Friday, February 20, 2009

Temperance Fountain (c. 1880)

Henry Cogswell, a wealthy San Franciscan who made a fortune from real estate and mining stocks, donated elaborate water fountains to approximately 15 cities across the United States. His belief that Americans drank too much alcohol was made manifest in each fountain installation.

No two were alike. At Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street, a few steps from the National Archives building, a water crane sits atop the DC temperance fountain, which is no longer operational. In the center are two large dolphins, and at the top of each of the four sides is a cardinal virtue: Faith, Hope, Charity – and “Temperance.”

Washington’s Cogswell Society was a raucous, toungue-in-cheek all male organization that met on the first Friday of each month. Membership was by invitation only, and strictly limited to a dozen men. Former members were Mark Russell and John McLaughlin. At their luncheons the master of ceremonies was known as the “lead (as in the metal) Heron,” a reference to the water bird atop the fountain. He would then offer a toast to Temperance, and the proper response was, “I'll drink to that” (while raising a glass of wine). Corny jokes and ribald humor would then ensue. It is also an odd irony that, for years, an Apex Liquor Store stood right on Indiana Square, where DC’s Cogswell Temperance Fountain is installed.

Presidential Disobedience: Woodrow Wilson maintained a small wine cellar in his home on S Street NW after his retirement, even though it was during his tenure as president that the 18th Amendment was enacted. Warren Harding, though he had voted for the 18th Amendment under pressure from the Anti-Saloon League, served highballs to his Poker Cabinet. Herbert Hoover found a perfectly legal dodge: While secretary of commerce under Harding, he would often drop by the Belgian Embassy at cocktail time, where the principle of Diplomatic Immunity applied.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Plaster Working Model of Lincoln Statue

On view February 12, 2009 through February 12, 2010
National Gallery of Art: Main Floor of West Building
Constitution Avenue between 4th & 7th Streets
Mon-Sat 10:00a-5:00p, Sun 11:00a-6:00p.

The 6-foot-high plaster working model (1916) of the celebrated seated Lincoln statue, designed for the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, is on view in honor of President Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. Crafted by American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), the plaster model, which was used for the carving of the final 19-foot-high figure, is being lent to a museum for the first time by Chesterwood Estate and Museum, French's country home and studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. French, who studied many of Mathew Brady's photographs of Lincoln, depicted the president as somewhat worn and pensive. The marble statue was carved by the Piccirilli Brothers of New York City in a studio in the Bronx from 28 blocks of white Georgia marble.

The plaster sculpture is joined by the wood model of the Lincoln Memorial that renowned American architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924) used to bolster his entry in the memorial’s design competition. It is the original scale model of the actual building, which was inspired by the Parthenon in Athens and erected on the National Mall between 1914 and 1922. The works are accompanied by life-size photo banners of the final Lincoln sculpture and a watercolor of the East Elevation of the Lincoln Memorial by Jules Guerin, who executed the murals inside the Memorial.

About the statue: It has long been claimed that Lincoln is shown using sign language to represent his initials, with his closed left hand shaped to form an "A" and his right hand to form an "L". The National Park Service denies both stories, calling them urban legends. However, historian Gerald Prokopowicz writes that, while it is not clear that sculptor Daniel Chester French meant Lincoln's hands to be formed into sign language versions of his initials, it is possible that French did intend it, because he was familiar with American Sign Language, and he would have had a reason to do so – to pay tribute to Lincoln for having signed the federal legislation giving Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf, the authority to grant college degrees. The National Geographic Society's publication, "Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C.," states that Daniel Chester French had a son who was deaf and thus had a working knowledge of sign language.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Woodrow Wilson House

2340 S Street, NW (north of Sheridan Circle off Mass. Ave.); 202.387.4062
$7.50 Adults; $6.50 Seniors; $3.00 Students; Free for National Trust members.
10a-4p, Tues-Sun.; closed Mondays and major holidays.

