Making the Case for a New Georgetown Fountain

With news that EastBanc may be purchasing the site of the gas station across the street from the Four Seasons,  Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier finds himself in rather an important position, when it comes to the impression that both residents and visitors have of one of the Nation’s Capital.  For starters, EastBanc is already at work on plans to redevelop the site currently occupied by another gas station at the opposite end of M Street, the neighborhood’s main East-West thoroughfare, right across from the Key Bridge.  As travelers come into D.C. from the GW Parkway, it will be, along with the Car Barn and the spires of Georgetown University, one of the first impressions they get of the city.

This second project, at the other end of what Georgetown residents refer to as our “village”, is positioned on a parcel of land sandwiched between M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where they cross over Rock Creek Parkway into the city proper.  EastBanc will be building directly across from arguably the most prestigious hotel in town, at least if you are one of the foreign heads of state or movie stars who regularly stay or dine there.  It’s a given in the life of the village that at least several times a week, a motorcade or flock of black SUV’s will be tying up traffic around the entrance to the Four Seasons for several minutes.  Even yesterday, coming home from church, the blare of police sirens clearing a path for a visiting V.I.P. swept up behind me on their way to the hotel.  The gas station however, has long been a curious eyesore, a leftover of what Georgetown looked like decades ago, when its commercial district had become somewhat seedy and run-down.

Mr. Lanier, himself a Georgetown resident, has done a great deal to provide both new and renovated, updated, retail and residential space in a nearly 300-year-old neighborhood where completely new construction is very rare, thanks to the entire 1-square mile area being listed as a historic district.  Although a few pockets of seedy Georgetown remain, largely concentrated within a 2-3 block stretch of the area’s primary North-South axis, Wisconsin Avenue, on the whole the commercial district is much improved in appearance.  Blocks where once there was nothing apart from warehouses or industrial buildings have been converted to modern hotels, apartments, and condominiums.  Because of the possibility of Mr. Lanier now redeveloping this prominent “gateway” site in Georgetown,  now seems as good an opportunity as any to bring up a project which would not only make this development look better, but bring a much-needed public space back into use for the area.

Directly abutting the land which EastBanc is looking to acquire is a somewhat desolate, hemispherical public plaza, occupied by some benches, a lot of brick pavers, and weeds.  In the past however, this spot used to feature a fountain which was considered one of the best in Washington, and DC has a lot of fountains. The piece was originally installed in the 1880′s, but was replaced with a smaller fountain decades later.  Both of these fountains are now long-gone, but the former, larger one still exists, sort of.  After leaving Georgetown, it went on to grace the now-vanished Truxton Circle, in a different part of the city.  Sadly, the fountain is now in pieces, crumbling away in Fort Washington National Park in Maryland.

Although the original fountain is apparently irretrievably damaged, I for one would like to renew my call for making this, one of the most important entries to Georgetown and indeed the Capital City, a more inviting place.  Would it be possible for EastBanc to bring back the fountain which used to stand here – or rather, a reproduction of it?  Or perhaps a more modern fountain would be possible?

The impression that so many visitors, both drivers and walkers, form of Georgetown when they enter from either end of M Street is hugely important.  The soaring spires of the university at one end cannot, of course, be replicated at the other.  However, given the comparatively lower elevation of the Rock Creek end of the neighborhood, and the proximity of the parcel in question to that body of water, it would only seem appropriate to bring back a public space with the kind of splashing, elegant water feature which previous residents and visitors enjoyed.  On a hot summer day when everyone, tourists and townies alike, is desperate for a place to rest in the shade and cool off, the return of a fountain-park would be a welcome addition to a place which, because of its 18th century village layout, has so relatively few open areas for people to congregate.  And of course, for EastBanc’s new development, if it happens, having an attractive place for residents of your new building to look at would make sense, as well.

So just a thought for you there, Mr. Lanier; now, the ball’s in your court.

Remnants of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

Fragments of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

 

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Looking at Audrey Hepburn and “The Devil”

Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it.  Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.

I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film.  In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now.  Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.

Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her.  Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan.  There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce.  There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).

Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film.  “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline.  There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy.  Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.

If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present.  Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant.   The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders.  Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one.  When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing.  A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from.  Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from "Funny Face" (1957)

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from “Funny Face” (1957)

Popping Cork Street’s Bubble

For those of you who are not particularly interested in the art world, the news that London’s Cork Street is about to undergo a major redevelopment may be of little interest.  Following on the heels of the eviction of the Gemäldegalerie collection of Old Master paintings in Berlin, which I wrote about last week, it now appears to be the turn of the modern and contemporary art world to feel the boot.  That being said, in the case of London, perhaps this will be a good wake-up call to the present art establishment in Britain that they do not have permanent control over the cultural narrative which they believe they hold by right.

