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!

>Out on a Limb: The Blessing and Curse of Twitter

>The other evening I was getting such bad eye strain from watching television and searching Twitter for interesting people, news stories, and connections at the same time that I tweeted, “I should have more seriously considered giving up Twitter for Lent instead.” Said tweet got no response. Yet it also sparked the thought process that led to this post which, admittedly, may seem at first a bit too Washington D.C.-specific, but I ask you, gentle reader, to bear with me.

Recently the magazine Men’s Health conducted a survey to try to find out which of the U.S. cities made the heaviest use of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. The editors (reasonably) assumed that Palo Alto, unofficial capital of the Silicon Valley, would probably get the top spot. Instead, the winner was Washington, D.C., with neither Palo Alto nor New York City even making the Top Ten.

Any poll or survey is suspect, of course, depending on the methodology involved. As observed in the second brilliant BBC mini-series on fictional British Prime Minister Sir Francis Urquhart “To Play the King”, figures can be subtly and easily manipulated depending on how a question is asked or how a sampling is analyzed. That being said, Washingtonians spend a great deal of time engaging in social media interactions, increasingly through the use of Twitter, and it often comes as a surprise to those of us inside the Beltway how many of our friends outside of it either use Twitter infrequently or do not even have a Twitter account.

Those who view this result in a positive light pointed to how interconnected the professional community in this city is, from politicians to interest groups to journalists and all those associated with them. Among the various social networking tools, Twitter stands in the unique position of being almost custom-made for the Nation’s Capital. It is a sound-bite maker’s dream. Whether you are a lobbyist, a congressman, a lawyer, or reporter, if you are to be successful here you have to be able to distill down the point you are trying to make into a few key words and phrases which your audience will take away and, hopefully, act upon. Long-gone are the days when the public had the patience for listening to or reading blowhard speeches from the floor of the House.

Having personally made the migration back in the day from Friendster to MySpace, and then on to Facebook and A Small World (an invite-only site sometimes referred to as “Snobster” by critics, populated mainly by good-looking people with ties to Europe), Twitter did not seem to be much of a draw for me at first. The limitation of 140 characters and not being able to communicate directly with someone via a private message or email – which is often preferable to the full-out public statement depending on the sensitivity of the matter at issue – was a definite turn-off. However over time I warmed to it, recognizing that I could find diverse but kindred spirits through Twitter more quickly than possible on Facebook, and it could help me to find additional readers for these pages.

With more use of Twitter its benefits and drawbacks have become very apparent. Yes, I have met some interesting people through it, and through those virtual meetings I have made new friends and found new sources of information as well as new readers. In that respect, Twitter has proven to be very satisfactory. Yet in the very nature of Twitter itself lies what is the proverbial sting in the scorpion’s tail, for the enforced brevity of the medium leads to some muddling of the message, and at the same time the use of Twitter, if it does not develop properly, can lead to a deterioration of the self just as easily as any other pleasure taken to excess.

From a stylistic standpoint, there is something disturbingly egalitarian about the tweet, or at least what is considered a readable, acceptable tweet. For those who appreciate the verbal contortions imposed by the limitation of characters, but also try not to offend the mother tongue, the little countdown of available spaces is rather like a creative exercise of the OuLiPo literary movement. However since the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation do not typically apply to the tweet, or are given a pass, average joes who could barely pull a “C” in freshman writing may have ten times as many followers on Twitter as those with a proper but clever grasp of the English language and its possibilities in a limited amount of space.

The content then, is arguably more important than the presentation, but it remains true that no one cares what the main course is, if the appetizer is turds in a blanket. Putting aside the personal explanations of what one is doing or where one is headed off to – which we will return to momentarily – most tweets fall into the sphere of the “commentariat”: a re-posting of links to a news item with the tweeter’s brief opinion, or simply the posting of an opinion on a current topic. The grammar and spelling in the tweet is not infrequently poor, and the comment itself is either poorly thought out or so instantaneous that the tweeter has not taken sufficient time to reflect on what he is about to announce to the world. Like little hot-headed Martin Luthers, tweeters go about nailing things to their virtual front door in a fit of rage, and in the hope that someone will pay attention to them.

