Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Memorial to a Titanic Relationship

Just a few yards from the White House south lawn sits a little-known monument related to the ill-fated Titanic, which struck an iceberg exactly one hundred years ago today. Described as a “tribute to friendship,” this fountain along E St. honors Francis Davis Millet and Archibald Butt, two men who went down with the vessel, selflessly assisting women and children as the ship sank. Millet was 60, and Butt 46 at the time of the tragedy.

The two “devoted friends” shared a house in DC, even though Millet had married (his wife lived elsewhere). Butt described Millet as “my artist friend who lives with me.” Their only recorded spat was over the wallpaper Millet had chosen for their home (too many red and pink roses for Butt’s taste). Their live-in Filipino houseboys served presidents, cabinet members, ambassadors and Supreme Court justices during lavish parties and dinners the male hosts were famous for. President Taft wept openly when he learned that Butt had perished in the Titanic tragedy, yet the two well-connected men have been forgotten with the passage of time.

The joint monument is a stone fountain designed by the sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Thomas Hastings. Among other of French's works here in Washington are the seated statue of Lincoln inside the Lincoln memorial and the Dupont Circle Fountain. Hastings was architect of the elegant amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, but his best known building is the New York Public Library. At any rate, the design team boasted impeccable pedigrees.

This memorial was paid for by funds raised privately by friends of the two men, both of whom were widely known in Washington's cultural, social, and political circles. Frank Millet (right), a skilled painter, was a member of the Fine Arts Commission who also directed the American Academy in Rome, Italy. Major Butt had been a military aide to both President Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The fountain today sits not far from where Major Butt's White House office was located.

The two men had a tenant in their Washington home, a young diplomat named Archie Clark Kerr, who worked at the British Embassy. He returned to Washington 35 years later as Lord Inverchapel, the British Ambassador. Kerr caused quite a stir among diplomatic circles by suddenly disappearing to Eagle Grove, Iowa, to stay with a strapping farm boy Kerr had come upon while the lad was waiting for a bus on the streets of Washington. So there you have it.

Frank Millet had a studio in Rome in the early 1870s, and one in Venice a few years later. While in Venice Millet lived with Charles Warren Stoddard, a well-known American travel journalist and poet who had a sexual interest in men. Historian Jonathan Ned Katz published letters from Millet to Stoddard that confirm they lived a bohemian life together in a romantic and intimate relationship. But the most important relationship of Millet’s life was not with Stoddard or even his wife – it was with Archibald Butt.

Fast forward to the early spring of 1912. Millet and Butt (left) together boarded the steamship Berlin for a six-week trip to Europe. To say that they were a conspicuous pair is understatement. Butt wore bright, copper-colored trousers with a Norfolk jacket, fastened by big ball-shaped buttons of red porcelain, a lavender tie, a tall collar, broad-brimmed hat, patent leather shoes with white tops, a bunch of lilies in his buttonhole and a handkerchief tucked into his sleeve. The two men returned home to America together, too, in first class cabins aboard the “unsinkable” Whitestar liner RMS Titanic. On the night of April 14, the ship struck an iceberg and sank the next morning with Butt and Millet among the 1,517 victims of the disaster.

Although the intimate relationship between Millet and Butt was never mentioned publicly, it was common knowledge among Washington insiders, and the fact that their friends erected a joint monument to their memory is a remarkable and poignant tribute, considering the mores of the day.

The 8-foot tall marble fountain displays bas-reliefs of both men. On one side of the shaft placed atop the fountain is a military figure with sword and shield representing Major Butt, and an artist with palette and brush represents Millet. Besides being a memorial, the fountain was designed to double as a water fountain for the horses ridden by U.S. Park Police while on patrol.

Inscription carved around the upper rim of the fountain:


Monday, September 13, 2010

Mitchell Park – for the Love of a Poodle

In the first years of the 20th century Morton and Elizabeth Mitchell bought a plot of land on S St. NW, at 23rd Street in Washington DC’s Kalorama neighborhood, equidistant between Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues. Their property, located where the 1795 brick manor house of the vast Anthony Holmead estate once stood*, was to be the site of their new home. Their 14 year old poodle, named Bock, died soon after the Mitchells purchased the lot, and his remains were buried on their undeveloped property under a small stone.

Before construction of the house began, Morton Mitchell died, and Elizabeth eventually lost interest in the new house project. Upon her death in 1917, she deeded the land to the city for use as a park, with the stipulation that Bock’s grave be maintained undisturbed in perpetuity.

