The Charm Of The City
( Originally Published 1922 )
A CITY of livable loveliness, Washington is more and more becoming. It is a matter of wealth and taste showing itself in houses, in streets, in parks, in trees and shrubs and setting.
There is in this city richness of "greenery even in quite a Southern city for the Southerners or a Northern city for the Northerners; it is between the two with the characteristics of both, but is more of the South than the North.
There is much of English ivy on houses and garden walls: these high brick walls being a striking and charming feature, built around many a "garden enclosed." This very year that I write two of the oldest walled gardens are being demolished, that of the Decatur house and that of the Webster-Corcoran house. Often the garden walls are topped with ornamental urns or balls. Often there are high iron fences. There is many a hedge of box. There is many a clipped box-bush, huge and of glorious growth. There is much of privet hedge, clipped formally.
The city is richly planted with trees, the smoke-less condition making the trees thrive. They are largely maples. There are miles of ginkgos in busy thoroughfares, exotic but green and lusty. There are streets downtown planted with sycamores and others lined with plane trees. There are great numbers of glossy-leaved magnolias growing in astonishingly small nooks—a tree commonly associated with stretches of wild swamp; it is the magnolia glauca, not a deciduous magnolia but green throughout the winter, and in summer heavy with sweetness. The thoroughfares are thick-lined with large trees which seem to grow miraculously between asphalt and concrete, in small rectangles of open ground between pavement and sidewalks, where oftentimes their roots form toe-stubbing contortions. Many a street, notably New Hampshire Avenue, is a long Gothic nave stretching through shadowy over-arching tree boughs to a vanishing point of distant shaded beauty.
The city authorities and not the property owners see to the curb-side planting and give care to the trees, giving avenues of long, over-arching uniformity. Romantic wistarias garland up the front of old-time houses or hang over the tall brick walls, and often the walls are on slightly-terraced land a little higher than the sidewalks. In gardens, by porches and drooping over stone walls, early comes the sweet yellow jasmine• and soon there is a revel of crocuses, tulips, the iris and roses. Here and there is a garden on top of the wing of a private house, with trellis and awnings and formal trees in pots, and in one place I noticed a garden enclosed within a circle, some three hundred feet in diameter, of cedar trees.
Spring strikes Washington into a fairyland of pale green and pink, and there are years when the magnolia shows its blossoms as early as the first week in March—not the dark-leaved solemn kind that grows so freely over the city, but the deciduous kind which blossoms early. Then the forsythia suddenly comes out in a haze of pale yellow over the whole town. The tulip beds in the terraces at the Capitol suddenly flame into yellow and red.
Immediately northward of the city is Rock Creek Park, with its miles of sinuous drives, of long levels or of curving slopes; and always beautiful ; in summer thick with massed greenery; in winter a glory of vines and trees. The general effect is of a deep and narrow valley. The trees are mostly tall, and the effect is in great degree owing to the preponderance of oak; besides the oaks there are whole hill-sides of great beeches, and there are tulip trees. It is a great natural woodland, through which lead long drives. Everywhere you are in sight of a rushing rock-bedded creek. Rocks border the road, or stretch into the stream or jut from the water in sheer irregularity or in shelving levels. Always beside the long-winding road the mazy creek unravels. It is an inspired parkway. It is a case of beauty unadorned being then adorned the most. The well-surfaced roads wind through the ravine as if they were part of nature's original achievement. Now and then you go splashing through a ford. There are miles of bridlepaths laid out apart from the drives, threading in and out among the trees along the steep banks, through beds and banks of laurel.
An easy approach to the park is through the Zoo, which is controlled by the Smithsonian; and as you drive along you pass examples of zoo treasure, four-footed or two, feathered or furred. Prettiest of all are the deer, looking at you wonder-eyed among the trees.
The great hill-top section, coming to be generally known as Mount Pleasant, is steadily becoming the most attractive residential part of the city. There is superb building in that district, there is a revel of beautiful homes and apartment houses and hotels, huge caravansaries. Instead of building with dark red brick, which the Washington of a quarter of a century ago used freely, this new part is a region of white, and the white promises to remain white for the city has little smoke to blacken. And over yonder across the deep valley you see the earliest towers of the new cathedral rising white and beautiful; its location suggesting the English Durham, above the stream and the tree-top greenery.
One apartment house is noticeable for its Lucca della Robbia effects inset upon its walls in green and buff, in relief above the charming windows. There are fine new Georgian mansions in great number, of stone or stone and brick, built speculatively as is the frequent Washington way, ready for purchase and immediate use by incoming public officials desirous of being settled and able to entertain with-out worry or waiting.
