Category Archives: Washington, D.C.

The frozen tundra of the National Mall

I was on the Mall today and am here to say it was COLD, and with a bone chilling wind to add insult to injury. I must say it kept the tourists away, even on MLK Jr. weekend. Hours later my ears are still ringing.

Last March I took a pic of what was then the hole that will eventually become the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Well, ten months later we still have a hole but it is starting to fill up.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, January 2014

National Museum of African American History and Culture construction site, January 2014

I have no doubt that they will do a great job. A few months ago the Smithsonian folks were at the Brooklyn Museum appraising people’s artifacts. Earlier this month they were doing the same thing in Fort Lauderdale while I was down there. It is going to be a varied and disparate collection. The only thing that concerns me is that the Mall, especially this part of the Mall, is on low ground and is susceptible to flooding.

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DC doings

The entranceway of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's Dupont Circle house

The entranceway of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s Dupont Circle house

I am sorry for the lack of posts this week, but I have been busy. I am in Washington doing research at the Library of Congress for my Joseph Hawley book. The Hayfoot and I have also been hitting some Theodore Roosevelt-related sites. They have not been posted yet, but I am writing a series of posts for the Roosevelt Birthplace Facebook page about various Roosevelt-in-Washington places. Look for those later this week on the TRB Facebook page.

We intentionally chose three in the Dupont Circle area to make it easier logistically. When we visited Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s house (2009 Massachusetts Avenue, NW), a dour lady from the Washington Legal Foundation, the site’s current occupant, told us it is not a public space and shut the door in our faces. Oh well. We had a good laugh about it.

My table at the Library of Congress

My table at the Library of Congress

The book is very much in the nascent stages but it is finally starting to gel. Looking at reels and reels of microfilm is exhausting but the hardest part was realizing the scope and tome of the book. I had that epiphany the other night and when I did the load got a lot lighter. I guess the whole thing from start to finish will be a process with forward and backward steps. It is amazing what can happen when you just start.

Working on this book project and writing content for the TRB website, along with my volunteering duties at the site, are going to be my intellectual pursuits for 2014. Despite a few crises of confidence it has been so far so good.

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Filed under Joseph Roswell Hawley, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace (NPS), Uncategorized, Washington, D.C.

Capitol Dome gets facelift

The video above gives an overview of the work currently underway to repair the many cracks in the U.S. Capitol dome. I had not realized that so much work was needed. The undertaking is a joint project of two construction companies that have worked on the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument, WW2 Memorial, and the National Gallery of Art, among other things. I hope the foundation of the building is structurally sound. It would seem everything else is for nought unless that were the case. A good book on the Capitol if one were looking for something to read this winter is Guy Gugliotta’s Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War. If nothing else, you will be comforted by its “the more things change, the more they stay the same” lesson.

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The Frederick Douglass house

The other day I mentioned that the Hayfoot and I took a Civil War metro trip to the Frederick Douglass House in Washington DC.. Here are a few pics.

Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass

Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass

Fittingly given the man who lived in it, the house sits on this high ground. Douglass and his wife, Anne Murray, moved here in September 1877. Anne died and Frederick lived here with his second wife until his death in February 1895. He died in the house. The National Park Service gained jurisdiction of Cedar Hill in 1962 during the Civil War Centennial.

The Strawfoot at Cedar Hill

The Hayfoot has a knack for taking photos when I am unaware. The visit to the Douglass house bookended neatly with our visit to the Lincoln Cottage in late May. They were two of the highlights of the summer.

It takes some effort and perseverance to visit these more off-the-beaten-path places in the Capital. So many people just do the Mall and leave it at that. There is so much else to see if one is willing to put in the time and effort.

The Capitol Building from the front yard

The Capitol Building from the front yard

As at the Lincoln Cottage, one gets a view of the Capitol Building from the grounds.

It is best to get tickets in advance for either site to make sure you get the tour of the houses; the interiors ar accessible only by guided tour. At both places the interpretation was top notch. As a volunteer myself with the NPS, I can say that a good interpreter makes all the difference.

This was the view from the second story window. You can see part of the Anacostia neighborhood in the distance. This trip was doubly special because my mother was born in the neighborhood. My grandfather worked in the nearby Washington Navy Yard during the Depression and Second World War.

Visiting here had the added effect of getting me to renew my Ancestry account, which expired at the beginning of the summer. These past few nights I have been researching my family history while listening to the pennant races on MLB TV. I just loved that my mother lived so close to here.

Douglass's man cave

Douglass’s man cave

This stone cabin out back is where the great human rights leader came to get away from the grandkids and endless line of visitors who hoped for an audience with him. There was an extensive personal library in the house as well. I don’t think I fully understood Douglass the Intellectual until coming here. There is no substitute for visiting historical sites.

the grounds

the grounds

This photograph in the rear gives a sense of the size of the grounds. For an African American to own such a property in the nineteenth century was remarkable.

Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895

Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895

This was inside the visitors center. The NPS staff was knowledgable and helpful. My one criticism is that the film, which appeared to be from the early 1980s, is a tad dated. Hopefully they will remedy that in the future. The Douglass bicentennial, a short five years away, seems a good opportunity to do so.

When I was a graduate student I was taking a course on the Gilded Age and asked the professor what he considered the best Douglass biographies. He said there were a few competent ones, but that an authoritative one is still waiting to be written. We will see what happens in the next few years.

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One day in August

The Hayfoot and I were walking across the Mall from the National Museum of American History yesterday on our way to the FDR Memorial when, crossing Independence Avenue, we heard a tap-tap-tapping sound emanating from the direction of the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. The MLK statue is one of those disasters so jarringly off in its size and scope, so inappropriate for the man it is meant to honor, so . . . wrong, that it is almost magnificent. Its inappropriateness was all the more obvious after having just left the museum, where we had just seen the Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963″ exhibit.

The tapping we heard was somehow appropriate for the still new memorial: it was the engravers chipping away the original, paraphrased “drum major” inscription that angered so many. A ranger told us that the work is all but complete, and that the finishing touches will be in place in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington in a few weeks.

MLK Jr Memorial from rear, with scaffolding and covering, 5 August 2013

MLK Jr Memorial from rear, with scaffolding and covering, 5 August 2013

. . . and from the front

. . . and from the front

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Filed under Monuments and Statuary, Washington, D.C.

Sucking in the 70s

Twin Towers seen from New Jersey Turnpike, 1973

Twin Towers seen from New Jersey Turnpike, 1973

Since the financial meltdown of 2008, New York City has lost a little of the luster it had in the go, go 90s. The subway wait is a bit longer. Trash cans in the parks seem to be emptied a little less frequently, and the grass allowed to grow a little taller between cuts. Overall, everything is a little bit rougher around the edges. Still, it is nothing like the 1970s. It is difficult to convey to the under thirty-five crowd the depths to which New York City had fallen in that long time ago era. We are talking about the Big Apple as depicted in such films as Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, and Taxi Driver. One thing that is important to keep in mind about the 1970s, though, is that while the city was falling apart millions of people were still living happy and productive lives despite the crime, inflation, garbage strikes, and long gas lines. The Documerica Photo Project captured New Yorkers, and indeed millions of other Americans, as they went about their business. An exhibit of a portion of the nearly 22,000 photographs taken is currently on display at the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archive Building in Washington D. C. through September 8. Check out some of the photos of that long ago New York here.

(image/National Archives)

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Filed under Film, Sound, & Photography, Museums, Washington, D.C.

Monday morning distraction

A friend sent this to me the other day and I thought I would post here as a jumpstart to the week.

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The daily art

I am typing this from the public plaza at the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum. This was the site of the old Patent Office, where Walt Whitman and Clara Barton both worked at different times. I had an interesting conversation with the ladies in the Luce Foundation Center, during which they showed me some great turn of the twentieth century photographs of that portion of the building. The Smithsonian did an extensive renovation in the early 2,000s, but much remains the same. Even the Luce visible storage area has the look it did previously; if Patent Office officials could come back to life they would know where they are. Many visitors never make their way all the way up here.

One Life: Martin Luther King Jr. opened late last month and will be running through 1 June 2014. I was taken back by the immediacy of the photographs, most of which are now more than half a century old. For better or worse I have always interpreted art through a historical context and so these galleries are right up my alley. The Smithsonian staff have done a great job rotating the collection; each time I come there is always something new to see. Here were my two favorites for today:

The France Croissee, Romaine Brooks

The France Croissee, by Romaine Brooks

I am hoping that the World War One centennial does for our understanding of the Great War what the sesquicentennial has been doing for the American Civil War. We deserve more than the lions led by donkeys interpretation of 1914-1918,  just as we deserved more than the moonlight and magnolias version of the War of the Rebellion we had to put up with until not that long ago. Oddly, Romaine Brooks was not American; she was born in Italy (1874) and died in France (1970). As much as I love the painting, I found it curious that it was in the American Art Museum until learning it was a gift of the artist. The Barton/Red Cross angle is a great piece of serendipity. The gauntness in the cheeks is haunting.

Town Square, by O. Louis Guglielmi

Town Square, by O. Louis Guglielmi

The Hopper-esque Town Square was painted by another artist not born the United States, though O. Louis Guglielmi eventually did move to America. It is not displayed here, but the painting is housed in a frame labeled WPA Federal Art Project. As you might guess, the statue and GAR Hall are what caught my attention. Painted in the mid-1930s, in the depth of the Depression, Town Square captures the bleakness of the era. Guglielmi seems to commenting on an America that is no more, economically and otherwise. The Civil War had been over for seventy years by this time, about the same amount of time as between WW2 and today. I don’t imagine there were too many GAR members left by this time, just as the Greatest Generation has now just about passed on.

