Scribble, Scribble, Scribble
Simon Schama Posits Washington the City is the Vision of Washington the Man
By Simon Schama
Simon Schama, University Professor, has taught at Columbia since 1993. His books, which include the bestsellers The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age and Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, have been translated into 15 languages and have won prizes ranging from the Wolfson Award for History to the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He has been an essayist and critic for The New Yorker since 1994.
Schama is best known for his incisive studies of art (Rembrandt’s Eyes) or historical eras (Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution). He describes his latest book, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother (Ecco, 2012 in paperback), as a “salmagundi”: a hearty dish of salad, in which the variety of ingredients is practically the point. Here you can find Schama’s celebrity profiles and his lectures; notes from theater programs; articles about food; reportage; and op-ed pieces — all bearing the hallmarks of what Publishers Weekly calls his “omnivorous erudition.” In the following essay on Washington, D.C., Schama points out the ways in which the city’s wide avenues and spacious architecture embody a kind of political theory, “an idea made architecturally visible.”
Rose Kernochan ’82 Barnard
Are there any city avenues more inhumanly broad than those of Washington, D.C.? For they are not really boulevards at all, these immense expanses at the centre of the institutional city. There are no sidewalk cafés with coffee-drinkers whiling away the time as they check out the evening strollers — and for the reason that there are no strollers. What there are, are Visitors to Our Nation’s Capital, disgorged from tour buses, pointed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, or the Washington Monument, and gathered up again when their business is done. Even new buildings like the East Wing of the NationalGallery, perfectly beautiful on the interior, manage to have a broad, low stepped plaza in front of them, complete with massively monumental sculpture that sucks all human life out of the space. Bow your head, revere, and enter the temple; so the message goes. Mandatory solemnity at the expense of the human swarm was there right from the beginning. The engineer who drew up the first plan, Pierre Charles l’Enfant, prescribed avenues not less than 160 feet wide. That’s what you get when you hire a French classicist; someone who doesn’t notice that the place gets broiling in the summer and for whom narrower, densely tree-shaded streets might have been a kinder idea that might have encouraged some ease of street life. But what l’Enfant valued in his royal prospects were (in his endearingly strangled English) ‘reciprocity of sight, variety of pleasant ride and being to ensure a rapid intercourse with all the part of the city which they will serve as does the main veins in the animal body to diffuse life through smaller vessels in quickening the active motion of the heart’.
Washington does have its true neighbourhoods where the beehive hums, people sit on stoops in the spring sunshine, and wander in and out of bars and jazzy cafés; where you can eat anything from Ethiopian to Brazilian — Adams Morgan, for instance, where in season there is even a fine farmers’ market, fruit and vegetables trucked in from farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, a reminder that there is true country out beyond the beltway. Or around U Street where African-American Washington comes alive near the Duke Ellington Theater. And the sense of a vast bureaucratic-punditocratic savannah is broken by Washington’s bosky places, the parks and gardens laid out after the recommendations of the McMillan Commission at the turn of the century. In Rock Creek Park joggers jog (although muggers mug); the Zoo nearby is where Washingtonians come as families, and the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard’s institute of medieval and Byzantine studies, is shared between the philosophically contemplative and the blissfully amorous. But most of the young people who make up the clientele and who come to love the place aren’t there because of the romance of the city, but because they need to live in an idea made architecturally visible: the idea of democratic government. That is at the beating heart of the place; the pulse of its body politic, but that same notion is also why ‘Washington’ in some quarters of American life is not so much an actual city as a byword for bureaucratic remoteness and self-importance.