Reaching Mount Pleasant by way of the Avenue of the Presidents, Sixteenth Street, past the beautiful buildings of the lower stretches, such as the building of the National Geographical Society which, with its seven hundred and fifty-thousand member-ship, is the largest educational and scientific society in the world, you come up here on the summit of the hill to a line of interesting new mansions built to be the homes of various embassies. The first is that of the French, a large building of stone, very new and fresh, of a Frenchy, light gray; a house with a high little unadorned mansard above and with great French windows below, making a queer-shaped corner, a house like a flatiron with its blunt end to the street.
The house of the Polish Legation is large and impressive without being precisely attractive. The Spanish Embassy has a great double house, in a formal setting of clipped bushes with stone and terra cotta front; of the style of the charming French Renaissance, with little wrought-iron balconies. Here, too, is the home of the Cubans, of delightful-looking light stone, in the style of the Italian Renaissance, and here too is the Swiss. All of these markedly outshine the large, stodgy building of the English Embassy on Connecticut Avenue.
Separated from the French Embassy by a great open lot, for this is a district newly building up, is a house built for the home of Mrs. Marshall Field. It is a joyous Venetian palace of stucco and terra cotta and marble, and with loggia-like stone balconies. It is of large size with tile roof and pointed windows in groups.
The street is the American meridian line, originally intended to be the line from which longitude was to be measured east and west. In the early days of our history we thought it would not be patriotic to use Greenwich for longitude. Many an old map shows this marking of longitude from this line. From this point on the hill it is especially noticeable that the Avenue of the Presidents leads to where it faces the very center of the White House, across the interruption of Lafayette Park, and that the Washington Monument is not precisely on this line as it was intended to be.
Across the street from the French Embassy is Meridian Park, entered by an arched stairway leading up to an abutment wall. From the summit one gets a splendid panoramic view of the city and its surroundings. And an impression is confirmed, which you have before this gained, that there is a surprisingly small number of church spires in sight for a large city; and you also notice the fortunate absence of factory chimneys; and the great quantity of billowy waving green of the many trees of the city.
Thackeray, who knew the world as few men knew it, liked Washington and wrote to a friend: "The place has a Wiesbaden air—there are politics and gayeties straggling all over it"; an observation which remains true to this day. Others have liked to make pleasant remarks regarding "the feeling of elbow room," "the gentle easy-going social customs," "the easy soft-going manner of the natives." And this is one of the times that one is reminded that an important charm of the city comes from the fact that Americans predominate just as the French do in Paris or the Italians in Rome.
So much gayety is in evidence in Washington! Awnings are out from door to curb at one house, limousines are gathered about another, caterers' vans are unloading huge round table tops and gilt chairs at another, flowers and ices are going in farther on in the street; ladies coifed and white gloved go by in luxury, all bound somewhere; uniforms and gold lace are to be seen—and all this for luncheon, then at reception hours; and at dinner hours and dancing hours the whole social city seems to be in a stir and preliminarily in evidence on the streets.
It is a city of delightful flower stores, which add much to the city's charm. It is a city of much formal entertaining, and as a result maintains many flower shops. One shop specializes in unique setting for a few flowers, one has a little automobile only three feet long, driven by a dwarf in buttons and a high hat, who speeds with violets and small bouquets, adored by all the children in the neighborhood. One shop has exotic birds free in its windows among the flowers.
Sometimes there is still to be seen what Oliver Wendell Holmes loved to call "a pole and a pair." Sometimes it is an open landau, sometimes it is a glistening coupe, sometimes the most correct closed carriage, with a quick-stepping pair, and always it is a certificate of old aristocracy. Quite as old-timey but adding only a touch of quaintness to the city streets are the mule-teams, little mules jangling with brass-studded harness and driven by negro laborers.
A great gala feature which is made possible through the predominating whiteness of the public buildings is the night illumination of the city, when the huge dome of the Capitol stands like a fairy palace in the surrounding blackness, illumined by in-visible searhlights, when the White House shimmers with an unearthly whiteness, when even the State, War and Navy Building, enormous and misshapen as it is, takes on spiritual glory under the powerful white lights, and when the Washington shaft be-comes a tall white miracle. Then everything in-significant, and every thought of insignificance vanishes, and only the dazzling white glory remains.
The feature of most unique charm in this city is a line of important semi-public buildings standing together on the west side of Seventeenth Street, facing the Executive Grounds, between the White House and the river. Together they make an unrivalled group of immense public importance. Each of the buildings represents the interests of the American people as distinguished from the Government. Each of the buildings has its ramifying interest and membership in all parts of the country and one of them reaches into all Latin-America as well and influences every one of its nations. They stand on the principal approach to the Lincoln Memorial, the Mall and the Parkway.
