Historic D.C. Washington Returns: Christmas 1783

June 18, 2013

When George Washington rode off to war in June 1776, he told Martha he would come back home in the fall. Instead, he didn’t return to Mount Vernon until December 1783, eight years later.

The war went on much longer than General Washington, or anyone else, had thought it would. Even the British felt the skirmish with renegade colonists could be settled in months. During this long and hard-fought war, Washington proved to be a brilliant military strategist, a man of impeccable integrity and a gifted leader who was able to rally his troops during even the bleakest weeks and months of the long war.

In the fall of 1783, when Washington got word that the Treaty of Paris was signed, he and his troops waited outside of New York City until the ships carrying the remaining 20,000 British troops and the thousands of colonists loyal to the king set sail for England. Then, they rode into the city for a triumphal march and a series of celebrations and parties in their honor. Washington’s many fans urged him to declare himself king or emperor, but he reminded them of the freedom they had just fought so hard to win, and instead told them he was going home to Mount Vernon. Some of his officers formed the Society of the Cincinnati, in honor of Washington, who like the Roman General Cincinnatus, after his great war victories, resigned as wartime consul of Rome and went home to his farm and “his plough.”

When it came the time to say goodbye to the “band of brothers” who prevailed with him in victory against incredible odds, Washington set up a farewell party at Fraunces Tavern in New York City. He got up to make his farewell speech and his voice broke. “With a heart full of gratitude,” he said, “ I now take leave of you. I devoutly wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” Each man, one by one, embraced their leader and parted with tears in their eyes. Washington resigned his commission in Annapolis and attended a ball in his honor, making sure to dance every set, so that the ladies could say that had danced with him. Then, he set out from Annapolis on horseback and reached Mount Vernon as the sun was setting on Christmas Eve. He and Martha were sure that they would settle down to farm the plantation and grow old together at Mount Vernon, but six years later, he was unanimously elected as the first president of the new republic he fought to create.

When the Treaty of Paris was signed, King George asked an American visitor what General Washington planned to do after the war. When the man replied that the general would probably go back home to his farm, the king said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

1960: Looking Back a Half Century

May 3, 2012

Depending on how old you are, 1960 may not seem so long ago, but the world was quite a different place then. As far a the global scene went, France was busy shedding colonies in Africa, the U.S. was making treaties with Japan, and Nikita Kruschev was acting up at the UN, although the “banging his shoe” incident was probably trumped up and passed along because it made such a good story. The U.S.S.R. already had already initiated the space race, and in 1960 launched a satellite with two dogs on board. This distressed the U.S. almost as much as the Russians shooting down Francis Gary Powers, as he flew over Soviet air space in his U-2 spy plane.

College kids were complacent, although an interesting group called the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was organized by student activists at Shaw University, a black Baptist college in Georgia. American Express issued its first plastic credit card. Marshall McLuhan explained in brilliant theories just how invasive and influential mass media was. There were no cell phones and no PCs; the computers used in offices were huge, unwieldy, and very slow. Oh yes, and everybody smoked cigarettes in restaurants, offices, hotel rooms, and everywhere else. The connection between smoking and lung cancer, while suspected, had not yet been established and publicized.

A new British rock group, who called themselves The Beatles, made their first appearance on stage in Hamburg, Germany. Elvis Presley, who went into the Army to serve his country, was made a Sergeant, and his stint in the military didn’t seem to cut into his singing career. The images on TV were only clear in the major metropolitan areas and grainy to snowy elsewhere, but everybody was hooked on it by 1960. They watched Jack Paar on the Tonight Show, and when Lucille Ball divorced Desi Arnez, it seemed unthinkable to all the fans who loved the zany couple and their antics on “I Love Lucy”. Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking film “Psycho” opened in New York, of which the show scene, fifty years later, is still one of the scariest scenes in movie history.

Washington politics were in for a change. A dashing young senator from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, decided to run for president, outmatched his opponent Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debates, and won the presidency in November. He and his pregnant wife Jackie moved from their Georgetown house to the White House and brought the fresh air of youth, idealism, and hope to Washington.
Back then, investigative reporters pretty much considered the President’s private life “off limits”. It took years after John Kennedy was assassinated for his affairs with Marilyn Monroe and a mobster’s girlfriend, among others, to make the news. Even if the public had read it in the newspapers in the 1960’s, they wouldn’t have believed it, which is quite a statement on how the media and our perception of public figures have changed.
In December of 1960, the musical Camelot opened on Broadway and its brilliant cast went on to give 873 performances. If there’s one thing that even jaded Americans who were around in the 1960’s remember wistfully about the Kennedy presidency, it’s probably the reference to Camelot and its “one brief shining moment” in the pages of history.

