I’m a subway situationalist, choosing my colors depending on the circumstances: a delay on Red, and I walk all the way from home to Foggy Bottom to take Blue to Alexandria; train too crowded for comfort, I’ll hop off my home-bound Red at Farragut North and walk north up Connecticut. Sometimes I’ll skip the quick plunge from the Building Museum to Judiciary Square and walk to Gallery Place, just to enjoy the scene. But I do enjoy ascending from Judiciary and seeing the great façade of the Museum framed in the escalator well. This morning I exited at Gallery Place and walked along the relatively quiet, pre-blizzard street reflecting on how the city changes and yet remains itself.

The snow may be bearing down on us like a white version of that black smoke thing from Lost, but the hockey game will go on tonight as scheduled. The Caps are on a tear and I’m sure the arena will be rocking. Besides, it would be ironic for a hockey game to be cancelled for snow. There’s nothing quite like walking along F Street from the Building Museum to Gallery Place Metro when there’s a game, a performance at the Harmon, and the Portrait/SAAM is still open. The streets are full of all kinds of people, the restaurants are packed, Metro is abuzz.

And to think, there was opposition to the arena. It was too big, its architectural language confused and, almost unforgivably, it required the closing of a street and thus did violence to the L’Enfant Plan. Historic preservation, as I’ve written before, has a difficult relationship with progress, especially when the lovability index is high. No one was particularly in love with the area around 6th and G in the 1990’s, but the L’Enfant Plan is the object of blind devotion among many. (I myself have a crush on it) But the city we inhabit today has many authors; L’Enfant just wrote the opening lines. We should call it the L’Enfant/Ellicott/Banneker/McMillan/Kennedy/Moynihan/Pollin/Tregoning/et alia plan because each generation is reading the city it inherits and writing its own contribution. Less “exquisite corpse” than wiki, the city is an on-going series of narratives, propositions, and corrections. It is a sempiternal.

I learned that word from Federica, my last PhD student. (That’s last as in “most recent” and last as in “not getting anymore” because VT now, logically, requires that PhD committee members actually have a PhD and I don’t) “Sempiternity” is the life span of building, the duration of time between our own life spans and imponderable eternity. Federica’s case study was the Basilica of St. Peter’s, which gave her a couple thousand years of context and at least a few centuries for close examination. Her dissertation, which would actually make a great novel in an “Agony and the Ecstasy meets Angels and Demons” kind of way, holds a mirror to conventional preservation wisdom for a long honest look. Restoration “as was” and preservation “as is” prevent a vision of architecture and the city “as could be.” Caring for buildings, whether officially historic—whatever the heck that is—or just plain old, can’t proceed in fear of change. A building's identity accrues over time with contributions from every, renovation, adjustment, and repair; the architect only wrote the first line.

Federica’s challenge is to the care of historic buildings in particular, but it’s the city where we see it in action. What a shame it would have been if the construction of the arena had been stopped because it threatened the “as was” of the city. Sure it’s a flawed building...they’re all flawed...but look around! The Washington Post’s coverage of the opening of the arena in 1997 is a fascinating look back at what feels like ancient history. The article quotes Irene Pollin, widow of the late Abe Pollin whose vision and action shaped this new “as is”: “Maybe some day soon, we'll all be strolling up F Street again," she said. "Beautiful F Street,” and the thousands cheered.


Federica Goffi said...

Dear Susan,

I hope you do not really think that you are done with me...
because there is more work to do!!!

I would only want to comment on VT requirements for PhD advisors.... that they do not look at the 'essence' of the knowledge required, but rather take at face value having that one piece of paper.... which ultimately does not guarantee the result!


Anonymous said...


Kaid@NRDC said...

Susan, I'm just catching up on your blog. Really nice post. I love preservation and, for the most part, think we don't do enough of it. I'm still bugged that we didn't do enough for it in LEED-ND.

But let's not make it a fetish (e.g., brutalism), or a false cloack for mere NIMBYism. Nothing has been more positive for downtown DC during my four(!) decades here than the arena, other than perhaps the Metro.

Keep up the great work!