The will of Elizabeth Patterson Mitchell stated:
“To the City of Washington, D.C., I leave my lot on S Street to the memory of Morton Mitchell for a park. It was intended for our home, and our old dog, whose bones rest there, is not to be disturbed.”

Today, the land is called Mitchell Park. Bock’s grave, marked by a small bronze plaque on the side of a masonry ledge that surrounds a tree, lies in the middle of the children’s play area that borders Bancroft Street. When the park was given a major refurbishment in 2004, the plaque was moved from its home in the soil beneath a tree to its present location.

The portion of the park that fronts 23rd Street contains wild grasses, trees, pathways, picnic tables and long wooden park benches; adjacent to a small field house/recreation building is a children’s playground, and an open grassy field is located along the eastern perimeter of the park.

*In the early 20th century the land was owned by the German government, which planned to build an embassy on the property. To that end, they razed the Holmstead house in 1929, but before it could be built the U.S. government confiscated the land during World War II and annexed it to Mitchell Park. Thus, the park’s delineation is now 23rd Street to the west, S Street to the south, Bancroft Place to the north and Phelps Place to the east.

Trivia: The park’s steep hillside just below the tennis courts at the corner of S and 23rd Streets is reinforced with stones that contain interesting brachiopod shell fossils. Appalachian in origin, from the Oriskany sandstone formation, the stones were created by sediments deposited in the early Devonian period, slightly less than 400 million years ago.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Everett House, Home to Turkish Ambassador

Residence of the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S.
1606 23rd Street, N.W. at Sheridan Circle

The impressive Beaux-Arts neoclassical edifice that serves as the Turkish Ambassador’s residence was designed by Washington based society architect George Oakley Totten, Jr. (1866–1939). Completed in 1914, the 40,000 sq. ft. limestone mansion was commissioned by Edward Hamlin Everett (1851-1929), a wealthy industrialist from Cleveland, Ohio. Chief among his inventions was the crimped soft drink bottle cap; in addition to bottle glass industries, he was involved in Texas oil and Missouri brewing interests. His company, The American Bottle Company, later merged with Corning to become the Owens-Corning Fiberglass Company.

At the time this house was built, the Everetts also had homes in Ohio, Vermont* and a chateau in Switzerland**.

Edward Everett (right)

The site of the house previously served as a city dump, but the large lot took a huge turn for the better when construction of this fabulous home, situated between the buffalo bridge over Rock Creek Park and Sheridan Circle, commenced in 1910. With Renaissance-style architectural features prominent on the exterior, the interior features a black and white marble entrance hall, sweeping double staircase, gold plated door-knobs, teakwood floors, a musicians gallery, a rococo-designed Otis elevator, 150 windows, 200 doors, a conservatory with vaulted mosaic accented ceilings, a rooftop garden and a swimming pool in the basement. The sparkling ballroom is resplendent with red silk tapestry and wood paneled walls under a gold leaf carved coffered ceiling. During the 1920s, the house became famous for festive musical evenings featuring singers from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Everett’s guests were seated on gold painted art nouveau bent wood chairs, which had seemingly disappeared upon the death of Grace Everett (1879-1969), only to be rediscovered in the early 1980s in the mansion’s attic.

Architect George Oakley Totten, Jr. had previously worked in Istanbul, where he designed the first American chancery and a residence for Izzet Pasha (the Grand Vezir, Prime Minister of the Turkish Empire). His work there was so well received that he was offered the position of “Private Architect to the Sultan.” Totten blended three architectural periods in his design for this mansion: 16th-century Italian, 18th-century Romanesque and 19th-century Art Deco, with distinct features from decorative Ottoman styles.

At the time of his death in 1929, Everett lived in Washington with his second wife, opera singer Grace Burnap (thirty years his junior), and their two daughters, born when Edward was in his seventies. In 1932, his widow leased the house to the Turkish government, and it was used as both chancery and residence. In 1936, at the behest of Turkey’s first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the mansion was purchased from Grace by the Turkish government with all its contents for $400,000. In the 1990s the Chancery moved to Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue, and the building became the residence of the ambassador. The house was closed in 2004 for a three-year $20 million renovation, during which time the structure and all its contents were painstakingly restored.