The Good Gray Poet

November 3, 2011

As you leave the Dupont Circle Metro station’s north exit, you will see words carved into the granite walls — lines from a poem by Walt Whitman, called “The Wound Dresser.” Since it’s hard to get the whole inscription when you are riding the escalator, here it is:

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand;
I sit by the restless all the dark night — some are so young,
Some suffer so much — I recall the experience sweet and sad.

This was a subject Walt Whitman knew a lot about, since he served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. Already known as a journalist and poet, he first got involved after the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, where he went to take care of his brother who had been wounded in battle. There he met another impressive volunteer nurse, Clara Barton, with whom he would cross paths again in Washington. When Whitman arrived in the District to help out as a medical volunteer, the city’s public buildings were turned into crowded way stations for wounded soldiers. There were not enough doctors, and no formal nursing profession, so the military had to rely on recruits and volunteers. Even with that, doctors could not deal with the types of wounds inflicted by the advanced bullets and weapons of the war. The quickest solution to treat an infected limb — and save the soldier’s life — was to amputate. Meanwhile, the wounded were crowded into any shelters available, waiting for the meager medical help to arrive.

One of the most haunting passages in Whitman’s journal about his experiences during the war was his account of the makeshift hospital at the Old Patent Office in Washington. This building, recently restored to its original grandeur and serving as the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art, made for a bizarre hospital ward. The maze of long narrow galleries was originally created to hold glass display cases, which held wood and metal models of inventions submitted for patents. Wounded soldiers, sometimes as many as 800, were laid on cots arranged alongside the glass cases, creating a path so inspectors and inventors could still get through the maze to view and judge the models, stepping over the soldiers as they moved along. This was one of many hospitals where Whitman volunteered during the war, bringing food, paper and pens for the men and sometimes just staying on so a wounded soldier would not have to die alone.

Out of these terrible experiences came some good. The war encouraged many advances in medical science. Volunteer nurse Clara Barton went on to found the American Red Cross, an organization that we rely in times of national emergencies and disasters. Meanwhile, Walt Whitman, who continued to write poetry, supported himself with a job at the Department of the Interior. Ironically, when Secretary of the Interior James Harlan discovered that Whitman was the author of “Leaves of Grass,” he fired him, citing the poems as “damaging to the morals of men.” By that time, though, Whitman was revered as a poet and supporters rallied to his cause, soon securing him another government job.
Whitman’s war experiences earned him the title “the good gray poet,” and his poems about the Civil War are forever burned into our collective memory. There are many, among them “O Captain! My Captain!”, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and, of course, “The Wound Dresser.” And while his words carved on the subway’s wall describe the horrors of war, they also tell about human compassion, which will always be our saving grace.
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Cleveland Park

It’s hard to believe, but true. When Grover Cleveland was president, his young wife used to pick him up at the White House in a horse-drawn carriage and drive him home to their summer getaway in a leafy rural area that is now Cleveland Park. No Secret Service for President Cleveland, no bullet proof glass, no escort carriages leading or trailing the “presidential carriage.” As they drove home, they would pause to watch the girls at the National Cathedral School playing tennis.

Theirs was the only presidential wedding to ever take place in the White House, and even more unusual, the beautiful bride was 28 years younger than the bachelor president. When asked why he waited so long to marry, Cleveland said he had to wait for Frances Folsom to grow up.

As young as she was, Frances was the perfect First lady. She thrilled Washington society by observing the social season with exquisite parties and receptions. Besides, she was an accomplished pianist and photographer, and she read Latin and spoke German and French. Best of all, her political instincts were first rate. Aware that many women were entering the work force, Frances instituted Saturday Open Houses at the executive mansion, so the working women could drop by on their day off and shake hands with the wife of the President.

Like a lot of other people, the President and his wife felt they needed a place to escape the heat of Washington summers. They found respite in a 27-acre stone colonial in what is now the 3500 block of Newark Street. They transformed the home into a fairy-tale Victorian with double-decker porches and a roofline full of turrets, towers and gables. Frances named the home “Oakview” but the reporters called it “Red Top”, because they kept at a distance from the house and all they could spot through the trees were the fanciful red roofs. The house is gone now, but the neighborhood that kept the Cleveland’s name still sports an enviable supply of elaborate Victorian houses.