And therein lies the rub, for most tweeters – and I accuse myself of this as well – do not stop to ask themselves why anyone should care what team they support, what Presidential candidate they like, or what they thought of last night’s reality show-du-jour episode. They put themselves out on a limb, and in so doing have publicly invited their followers and (unless they protect their tweets) anyone else on Twitter to throw stones at them. Yet exactly what happens when we perch out on our limb varies depending on what we have to say, the level of active participation in Twitter among those who follow us or are searching for the topic we have written about, and so on.

The highest mark of acceptance is, arguably, the re-tweet or RT: it is an unequivocal endorsement of our opinion in which our follower climbs out on the limb with us, giving us an added sensation of being in the right, safety being in numbers. Moving down the scale we get to the MT or modified tweet (sometimes incorrectly called an RT which, if changes are made to the original tweet, it should not be), which can be good or bad. Then we have the Reply, which may be good or bad as well, depending on whether the replier starts throwing stones at us, hoping to knock us off our perch.

Then we have what can seem the worst of all possible responses, which is no response at all. In some cases it is understandable that we do not receive a response. A tweet to a movie star or head of state for example, unless you are a person of some importance in your own right, is likely to garner no interest from that individual. A tweet to a “tweep” from the Twitter world which goes unanswered however, goes beyond simply ruffling our feathers in an argument which tries to cast us from our perch. It can feel like suddenly discovering we were never perched out on a limb at all – we weren’t even in the forest.

The blog, longer and (comparatively) slower a means of communication as it is, provides a public forum for publishing what is essentially one’s own newspaper or magazine. It requires a greater involvement of time both in its creation and consumption. The tweet, on the other hand, can be so instantaneous that a thought flies off the fingers and out into the world without the writer giving due consideration to how his words are going to impact those who read them. True, it can later be deleted or modified, but it can never wholly be undone.

Taking a chance by tweeting means that you may come to find that your views are, in fact, incorrect, and you end up not only being knocked from your perch but completely molt your old feathers. The benefit of being a rational being rather than an instinctive animal means that one’s views can change. You may have started out as a fan of Mr. Obama, for example, perhaps because you were frightened by an elephant at the zoo when you were at the child, but later on come to embrace a Republican candidate for President in 2012. You are allowed to change your mind, and it is even possible that through communication with others on Twitter, that change of mind may come about.

However no matter how beneficial the connection on Twitter may be to your thought process, your cause, or even to the development of your business, it should be a spark to create, rather than a substitute for, the development of a human relationship. This is why tweeting can be such a dangerous thing, for it becomes all too quickly a substitute for actual conversation, and almost inevitably leads to worthless, disposable commentary with the value of a rice cracker: slight burst of airy saltiness followed by virtually no nutritional value or sense of satedness. Let it never be claimed that I despise the short, well-crafted, cutting remark: I have made a few in my day. Yet the face-to-face or telephone conversation, the thought-out blog post or e-mail, is less likely to devolve into something like passing notes in class – which is what Twitter very often seems most to resemble – and can help cement our relationships in ways which Twitter cannot.

Here in Washington, Men’s Health clearly recognized that we tend to work rather hard and often employ new media, but did not note that we do not seem to socialize as much in the evenings as perhaps is the case in other large cities. There are very few neighborhoods in D.C. with local gathering places that are as jammed as those in New York on any given Tuesday night, for example. Part of this also has to do with the fact that apartments in Manhattan are so much smaller, and the commute to suburbia so much more unpleasant and difficult. Yet as NBC Washington reporter Carissa DiMargo observed, in response to coverage of the Men’s Health story, “Maybe we’re #1 because we’re all overworked and lonely. There. We said it!”

Now that is going out on a limb, and one I suspect that quite a few of us hereabouts find ourselves on, at times. And perhaps this false community vs. self-imposed isolation dichotomy is something we ought to consider, not only with respect to our tweeting, but also with respect to the types of relationships we form. Are we only looking to meet people who are like us as much as possible? Do we pursue connections like two infants playing with each other in a crib, each acting purely out of self-motivation and not out of a genuine interest in the other?

Trollope once famously stated that a friendship cannot be preserved on the cost of a postage stamp. Yet neither can it be fostered and grow if we fail to take concrete steps to see that connection moves beyond flippancy and armchair quarterbacking into something of value. Twitter is a blessing, if we use it as a means to an end, but a curse if it is taken as an end unto itself. If I take my own advice – and we shall see how that goes – I will be tweeting less, but better. If you take mine however, use Twitter as a tool to meet new people, but at the same time take care not to turn it into a substitute for building real relationships.

