A Still Uncertain Fate for DC’s Manly Art Deco Landmark

Regular readers of these pages know not only of my deep appreciation for the muscular Art Deco of the Federal Trade Commission building here in Washington, but also of my enthusiasm for the idea of the National Gallery of Art expanding to take over the building. The National Gallery is currently housed in two structures on The National Mall, across the street from the FTC headquarters: the original or West Building by John Russell Pope, completed in 1941, and the East Building by I.M. Pei, completed in 1978. Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.) has been pushing for a number of years now for not only the expansion of the National Gallery into this space, but also for the relocation of the FTC to a larger, more modern space suited to the contemporary needs of the agency, which among its duties investigates deceptive and fraudulent commercial practices, reviews corporate mergers, and encourages competition. The present FTC headquarters, a 1930’s interpretation of Greek and Roman elements known as the “Apex Building”, is a great structure, a kind of masculine, industrialized and pared-down classicism that one can imagine a present-day King Leonidas of Sparta using as a palace.

Last week at a House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, Congressman Mica stated that the transfer of the building to the National Gallery and the finding of a new home for the FTC is of supreme importance to him. He noted that “I have no other priority for the balance of my tenure in Congress.” As the Chairman of the overall Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is not only the largest committee in Congress but that which this subcommittee falls under, Mica’s is quite a statement.

As a man who for many years has shown a determination to bring about the reform and fiscally sensible expansion of America’s presently poor system of passenger rail, known as Amtrak, as well as improvements to commuter transit and renovation of the existing infrastructure, Mica is not someone who shies away from the spade and backhoe. On the arts front, he serves as a Trustee of The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and sponsors an art competition among his younger constituents for display at the Capitol every year. Mica is someone who clearly sees the Nation’s Capital as a place where many of the ideas and ideals of urban planning can bear fruit, and serve as models for the rest of the country.

So what’s the problem here? In the now-Republican-controlled House, certainly Mica can get this transfer done, and has introduced and re-introduced legislation mandating that the building be transferred to the National Gallery. Yet the FTC itself has always resisted, as indeed have some local Democrats, including D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. As I am not particularly interested in her opinions on any subject whatsoever, I suggest that you ignore her (I always do.)

The FTC does not want to leave its current building, where it has been housed since 1938, for what seems a rather curious, emotional reason for an agency which deals with economic matters. In 1937 when FDR laid the cornerstone for the FTC headquarters, he gave an address in which he stated, “May this permanent home of the Federal Trade Commission stand for all time as a symbol of the purpose of the government to insist on a greater application of the golden rule to the conduct of corporations and business enterprises in their relationship to the body politic.” This is the primary justification for the FTC not leaving the building, even though as it happens the FTC already has several satellite offices elsewhere around the city.

This situation seemingly puts the FTC in a bit of a quandary, but their position should also give us something of a clue as to their probable motivations. When someone tells you that they are unwilling to move but they need more space, that is an indication to those who can read between the lines that plans for an addition may be in the works. However in this case, it seems impossible to fathom exactly where the FTC would be able to construct such an addition.

The block on which the FTC building sits has no room for expansion, and the surrounding blocks are already filled. To the immediate west of the FTC is the National Archives, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, among other treasures, are housed; there can be no legitimate suggestion that they will be moving anywhere. To the south stands the iconic West Building of the National Gallery of Art. To the north is a very broad stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, with both a large, modern office block and an historic Victorian bank building on the opposite side, all fully occupied. To the east is a very small triangle-shaped park with a fountain, but one so impractical as a building site that it would barely hold a Cape Cod, let alone an expanded office block.

Given these physical limitations, the FTC cannot mean to suggest that it intends to build at its site. Rather, what I suspect it wants is to build a large hive of sorts for its worker bees, somewhere else in the city, while keeping its executive-level staff at the more prestigious Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters, which are not only a grander space but closer to the action on Capitol Hill, The White House, etc. Human beings are easily prone to becoming snobbish creatures, even in a republic. If you have worked your way up in your organization to a position of some influence, one of the perks of success is to have a nice office in a nice part of town.

Using FDR’s words as a justification however, rings hollow on closer inspection. The FTC was created in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson; not by Franklin Roosevelt. It was originally housed in a building on D Street beginning around 1915, which served as its headquarters until the building was destroyed by a fire in 1930. Afterward the FTC had to shuffle around a bit, until the construction of the present building. By 1938, the agency came into residence at a large, solid building in the center of town, which meant that it could settle in and do what bureaucracies always do: expand in size and scope.