Its problems and its many genuine splendours are both products of the original split personality of the American Republic. For Thomas Jefferson (who nonetheless seized the opportunity to be President with robust eagerness), the true America lay in the myriad farms where the yeomen citizens, whom he believed were the life-blood of democracy, were building a truly new society and polity. George Washington, whose own plantation farm, Mount Vernon, is just fourteen miles south of the District, was more ambiguous. On the one hand, he too was averse to empty pomp; on the other hand, it mattered deeply to him that the United States hold its head high in a world of vainglorious monarchies; that a capital city, like the Roman Republic, be the visible expression not just of the parity, but of the superiority of a democratic constitution. It helped foster those dreams of the New Rome that the eventual site had running through it a mucky creek grandly known as the Tiber. Washington, the city, is in fact very much the vision of Washington the man. Dolly Madison, the fourth President’s wife, knew this when, on the approach of the British in 1814, she took a knife to Gilbert Stuart’s beautiful portrait of Washington, cut it from its frame, rolled it and made haste with it to the soldiers’ camp where she spent the night on the run from the invaders, watching the horizon flame with the ruins of the town.
The very characteristic of which self-designated conservatives (many established in Washington think tanks) complain — the artificiality of the city, its detachment from anything resembling a self-sustaining commercial economy — was precisely the reason why George Washington wanted such a capital in the first place. Metropolitan wens like London and Paris, were, he and Thomas Jefferson thought, the breeding places of idle fashion, vice and corruption. But a nation founded on the majesty of the people ought to have a great city custom-designed as a residence for democratic institutions. The relationship between the independent legislature and the governing executive, for example, ought to be made visible by their mile-long separation at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue; the two, however, always in each other’s sight. It was an American thing to ensure that it would be the legislature, not any executive residence, that would be the elevated structure, sitting on its eighty-foot hill, watching over the servants of the government beneath, keeping them accountable.
The very notion of a federal city originally came from necessity as much as ideology. Because of the moving theatre of peril during the revolutionary war, the itinerant Congress had shifted no fewer than eight times, and had sat in places as various as York Pennsylvania, Trenton New Jersey and the academic Nassau Hall at Princeton. To have a single, defensible site, perhaps no more than ten square miles, where law and governance were published and treasury accounts cleared, was obviously essential to the integrity and efficiency of government. A decision was taken almost as soon as the war was over in 1783, but a protracted debate then ensued as to where that site should be. The criteria were a location on a navigable river, but sufficiently far inland to be protected from the naval raids the founding fathers expected of the British — or, indeed, their ex-allies the French. The mid-Atlantic suggested itself as arbitrating between the already conflicting claims of the great sectional interests of the new republic — industrial, high-minded New England and the plantation slave world of the South. Two choice sites were on the Delaware in New Jersey or on the Potomac at the line separating Maryland and Virginia.
But even those choices were thought to favour, respectively, northern and southern preferences, so that for a few weeks two capitals, one on each site, were seriously contemplated, at least until Francis Wilkinson, in a burst of inspired ridicule, proposed building a gigantic trolley that could wheel the capital and its archives from one place to the other, along with an equestrian statue of Washington. Ultimately it was Washington himself — who had begun his career as a land surveyor — whose firm preference was for a city on the Potomac, surrounded by gentle hills and, as he thought, blessed with a benign climate, who decided the matter. When the land was plotted he rode it himself, charting its topography and imagining where, amidst the farmland and the river valley, would arise the grand buildings and monuments that would embody the vital social virtues of working democracy.
