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 Capitoline Venus in the Nation’s Capital

My European visitors are usually a little bit surprised when we tour downtown Washington and they get a first glimpse of our federal office buildings.“All of your architecture, it looks like Rome,” one of them told me, more than a little amused.

I think they’re expecting to see something a little more “American.”

But in the early days of the republic, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson helped set the tradition of looking back to antiquity for civic symbolism.

As president, Washington was responsible for planning the new federal capital along with his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. They encouraged the use of Roman architecture for all of our new buildings – including the White House and the Capitol – to link the new American republic with the ancient Roman one.

Even today, visitors can find traces of Rome throughout Washington, D.C. That symbolic link was made more official last month as the District signed a sister-city relationship with the Eternal City.

As one of the first cultural exchanges in the relationship, Rome lent Washington one of its treasures: the Capitoline Venus.

Capitoline Venus - NGA
The Capitoline Venus will be at the National Gallery of Art through September. (Photo: Robert Yule)

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Fixing America’s Front Yard

My tours of D.C. usually begin at the place that all visitors, both international and domestic, have ultimately come to Washington to see – the White House.

But when we arrive, many of my groups actually don’t recognize one of the most famous buildings in the world. They’re surprised and a little disappointed when I point out the President’s house.

White House - North Side
The White House’s north side, seen from Lafayette Park

“It doesn’t look the way I remember it,” or “It looks smaller than it does on TV,” are the two most common responses I hear.

That’s because I take my groups through Lafayette Park to the north side of the White House. This is technically the front entrance. With its portico and circular driveway, the north side faces the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 16th Street, giving the residence its famous address.

It’s the back, or south side, that most people recognize from movies and postcards. It has the curved façade and Truman balcony, and opens onto the President’s back yard.

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Presidential Presents

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Prince Charles’s trip to the District, which included a short visit with President Obama at the White House.

This week Obama was in England returning the favor, and perhaps redeeming himself for some previous missteps in the diplomatic dance of presidential gift-giving.

Obama's second visit with the Queen
The Obamas had a second chance at royal gift-giving (Photo: Chris Jackson/AP)

Obama was criticized for his first gift to the Queen in 2009 – an iPod loaded with music, photos, and video of Her Majesty’s visit to D.C. and Virginia in 2007.

And let’s not even talk about the gift he gave to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown a few months earlier…

This time, his present had much more sentimental and historic significance.

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Royal Fever in the District

Royal fever continued unabated in the District this week, as Washingtonians had the opportunity to bask in a small bit of reflected glory from Will and Kate’s wedding.

Fresh off his son’s nuptials, Prince Charles was in D.C. promoting something a little less glamorous – sustainable agriculture and community gardening.

Prince Charles touring the Community Good City Farm in LeDroit Park
Prince Charles touring the Community Good City Farm in LeDroit Park (Photo: Robert Yule)

The historic neighborhood of LeDroit Park had the honor of a prince in its midst (watch out, Prince of Petworth) when Charles visited Washington’s only urban farm on Tuesday.

I managed to see him with a few dozen other onlookers, as we gathered behind the fence of the Community Good City Farm to catch a glimpse of British royalty in our back yard.

LeDroit Park isn’t a neighborhood you’d normally expect to find a royal – although it was formerly home to a Duke (jazz royalty Duke Ellington lived here for a year).

It was also one of the first suburbs and exclusive gated communities in Washington.

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The White House Easter Egg Roll

Yesterday morning I was at the White House for an historic Washington tradition – the President’s annual Easter Egg Roll.

I went with a good friend and her young son, traipsing through the morning mist along the Ellipse and, after waiting in several lines and security checks, eventually onto the South Lawn.

Attending a White House event these days is a little like a trip to the airport.

South Lawn of the White House in the morning mist
South Lawn of the White House in the morning mist (Photo: Robert Yule)

We followed along as my friend’s son took part in a variety of activities,  starting with the famous Easter Egg Rolling Race itself. The race is a more recent tradition, started in 1974 using spoons from the White House kitchen and eggs hard boiled by White House chefs.

It basically involves pushing an egg with a wooden spoon through the grass to the finish line.

Trust me, not as easy as it sounds.

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Tourist-In-Chief?

Tourists at the Lincoln Memorial this afternoon were surprised to find a very prominent visitor in their midst – President Obama.

Obama made the quick trip from the White House today not to take in the sights, but to make a point.

Obama - Lincoln Memorial - Getty Images
President Obama, Tourist-In-Chief? (Photo: Getty Images)

All of the memorials, Smithsonian museums, and other government-funded tourist attractions would have been closed this weekend if Congress hadn’t compromised on a temporary spending bill.

The District narrowly avoided a government shutdown last night – incidentally on my birthday – when it passed the bill just a couple of hours before a midnight deadline.

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