I encourage those of my readers/listeners in the Washington area who may be interested to join me this evening at 6pm for a Christmas Poetry party being held at the Catholic Information Center here in downtown D.C. I will be reading a humorous seasonal poem, alongside some fantastic people like Father James Bradley, Elise Italiano, and many others, as you can see by following this link. The event is co-sponsored by the Thomas More Society of America and the Young Professionals Program of the Catholic Information Center, and is free to all. Hope to see you there!
Tag Archives: Washington DC
If you have read this blog for at least some time, then you are probably well-aware that I am a self-proclaimed Dominican Fanboy. I have always had a deep affection for St. Dominic and for the religious community he founded, the Order of Preachers. And I am very blessed indeed to have developed a number of friendships with Dominican friars over the years. I therefore want to bring two upcoming Dominican events to your attention, gentle reader, asking for your support.
First, the student brothers’ Schola Cantorum at the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington has recorded their first album of chant and choral music, entitled “In Medio Ecclesiae” (“In the Midst of the Church”) which I hope you will consider supporting as I have. The online version on their “Dominicana” label will be released on iTunes this Friday, November 1st, which is the Feast of All Saints. I understand from chatting with the friars last night that there will be printed CD’s available for purchase in limited quantities later in the month.
Donors of $50 or more will receive a CD copy of the album as a thank-you, but all donations and prayers are very welcome. The brothers hope to use the funds raised to pay for the costs associated with creating this first album, as well as to funding a follow-up album, if there is interest. To listen to a beautiful, ethereal sample of the brothers’ forthcoming release, to learn more, and to contribute, please go to the Let’s Rally for Dominicana Records site.
Second, if you happen to be in the Washington area, I would urge you to consider putting off your Halloween revels until Friday or Saturday night, and join me tomorrow night at 7:30 pm for the annual Vigil of All Saints at Dominican House. If you have never attended before, over the years this has become one of the most popular devotional events in the Archdiocese, held in the beautiful main chapel of the Dominican Priory. There will be readings and reflections from the lives of four saints chosen by the student brothers; the singing of Compline, the ancient nighttime prayer of the Church; a candlelit procession through the cloister of the Priory with the chanting of the Litany of the Saints; and a reception afterwards where you can meet the friars, who - I assure you from personal experience – are wonderful, extremely gracious hosts. All are most welcome, but get there early if you hope to get a seat!
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
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
Gentle reader, should you happen to be in the Washington, DC area, or know who are, join me this evening at 6pm at the Catholic Information Center on 15th and K Streets, NW, for a first event to help support Thomas and Natalie Peters. As my regular readers and followers know, Mr. Peters, aka the American Papist in the blogosphere, was seriously injured in an accident four weeks ago. Tonight will be a chance for engaging in fellowship and enjoying the music of the talented young acoustic singer-songwriter Luke Spehar. This is a very tangible way that you can get involved, and assist in the immediate needs of Mr. Peters and his family.
Please consider sharing this post with people of good will whom you know who might be interested in joining us. All are welcome to simply drop in and say hello, or to stay for the entire evening. And even if you cannot be there, remember that you can stay up to date with Mr. Peters’ progress, and find ways you can assist spiritually or materially, by visiting the Thomas Peters Recovery site.
Thanks in advance for your support, and God bless!