Immediately before coming to the first of what may be called these altruistic palaces, another large and costly building is passed, and it is a pleasure to find that its purposes are alike in altruism for it is the Corcoran Art Gallery.
First of these three buildings, all of them new and each of them in its own way beautiful, is that of the national headquarters of the American Red Cross. It is a dignified, wide building of white marble, set in lawns and with broad central outside steps leading up to a high pillared portico. It is a splendor of white simplicity and its fine central stairway leads to the second floor where is a great assembly room, decorated in white with crimson hangings, the familiar colors of the Red Cross. This building was one of the busiest in the world during the Great War, busy with good deeds.
A most remarkable feature of its history, is that it was finished and dedicated, "In Memory of the Heroic Women of the Civil War," the united women of the North and of the Confederacy, almost at the moment that the great European struggle began, as if Fate had a direct hand in its conception and completion.
The next building, the center of the three, is Memorial Continental Hall, the national headquarters of the D. A. R., the Daughters of the American Revolution; or as Geddes the British Ambassador, the first Britisher formally received in the building, termed them in beginning a recent address in their large theater-like meeting hall, "the "D. A. R.-lings,"by which unexpected burst of humor he won instantaneous and reciprocal affection from the patriotic ladies.
This beautifully equipped building, semi-public in character and on a grand scale, with its direct heritage from the founders of the nation, was fittingly offered and accepted for a meeting place of the recent Congress of Nations that met to discuss the wars and peace of the world. It is a fine thing to realize that it is a women's building that was thus used.
Last of the row is a building which instantly at-tracts the attention, the interest. It is markedly Spanish in effect. Its front is square-lined except for the three-arched entrance and has a low-set effect, as if of a city gate. Once seen, the building is never to be confused with any other—an excellent thing in buildings. It is the building of the Pan-American Union.
It stands only a little higher than the street level, and between it and the sidewalk is a paved plaza over which is the wide approach, and on either side are sunken gardens and marble balustrades of great beauty.
The building represents the union for commercial, political and peaceful purposes of the twenty-one re-publics of South and North America. It is the result of a remarkable movement toward carrying out the long-ago enunciated Monroe Doctrine. Thus far it has justified its foundation. The money for its building was given by Andrew Carnegie, assisted by contributions from all the republics. It gives a headquarters, at the same time formal and informal, to the twenty-one nations of the two Americas, in the capital of the greatest.
From the first it is evident that the building is rich in the decorative and unusual. On either side of the broad approach is a huge urn-shaped lantern. Against the front of the building are great sculptures above which are groupings in relief. And above the suggested square towers a pair of banners float pictorially.
Enter through the bronze doors and you are in a vestibule corridor of great height which is most effectively designed to cross the whole front of the building, giving an effect of receiving the world with dignity.
You see from this great corridor that the building is a hollow square enclosing an exotic garden, a patio, with fountain and richness of tropical palms and foliage, with birds, parrots and macaws, with orchids and queer, rare flowers, growing in the moist heat of the tropics—for the patio is thriftily covered in winter with glass, which rolls back, open to the blue sky, in the warm summer of Washington.
The broad green marble steps ascending beside the patio, the pillars of black and white marble, the yellow marble in the garden, the exotic foliage, the brilliant plumage of strange birds, the gleam of goldfish, unite to give the very feeling of the tropics.
The meeting hall, the Hall of the Americas, is restrained, palatial and superb. The need of assembly rooms of dignity was keenly felt in Washington until the construction of these three buildings magnificently filled the want.
The great height of the Hall of the Americas gives it superb opportunity, superbly taken advantage of, by fluted pillars along the sides, and by the richly ornamented ceiling, and the palatial effect is increased by the great stretch of polished floor. It is a room which carries within itself the purpose of the building, for it emanates a feeling of joy and peace and gala celebrations.
By far the greater number of those who enter this building realize how little they know of their Latin-American neighbors. Few for example could name the entire twenty-one republics: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chili, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatamala, Hayti, Honduras, Mexico-, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Salvador, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela. It is an amazing list and points out the actual far-sightedness of the ordinary-seeming Monroe, who first saw the inter-relations of our re-public and the rest of the Americas.
At any rate the average North American expects to find a list of nothing but the names of Spaniards or Portuguese associated with the history of these republics: but here comes a surprise. The building is freely decorated with the names and busts and pictorial representations of heroes and heroic deeds associated with Pan-American history; and with the expected names of Portuguese and Spaniards one notices such names as Champlain and Dessalines and L 'Ouverture, those of the highly important leader O'Higgins, and of George Washington!