When Good Buildings Go Bad

This is not a piece about how much I despise architect Frank Gehry. (Although I am working on a new one of those, so stay tuned.) Rather, I would like you to think a little bit about the relationship between patron and architect, when it comes to how a public building will be used. If you want to have fuzzy 1970’s wallpaper and a sunken fire pit in your living room at home, that is between you as patron and your architect or designer. Yet when it comes to buildings which serve public purposes, such as hospitals, churches, and hotels, sometimes it seems as though patron and architect are asleep at the wheel.

Case in point: the former National Park Seminary here in Washington D.C., which was featured recently in The Washingtonian.

The complex began life as a hotel in the 1880’s, built in the exuberant, historical mishmash style which the Victorians enjoyed. When the hotel failed, it was purchased in the 1890’s for use as the nucleus of an exclusive Christian girls’ boarding school. Over the ensuing decades the school, known as the National Park Seminary, added dormitories built in a range of international architectural styles, in order to encourage pupils to learn more about the world they lived in.

During the Great Depression, when many families lost the ability to pay for expensive boarding schools, enrollment began to decline sharply. With the outbreak of World War II, the Army requisitioned the property for use as an annex to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. For the next several decades, patients suffering from a variety of maladies were treated at the facility.

At first glance, the repurposing of this assemblage would appear to be a good use of a space which might otherwise have gone to waste. Creating a convalescent hospital with more cheerful, less clinical surroundings seems like a kinder way of addressing the needs of those recovering from the horrors of war. In a landscaped, park-like setting, surrounded by woods and streams, it was thought that the patients could make a better recovery from both their physical and their psychological wounds.

The problem was, many of these patients were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). They had witnessed their friends being maimed or killed, and experienced things which haunted them day and night. So you can imagine, if you were a patient suffering from PTSD, what it must have been like to wake up from a recurring nightmare about something you experienced during combat in an old village in the French countryside, only to find yourself in a setting that looked remarkably like it. The psychological impact must have been terrible.

The Army did little to keep up the property, so that things began to crumble fairly quickly. A creeping decay, combined with whispered stories about medical experimentation, only heightened the sense of gloom about the place. This, combined with the nature of the buildings themselves, had a hugely negative impact on generations of patients, until the facility was finally closed in the 1970’s. The Army had never picked up on the fact that what was supposed to help soothe their patients had turned into something out of a Goya etching.

Although the blame for this must fall upon those who didn’t stop to think, historically it has often the case that the road to architectural hell is paved with good intentions. Carlo Maderno’s main façade for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for example, hews to the Counter-Reformation ideals which his patron Pope V espoused, and it was completed relatively swiftly. However the structure is also too squat, its bell towers were never completed thanks to poor surveying of the land which they were supposed to sit on, and the whole thing blocks the view of Michelangelo’s dome. Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, designed to reflect the Mayan love of water-based palaces and bring prestige to a burgeoning industrial city eager to foster greater ties with the West, was able to survive serious earthquakes relatively undamaged, thanks to its floating design. Unfortunately that same, highly evocative design meant that over time, the complex began to sink deeper and deeper into the muck on which it was built, until it had to be demolished.

The National Park Seminary was never a hugely significant piece of architecture, except perhaps for its remarkable main ballroom. Today, its buildings and grounds are in the process of being converted into a mixed use residential community. Yet the example of this strange, little-known corner of the Nation’s Capital does go to a larger point, which any consideration of new or repurposed architecture must take on board. Whatever their vision, sometimes both architects and patrons can get things very wrong, if they do not think of the long-term implications of their decisions.


The Legacies of Christian Britain at the CIC in Washington

Last evening I attended “The British Isles & Christianity: From the Past to the Present” at the Catholic Information Center here in the Nation’s Capital – a city which, yes, is still rather basically functioning today despite the government shutdown.  The presenters on behalf of the Christian Heritage Center in Lancashire, including Royal Patron The Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke of Kent and 1st cousin to Queen Elizabeth II; Chairman The Lord Alton of Liverpool; and Curator Janet Graffius gave an excellent overview presentation on how Christianity had changed in Britain over the last 500 years.  During the course of the evening they discussed what happened to Catholic heritage during the violent iconoclasm of the Reformation,  and the story of the remarkable survival of a number of important objects closely tied to both the history and the devotional practices of centuries of Catholics in Britain and beyond, which are now housed at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.

Lord Nicholas began by noting that the iconoclasm of artistic culture and craftsmanship which took place during the Reformation left the British people with their cathedrals and parish churches in most cases stripped bare of everything which had been a part of Christian life in local communities for centuries.  The process left bare structures with little or no art left to fill them.  What he described as a “thorough attempt by the state to change a culture” was an effort that went on for centuries.  The state wanted to ensure that as little as possible of the historical memory of what Britain was before the Reformation would survive.

With British Catholic families smuggling out much of what was left of their heritage to the Low Countries and France for preservation, when anti-Catholicism became particularly violent in Britain, many remarkable objects were saved.  Rare things like St. Thomas More’s hat, likely embroidered by one of his daughters, to original vestments made for use in Westminster Abbey on order from the Crown, eventually found their way into Jesuit hands, and thereby into what became the nucleus of the collections of Stonyhurst.  Once Catholics were able to come back into public life in Britain in a limited way in the late 18th century, and more so with the Catholic Revival that began to take shape there in the 19th century, these objects became better-known, and yet are still comparatively unknown to many in the UK and elsewhere.  The hope of the Christian Heritage Center is to change all of that by bringing these amazing objects to a wider audience, and creating a place where people can not only come to see them, but also to study, to go on retreat, and to pray with others interested in the history and legacies of Christianity in Britain and throughout the world.