“IT MATTERED DEEPLY TO GEORGE WASHINGTON THAT THE UNITED STATES HOLD ITS HEAD HIGH IN A WORLD OF VAINGLORIOUS MONARCHIES”
For a detailed plan Washington, in 1790, turned to Pierre Charles l’Enfant, a French military engineer who had been honourably wounded at the siege of Charleston (where the French lost the city) and had become a kind of official artist to the Continental Army. Not surprisingly l’Enfant’s vision was formed by classical French urbanism from the reigns of the Sun King and Louis XV: central grandes places, each embellished with statuary, obelisks and monuments from which broad radial avenues would extend, along which the edifices of government would be aligned — Treasury, Department of War, Post Office (very important in the early Republic), Patent Office, etc. The Potomac and its Great Falls outside the city would provide (possibly by making more of the Tiber) a chain of watercourses, so that Washington would not just resemble classical Paris, but a little bit of Venice and Rome too, with a cascade falling down Capitol Hill and feeding handsome canals. Though l’Enfant ran foul of Congress, and the execution of a much-modified plan was carried out by the less grandiose Andrew Ellicott, much of his essential vision — the emblematic separation and connection of executive and legislature; the eminence of the latter, the gentility of the former; as well as those immense avenues — survived. It was the other great Enlightenment mind, that of Jefferson, who had the idea of calling the intersecting streets by letters and numbers and who made sure that both l’Enfant and Ellicott were supplied with plans of all the great European cities from Strasbourg to Amsterdam.
By 1800, when Jefferson moved into the President’s House, there were just 3,000 inhabitants of the federal district, of whom a third were slave and free blacks. The House itself, resembling ‘a country gentleman’s dwelling’ according to one visitor, already had its little colonnade and modest park and the East Room planned for state receptions, but most of it was unfinished. Abigail Adams, the first First Lady to attempt to run the House, complained of the expense of heating and lighting and the difficulty of finding thirty reliable servants who could be entrusted with its management. The Capitol was being built by the Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, who had created the domed Massachusetts State House and who provided for the nation’s legislature another dome flanked by two pavilions. The ensemble when built was grand by American standards but, as the Republic grew, not ceremonious enough, resembling, as one wag put it, ‘an upside-down sugar bowl between two tea chests’.
After the British burned Washington in the summer of 1814, it took time before rebuilding got under way, the eager and scientifically minded John Quincy Adams providing much of the impetus. But for decades Washington was jeered at in much of the country as the ‘great Serbonian Bog’ — a place of ‘streets without buildings’ — while its neighbour, the busy port of Georgetown, had ‘buildings without streets’. The climate was more brutal than the First President imagined; mosquitoes devoured the population in the fetid summer; the water supply was foul and prone to delivering cholera to the city rather than the graceful torrents and limpid basins l’Enfant had envisioned. Hogs wandered the Mall, and at some distance from the grandeur, rickety taverns and disorderly houses made their contribution to the city’s peculiar mix of solemnity and squalor; the emblems of liberty and the reality — in the persons of the unfree without whom the place would never have functioned — of slavery. Washington literally, but barely, held the line between two Americas rather than symbolising its unity.
And then in the early 1850s there arrived in town one of the most prodigious and still relatively unknown American heroes, the army engineer who as Quartermaster General of the Union would win the Civil War for the North quite as decisively as Lincoln, Grant and Sherman. Montgomery Meigs was first and foremost a builder. His spectacular brick Romanesque temple-like structure of the Pensions Building (created in the 1870s to provide welfare for old soldiers and memorialise the fallen), now the Buildings Museum, is one of the most extraordinary architectural achievements in the entire country. But it was Meigs who, throwing an immense masonry span over one gorge and an iron bridge over Rock Creek, created the aqueduct that carried, at last, a decent supply of fresh water (also imperative for the extinguishing of fires) from the Great Falls of the Potomac to the city. It was Meigs too, a regular tartar when it came to coming down hard on the dubious businessmen who saw in the growth of the District an opportunity for fat profits, who presided over the rebuilding of the Capitol to its present appearance and magnitude, and who replaced the Bulfinch sugar bowl with something taken instead from Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and Wren, but which had an iron fabric just in case the British decided to set fire to it again.
