Tag Archives: Washington DC

Place Settings

In pondering many of life’s unanswerables, the one that keeps goading me, keeps unsettling me is the one about being in the right place. There are so many variables about where one is and why: were you born there; did you find an employment that brought you there; is your family network close by or, intentionally, not; did you arrive by way of a breakdown or breakup and never left; did you connect with someone and stayed; were you on a quest and, partially or wholly satisfied, remained; were you proactive or did you go with the flow or was it merely inertia? And do you ever think about these things or is it just a given, like the way you look or the sun setting westward?

If so, did you build a life, a life that can sustain you for the rest of it? I mean, besides travel, are you completely content with your locale? Is it an easy, comfortable place to be, or a stimulating one, or is it intolerable? Or is it just here. And now. And that’s all there is. When it comes time to vacate this place, will you do so because of a desire for a particular climate, proximity to slot machines, low taxes, nearness of family, cultural benefits, medical facilities, or a beautiful environment; how about a like-minded community? Or will you be carried out in a box? Will you even have a choice?

It is a puzzle: should I stay or should I go? Can one place be suitable for a lifetime, for a person’s changing needs or desires? I remember my father, who was born, bred, schooled and wed, then fathered, worked, lived and died within about a three-mile radius. He did some traveling, but he told me that there was only one other place besides home that he would have ever considered living – Washington, DC. I found that peculiar, since to me it has felt like a static open-air museum, or mausoleum, with a dash of the kind of yawn-inducing ambience of a state capitol. I’ll grant that some of the architecture is prettier than the average state seat, but the oppressive, imposed grandeur and order is reminiscent of right-wing police states and L’Enfant’s design penchant for creating space for marching hoards. Well, my dad was Prussian/German. The weird thing was that, during his funeral, we caravanned from parlor to cemetery – a distance of 2.8 miles – and passed en route every touchstone of his life. It was a remarkable tribute. Not a planned one; it just so happened that living or dead, this was the road he traveled. It was a neat, nearly straight south-north line from cradle to grave.

I have had, up to this point, more of a zigzag approach. I have now lived about as long in one place not of my birth as I did in my hometown, with multiple stops in between, mostly back and forth in an east-west orientation. As I consider the future, should there be one, I wonder: Is this still the place for it? Could there be a better place to live that is more attuned to the person I am now as opposed to the person I was a quarter century ago? I am a firm believer in there being many lifetimes in a lifetime. What should the next one be? And where should it be?

For me, there has never been an option of returning to the source – it is from whence I came, not where I want to be. That would be like trying to relive the past, and a past is not what I seek. It is the moving forward that beckons. And, too, I can safely eliminate Washington as a possibility. But where? I have been to many compelling places, largely cities, but it is not the city life I am craving now. I look at rural areas, and there is beauty in the land, but it might be isolating and lonely. What’s left is a small town. I think I have often imagined living in a village but not one with a cannon in the center square and, similarly, not one where the sense of self is based on some event that happened three centuries ago – meaning that the town and its identity do not dwell in the past. History is fine, but not as a way of life.

So the quest is to find a place, one that others with equal values have found before and have sustained or built upon, sharing the same interest in moving forward and making the most of every day, being creative and celebrating individuality and a passion for life, as opposed to sleepwalking through it. Where is such a place?

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Summer House, Washington, DC

Generally speaking, the National Mall is a big dead space. Don’t misunderstand: This is not to say that it should be built upon or made hard-surfaced – Washington has too much of that already. But it is a missed opportunity for a lovely green swath that could be like parts of Central Park or the Tuileries. After all, there were plans for it starting with Pierre Charles l’Enfant in 1791, followed by landscape designs of Andrew Jackson Downing’s in the early 1850s, and it was even touched by the hand of Frederick Law Olmsted while working on the Capitol grounds between 1874-1892. As it stands, it isn’t exactly an emblem of what our better selves could be; rather, it is a pedestrian symbol of our reckless disregard for the bounty, promise and natural riches that this land has given as we have taken and casually abused it. Oh, sure, there is the event every four years that requires human multitudes to gather ceremoniously in a contained space in order to behold the new leader, but that could be accomplished in the streets every four years – there are plenty of those to accommodate.

Grumbling aside, there is one small feature, a glimmer of civility and hope that provides not only a respite from the relentless wasteland but also a strong sense of place in an otherwise placeless tract. A diminutive brick structure pokes enticingly out of a sloping mound just north of the Capitol. It is decoratively curvaceous with its arches, volute parapets, undulating tile and oval windows. And it is short of stature, as opposed to the bigger-than-life structures that line the streets on either side of the Mall. Its friendly demeanor beckons you to enter, down some stone steps toward a round fountain resembling an old well. The Mall is relentlessly open and hot, while this magical spot is shady and cool as an underground spring. It is the Summer House, built between 1879-1881 and designed by Olmsted, all red brick and slate and looking like a Frank Furness building pushed into the ground.

The Summer House has allusions to Chinese and Middle Eastern architecture with its shaped openings and niches, incised designs and decorative ironwork. When you enter the building (and you aren’t quite sure that you should because it doesn’t appear to be a public building – no signage, guards or queues – and it is very intimate), not only does the temperature drop by the double digits despite the open-air roof, but you are in a world familiar and yet unlike any you have seen before. The structure is a hexagon with three entrances, a kind of pagoda or garden folly but halfway below grade. It is very textural: the brick patterns, the contrast between the smooth gray stone and the more graphic brick that changes direction and becomes 3-dimensional, bulging out in places and then disappearing gracefully, creating openings in others. Lining the interior walls are benches made of slate, ceremonial seats that you might see in a waiting room, with shiny well-rounded arm rests creating separate seating spaces – twenty-two in all, for twenty-two lucky souls who find it and appreciate its charms. Two windows provide filtered light through perforated stone screens and allow glimpses of the surrounding landscape; a third, though, looks into an artificial grotto built into the hillock, complete with craggy rocks and dripping water to create the vision – a view into the center of the earth. There is here, in this unlikely place, a potential for reflection and refueling.

Perhaps in the mile or so of its length, the Mall – a barren no-man’s-land that one hurries across, eyes fixed on maps, in the pinball-bounce back-and-forth between museums – offers no other sense of place, it being such an anti-place. Although, come to think of it, just adjacent to the Mall, toward the opposite end, is another powerful place-maker: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, by Maya Lin. Funny that it is also dug into the ground, gashed really, and it resonates in its own connection to its site. Much of the Wall’s impact, though, is in its chilling number of names as much as its reflective, tomb-like presence. Its sense of place has quite a different effect from the Summer House’s. Quite the opposite, since so much surrounding the Mall is monumental, in both senses, so you don’t expect something so magical and human scale – the Summer House – to be situated on it. This disconnect makes it seem as if it is a mirage. Really, it is an oasis. And it is so sweet. Precious, in fact. And despite its small, partly buried size, it is hugely important, not only for the respite it provides but for the place it makes.

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