It’s not unusual that a First lady as pretty as Frances Folsom Cleveland was the darling of the press, whether she wanted the attention or not. Reporters referred to her as “Frankie”, a name she disliked as much as Jacqueline Kennedy was said to dislike “Jackie”. Worse yet, her photogenic face appeared on soap and cosmetic products. A political opponent of Cleveland’s once said, “I detest him so much, I don’t even think his wife is beautiful.” But he was in the minority.

While we know that Grover Cleveland was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, history books don’t tell us about the prescience of the President’s wife. When they were leaving the White House after Cleveland lost his bid for a second term, Frances said her goodbyes to the servants, but told them to take good care of everything, because they would be back in four years. And they were.

The Birth of the Computer, in Georgetown

Washingtonians may be surprised to know that the first computers were invented right here in Georgetown, and if you go to 1054 31st Street (now Canal Square), you will find a plaque marking the place where Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was located at the turn of the last century.

It all started when the federal government ran into problems taking the national census in 1880. The process took too long and was full of mistakes. So in 1886, the U.S. Census Office decided to hold a contest to see who could come up with a better system.

Herman Hollerith would have seemed an unlikely winner of such a contest when he was in grade school in Buffalo, NY. He had such a hard time in school that he used to hide from his teacher. His German immigrant parents took him out of school and got him a tutor, and this helped him realize his amazing potential. He entered college at the age of 15 and got a degree in mining engineering at the age of 19. Eventually, he got a doctorate from Columbia University, where he wrote his thesis about a very special invention of his, an electric tabulating machine. He got the idea from his girlfriend’s father, who told him about the French jacquard weaving machines which were set up with punch cards to automatically weave intricate repetitive patterns. Hollerith created his own punch card system of tabulation, and got a patent for the invention in 1889. When he entered the census office contest, his sample census took a fraction of the time of his nearest competitor. So instead of seven and a half years to do the U.S. census, Hollerith finished the initial count in six weeks, with the final tabulations completed in two and a half years. Better yet, he saved the government $5,000,000, which was a huge sum at that time.

In 1896, Hollerith started the Tabulating Machine Company. The first factory employed mostly women, who worked on their individual tabulators in a large open room. These women were called “computers,” because that was their job description. Hollerith’s business thrived, and his machines were sold to countries around the world for census taking. His fortunes grew, too, and he built a grand mansion in Georgetown at 1617 29th Street, overlooking the Potomac River. By the way, the home, which stayed in the family for 80 years, was on the market recently for $22,000,000.

While his magical machine was a big success, other innovators came up with similar inventions. He merged his company to diversify and broaden its hold on a diminishing market. When Herman retired in 1921, his successor, who happened to be a marketing ace, merged the company again and changed its name to International Business Machines. Yes, that’s IBM, otherwise known as Big Blue. And so, our own Herman Hollerith, the child who couldn’t spell in elementary school, went on to become the father of the modern computer, an invention that has made a revolutionary impact on the way we live and work.

The Making of a Museum: The Birth of the Smithsonian

July 26, 2011

It is ironic that the bastard son of the Duke of Northumberland left the family name on what was to become the largest museum complex in the world. There is still some mystery as to why James Smithson, a native Englishman who never visited the United States, left his fortune (approximately $510,000 in 1836) to create such an institution in America. It probably had to do with his own origins; he criticized the British aristocratic system and described the British monarchy as a “contemptible encumbrance.”

Smithson went through his early years using his mother’s name, Macie. He distinguished himself in school, and then as a scientist and leading mineralogist of his time. He even discovered a mineral, which later was named “Smithsonite.”

When Smithson inherited a large estate from his father, he began the process of changing his name to Smithson. Upon his death, his will stipulated that if his nephew died with no heirs (which his nephew did), Smithson’s fortune would go “to the United States of America, to found in Washington an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

While the gift was accepted by Congress in 1836, it took them 10 years to decide how to use it.
After much debate, Congress selected a site and an architect for the institution. The National Mall was a swampy mess at the time, dominated by a railroad station and crisscrossed by tracks; but it proved to be an excellent choice in the years to come.

