In “The Artist’s Garden”

“The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920”, is a terrific exhibition showcasing American painting, drawing, design, and photography during a period when the idea of American home life changed completely. With greater wealth and greater amounts of free time on their hands, middle class Americans began to make their homes into places where the outside was just as cared for as the inside. Your teak patio furniture, trellis hung with wisteria, and stamped concrete garden pavers grew out of this change in attitude toward what gardens, and indeed being outdoors, was all about.

The first observation to be made is that this is a very attractive, easy to like exhibition. One could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that this is merely an assemblage of paintings of pretty women and flowers, colorful glass objects, and tiny photographs. Yet as one moves through the rooms, the idea takes hold of what a profound shift in thinking the American psyche underwent during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.

Until a century ago, most Americans used the land surrounding their homes primarily for growing their own food and keeping livestock – Pauline Wayne, the last cow to graze on the White House lawn, departed for Wisconsin in 1913. By the middle of the 19thcentury however, a significant ground shift was beginning to take place in the relationship of man to the land, which is well-documented in this exhibition. The barn yard gradually became the back yard, a haven from the brave but ugly new world of belching factory smokestacks and clanging streetcars.

This change in attitude toward the use of one’s property went hand-in-glove with the effort to try to beautify American cities. Students of architecture and urban planning will be familiar with the fruits of this greater movement. Temporary installations such as the Philadelphia Bicentennial Exposition of 1876, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1905, had permanent echoes across the American landscape, from Central Park in New York, to the Macmillan Plan and the National Mall here in Washington.

While your average, middle class American could not dream of achieving anything similar with their more modest means and surroundings, writers and artists still wanted to encourage those of more ordinary means to make their home gardens as beautiful as possible, as a way of fostering civic pride and cleanliness. It was all very well to construct grand boulevards and expansive parks in American towns and cities.  If they led to ramshackle houses whose grounds consisted of little more than chicken coops and piles of dirt however, the whole “effect” which these reformers were trying to achieve would be lost.

The strength of this exhibition is not only in some of the individual paintings, sculptures, and decorative art objects, but also in stepping back and taking a look around at the America which this show evokes as a whole. What is particularly telling is that fact that on the whole, the lifestyle evoked by this exhibition is not at all unfamiliar to us, even more than a century later.  True, we do not dress as the people in these images do, and our homes and gardens may be somewhat less fussy than those celebrated in some of these images.

Yet even though generations have passed, we still continue to hold to the ideals of making our home and garden simultaneously a place to relax and to show off – ideals which were fostered by the artists and designers featured in this exposition. Thus the painting of a lady reading a letter at her dining room table, silhouetted by open French doors leading onto a sunny garden patio shaded by a pergola, with some slight alterations could come out of a contemporary magazine spread. The fact that I daresay many of my readers spend their Saturdays mowing lawns, pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, and so on, none of which has anything to do with the production of food and everything to do with what it means to be in the American middle class, originally comes from the era which produced these works of art.

Rather than comment on the individual pieces in the exhibition, if you care to follow me on Instagram, later today I will be posting some photos I took of a number of pieces in the show; just visit this link:

“The Artist’s Garden” is at The Chrysler until September 6th; it then travels to The Reynolda House in North Carolina, on to The Huntington Library in California, and finally to the Griswold Museum in Connecticut. Whether or not you are particularly interested in American impressionism, this show is a wonderful evocation of a world which, though now long-gone, still has a profound influence on how Americans live and see their homes today.










Boxing Mismatch: This Building Is No Knockout

Over on The Georgetown Metropolitan, Topher Matthews reports on a forthcoming building project by DC developers EastBanc which, frankly, ought to be titled “A Nightmare on M Street”:

Although making use of this tiny parcel of land for a “statement” building may seem strange to outsiders, for many Georgetowners this is *the* key route in and out of the city of Washington, which Georgetown itself predates. As such, it sets the tone for those arriving in the neighborhood. A run-down gas station, even a mock Colonial one such as the one currently occupying this gateway site, does no one any favors, visually speaking.

Of course, while the choice of a Brutalist 2.0 building to fill this prominent spot in the village is truly a terrible one, it isn’t as if the intersection plays host to any significant or even particularly attractive works of architecture. For all its stars and accolades from the rich and famous, the Four Seasons Hotel on 28th and Pennsylvania is a bland building, which would look more at home on the campus of a small technical college.

The other structures surrounding the parcel where this new condo will rise are mostly average-to-bad. The building currently housing the Tari Salon is a dated, immature thing, an attempt to Robert Venturi-size the concept of the mansard roof and the turret. The Mongolian Embassy on the corner of M and 29th is an architectural  disaster, mixing ersatz American Colonial with references to the vaguely Neoclassical Revival former movie theatre next door (now a CVS), in a decidedly unfriendly way.  Those gated and unused mini-courtyards alone make one shudder.

On the plus side, the commercial building on the corner of 28th and M is rather handsome, with its dormered windows, solid stance, and wide veranda.  Stylistically, it belongs somewhere else – say New Orleans or Natchez – and as a practical feature the veranda fails, since it faces due South, baking all day long in the scorching heat, and you will never spot anyone sitting out on it. The rowhouses containing Das restaurant on the north side of the confluence of streets, and those housing a selection of small specialty shops and cafes on the other, are perfectly fine, even if there is nothing particularly special about them, architecturally speaking.

The problem with this newest addition to the village fabric is not just its ugliness, but that it has nothing to do with the mostly modest scale of the surrounding buildings. Part of the charm of Georgetown is that, with a few exceptions, most of the neighborhood’s architecture really isn’t of any particular architectural significance or grandeur. For every Tudor Place or Healy Hall, there are 50 standard brick row houses that could be found in just about any East Coast city.

Rather what is significant about the neighborhood is the whole: the “conjunto” as one would say in Spanish. It is greater than the sum of its parts. Georgetown’s architecture is a mixture of styles, materials, and methods, all (generally) peacefully coexisting alongside each other.  Strolling through the village is like taking a walking tour of the course of American design over four centuries.

In choosing to position a structure better-suited to Ballston on such a prominent parcel, what is EastBanc saying about the perception visitors and residents are meant to have about the neighborhood? An unremarkable and unattractive apartment building which looks like it could just as easily stand in suburban Lima or Lahore does not say much to me as a local. What does it say to those tourists, shoppers, and diners on whose spending the entire neighborhood depends?

Perhaps it’s unfair to put such a burden on the shoulders of a condo building.  However after the success of its High Street condo along the C&O Canal, a highly successful design completed just a few months ago, it does seem that EastBanc has dropped the ball on this one. This will prove to be a major lost opportunity for the neighborhood. Tearing down a crumbling, if inoffensive, commercial building and replacing it with a building of no charm or distinction whatsoever, in the most beautiful neighborhood in the city, seems a significant blow to the village in particular, and to DC as a whole.


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!