Seven Wonders: DC’s Beautiful Interior Spaces

In reading this excellent piece by my friend Justin Shubow yesterday in Forbes, which I urge you to bookmark and go read for yourself – after you finish reading this post of course – I was struck by a rather curious observation.  It seems the American Institute of Architects considers the West Building of the National Gallery here in Washington to be some sort of failure, aesthetically speaking. Given what the AIA considers to be a “successful” building, I suppose this is a bit like asking one of the Kardashians what it means to dress (or behave) like a lady, but there you are.

I decided to share with my readers some of the interior spaces here in Washington which I find to be beautiful and inspiring. Some of them are very grand; others simply have a line or curve to them that I find appealing.  Some will be familiar to you; others may not be familiar even to people who have lived in DC for a long time. So here they are, in no particular order.

Rotunda, The National Gallery of Art West Building

National Gallery

Despite the criticism of the AIA – they of bad taste and huckster values – this really is one of the most lovely spots in DC. It’s always been a terrific place to meet people, thanks to the large upholstered benches that surround the fountain, as well as the waiting areas off the Mall entrance, This is a refreshing and rejuvenating spot to come any time of year, whether in the blazing heat of summer or the frigid winds of winter, to just sit and enjoy the symmetry, the sound of water, and the interesting people. What’s more, it works so well as an architectural intersection, with staircases and hallways radiating off of it, that it never feels crowded, even though at any time there may be 100 people passing through it.

Main Staircase, The Army and Navy Club

Army Navy Club

There are grander staircases in DC, but something about the staircase at the Army and Navy Club on Farragut Square just appeals to me. It may be the combination of width and rise, or it may be the color scheme and the landings, but this feature of the club’s interior is something you will enjoy climbing, if you are ever fortunate enough to be invited there.

Music Room, Dumbarton Oaks

DOaks Music Room

Most of the decoration of this room, for which both Stravinsky and Shostakovitch composed chamber pieces, was taken from other places: the fireplace stripped from a château from France, the ceiling copied from a villa in Italy, etc. And yet the combination of antiques, low lighting, and north-facing windows gives a quiet, timeless quality to this room, which would feel just as much at home in a city like Madrid or Vienna. as it does in Washington.

Interior, Holy Rosary Church

Holy Rosary

Traveling to or from Union Station, you’ve probably passed Holy Rosary many times, perched precariously over the soon-to-be covered over stretch of North Capitol Street and 395.  What you probably did not know is that this last remnant of the old Italian immigrant neighborhood in downtown Washington is an absolute jewel of a building, beautifully proportioned and magnificently decorated in white and pastel shades of marble on the inside, like an Italian wedding cake.

Atrium, The National Building Museum

Building Museum

Because of height restrictions, as a general rule DC does scale best. This is an imperial city, not a fortified one. Architects over the years have found ways to impress by emphasizing the vastness of the spaces here, rather than emphasizing how tall a structure is (think Union Station, for example.) However this is one of those rare exceptions: a massive barn of a building, with the height to match. The central columns supporting the roof, which stand 75 feet tall and are 8 feet in diameter, would make a Byzantine Emperor proud.

Main Reading Room, Library of Congress (Jefferson Building)

Reading Room

If you’ve been here, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, no explanation is possible. This is the most beautiful library in the world.

Lobby, Omni Shoreham Hotel


There are grander, more luxurious hotels in DC, and more historic ones as well. Yet this one, which opened in 1930 and features an interesting mix of American Art Deco and Mediterranean Renaissance styles, has a lobby which has always appealed to me.  Perhaps because despite its vast spaces and broad arches, there is something human in scale about the place, which makes it feel very comfortable and civilized.  The cluster of seating areas in the lobby, the finishes, the bright but cheerful lighting, all make this a wonderful place to sit and people watch.

Obviously there are many other great spaces in the Capital and I have not attempted to name them all. What are some of your favorites? Share them with me and your fellow readers in the comments!

Seen And Unseen: Drones Reveal Architectural Splendor

One of the most intriguing technological developments of recent years for the commercial market has been the drone, or more specifically, the micro Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). These tiny, light, HD camera-wielding flying machines are used to make all sorts of fun videos such as this one. Drones have proven to be a huge hit with backyard air traffic controlers, pranksters, and aspiring action movie directors around the world.

Yet with all their modern, gee-whiz capabilities, these machines also have the power to make us pause and wonder at the achievements of those who came before us, particularly when it comes to the centuries of magnificent art and architecture sponsored by the Church. A recent post on brought together eleven astounding videos of Christian monuments around the world, including Mont Sant Michel in Brittany, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, among others. Each was filmed, in whole or in part, using a drone, thereby bringing the viewer never before seen footage of these places. All eleven of these Catholic structures showcase the continuity and yet at the same time diversity of design in the Church across nearly a millennia in this sampling.