The architect, James Renwick, was a gifted engineer who had never even studied architecture, but was already famous for his design of St. Peter’s Cathedral in New York City. He brought all his brilliance to bear on the creation of the Gothic revival building that quickly became known as “The Castle.” Since Smithson had been a scientist, Congress interpreted his gift as a place for scientific exploration and inquiry. The museum’s first curator was renowned scientist Joseph Henry, who was so devoted to building up the institution that he actually lived in its east wing from 1847 until his death in 1878.

In its early years, the museum amassed a huge collection of American memorabilia and was nicknamed “America’s attic.” But in 1886, a fire swept though the building, destroying the collection.

Fortunately, the building was restored and new collections began. In addition, auxiliary museums sprung up along the Mall to expand on a broader historic, artistic and educational theme. Today, the Smithsonian is made up of 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo. Each year, it is visited by 28 million people.

James Smithson, a wise investor who was able to swell his inheritance into a fortune, would no doubt be proud of what he started with his vague but determined bequest to a country he had never once seen.

On the other hand, you could say he got here 75 years after he died. Alexander Graham Bell, a regent of the Smithsonian at the time, went to Genoa, Italy, where Smithson was buried, and had the body exhumed and brought to Washington. James Smithson is now enshrined in a tomb in “The Castle,” where he can forever overlook the incredible legacy that must have outpaced even his greatest dreams.

The Making of a Museum

The beautifully conceived Beaux Arts building by architect Jules de Sibour, which now houses the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was once a grand apartment building. The six apartments in the McCormick Apartment Building each had 11,000 square feet of living space, 21 rooms, and six fireplaces. In present day Washington, a 2000 square foot apartment is considered very large, so these apartments were downright palatial in comparison. There were grand salons and servants’ quarters, and the tenants included, at various times, hostess Perle Mesta, Robert Woods Bliss of Dumbarton Oaks ,and Andrew W. Mellon, the multi-millionaire financier and art collector from Pittsburgh. One other inhabitant of the building was the British art collector, Baron Joseph Duveen, who was knighted in Great Britain because of the great many art masterpieces he donated to museums in his home country. His immense drawing rooms were filled with art treasures, and he and Mellon soon became friends. Lord Duveen was also a master salesman, who was able to drive up the prices of his own collections by his persuasive sales techniques. When Lord Duveen visited Mellon’s apartment, he would praise Mellon’s own paintings with great eloquence, and Mellon would say, “Lord Duveen, my pictures never look so good as when you are here.”

When Lord Duveen decided he wanted to sell the art collection to his friend, he gave Mellon the key to his apartment while he took off for a long ocean voyage. Mellon spent many happy hours in his friend’s apartment, and, when Duveen returned, Mellon bought the entire corpus and then set out to find a home for his growing personal collection.

This collection was a part of the cornerstone for the National Museum of Art, which Andrew Mellon gifted to the nation so that its capital city could have a museum to rank with the great galleries of Europe. Mellon chose John Russell Pope to design the neoclassical building, and, as he dedicated more and more pieces of art to the gallery, other collectors and art patrons stepped forward to contribute their collections to the museum-in-progress. This process has continued since the dedication of the building in 1939, right up to the present day. In 1978, the gallery was expanded with the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing, and today the galleries hold a monumental treasure of art works, along with visiting exhibits from all over the world.

Andrew Mellon never lived to see the museum completed. He was diagnosed with cancer when the project began, but he used all of his remaining strength and time to see that construction began. His museum is probably the only one of its prestige and magnitude in the world that is completely free to the public. Kudos to the vision and magnanimity of Andrew W. Mellon, and thanks, too, to his neighbor Lord Duveen.

Listening to the Paintings

Plato advised his students about the dangers of forming strong opinions when they were still very young and inexperienced. One such young Washingtonian learned this life lesson and went on to be a great promoter of what he originally disparaged. The New York Armory show of 1913 was the first time the French Impressionists had a big showing on this side of the Atlantic, and young Duncan Phillips, then an art critic at Yale, attended the show and wrote about what he saw. Phillips, who had never before seen art like this, wrote that it was “stupefying in its vulgarity”. He said Cezanne was “an unbalanced fanatic”, Gauguin was “half savage,” the Cubists were ridiculous and Matisse was “poisonous”. He would live to take back his words a thousand times over by founding what is considered by many to be the first modern art museum in America, Washington’s own Phillips Collection.