A property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Woodrow Wilson House is a national historic landmark museum that focuses on President Woodrow Wilson's Washington years (1912-1924). It was the final home of our 28th president and remains today as it was when he lived there.

Built in 1915 in the Kalorama neighborhood (Embassy Row), the brick house is a fine example of Georgian revival style. After purchasing the property in 1921, Wilson and his wife Edith remodeled it to suit their needs. The structure and its interior have been carefully preserved to reflect the era of their residence here. Although Wilson died in 1924, his widow lived on in the house until her death in 1961, on the very day she was to be the guest of honor at the opening of the Woodrow Wilson bridge that spans the Potomac just south of Washington.

Guided tours are preceded by a video presentation, using historical footage that enables visitors to understand the house and artifacts in the context of their time.

Trivia: The Steinway grand piano in the drawing room is the one that Wilson moved into the White House from his home in Princeton, NJ. When the Wilsons left the White House for S Street in 1921, they took it with them. The Steinway factory restored this piano in 2007.

Facts about Woodrow Wilson:
Was the first lay (non-minister) president of Princeton University.
Established the national observance of Mother's Day.
Is the image on the $100,000 bill (no longer in circulation).
First president to hold an earned doctoral degree.
During his term: the Internal Revenue Service was created, income tax was initiated, women received the right to vote (19th amendment of 1920) and prohibition was ratified in 1919.

Is buried inside Washington National Cathedral, and remains the only president to be buried in DC. His tomb stands in front of a stained glass window titled "War & Peace," in reference to his peace efforts after WWI.

On December 28, 1923, Woodrow Wilson’s 67th birthday, the former President found an extraordinary present outside his house on S Street: a brand new Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Touring Car. The car was a gift from four of Wilson’s closest Princeton friends. The order for this new Rolls Royce was placed on September 10, 1923. The car had special coachwork: an “Oxford” six passenger summer touring body with narrow orange trim on black paint (representing the Princeton colors) and a winter limousine body. The six cylinder car held 25 gallons of gas, could get six miles per gallon and cost $12,782.75.

In this photo, Wilson's 1923 Rolls Royce is shown as the first car to cross the newly opened 2006 Woodrow Wilson Bridge spanning the Potomac in Washington, DC. The car is on view at Wilson's home on S Street.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Old Patent Office Building

The historic Old Patent Office Building covers the entire area between F and G Streets NW, and 7th and 9th Streets in downtown Washington, DC. It was the third public building constructed in the new city of Washington, after the White House and the Capitol. Today it houses two art museums of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, both part of the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture
Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown (Red, Green and Yellow lines)
Hours: 11:30a–7p daily; 202-633-1000

Designed in Greek Revival style, the massive structure took over thirty years to complete after construction began in 1836. For decades the Patent Office building also held the government’s historical, scientific and art collections, including important documents such as the Declaration of Independence (details below). Other government agencies were also housed here, among them the Department of the Interior.

The 3-story library after recent restoration; the photo below it dates from 1928.

Six weeks before his death, President Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Ball was held in the third floor Great Hall in March, 1865. In the 1850s, Clara Barton worked here as a clerk to the Patent Commissioner, the first woman federal employee to receive equal pay. During the Civil War, the building was turned into military barracks, hospital, and morgue; wounded soldiers lay on cots in third-floor galleries, among glass cases holding models of inventions that had been submitted with patent applications. The American poet Walt Whitman frequented the place and tended to wounded men, often reading aloud poetry and prose. He referred to the structure as “the noblest of Washington Buildings.”

Once the largest public room in America, the Great Hall was originally conceived to display miniature models required of inventors when the building housed the United States Patent Office. The space also served as the first national museum, and it was here that the Declaration of Independence was publically displayed between 1841 and 1871. The guests at Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball passed through this room to join the receiving line in what is now called the Lincoln Gallery. Following a disastrous fire in 1877, which severely damaged other portions of the third floor of the building, this area was redone in the American Victorian Renaissance style to which it has now been restored.

