A Late Bloomer on the Mall

Over the past week, there has been a celebrity drawing crowds to the Botanic Garden.

It’s a rare plant from the rain forests of Sumatra known as the titan arum – growing up to twelve feet in height, and boasting one of the largest flowers in the world. The catch is that it rarely ever blooms – from once every few years to once every few decades.

When it does, it releases the stench of death far and wide. And then the bloom withers away within a day or two.

That’s how it earns its other name – “the corpse flower” – which is also the name of the next Tim Burton film.

A flowering titan arum has only been in display in the U.S. a few times, and the last time it was at the Botanic Gardens was in 2007.

The titan arum in full bloom.
The titan arum in full bloom.

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Shaw’s Memorial

There have been a lot of significant Civil War anniversaries as we pass through the sesquicentennial (that would be 150 years) of America’s greatest conflict.

Today marks one of those – the failed assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts regiment, one of the first African-American infantry units to fight in the Civil War.

If you’ve seen the movie Glory, then you’re probably familiar with the story and its significance.

But what does that distant battle off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina have to do with Washington, D.C.?

For me, this anniversary hits close to home – literally. I live in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, an historically African-American part of the city near U Street.

The neighborhood is named after Colonel Robert Gould Shaw from Boston, who was the commander of the 54th Massachusetts (and played by Matthew Broderick in the movie).

NPR had a story today on the influential Shaw Memorial by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens – an amazing piece of bronze sculpture depicting not only Shaw, but his regiment of soldiers marching out of Boston and off to war.

Shaw Memorial's plaster sculpture at the National Gallery.
Shaw Memorial’s plaster sculpture at the National Gallery.

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French Connections for Bastille Day

This weekend in D.C. had a decidedly French flavor, and that’s before I even realized that today was Bastille Day.

On Saturday I visited the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization founded at the close of the Revolutionary War by French and American officers to preserve the bonds forged during that long struggle. George Washington, the general who helped unify the Continental Army and the colonies, served as its first president.

Among its ranks, there were two founding French members who would be well known to future Washingtonians – the Marquis de Lafayette and Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

A mural in the sumptuous Anderson House showing Washington and Lafayette and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.
A mural in sumptuous Anderson House showing Washington and Lafayette and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Lafayette was the young French aristocrat who ending up playing a key role in both the American and French Revolutions, and whose name and statue grace the park on the north side of the White House.

And L’Enfant of course was the talented but difficult engineer and artist who served General Washington during the war, and was later selected by him during peacetime to design our first capitol – Federal Hall in New York City – and then the capital, the District of Columbia.

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A Special Birthday at the Smithsonian – Julia Child’s Centennial

Today is a national holiday in Italy – Ferragosto, when just about everything shuts down in the middle of August.

A fitting time to take a short break from writing about Rome, and to commemorate a special birthday being celebrated in
the District and across the US today: what would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday.

To mark the occasion, the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History is re-opening one of its most popular exhibits – Julia’s iconic kitchen from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she donated to the museum in 2001.

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Unbuilt Washington

In conversation, some things are better left unsaid – and in the Historic District, some things are better left unbuilt.

That’s the unspoken commentary behind a new exhibit that opened at the National Building Museum this past weekend. “Unbuilt Washington” explores the monuments and buildings – and occasional Venetian-style canal – that might have graced the District, if only they had made it past the drawing board.

There’s the colossal pyramid honoring Abraham Lincoln, or the medieval-style Memorial Bridge dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant, or the new executive mansion built further up 16th Street, atop Meridian Hill.

The U.S. Grant Memorial Bridge
The U.S. Grant Memorial Bridge

As a D.C. guide, I thought this exhibit was a pretty fascinating tour of an alternate Washington. And with Thanksgiving approaching, I was also left feeling grateful that some of these outlandish structures were left unbuilt – either through lack of funds, shifting priorities, or public outcry.

The exhibit reminds you that from its inception, the federal capital has presented a veritable blank slate for architectural imaginations and often competing notions of national expression.

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The District’s Rosa Parks

An African-American woman tries to sit in a seat on public transportation implicitly reserved for whites only. She refuses to get up when ordered to move, and is forcibly evicted by the police.

Her case draws national attention, and eventually causes the Supreme Court to confront the issue of racial segregation.

Rosa Parks, by Marshall D. Rumbaugh, 1983
Rosa Parks by Marshall D. Rumbaugh at The National Portrait Gallery

If you’re thinking of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, you’re about a hundred years too late.

I’m talking about Kate Brown, a resident of the District, who in 1868 refused to leave the car reserved for white ladies in a train bound for Washington.

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In the District, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Whether you were stuck in downtown traffic yesterday morning – or had a birds-eye view from your office – you couldn’t help but notice it.

An ominous black plume of smoke rising from the vicinity of the National Mall, which soon towered over even the Washington Monument.

Brian Levey Fire Photo - Washington Post
(Photo: Courtesy of Brian Levey, Washington Post)

A terrorist attack? A rogue firecracker from yesterday’s Chinatown parade? A Superbowl barbecue gone awry?

The culprit was actually a small fire on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

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