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat about either Utrecht or Canterbury Cathedrals, which are featured in the post linked to above, I would point out a few facts. Both cathedrals were designed and built by Catholics, for use by Catholics, long before they were later… appropriated by others. They were not torn down as so many others were. Thus, whatever may have befallen them on the inside, these two churches remain largely Catholic works of art on the outside.

Regardless, it must be said that the possibilities raised by drone technology are potentially endless, when it comes to the renovation and preservation of sacred art and architecture. Imagine, a parish needing an assessment of a leaky belfry could fly up a drone to shoot some video for potential contractors. A cathedral seeking to determine what shape the ceiling frescoes are in could film closeups of the surface for art experts located hundreds of miles away, without ever erecting a scaffold. Art researchers could take a look at carved ceiling bosses located high inside an ancient monastery chapel halfway around the world from the comfort of their own office.

Getting back to the point, such opportunities are wonderful moments to ask others to take another look at the Church they think they know. It is hard to watch the drone video of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for example, and not want to visit its many ornate stone spires. Who knows what thoughts or experiences may cross such a pilgrim’s path on the Camino?

Technology is certainly a means for us to imagine the future. Clearly it can also be a way for us to better understand the past. And in the sacred context, by revealing the hidden splendor of these places it can bring before our eyes imagery which corresponds to the vision of the Psalmist: “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go up unto the House of the Lord.”


Where’s The Pope At?

It may surprise you to learn, as I did yesterday, about the tombs of the popes in Rome. Or rather, I should say, I was fascinated to learn about the lack of them. For as it turns out, many of the popes’ tombs have been lost, thanks to the overly enthusiastic sledgehammers of Italian Renaissance and Baroque architects.

Perhaps like me you had never really considered where those Roman Pontiffs from earlier centuries were interred. Some were in catacombs no doubt, from the centuries when Christianity was illegal. Yet you probably reasonably assumed that they were all subsequently buried at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

I just so happened to look up the saint of the day on one of my apps yesterday, and learnt that it was the Feast of Pope St. Zachary (679-752). For some reason, I became curious to see what his tomb looked like. I knew that the old St. Peter’s had been built by the Emperor Constantine, and was demolished beginning in the early 16th century. I simply assumed that the graves of the popes had been moved, and the pontiffs later reinterred.

I was rather shocked to learn that not only did Pope St. Zachary not have a tomb I could visit, but dozens of papal graves such as his had been lost as a result of intentional neglect. Because of his sanctity, relics of him may be preserved elsewhere, such as a fragment of bone or the like. Yet his original grave at the Vatican is long gone.

The architects of the new St. Peter’s, beginning with Bramante and continuing all the way through to Bernini, had little love for the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic tombs of the previous popes. Some of these structures were enormous, and looked rather like wedding cakes. So instead of trying to preserve them or their contents to reinstall in the new church – or anywhere else for that matter – in many cases the now old-fashioned tombs were simply smashed to pieces or left to fall apart.

Several of the more important popes, such as St. Gregory the Great, were “transferred”, and had new tombs for them designed in St. Peter’s. Other popes who were less important or influential got their remains tossed together in the same sarcophagus. Still others don’t appear to have been preserved at all, for unknown reasons, and despite being saints – like poor St. Zachary.

You can get an idea of the hodgepodge of surviving papal tombs that resulted from the construction site chaos at St. Peter’s by looking at some of the surviving tombs in the grottoes beneath the church. Partially disassembled monuments, reused sarcophagi, and other oddities from the architectural salvage yard fill many of the niches and hallways. It’s remarkable to perceive how little respect was paid, comparatively speaking, to the remains of so many individuals – and how few “made” it through the construction project.

Apart from the obvious historical and architectural scandal of these losses however, upon further reflection it might not be such a bad thing that so many of these monuments bit the dust a few centuries or less after the men they once contained. No work of Man will outlast the works of God. Perhaps it’s fitting that eventually, the remains of even the most popular of popes will be reduced to nothing more than pieces of bone in a reliquary, or even just a name on an inscription.

Sic transit gloria mundi, as the saying goes. True, most of us will never be interred in a grandiose tomb designed by a famous architect or sculptor. At least in considering the fate of so many of the popes, we have something rather sobering to reflect on, as we continue our journey through Lent.


Pope St. Zachary (679-752)