>A Dominican Weekend (No Merengue Required)

>It is a big weekend for the Dominican friars here in the Nation’s Capital, and it’s not too late for you to get involved in their upcoming events this Saturday and Sunday!

The Priory of the Immaculate Conception is located at 487 Michigan Avenue NE here in Washington, D.C., only a couple of blocks from the Brookland-Catholic University Metro station on the Red Line. With the annual Cherry Blossom Festival kicking off this weekend, many tourists or residents with visitors will find themselves with much to do during the day, admiring the blossoms and participating in many cultural events, but may also find themselves wanting something more edifying to do with their evenings. A visit to the Priory is a welcome antidote to the crowds and hustle-and-bustle of tourist Washington. There is a wonderful sense of timelessness, as in the best European monasteries, where in its hallways, chapel, and cloister, the Priory imparts a sense of permanence and removal from the everyday world, while at the same time not feeling completely cut off from it.

On Saturday evening beginning at 6:30 pm the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies (“DHS”) will be holding their Spring Gala, and it is not too late for you to attend: online registration is closed, but tickets can still be purchased at the door. The evening will include a reception with food and drink (including beer brewed by the Student Brothers at the Priory!) prepared and served by the Dominican Student Brothers; a silent auction of many – for lack of a better word – tempting items, including such lots as signed prints by my friend Matt Alderman of New Liturgical Movement and Shrine of the Holy Whapping fame, as well as pieces by local artists, and tickets to events at The Kennedy Center, The Folger, and The Shakespeare Company, among others. The evening will conclude with Compline in the beautiful main chapel of the Priory. I have been looking forward to this evening for many weeks now, and hope to see not only old friends but perhaps meet some of my readers in person.

On Sunday evening at 7:15pm my friend Brother Innocent Smith, who was recently interviewed by The Washington Examiner about the season of Lent, will be giving a talk at the DHS on Lenten Gregorian Chant, as part of the series “The Passion of Christ: Conferences for Lent 2011”. More specifically Fra. Innocent, whom I have found to be quite the scholar of early music, will be examining three of the Dominican chants for Compline: “Evigila”, “Media Vita” and “O Rex Gloriose”. He writes:

The Dominican liturgy preserves many ancient chants that are sung during Lent and Passion-tide. These chants present beautiful articulations of Christian teachings on death, suffering, dependence on God’s mercy, and Christ’s protection of his people. This presentation will include the singing of several Latin chants, and will offer an exposition of their history, influence, and theological meaning.

If you cannot make this Sunday’s talk, for your reference keep in mind that there will be Sunday evening talks in this series up to and including Palm Sunday. Upcoming talks by the friars will consider St. Luke’s narrative of the Passion, a modern-day example of St. Dismas the “Good Thief” of Calvary, and the iconography of the Passion and Redemption in the work of the great 20th century fiction author Flannery O’Connor. The Dominicans are, of course, more properly known as the Order of Preachers, and because of their apostolate take great care in crafting their public presentations so as to prove not only well-thought out but also memorable.

I would also like the reader to consider the idea of visiting the Priory as a small, personal pilgrimage – and not just because the friars have quite a number of very interesting saintly relics in the cloister (which they do.) A pilgrimage does not, as some would think it, necessarily entail an enormous outlay of time and resources combined with personal discomfort in order to reach a distant point on the map. We forget that, for many centuries, people would flock to the nearby houses of the various religious orders at Lent and other times of the year for periods of prayer, reflection, and works of piety, during which their spiritual and temporal needs would be provided for.

A true pilgrimage begins with the desire to change the heart, rather than simply ticking off a “been there, done that” box on some sort of list of major Catholic shrines and Lent itself is meant to serve as a pilgrimage from death to life. We are approaching the mid-point of Lent, but there is still time for you to act on those Lenten resolutions which you wanted to take on with all sincerity back on March 9th. Spending some time with the Dominicans this weekend will be a tremendous boost for you to continue to persevere in those efforts, or to make a new start at sticking to them as you continue your Lenten pilgrimage.

Statue of St. Dominic outside of the
Priory of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C.