Yet what did Franklin Roosevelt mean by saying that this building was to be the “permanent” home of the agency? Did he mean that literally? Or was it – as I suspect it was – a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the FTC had, for lack of a better term, been living out of a suitcase ever since the 1930 fire destroyed its original home? These are questions that need to be asked, both regarding the future of this magnificent building as well as how the agency itself sees its own mission. Can it not serve its duty to the American people by consolidating its efforts elsewhere in the city?

One also wonders what FDR would have thought about the expansion of the FTC and the National Gallery in one fell swoop. Given his joy in creating more and more federal government organizations whenever possible, and his love of construction projects, I think FDR would actually chide the FTC for failing to take advantage of the opportunity to not only grow but also to either build or renovate a huge new building as part of that growth. At the same time, FDR – who was President when the National Gallery was first created and then built – would no doubt appreciate the expansion of that institution, as well as the thriftiness of repurposing an old building to new use.

Whatever the real motivation for the agency’s intransigence, the future of the FTC’s present headquarters is likely going to remain a question mark for some time. For the present most tourists and visitors to the Mall and Federal Triangle can only appreciate it from the outside. My personal preference would be to tear down the National Gallery’s leaky, wastefully designed I.M. Pei building and try something else. As this is unlikely to happen, it stands to reason that of the buildings in its immediate vicinity, the FTC’s is the only existing structure which can serve the needs of the National Gallery for the next several decades.

“Man Controlling Trade” by Michael Lantz,
Federal Trade Commission, Washington DC

Support the Dogs of the Lord

As you know, dear reader, from time to time I draw to your attention events which I believe are not only worthy of your notice but also of your support. This morning is just such an occasion, for I am hoping you will join me in supporting the work of the Dominican friars at the First Annual Dominican Pontifical Faculty Spring Gala on March 26th. Yes, I recognize that these are difficult economic times for many, and yes, there are many political campaigns and charitable causes asking for your financial support. And still I am here to challenge you to consider attending this event, or giving some support even if you cannot attend.

The laity, and particularly those of us who are now incoming-earning adults in our 20’s and 30’s, need to resume the mantle of responsibility that was shirked by many in the generation before us, which led to the decline and even closure of many monasteries, convents, and religious houses. As the Conte di Castiglione, the inspiration for this blog, would not doubt agree, if one is to consider oneself a true courtier one must make an effort to support the work of the religious orders when the opportunity arises, particularly because they do not have the fallback of a diocese, as our parish churches do. The monastic houses of Europe great and small were able to both preserve and build upon Western Civilization, while praying for the salvation of souls, because ladies and gentlemen down the centuries recognized the importance of supporting that work. Now, gentle reader, it is your opportunity to join that illustrious company.

Last evening I had the distinct privilege of being invited to attend Vespers and to dine with the friars of the Priory of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington, D.C. Readers may be aware that the nickname for the Dominican Order is “The Dogs of the Lord”, which is a bit of a pun on their Latin name, “Domini” or “Lord” and “canes” or “dogs”. It is said that Blessed Juana de Aza, St. Dominic’s mother, had a vision of a dog carrying a torch in its mouth that illuminated the world, and this has become of the traditional iconographic symbols for the founder of the Order.

Dominating the refectory is a large painting showing the Crucified Christ surrounded by Dominican saints, blesseds, and others, by Sister Mary of the Compassion, who was born Constance Rowe in London in 1908. She studied at the Royal College of Art as well as in Rome; she later traveled to the United States and entered the Dominican Order in 1937. There is a fascinating blog post about her by Father Gabriel Gillen, O.P., which I highly recommend to my readers, even if you are not Catholic or particularly interested in the Order of Preachers, as Sister Mary was quite an interesting woman.

The painting itself possesses a subtle, pale slate tonality, better in person than any reproduction I have been able to locate online. There is a distinct art moderne quality to it, combined with what was clearly Sister Mary’s interest in Flemish painting of the High Gothic, particularly her handling of the otherwise plain white drapery of the kneeling figures. It is a powerful, seemingly very modern, graphic image, almost monochromatic, and yet it also reminds us of the Cinquecento nearly-monochromatic work of Blessed Fra Angelico – another great Dominican painter – at the Friary of San Marco in Florence.

