“Magnificent Distances”

April 13, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | ART, HISTORY, TRAVEL, USA History | 0 Comments |

Washington DC, April 2018 –

TVC arrived in time for the lovely pink and white cherry blossoms and a balmy, breezy day, which turned sharply wintry again (must be that global warming). Washington is a strange mix of Adelaide and Canberra (the latter was designed by American Walter Burley Griffin, with D.C. in mind), the massive edifices a meld of strong Neo-Classical (White House, old Treasury, National Archives, Supreme Court) and New Brutalism* (new Treasury, State Department, FBI Building).

In Burr, Gore Vidal quotes a visiting English diplomat in the early 1800s, tactfully referring to the city’s “magnificent distances.” But the place has filled-up a bit since then. For example, the demands placed on the Executive meant that a building for various bureaucrats had to be annexed, this time in a Belle Époque style:

It is no surprise to find that Pennsylvania Avenue is the dominant thoroughfare: “‘Philadelphia,’ wrote the Duc de Liancourt, ‘is not only the finest city in the United States, but may be deemed one of the most beautiful cities in the world.’ In truth, it surpassed any of its size on either side of the Atlantic for most of the comforts and some of the elegancies of life.”**

While Washington, designated as the capital of the new Republic due to deft manoeuvring and hard campaigning by Jefferson and his cohort, was still a swamp:

When in the summer of 1800 the government was transferred to what was regarded by most persons as a fever-stricken morass, the half-finished White House stood in a naked field overlooking the Potomac, with two awkward Department buildings near it, a single row of brick houses and a few isolated dwellings within sight, and nothing more; until across a swamp, a mile and a half away, the shapeless, unfinished Capitol was seen, two wings without a body, ambitious enough in design to make more grotesque the nature of its surroundings.”^

Once again, things have moved forward, as can be seen in the magnificent Capitol Building and Supreme Court house:

Entering the Supreme Court, with ‘apprehensive arrogance,’ we were surprised to find the Court room itself very pokey, 9 chairs crammed behind a meagre bench and a gallery smaller than you might find in a bog-standard District or Circuit Court. A visiting citizen was overheard to say that she’d seen grander settings in a St Louis police court, and we bow to her greater experience. The central chair that now accommodates the rump of Chief Justice Roberts is placed where once the likes of Jay CJ and Warren CJ presided…

John Jay as Augustus


The Law is not a magic bullet

911 ravaged more than life and landscape. It scarred the American psyche – how could it not? and left a cicatrice that is worried and picked-at in the form of ‘Homeland Security.’ That means, for example, as Hugo Young observed in “The Spectator,” whereas air travel once was a breeze, with a very slight chance of being blown-up, now it is a nightmare, with a very slight chance of being blown-up. And in the current context, you can no longer visit places once regarded as the public gift. When Bob Dole was a lad, The Varnished Culture sat in the Senate Chamber and listened to him orate; now, you can’t get near the door – the hallowed halls and the grand domed interior are barred to mere mortals. And in those places where you can visit, one is lucky to avoid a cavity search. For example, heavy security at the Library of Congress struck us as over-egging – don’t terrorists tend to do their research online?

The Library, with its faux renaissance exterior and neo-classical core, is magnificent in design and appearance…

…but TVC regretted the paucity of books (a similar poverty to that displayed, or not displayed, in the National Library in Canberra). There are 838 miles of bookshelves, we’re informed, and more than 164 million volumes, but can you pull out and read one?  No way!

President Jefferson to the rescue – in 1815, happily-retired Massa Tom sold 6,487 books from his library (see above) for $23,950 (he needed the dough to maintain his large staff of slaves and renovate Monticello). The Varnished Culture scoffed – 6,487! Why, we fit more than that into our hallway! But the volumes themselves are intriguing and impressive – philosophy, history and literature, many in classical Greek, Latin or French, bearing out Tom’s reputation as the most literate President of them all. (Thomas, where are you and Madison et al, now that we need you?)

Eventually of course, Washington DC attained its original plan (in varying degrees and for better or worse) for “the traffic of London and the elegance of Versailles.“^

[* “The New Brutalism” has been described as the F**k-You Style of Architecture.] [**Henry Adams, The Jeffersonian Transformation (1889 – 1891), p. 23.] [^Ibid., p. 24.]


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