Trivia: When Turkish Ambassador Münir Ertegün and his family moved to Washington D.C. in 1936, his two sons, Ahmet and Nasuhi, already had a record collection of 25,000 blues and jazz records. But it was their live Sunday music salons with the young Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington performing for integrated audiences that shocked Washington’s elite. Attending prep school during the day, Ahmet and his older brother frequented Washington’s musical haunts by night. When their father died in 1944, they both decided to stay in America and pursue music careers; Nasuhi chose Los Angeles and Ahmet, Washington. With partner Herb Abramson, Ahmet launched Atlantic Records on a $10,000 loan from his Turkish dentist, and the rest is history. They recorded some of the greatest musicians of the century; they began with Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and Ray Charles, then discovered Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. Soon they branched out to Bobby Darin, Sonny and Cher, the Bee Gees, and Allman Brothers, and signed the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa and Kid Rock. In October 2006, Ahmet fell backstage during a Rolling Stones New York concert and lapsed into a coma. He died on December 14, 2006, at age 83.
*The 27-room Everett summer home in Bennington, VT (shown above), on the National Register of Historic Places, now serves as the primary administrative and academic building of Southern Vermont College. Everett hired famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (NYC's Central Park) to design the grounds; a distinctive feature of the estate is an Olmstead-designed 13-tier cascading stone fountain at the rear of the mansion.

Everett owned the multi-spired neo-Gothic Château de l'Aile (shown below) in Vevey, Switzerland, overlooking the shores of Lake Geneva.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dumbarton Oaks

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss purchased the 1801-built Federal-style brick house and surrounding property in upper Georgetown in 1920, after a long search for a permanent home. Robert Bliss was a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, and until that point the two had lived a nomadic life overseas. The estate, adjacent to Rock Creek Park, had been the former home of John C. Calhoun, who had served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson and well as being a U.S. Senator (South Carolina) and a member of the House of Representatives.

After buying the property, Mildred and Robert Bliss altered it significantly, renovating and expanding the house to include the Music Room and, eventually, the Museum. They worked with landscape architect Beatrix Farrand to transform the unkempt land surrounding the house into terraced gardens and vistas. These gardens are considered among the most significant residential gardens in the country; they go beyond mere landscaping efforts - they are works of art. In a remarkably compact 10 acres, the gardens contain border gardens, kitchen gardens, a large residential swimming pool, an ampitheatre, broad sweeps of lawn, rose gardens and magnificent specimen trees. Everything here is a one-off - every gate handle, every piece of wrought iron, each urn, every bench. They exist nowhere else. The gardens at Dumbarton Oaks are a superior example of a client's money and taste channeled through the extraordinary vision and talent of an artist, in this instance Beatrix Farrand.

Over their lives, the Blisses assembled large and important collections of artifacts and books, which they housed at Dumbarton Oaks. In 1940, they donated their collections together with the house and its grounds to create the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, to be managed by the trustees of Harvard University, the alma mater of Robert Bliss. The institution was originally dedicated solely to Byzantine studies, but the scope was later broadened to include Pre-Columbian studies and the history of landscape architecture. The Blisses remained actively involved in the institute until their deaths in the 1960s. Dumbarton Oaks was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1967.

The Pre-Columbian Pavilion (photo below), a series of eight round, domed pavilions arranged in a square, was designed by architect Philip Johnson and opened to the public in 1963. In 2005 scholars were welcomed into a new library, and in 2008 an extensive renovation of the house and museum was completed.

Dumbarton Oaks has lent its name to a major musical work by Igor Stravinsky: Mr. Bliss commissioned Stravinsky to compose a concerto for his thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938. The resulting "Concerto in E-flat" for chamber orchestra is more commonly referred to as the "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto.

Photo: The original Music Room, where Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto premiered. There is a celebrated chamber music concert series that takes place in this room today.

This room, which was designed in 1927 by Lawrence Grant White of the New York City architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, contains tapestries, sculptures, paintings, and furniture dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Prominent in the room is a 1926 Steinway concert grand piano signed by Ignace Paderewski, who had played this instrument in the home of Mildred Bliss's mother in Santa Barbara, California. As a true centerpiece for this room the Blisses acquired a large French Renaissance sixteenth-century stone mantelpiece that originally came from the Château de Théobon in Loubès-Bernac, France. Early in 1927, they acquired two Italian Renaissance sixteenth-century marble arches from Ravenna that established the music room’s Renaissance character. They failed to find an antique Renaissance ceiling and floor, however, and instead commissioned the Parisian designer Armand Albert Rateau to fabricate reproductions inspired by examples at the guardroom of the historic Château de Cheverny near Paris.Of particular importance in the room’s furnishings are several significant masterpieces, including the Flemish tapestry The Prince of Malice (ca. 1470–80), Tilman Riemenschneider's early sixteenth-century lindenwood sculpture Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon, and El Greco's early seventeenth-century Visitation.

The Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks concert series, which was inaugurated by the Blisses in 1946, continues to this day. These concerts, as well as a popular lecture series, are held in this room. It is a delight to hear chamber music in a setting for which the compositions were composed, by candlelight enhanced by the soft effects of table lamps. No modern concert hall can convey such an atmosphere.

An event of international significance took place at Dumbarton Oaks. In the late summer of 1944, Dumbarton Oaks hosted the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, an international meeting that laid the groundwork for the creation of the United Nations.

The magnificent gardens, designed by Beatrix Farrand, are the most visited attraction at Dumbarton Oaks. The gardens are open daily from 2 pm, except Mondays. Admission is charged from March 15 through October 31 (free during the winter season). Entrance at R and 31st Streets.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Palace of Wonders

UPDATE: Sadly now closed!

1210 H St NE
202.398.7469; open seven nights a week

Dear blog readers: please bear in mind that I'm not making this up. Most of what follows is quoted verbatim from the
Palace of Wonders
web site.

The Palace of Wonders is the ONLY dedicated
1) vaudeville stage
2) museum-of-oddities &
3) full bar
in the

Every single week there is a new line-up of the raciest Side-Show, Burlesque, Circus, Vaudeville and Odd-Ball acts performing today! Monthly shows from the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow, The Skullduggery & Skin Show, Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, The Evil Come Evil Go Go Show, The Dutch Oven Burlesque show, Belly Dancing, the Weirdo Show & Wasabassco Burlesque.

Is you head about to explode at the mere mention of all that fabulosity? Well, let's narrow it down and focus on the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow. Sword swallower and fire breather extraordinaire TYLER FYRE, and the dominatrix of danger, THRILL KILL JILL, are the headliners. Thrill Kill Jill works with a 60-pound boa constrictor that once bit her on the face in the middle of her act, drawing blood (the consummate professional, Thrill Kill Jill went on with her show). Take a gander at one of her performances:

Well, OK, that takes care of the vaudeville stage part, so we'll move right along to the museum of oddities:

The Museum at Palace of Wonders recreates the great days of 19th century Dime Museums. Featuring the largest collection of the strange, the weird, the odd, the bizarre and the unusual, the Museum houses over half a thousand exotic artifacts from all over the globe.

Display cases overflow with odd treasures. Very Odd.

Oh yeah. I almost forgot. It's also a bar, so they serve drinks.

Now who says Washington is a stuffy, buttoned up town?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Marian Anderson Tribute Concert

On Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson performed outdoors to a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial, having been barred because of her race from singing at Constitution Hall. It was an iconic moment in the civil rights struggle. Seventy years later, on Easter Sunday, 2009, Denyce Graves, a Washington native and one of the world's most celebrated mezzo-sopranos, sang portions of Anderson’s 1939 program in a tribute to the great African American contralto, whom Graves described as her hero.

“It is the honor of my life and my career to be celebrating this day of freedom with you,” Graves said while wearing a sleeveless silk gown that Anderson had given her.

General Colin Powell, of Jamaican ancestry and the son of immigrants, watched Graves perform before he led a naturalization ceremony for 191 candidates for U.S. citizenship. Powell, who broke the color barrier as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, later, as secretary of state, was the keynote speaker. He described the last paragraph of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech as “almost a prayer” after he recited its words:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Anish Kapoor's S-Curve

Through July 19, 2009, visitors may see themselves and their surroundings distorted through a 7-foot-high, 32-foot-long polished metal double curve sculpture installed in the Sackler Gallery’s entrance pavilion. London based Anish Kapoor (born in Bombay, 1954) is renowned for his subtle use of pure form, and his 2006 sculpture S-Curve transforms the sometimes stuffy and serious Sackler Gallery’s permanent collection of classical and ancient Asian masterworks. As enjoyable as a fun-house mirror!

Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW;
202-.633.1000 (Metro: Smithsonian; free entry to museum)