Historically Cork Street in London’s Mayfair district has been the home of many of the city’s major sellers of modern and contemporary art since the previous century, probably due in part to the fact that the Royal Academy is very close by. Painters like Francis Bacon and Joan Miró first found their major British patrons here, as each gallery tried to compete to identify the next big thing in modern art, a process which continues to this day. Other streets around Cork Street itself have taken up some of the slack as well, since the amount of available space is limited, though for a certain well-heeled segment of the population, having a Cork Street address has remained the most prestigious thing you can hold as a modern/contemporary art dealer, rather like having your suits made on nearby Saville Row.

Personally, although I did go to Cork Street quite a bit when I lived in London, I spent most of my time on that particular stretch of pavement visiting friends who worked there, or patronizing fine drinking establishments bearing that address.  My “beat” was Old Master painting, which has its own stomping grounds on Bond Street and Albemarle Street in particular, not far away.  As it happens, from the point of charm or architecture there is little or nothing particularly attractive or even gracious about Cork Street itself to commend it to the visitor: it is simply another street in the West End, with lots of store fronts and a mixture of brick, Portland stone, and concrete buildings.

However even if you have little or no knowledge of modern and contemporary art, the name “Cork Street” itself has become practically synonymous with new ideas in art over the past century, and is often referenced or visited in literature or screenplays.  In John Galsworthy’s monumental “Forsyte Saga” for example, the respectably Edwardian Forsytes end up being dragged into the avant-garde world of the 20th century in part through the association of members of their family with Cork Street. In one sequence, Soames Forsyte unwittingly visits an art gallery owned by his Cousin June, whom he has not seen since a falling-out some time ago, and is perplexed by a contemporary painting on display entitled “The Future Town”:

“Soames!”

Soames turned his head a very little.

“How are you?” he said. “Haven’t seen you for twenty years.”

“No. Whatever made you come here?”

“My sins,” said Soames. “What stuff!”

“Stuff? Oh, yes–of course; it hasn’t arrived yet.

“It never will,” said Soames; “it must be making a dead loss.”

“Of course it is.”

“How d’you know?”

“It’s my Gallery.”

Soames sniffed from sheer surprise.

“Yours? What on earth makes you run a show like this?”

“I don’t treat Art as if it were grocery.”

Soames pointed to the Future Town. “Look at that! Who’s going to live in a town like that, or with it on his walls?”

June contemplated the picture for a moment.

“It’s a vision,” she said.

“The deuce!”

- John Galsworthy from “The Forsyte Saga Vol. III: To Let” (1921)

Now, as real estate prices in London continue to escalate, international property developers have decided to demolish two large buildings on the street, replacing them with luxury residences and mixed-use space. This will involve the eviction of eleven existing art galleries, seven of which have already been told to vacate their premises by June of this coming year, including the oldest continuously operating on Cork Street. Naturally the art community in London is rather upset, and protests have been lodged with appropriate authorities.

To now, the reaction from government has been that property owners are free to do what they wish with their own properties, and canceling a lease with advance notice is without question the right of the landlord over the tenant.  Moreover, it is not the role of the state to proscribe that commercial art galleries must be preserved on a particular site or street. Given how far into socialism Britain has fallen in recent decades, this rather common-sense approach is rather surprising, I must say.

While from a historical perspective no doubt many will be sad to see the end of this enclave and its affiliation with the art world, in truth such things are almost inevitable.  Cities change with the passage of centuries, and the center for the production and vending of a particular commodity shifts as well.  After all, it has been quite some time since lime was processed and sold on Lime Street in The City, the term for London’s financial district and historic center, and there hasn’t been a “May Fair” in Mayfair, from which the neighborhood’s name originally sprung, since 1764.  Cork Street in the 18th and 19th centuries had nothing to do with the art world, and over time the galleries presently located there will likely pop up somewhere else.

Although it is unfortunate when communities fall apart, perhaps this change can be viewed as a positive development.  By shaking things up and having to re-think their identities, the better galleries will survive in some new fashion, the weaker ones will fold, and new ones will take their place, in some other corner of the British capital.  Nothing we human beings make with our own hands lasts forever, which we must keep in mind in this life, but sometimes these experiences of shaking things up or loose is just what we need to change course and do something positive.  And no doubt many in the contemporary art world could use just such a good bursting of their balloon.

View of Cork Street, London