New Life For DC’s Old Library

News broke yesterday here in Washington that one of the most visible white elephants in the city, the former Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, will become home to a new Apple flagship store. Renovation and conversion of the property, which has been closed off for some time now due to a serious mold problem, will be undertaken by Foster + Partners, the architectural firm headed by Sir Norman Foster. Foster also designed the nearby Kogod Courtyard, a space covered with one of his signature undulating glass roofs, which sits between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.

The Carnegie Library (also formerly known as the Central Library) was built in 1903 as a gift to the city by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who spent a significant part of his considerable fortune building libraries all over the country. It was designed by Ackerman & Ross, New York-based architects who specialized in Beaux-Arts style buildings. Carnegie particularly liked their work, and a number of the libraries which he donated were designed by the firm, including those in Columbus, Denver, and East Orange, New Jersey. This particular library ceased to operate as one when the present, Martin Luther King Central Library, designed by Mies van der Rohe, opened in 1972.

Since then the building has been the subject of various redevelopment proposals, but nothing has really “stuck”. When I was in college for example, Placido Domingo and the Washington National Opera were trying to acquire the library to turn it into an opera house. At one point the building housed a DC City History Museum, but that closed due to a lack of interest. More recently, the Spy Museum attempted to obtain a long-term lease in the building, but was unable to come to agreeable terms with the city, so that institution is building a new museum elsewhere in town.

While I’m not a fan of Apple, they certainly have the wherewithal to make this building a functioning space again. And although my more classically-minded friends in the world of architecture will no doubt be aghast, personally I think that Sir Norman Foster is going to do a great job on both preserving and bringing this building up to date. It needs the help: it is not by any stretch of the imagination a particularly spectacular example of its style, unlike nearby Union Station, one of the most beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings in the world. Plus, the library’s position on what is essentially a giant traffic island makes it seem uninviting and inapproachable.

My ideal solution would have been to restore the building and turn it into the special collections home of the DC Public Library. It would have honored Carnegie’s original intent, and provided much-needed space for this public service. However, since I’m not in charge of these things, this new venture promises to bring back life to what has become a rather sad part of a revitalized downtown, and that does not seem to me such a bad thing.

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New Scans Reveal The Architectural Ingenuity Of England’s Persecuted Catholics

An interesting news item about using new technology to uncover a relic of England’s past caught my eye this morning.

Coughton Court is a grand country house in Warwickshire, England, built by the Throckmorton family over the course of several centuries, and whose descendants still live in it today. In one of the turrets of the primary entrance to the home, the Throckmortons constructed what is known as a “priest hole”, an architectural term with which you may not be familiar. Now, thanks to 3D scans, we can get a better sense of how this unusual space functioned, and how cleverly it was concealed within the building – but first, let’s have a bit of background.

Beginning in the latter half of the 16th century, it became an act of high treason for a Catholic priest to even set foot in England. Henry VIII had already closed all of the monasteries and seminaries, appropriating much of their property for himself. His daughter Elizabeth I furthered her father’s madness by having Catholic priests declared traitors under English law, while those who harbored them or attended Catholic religious services were de facto guilty of committing a felony. As a result, a number of Catholic families who refused to convert to Protestantism decided to build secret hiding places inside their homes, where Catholic priests could escape detection by the authorities.

Some of these spaces were just large enough for a single individual to hide in for a short period of time. Others were of more substantial size, including living quarters and even tiny chapels. In the case of the priest hole at Coughton Court, the occupant of the secret chamber had enough room for a bed and a portable altar, where he could celebrate the Mass in secrecy if needed.

In addition to operating a kind of Stasi police force aided by local informants, England employed special bounty hunters popularly known as “priest hunters”, in order to combat the phenomenon of priest holes. These men traveled the countryside looking for Catholic hiding places, often accompanied by builders, stonemasons, and carpenters, in the hopes of bringing back a Catholic priest in chains. However some of the priest holes were built so successfully, that they were only discovered centuries later. Even today, previously unknown hiding places are still being stumbled across during renovations and restorations of historic homes.

Perhaps one of the largest concentrations of these hiding places can be found at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, where a total of seven priest holes were concealed throughout the house by the Pakington family. These rooms are believed to be the work of St. Nicholas Owen, a builder and carpenter who constructed many such holes (or “hides”, as they are sometimes called) over the course of several decades. As his experience in designing these spaces increased, his work became more and more clever, and difficult for the priest hunters to detect. Nevertheless, he was eventually captured and executed in 1606, and was canonized a saint by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

While we don’t know who built the priest hole in the tower at Coughton Court, being able to see how this ingenious structure fits into the building is a fascinating use of technology. Whoever designed this hiding place was particularly clever, in that he created a stacked structure to avoid detection. Even if the authorities managed to discover the first priest hole, which would be empty other than for some bedding and other materials, they would be unlikely to realize that this space was just a decoy: the real priest hole was lying just underneath it, as the scans clearly show. Given the narrow and cramped location of the hiding place inside the house, these new 3D scans give the public a much better picture of how this concealment would have worked, than might be appreciated by simply viewing the structure from the outside.

In our present age, it sometimes seems as though we may need to return to the construction of priest holes at any moment. For the clergy, places like Coughton Court are reminders that Holy Orders can often be accompanied by great suffering. And for the laity, the courage of families like the Throckmortons to build these places, even at the risk of losing everything, ought to inspire us to bravely face whatever the future holds.

Join Me For A Glorious Christmas Concert!

​On Wednesday, November 30th at 7:30 pm, the Choir of St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Washington, DC will hold their first Christmas Concert under music Director and Organist Neil Weston. For more information, read the flyer below or check out the parish web site. I strongly urge you to attend if you can, and even if you cannot, please share this information with anyone whom you think may be interested because, quite frankly, our choir is amazing. Those Christmas CD’s they will be selling after the concert will go very quickly.

As regular readers know, St. Stephen’s is my parish here in the Nation’s Capital, and I have often praised the musical talents of our musicians on social media. In fact, everyone who has joined me for Mass at St. Stephen’s over the years has commented on how superb our music is, and that we are one of the best-kept secrets in Washington. Check out this recording I made of them singing Vivaldi at Mass one Sunday – I think you’ll agree that they sound more like something out of a cathedral rather than a parish church.

Part of this amazing sound has to do with the church itself, a building which will be of interest to those who like Midcentury Modern design. From the outside, St. Stephen’s doesn’t reveal its secrets, except in the magnificent bronze doors depicting scenes from the life of St. Stephen by the great contemporary sculptor Antony Visco of Philadelphia. Upon entering, you are enveloped in walls of French Modernist stained glass from Chartres, and the swooping lines of Mad Men and Connery-era Bond architecture. You can read about the history of the building, including why it was JFK and Jackie’s favorite parish when they were in the White House, by reading the Wikipedia entry.

However even with the great acoustics inside the building, in the end it is the people who make the music. Our musicians at St. Stephen’s are seriously impressive talents, capable of performing a very wide repertoire, from Medieval to Modern, highly popular to relatively unknown works. Director Neil Weston not only has exquisite musical taste, he is also a force to be reckoned with on the organ, as you can hear and see here.

I hope you’ll join me for this evening, and please do share this event with those you know who might be interested in attending. Be sure to come up and say hello, if you spot me at the performance. It is early enough in the season that it will not conflict with anything else on your calendar, and it will help all of us to start the Advent and Christmas season off right!