Scientist here in the Nation’s Capital is coming down.  Regular readers of these pages know about the odd twists and turns this story has taken, involving architectural preservation and religious liberty issues, among other topics.  While the building which will replace this church promises to be little more than another glass shoebox, the conversation which has taken place over the demolition of this particular structure has been useful in many respects.  However the occasion provides this scrivener with the opportunity to say a few words on the question of speaking one’s mind when it comes to cultural matters.

Last evening I was discussing various topics related to architecture, painting, and film with an educated friend who happens to be a fellow member of the bar.  He expressed his interest in this upcoming demolition and in other stories which we might bring under the general heading of the arts.  Simultaneously however, he raised his concern that he did not have the background to be able to write or speak about these issues on a level which he felt necessary, in order to put across a cogent point of view.

It is fair to say that most of what is being published and expostulated upon in the art world today originates from a small group of left-wing academics, journalists, and publications, although this was not always the case.  There is also, rather perversely, a prevailing attitude that if one has not knelt at the feet of certain critical thinkers, that one’s opinion in these areas is invalid, or at the very least not worthy of notice.  For all of its supposed egalitarianism, the arts community is decidedly intolerant of anyone who dares to question what its own, often self-consecrated, elites have put forward as being worthy of praise.

The end result is a polarization of the art world which mirrors what has taken place in political argument in this country and elsewhere.  The different is, in politics there is at least the formalized opportunity for equal participation.  The fallacy of the present Administration, after all, apparent to anyone possessed of a reasonable understanding of our representative form of government, is to suggest that one simply cannot debate or legally attempt to change the laws which said Administration has managed to pass, simply because they passed along divided party lines and the judiciary has given its imprimatur.  American history is rife with examples of truly terrible laws, from the Runaway Slave Act to Prohibition, which were eventually dispensed with, even if at one time they gained enough popular and judicial support to become law.

In the arts, by contrast, there is generally little real room for dissent and debate in traditional forms of communication and media.  If you do not find Frank Gehry or Tracy Emin to be worthy of the honors and adulation they receive from the art world in general, you cannot even come to the table, as far as most critics and academics are concerned.  It is this kind of closed-mindedness, odd among a group of people who are allegedly fighting against closed-mindedness itself, which causes intelligent people possessed of the ability for pursuing a rational thought process to be wary of doing more than leaving a comment on an online article, at most.

The way to change this, of course, is to beat the other fellow at his own game, through self-education.  Unless you are reading up on new architectural projects, or watching interviews with up-and-coming directors, or attending gallery openings, etc., then you cannot hope to be conversant with those who want to keep you quiet.  Common sense and good taste have not disappeared, they have simply been muted, and unfortunately for far too long a period of time, because those who do not bend with the wind and like every new thing which rehashes some tired old aspect of narcissism do not know how to engage in the conversation.

Whatever walk of life you happen to find yourself in, it is your own personal duty to constantly be educating yourself. I am well-aware of the fact that I say this to you often on this site, but it bears repeating.  You do not get a pass from debating the health of the society which like it or not you are a part of, simply because you do not happen to be an academic or a critic for a major newspaper.  This is true in public policy and it is true in culture, as well.

The more you are able to study and look at exactly why such hideous things as the Third Church of Christ Scientist came to be, the more you will realize why your gut reaction to their readily apparent ugliness is correct, because these buildings often reflect a wider, even uglier philosophy about human nature and man’s place in the universe.  Without knowing exactly why, you can cheer the demolition of this terrible building.  Yet unless you can come to understand why it was built to begin with, then you will never be able to prevent even more ugliness from rising in its place.


The Third Church of Christ Scientist, Washington, D.C.


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Bulldozing Mies van der Rohe

One of the most important architects of the 20th century, love him or hate him, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).  Mies built hugely influential structures in cities like Barcelona, Chicago, and New York which came to define modern architecture around the world.  Yet during his very long career, he only designed one project here in Washington: the Martin Luther King Public Library, located in downtown DC.  Now as the city calls for architects to help expand and re-design the building, it might be a good time to reflect on whether something that is unremarkable needs to be preserved, simply because of who might have been associated with it.