The Patent Office continued to occupy the building until 1932, when the Civil Service Commission moved in. In the early 1950s the structure was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot, but the budding historic preservation movement saved it. In 1965 the building received National Historic Landmark designation.

In 1958, United States Congress transferred the building to the Smithsonian Institution for housing its art collections, and the new museum opened in 1968. After serving as home for American art for over three decades, the building closed for renovations from 2000-2006. A new glass roofed inner courtyard, designed by Norman Foster, was completed in November, 2007. The undulating glass ceiling is made from individually designed panes of glass, no two alike.

Recently named the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, the Patent Office Building is once again a part of the cultural life of Washington. The building received the 2008 Preservation Award from the Philadelphia based Victorian Society in America.

Just two examples of art displayed inside, one from each museum:

Marble bust of Benjamin Franklin by an unknown artist (National Portrait Gallery). The detail is amazing and astonishingly life-like.

"The Throne of the Third Heaven
of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly"

In a rented garage, night janitor James Hampton (1909-1964) crafted this amazing 180-piece collection of tin foil clad objects that compose his life work, inspired by visions and the Book of Revelation. He worked on it nights and weekends from 1950-1964. It was not discovered until after his death, when his landlord was successful in getting the Smithsonian Institution to display it in the American Art Museum, where it remains a popular attraction (first floor, west wing).

"Fear Not" is the biblical exhortation that appears above the assemblage (not all of the items are on display). Uneducated and reclusive, Hampton expressed his fundamentalist beliefs by constructing The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, conceived as a monument to Jesus. That he lived in Washington, D.C., influenced Hampton's aspirations, for he believed that Jesus should be memorialized in the nation's city of monuments.

Hampton ingeniously appropriated discarded materials: old wood furniture, cardboard, and glass (including light bulbs -- representing Jesus as the Light of the World) were transformed and unified by the gleam of aluminum and gold foils. Praised as America's greatest work of visionary art, Hampton's Throne embodies the creative power of faith.

A personal comment: I think this work of art is as awe-inspiring as any object in a Washington museum. It is at once wonderful, edgy, visionary, exciting and more than slightly demented. I know of nothing else like it. Worth seeking out!

A detailed article about this work of art can be found at:

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dolley Madison House

Soon after James Madison's death, Dolley Madison had to sell Montpelier, her husband's central Virginia estate, primarily to settle the debts of her profligate son (from her former marriage). She inherited a row house (pictured above with its iron balcony) on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, as part of Madison's estate and moved there in 1837.

Madison Place borders the east side of Washington’s famed Lafayette Square, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The Dolley Madison House, an unpretentious Federal-style structure at the northeast corner of the square (Madison Place and H Street), was built in 1818-20 by Richard Cutts, a Massachusetts congressman who was Dolley's brother-in-law (he was married to Dolley’s sister, Anna). Cutts, Comptroller of the U.S. Treasury from 1817 to 1829, had borrowed money for the construction of this house from James Madison. In 1829, after Cutts had lost most of his fortune in unsuccessful business ventures, ownership of the house reverted to Madison, although he never lived in it. Upon James Madison’s death in 1836, Dolley inherited the house and moved here to spend virtually her entire widowhood. During her residence, from 1837 until her death in 1849, she advised various First Ladies and played a prominent role in Washington society.

The house served as home of the Cosmos Club from 1886 to 1952. The historic character of the house was subsequently preserved in the 1960s through the efforts of another first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, architect John Carl Warnecke, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The restored building is painted yellow and features a distinctive 19th-century iron balcony. Now federally owned and used by the U.S. Court of Claims, it is not open for public visits.

One of several enslaved persons who accompanied Dolley Madison from Montpelier upon her return to Washington was Paul Jennings. Like Dolley Madison, Paul Jennings had previously lived on Lafayette Square (in the White House, see note at end of post) while James Madison served as President. In dire financial straits after settling debts of her profligate son (by her first marriage), Dolley Madison had to sell Paul Jennings in 1847; later that same year he was purchased by her Lafayette Square neighbor Daniel Webster. Jennings eventually bought his freedom from Webster for $120 (in installments of $8 per month) and went on to settle in Washington, making his home near the corner of L and 18th Streets. As a free man he took a job at the Pension Office.