During the Civil War, Washington became a barracks — almost 100,000 troops camped there; bivouacs on the Mall, soldiers amidst the hogs and geese (for they had no intention of moving); beef and milk cattle grazing. In July 1864 the invalids and veterans under Meigs’s command had to man forts and trenches at the advance of General Jubal Early, who, however, never made it. The wounded and mutilated were carried in carts and barges from the two battles of Bull Run, and some of those who perished were buried, on Meigs’s orders, on the confiscated land of his former friend, Robert E. Lee, up on Arlington Heights. Meigs and Lincoln were always anxious that if the Confederacy took the Heights they would have a direct line of fire on both the White House and the Capitol, so that turning the proprietorial gentility of the Lee estate into the first national cemetery became, for them both, a matter of strategy as well as national symbolism.
“FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, WHO SPECIFIED HE DID NOT WANT A MONUMENT, GOT ONE ANYWAY”
Modern Washington, though, came to be in the years around the turn of the century. It was then that the old federal government buildings were replaced by the masonry-faced piles that house the Treasury, the Department of State and the rest. Every so often there were wonderful, eccentric exceptions like the Gothic Smithsonian ‘castle’ — the result of a legacy offered (and accepted by Congress in 1846) by English scientist James Smithson as an ‘establishment for the increase of knowledge among men’, a rubric sufficiently broad to extend, now, to fighter planes and space capsules as well as historical artefacts and treasures of American technology and invention. The Corcoran Gallery was intended as Washington’s first art gallery, but the Beaux Arts building, designed by one of the city’s mavericks, Renwick, stayed unrealised as its Confederate-leaning patron sat out the war from the safety of Paris. By the end of the century, the Corcoran and the Freer were home to spectacular collections, but it was only with the gifts of the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and the Widener dynasty that the immense National Gallery was finally established on a scale befitting the collections in the 1930s. And the great memorial monuments that bookend the axis of the Mall — Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson — and which, for most visitors, along with the Capitol and the White House, are the ‘Nation’s Capital’, took a long time coming. A Washington memorial of some sort was mooted almost as soon as the General-President was dead, at the end of 1799; and before long the idea of an equestrian statue was scrapped for a grander mausoleum, to house his remains, from which some sort of column or obelisk would sprout. The reluctance of the owner of Mount Vernon to release the sacred relics, the usual squabbling of interested parties in situ, and above all the cost of the structure meant that it took a century before, in 1885, the obelisk in its finished state was formally opened. Lincoln’s great memorial with the seated figure sculpted by Daniel Chester French, the bare temple-like space decorated with the fallen hero’s words and friezes of the emancipation of the slaves, was likewise a creation of the second half of the nineteenth century.
And now everyone wants a monument in Washington. Franklin Roosevelt, who specified he did not want one, got one anyway. A major memorial to the fallen of the Second World War, also on the Mall, is still being hotly debated. But sometimes a convergence of national passion and inspired design takes place and something gets built that transcends its own materials to become a place of true communing. Such of course is the profoundly eloquent Vietnam memorial created by Maya Lin: a basalt wall in a cut trench that rises and falls with the body count and the grief of the country.
Though Boston and New York have been my home towns, I feel I know this city well. I remember crossing the grilling breadth of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1964 to see an Assistant Secretary of Labor who became a friend and mentor, and who would well up in an impassioned Irish way at the thought of the slain Jack Kennedy not a year before; I remember the jazz piano bars in the tougher end of town around M Street and 14th; the rising hemispherical walls of Watergate; my first astounded sally into the glory of the Library of Congress Reading Room, as welcoming to a young student as the British Museum Reading Room (then) was chilly and difficult. I went back last year each week in November to give the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery, beginning to make the white grandeur of Union Station and the amiably shouting directives of the taxi despatchers on the threshhold a kind of homecoming. I have friends, a daughter living there, all happily, all very much settled into the weave of the place; knowing its street corners and park benches, its dogs and ice cream. And there, when the cherry blossom is doing its shameless thing, and the streets of Adams Morgan are warming to the kids on the block, it’s entirely possible to see Washington as not just DC, not just ideology made visible, but as an American community; and a good one at that.
From the book SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE by Simon Schama. Copyright © 2010 by Simon Schama. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.