So how can you get the chance to look at this very interesting painting? Well, of course one could arrange a tour of the Priory, but I suspect that if you were to attend the upcoming Spring Gala, dear reader, that one of the friars would be more than happy to show it to you, including some of its very unusual details which are not evident at first glance – such as the differing types of nimbus or halo, the identity of some of those represented, and the two curious figures standing off to our right. Or perhaps you will give me the opportunity to point out these things to you myself when we run into each other there? In addition to cocktail hour nibbles and drinks, we will be able to participate in a silent auction for a number of items – including religious art, tickets to local cultural events, and even a private docent tour of the National Gallery – and conclude our visit with Compline in the beautiful main chapel of the Priory.

For more information, please visit the associated web page, and do feel free to contact the event coordinator Miss Margaret Perry, of Ten Thousand Places and Little Lamb Books fame, at the email address listed for the event. I assure you that Miss Perry will be very glad to hear from you and answer whatever questions you may have. If you would prefer further clarification from me, do feel free to contact me at theblogofthecourtier at gmail, and I will be happy to try to find out what you need to know about the gala. I hope to see you at there!

Crucified Christ with Dominican Saints and Notables,
by Sr. Mary of the Compassion, O.P. (c. 1950)
Priory of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC

Hail, Glorious Pile: New York’s Public Library Returns

After a three-year, $50 million restoration project, the renamed Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library has received a spectacular facelift to bring it back to its original, brilliant white appearance. Even if you have never had the opportunity to visit the island of Manhattan, gentle reader, you are probably familiar with the library’s main building – oftentimes referred to as “The New York Public Library” even though this is simply the main branch – which sits majestically on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. The glorious beaux-arts building and its iconic pair of lions flanking the front steps have featured in countless major and minor films, from “42nd Street” to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Ghostbusters” to “The Thomas Crown Affair”. It is as symbolic of the City of New York as The Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, or St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Construction began in 1902 and was completed in 1911, when President Taft came to dedicate the building. It was universally praised in its day and by many architectural critics now as being the most perfect example of beaux-arts architecture presently standing in the United States. When one thinks of this particular school of design in America, there is an inescapable connection made with the legendary firm of McKim, Mead, and White, the Rolls-Royce of beaux-arts architectural firms, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this masterpiece was their work.

Interestingly enough, however, the library was not designed by McKim, Mead, and White, but rather by the then-relatively unknown firm of Carrère and Hastings, an architectural partnership headed by John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings. The two men had met while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1880s, and later both worked at McKim, Mead & White in New York. In 1885 they decided to leave the firm and go into practice together. For a number of years they built hotels and homes for wealthy clients, but it was the award of the New York Public Library commission in 1897 which catapulted them into prominence, much to the surprise of their better-known contemporaries and former employers.

As a result, Carrère and Hastings received numerous commissions for other prominent buildings across the country. Here in the Nation’s Capital, they designed Townsend House (now the home of the Cosmos Club), the Russell Senate Office Building, the Cannon House Office Building, and the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington, where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located. Moreover their influence, in competition with their former employers building in the capital as well, led to the adoption for a time of the beaux-arts aesthetic as the preferred architectural style of official Washington: a trend that continued, with some variation, in the construction of many public buildings and government offices in the city up until the shift toward ho-hum variations of international style, such as the K Street Box or the so-called “brutalist” architecture of the FBI headquarters.

Due in part to the early demise of both partners, Carrère and Hastings did not last as long as McKim, Mead & White. In addition, the decided objection of Hastings himself to the construction of buildings more than six stories tall came to be viewed as old-fashioned by a sort of skyscraper fetish, which began to dominate the skylines of major American cities in the 1890’s. This trend led to Congress passing the Height of Buildings Act of 1899 for Washington – more commonly known as The Cairo Act, after the offending apartment building which was felt to rise too tall. As a result, and no doubt influenced by architects like Thomas Hastings, Washington has retained a more human scale in its buildings, even as other cities created congested caverns which look beautiful from a distance but are oppressive when in their midst.

In some ways, the Main Building was both at the height of fashion and going out of fashion at the time it was built. Indeed, it may interest the reader to know that the same year ground was broken and the cornerstone laid at the Public Library, the landmark 22-story Flatiron Building – generally considered New York’s first true skyscraper – was completed. Two years after the Library was finished, the 57-story Woolworth Building became the tallest building in the world, which it remained until 1930. Today of course, the Library is now dwarfed by surrounding office towers, an oasis of architectural permanency and solidity amidst a desert of trendy construction ephemera. With this clean-up, let us hope it will continue to welcome, instruct and inspire visitors for another century to come.

Main Entrance to the New York Public Library