In 1865, Paul Jennings wrote the first memoir ever written about life in the White House, titled A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison; it was first published as a magazine article. In those paragraphs he also described what it was like to see the former First Lady living in poverty on Lafayette Square after her husband's death. He wrote: "Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored. In the last days of her life she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered for the necessities of life. While I was a servant for Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in his house I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket."

Note: Presidents Jefferson, Tyler, Polk, Taylor and Jackson also had slaves working for them in the White House. In the early days of the union presidents needed 10 or12 people to run the domestic quarters of the White House; that staff was often a mix of whites, free blacks and slaves. Paul Jennings (1799-1874), the son of a white English trader and a slave woman of mixed African and Indian blood, was born into slavery on Madison's Montpelier estate; a favorite in the Madison household, he came to Washington (at the age of ten) with Madison during his term as president to serve as a footman. He worked in the White House dining room, acted as a messenger and did whatever else was needed. In the words of Jennings, "When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved into the White House; the east room was not finished, and Pennsylvania Avenue was not paved, but was always in an awful condition from either mud or dust. The city was a dreary place."

After the 1814 British attack on Washington during Madison's presidency, once peace was eventually declared Jennings played the "President's March" on the violin. From Jennings’ 1865 memoir we learn that "Madison never had fewer than seven horses in his Washington stables while President." Returning to Montpelier after Madison’s presidency, from the same source we learn, "I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years. For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined on a couch; but his mind was bright, and with his numerous visitors he talked with as much animation and strength of voice as I ever heard him in his best days. I was present when he died. That morning Sukey brought him his breakfast, as usual. He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, ‘What is the matter, Uncle James?’ ‘Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.’ His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out. He was eighty-four years old, and was followed to the grave by an immense procession of white and colored people."

Jennings went on to see his sons fight with the Union Army during the Civil War and died in northwest Washington at the age of 75.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lincoln Cottage

Located four miles from the White House on a picturesque hilltop in Washington, DC, President Lincoln's Cottage is the most significant historic site directly associated with Lincoln's presidency, aside from the White House. During the Civil War, President Lincoln and his family resided here from June to November of 1862, 1863 and 1864. The 34-room Lincoln Cottage is located on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home, which is the residence of 1,200 retired members of the armed forces. The cottage features original furnishings and woodwork, authentic to the Civil War Era and the "summer White House" of 1862-64.

The Visitor Education Center, adjacent to the cottage, offers exhibits that delve into the history of the Soldiers’ Home, wartime Washington, and President Lincoln’s extraordinary leadership skills. An exhibition gallery presents rotating displays of objects related to Lincoln and his legacy. A special exhibit for the Lincoln bicentennial, "My Abraham Lincoln," will open on Lincoln's 200th birthday, February 12, 2009, and stay open through the end of the year. In “Lincoln’s Cabinet Room,” visitors can participate in an innovative interactive experience exploring Lincoln’s toughest decisions related to emancipation, politics, and military affairs.

The Lincoln Cottage is a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and opened to the public in February, 2008, after a 7-year $15 million restoration. Visitors must enter through the “Eagle Gate” of the Soldier's Home, at the intersection of Rock Creek Church Road NW and Upshur Street NW.

Guided tour of the cottage lasts one hour. Each tour limited to 20 participants.
$12 per adult, $5 for children aged 6-12; $8 National Trust members.
Mon-Sat: Visitor Center 9:30a-4:30p; Cottage Tours: First tour at 10:00a, last tour at 3:00p.
Sun: Visitor Center 11:30a-5:30p; Cottage Tours: First tour at noon, Last tour at 4:00p.
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Free on site parking.