Phillip’s passion for art was shared by his brother James, and the two siblings were very close. When James Philips died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Duncan decided to make a monument in his memory. Phillip’s wife, the painter Marjorie Acker, further inspired him and with the money he inherited from his family’s Pittsburgh steel fortune, the couple traveled the world acquiring the art works that would be the basis for their collection. They displayed their acquisitions in the family home at the corner of 21st and Q Streets, and eventually turned the whole building into a museum and moved to Foxhall Road. The great coup of their collecting adventures was Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”, which Phillips bought for $125,000. This sounds ridiculously cheap today but it was a fortune in 1923. When his rival collector, Philadelphia multi-millionaire Dr Alfred Barnes, who bought paintings by the carload, heard about the purchase, he asked Phillips, “That’s the only Renoir you’ve got, isn’t it?” and Phillips answered, “It’s the only one I need.” He was right. The painting instantly became a big draw and attraction for the museum.

Phillips went on to sponsor and encourage a raft of artists who were ”cutting edge” at that time, including Georgia O’Keefe, Milton Avery, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and Arthur Dove. A special small room in the gallery is dedicated to Mark Rothko and the artist himself participated in planning the space, so it would reflect his paintings as “distillations of human experience”. The small room flooded with Rothko colors creates a emotional context for the viewer, or as Phillips himself said, Rothko’s paintings have the power to expose “old emotions disturbed or resolved.”

Phillips liked to move paintings around so the artists could “talk to each other.” And when you walk through the rooms, the varying visions of artists clash and coincide in a provocative way that fosters what Phillips wanted to teach, “the power to see beautifully”. We’re lucky that this man who grew to see so beautifully himself had the money to build a great collection and we’re also lucky that the young man to attended the 1913 Armory show changed his mind about “modern art”. Now we Washingtonians can enjoy the very personal experience of visiting his collections and communing with the artists as their paintings “talk to each other.” [gallery ids="99185,103269,103275,103273" nav="thumbs"]

I Want to Hold Your Hand

June 2, 2011

The year was 1963, and the place was Washington, D.C. It was the year Martin Luther King Jr. inspired the country with his “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. A few months later, the unthinkable happened when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and the nation recoiled in horror and grief. For three days, people sat in front of their television sets, watching the memorial services for the fallen president unfold in front of the White House, the Capitol, through the avenues of the city and finally to the cemetery at Arlington. It’s hard to believe that all of this happened almost 50 years ago.

To illustrate just how long ago this was, take a look at prices. The average American home sold for less than $20,000 and a gallon of gas cost 30 cents. In the pop music world, Elvis was the undisputed King, and teenage girls swooned by the thousands when he came on stage. But popular music fans in this country were barely aware of a new musical group called The Beatles, who were taking Great Britain and Europe by storm.

A Washington teenager named Marsha Albert heard about this group and couldn’t figure out why we weren’t listening to their music here in America. She wrote a letter to DJ Carroll James of WWDC radio and asked him to play their records. When he asked around, the DJ found out that while Capitol Records had the rights to release their music here, the president of the company didn’t think “foreign bands” did very well on this side of the pond. Even worse, when Capitol asked for the scoop on The Beatles, a music critic told him that they were “a bunch of long-haired kids” and to forget about them. And so Capitol Records put the group on the back burner. That is, until the DJ and the teenager took matters into their own hands.

Carroll James found a friend who knew a British stewardess who agreed to bring a Beatles record back to the U.S. with her. And so, at 5:15 p.m. on December 17, 1963, the 15-year-old Marsha Albert announced on WWDC, “Ladies and gentlemen, appearing for the first time in America, the Beatles singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The radio audience response was overwhelming and James said his switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. He played the recording all week and the listeners loved it.
Capitol heard about the phenomenon and decided to bring the record out on Dec. 26. It went to the top of the charts. In fact, it became the fastest selling single in recording history and eventually went on to occupy all five of the Top Five positions on the Billboard charts, something which hasn’t been duplicated or surpassed since.

In February, the Beatles arrived in New York to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, where an unprecedented viewing audience of 73 million people tuned in to see the group. But their first live concert was here in the District at the Washington Coliseum. They couldn’t fly into National Airport because of a snowstorm, so they had to take the train to the then-dilapidated Union Station, where a screaming group of 2000 teenagers waited in the snow behind police barricades to welcome them. They drew a full house at the Coliseum, where tickets, by the way, started at $3.50 apiece.

The Beatles went on to dominate the popular music scene around the world for an amazing two decades, and Washington gets the credit for giving them their first introduction to what turned out to be a huge American audience, thanks to a determined teenager and an enterprising DJ.