As much as DC likes to claim that the MLK Library is significant because it was designed by Mies, said factor is the only distinguishing feature of the building itself.  There is simply nothing special about this blocky structure, other than its association with this particular architect.  It is the same sort of mechanical, rusty, uninspiring space that was copied over and over again, and could just as easily be a hospital, or a field office of the Social Security Administration, as a public library.

While the exterior of the building is the usual mix of painted steel, smoky glass, and aggregate concrete, all leaking and crumbling away, the interior is just as boring and unremarkable.  Strips of fluorescent lighting run across the ceiling from one side to the other, leading the eye to feast upon either a blank wall, or the street outside, which you suddenly find yourself wishing to go back out to.  Throw in a few copies of Mies’ 1929 Barcelona chairs in the waiting area, and presto – instant architecture!

One of the problems with the school of thought which Mies helped develop, and which put such an indelible stamp on the landscape of cities around the world, is that it allows for little or nothing in the way of regionalism.  The goal of international uniformity at the expense of local cultural expression means that one could simply pick up this rather blah building in DC, plop it down in the middle of a city thousands of miles away, say Hamburg or Dehli, and it would not matter.  This mechanistic quality is a natural follow-on from the ideas of Mies’ contemporaries Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, particularly as exemplified in the latter’s famous characterization of the home as “a machine for living”.  In fact, such thought processes have now become an ingrained way of looking at the world, not only in architecture but in government’s view of its citizens, to the extent that no one dares to question it, or indeed why we should allow ourselves, our homes, or the public buildings which we pay for to be treated as such in the first place.

By contrast, a short distance away from today’s MLK library is the smaller, former central public library.  It was built at the turn of the previous century in the then-fashionable Beaux-Arts style, thanks to an enormous gift from industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and opened to the public in 1903.  It served as the city’s largest reading room until 1970, when the MLK Library was opened, and today houses the city’s historical society.

The old library is an elegant structure, with sweeping marble staircases and symmetrical wings.  It could have been expanded upon almost infinitely as the collection grew, through the use of sensitive additions.  It also fits within the general classical architecture that defines not only most of the major buildings and monuments of Washington, but also the very rational, 18th century layout of the city itself, situated in a large square where a number of important streets and avenues all meet.

Now of course, instead of being prominently placed, the city library is housed inside a boring building on a random street corner, which one could easily walk right past and be forgiven for ignoring, thinking it was just another ho-hum office block.  There are no plans to tear it down, and thus, whatever changes may be made, this public library will look pretty much just as soul-suckingly dull as the old one.  It will not become any the handsomer for all the alterations it is about to physically undergo, thanks to the desire to preserve and celebrate something which ought to have been bulldozed years ago.

To appreciate the work of an artist, one does not need to like everything that they made.  Raphael may be my favorite painter of the Italian High Renaissance, and his was a towering talent indeed.  Yet in all frankness, some of his later pictures in particular are decidedly messy, fussy, and unattractive.  Over time he may have become more accomplished as a dramatist and decorator, but in some cases he had begun to lose the sense of quiet emotion that made his earlier work so powerful, in the rush to get out commissioned pieces to clients.

Similarly, I love Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, with its combination of light, openness, and calm,  It is a clean, but inviting space, which invites the visitor to sit and relax.  It had a tremendous impact on the history of architecture, and we would be lucky to have something like it here in the Nation’s capital.

Yet DC’s lone claim to Mies fame strikes me as being little more than a derivative version of far superior work which he created elsewhere.  For here we see little more than the middling effort of a very famous and very busy man, who left to underlings the job of bringing his ideas into reality. In the end, it is a pity that public funds need to be expended on preserving and expanding upon a structure that has really nothing much at all to commend it.


The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library
Washington, D.C.

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