Thus the presenters brought with them several objects for the audience to examine, including a crucifix owned by St. Thomas More, which were an excellent sampling of some of the remarkable items in the school’s collection.  As an American and a Georgetown alumnus, one of the pieces I most enjoyed seeing was a book owned first by John Carroll, the first Catholic Archbishop of the United States, and then by his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Both were sent as boys from America to study at Stonyhurst, and the school retains one of the textbooks which they used.

The frontispiece to the book of poetry in question features the signatures of both Carrolls, and the dates when each was using this particular book at the school.  It also features an engraving of the muses, gesticulating in semi-undress as muses are wont to do.  One of the Carroll boys – whether the Archbishop or the Founding Father, we do not know – decided to deface the illustration by drawing tobacco pipes in the muses’ mouths.  This is going off on a slightly different and more destructive sort of tangent from my blog post yesterday about writing in books, of course, but there you are.

Curator Graffius explained how these are not museum objects per se, but rather living, speaking objects, which the Center hopes to allow more people the chance to communicate with.  They are things which allow the viewer to understand how as Catholic Christians, they come from centuries of Christians before them, including oftentimes many examples of those who had to suffer great persecutions to hold on to their faith.  As Lord Alton added, they remind us of the sacrifices that were made, not only in Britain but indeed in America,  for the privileges of religious and personal freedom which we enjoy today.  “Knowing who you are matters,” Lord Alton pointed out,  “and people are forgetting who they are.  We need to convey these stories to those who come after us.”

Those of my readers who will be able to attend these presentations as the group makes their way through DC, Baltimore, and Boston, should be certain to let others know of the good work being done here, particularly in the face of a secular society which is becoming more and more increasingly militant in its opposition to the worship and practice of faith.  In the end, the Christian Heritage Center at Stonyhurst in the UK is not simply a museum complex waiting to be built.  Rather it is really a place for all Christians to look more deeply into our heritage of 2,000 years of faith.


Attendees at the CIC examining some of the objects brought by Curator Jan Graffius

The Statues That Washington Forgot

Now that the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery has announced it will be closing for major renovations for the next three years, it seems an opportune moment to address a subject which one of my readers alerted me to some time ago.  The grand museum on Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington, across the street from the even grander Old Executive Office Building, was known as “The Louvre of Washington” when it opened in 1874, thanks to its combination of French Second Empire style and luxurious gallery spaces.  It was the first home of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which by 1897 had grown so large that it moved to its present location a block away.

However the keen-eyed  observer of the building will notice something amiss on its imposing red brick and sandstone: why are there only two statues, when there appears to have been space for so many more?  The answer, as it turns out, is that the museum was originally adorned with many over-life-sized statues of important figures from Western civilization.  So where have these works gone?

The eleven statues that originally stood along the facade, each standing around 7 feet high, were carved in Rome to order for William Corcoran by American sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917).  After the Corcoran collection left the building in 1897, it was turned over to the Judiciary, and served as a Federal courthouse for the next 50 years.  Ezekiel’s statues were subsequently removed from the exterior, since it was determined that they had no relevance to the new use of the building, and in 1901 they were sold at auction to local heiress Evelyn Walsh.

Walsh owned what was formerly known as the Friendly Estate in NW Washington; a gigantic expanse of land that was later sold off and subdivided into numerous communities.  She arranged the Ezekiel statues around her swimming pool, and presumably bathed under the appreciative gaze of Da Vinci, among others.  Through subsequent auctions after the sale of her estate, the collection of statues was eventually split up among several owners in Virginia.

Meanwhile, by the 1950’s and continuing through the Kennedy Administration, Congress began to consider a proposal that the old, crumbling Corcoran museum be demolished, so that a new and more efficient courthouse could be built in its place.  Eventually LBJ intervened, thanks to lobbying pressure from people like Jackie Kennedy, historic preservationists, and S. Dillon Ripley, the influential Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for many years.  In 1965 the building was turned over to that body, and following renovations it opened to the public in 1972 as the Renwick Gallery, a museum of American craft and design.

Today the statues carved by Ezekiel for the facade of what is now the Renwick Gallery stand in the Botanical Garden of the city of Norfolk, Virginia, hundreds of miles away.  An owner of six of the sculptures donated his to that city, for placement in the public garden back in 1963.  Eventually the owners of the remaining five were located, and persuaded to donate their statues to the city of Norfolk as well.

Several months ago a friend from Twitter alerted me to the fact that he had taken his family to see these same gardens, and while admiring the statues was surprised to learn that they had been transported to his city from Washington.  While originally these sculptures would have had at least some protection from the elements, standing in their covered cubbyholes studded across the facade of the Renwick Gallery, for decades now they have been completely exposed to the elements, standing out unprotected in the snow, rain, and summer heat which characterize this part of the country.  No doubt standing around Mrs. Walsh’s swimming pool did not do them much good either.

While the Ezekiel statues are no longer the property of the Federal government, it is a pity in some ways that they cannot be returned to their original home on the facade of the building for which they were designed.  Today, copies of two of the statues – those of artists Peter Paul Rubens and Esteban Murillo –  stand in their original niches on the facade.  They seem isolated and forgotten, without purpose, particularly without their brethren.

Admittedly, the Renwick, unlike the Corcoran which preceded it in the space, is not an institution that attempts to provide a reasonably encyclopaedic overview of the history of Western art.  However one cannot help but think that those empty niches ought to be filled with what was originally placed there by the architects, artists, and donors who built it.  Instead, these original works of art are now covered in mold, crumbling away in a public park, leaving the building originally designed to display them lacking a crucially important part of its intended decoration.


“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Moses Jacob Ezekiel (c. 1871)
Botanical Garden, Norfolk, Virginia