(images/Smithsonian American Art Museum)

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Monday evening winding down

I just got back from DC. The Hayfoot and I had a good time. Being in the nation’s capitol on Memorial Day Weekend is always special. It was a great beginning to the summer. For starters, I have made it my goal to dedicate Memorial through Labor Day to reading novels and short stories, fiction being something I have gotten away from in recent years. To that end, I kicked off by reading John Williams’s 1965 Stoner on the bus ride up ad down. It is sort of The Death of Ivan Ilych if the protagonist were a frustrated academic living in Middle America in the early to mid twentieth century. I think this fiction thing is going to work out well; there is a lot of literature, in different genres, I wasn’t ready for as a younger person that I think will speak to me now.

I also got an interesting email from my sister on Saturday. She received a phone call out of the blue from a woman who is distantly related to us. I began my genealogy in earnest about a year ago and have become something of the de facto family historian. My sister gave me the woman’s contact information and I intend to call her now that I am back in town.

As I mentioned the other day, we planned to visit the Old Soldiers Home/Lincoln Cottage on Saturday. We did, and had a great time. The wife surprised me by arranging a visit to Manassas on Sunday with some friends of ours. I had never visited Bull Run before. It was a special day.

Here, quickly, are a few pics from the weekend.

Abe and the Hayfoot, Lincoln Cottage

Abe and the Hayfoot, Lincoln Cottage

President and Mrs. Lincoln spent more than a quarter of their time at the Old Soldiers Home. The Home, the grounds of which include the presidential cottage, lies about 3 1/2 miles north of the White House. Here Lincoln was able to get away somewhat from the city’s oppressive heat and endless stream of supplicants asking for favors.

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There was little respite, however. In a painful reminder of the war’s human cost, this cemetery was within sight of the cottage. From the window of his study Lincoln could see the graves adding up.

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Manassas

Manassas

This monument atop Henry Hill was dedicated in June 1865 and was one of the very first constructed.

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A living history unit representing the 14th Brooklyn was in attendance.

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The 14th was one of many New York zouave units at both First and Second Manassas. In July 2011 I blogged about the rededication of the New York monuments at Bull Run during the Centennial fifty years ago. It meant a lot to finally see them in person.

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Bull Run Creek

Bull Run Creek

Overall it was some weekend. Thank you honey, and to everyone else who made it happen.

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Good Friday

I’m sorry about the lack of posts this week. I have been concentrating on my talk for the New York History conference in Cooperstown later this spring. Next week at my college I’ll be giving something of a preliminary talk during our annual faculty research program. It is an opportunity to run through some ideas before I give the “real” talk come June. I will be talking about Theodore Roosevelt Sr., William E. Dodge Jr. and what they did for the Union war effort. The basics are pretty much in place but I have more to do before it is there. I am fascinated by New York’s role in the war, and how that role played out in the ensuing decades as well. It is something I think we don’t fully understand.

Today I was actually holed up with a minor ailment, fighting off a cold and minor fever. On the Hayfoot’s instructions I have been drinking warm milk spiked with turmeric. It is a great elixir for staving off illness and infection. I have taken the opportunity to get a quarter of the way through David Eisenhower’s Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969. I read memoirs with the caveat that they are–by definition–self-serving but I must say Ike’s grandson does an excellent job of recounting the president’s time after he left the Oval Office. David is a very learned and thoughtful individual who knows his history.

I have been t the Eisenhower Farm several times over the years, but the book fills in significant gaps in my knowledge. In the Eisenhower house one sees a fair amount of Civil War memorabilia, and obviously his ties to Gettysburg go back to his years as a West Point cadet, but I had never quite put two and two together that his retirement in January 1961 coincided with the Centennial. I cannot help but wonder what he thought, if anything, about the way it all unraveled. He did create the Centennial Commission in 1957 after all. The book goes well with Evan Thomas’s Ike’s Bluff, which I finished a few weeks back.

Since 2008 and my first trip to Gettysburg I have been focusing so intently on the Civil War. It has been good because I feel I know much more than I did even just half a decade ago. Still, I feel I’ve lost some edge and my well-roundedness. It is important to focus on other areas to achieve greater wisdom. I am trying to do that this spring.

Going Home is actually the second memoir I have read in the past few days. Last week I downloaded Cynthia Helms’s An Intriguing Life to my Kindle from the library. Ms. Helms was married to CIA director Richard Helms and has certainly led a, well, intriguing life. Born in England in 1923 she served in the WRENS during the war before moving to America and raising a family. In her memoir she recounts transporting Queen Elizabeth ( i.e. later the Queen Mum) in her craft out to a waiting ship for a royal inspection. She also mentions seeing the Supreme Allied Commander, one Dwight Eisenhower, in the lead-up to the D-Day invasion. She was in her late teens and early twenties, understand. Now 90, Ms. Helms lives still lives in Washington and is still going strong; she seems to have known everyone who lived and served in the capitol going back decades. It is a witty and chatty look at the nation’s recent history as s told by someone who saw it. I feel I know Washington a little better than I did before. The best thing you can say about a book is that it brings you to a different level when you are done with it.

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