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Entries in DC (8)


A failure of historical imagination (mine). Or, N.C. Wyeth, streetcars, bike racks, and historically-designated air.

I pride myself on having a well-developed visual-historical imagination. What do I mean by that? On the one hand, when I see an historical building or a work of art or a photograph of people from an era before our own, I can make a well-educated guess about its date, and I also have a pretty rich historical context in mind in which to place that artifact. Indeed, I often find myself shocked that other people can't do this. (That's a subject for another blog post.) That ability comes from long immersion in historical fields — I know at least a little about a whole lot of Western history, and a whole lot about some of it — and from concentrated study of art and architectural and costume history, inter alia, but also from a disposition to cultivate a visual-historical imagination.

I'm sure that orientation comes in part from my lifelong love of historical fiction. In my very earliest reading years, I read books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, and when I moved on to reading books without pictures, I continued the habit of "illustrating" the premodern worlds I was reading about in my head.

The flip side of that orientation is that when I am reading about an aesthetic controversy in the past, I generally assume I can visualize the terms of the debate in my head, even if what I'm reading is not illustrated. If I'm reading a debate about clothing or architecture from a hundred or two hundred years ago, I can usually draw on enough of a mental inventory of styles to supply the necessary context.

But knowing about the styles and materials of buildings or dress in the past is a far cry from really being able to picture the complete environment of a place in the past.


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The Needless Death of a Shepherd Park House

Yesterday, a house on my street was demolished.

It had become so unstable that it was a danger to the adjacent houses, and there was probably no choice but to tear it down.

It had become dangerously unstable because the "cash for houses" vultures who bought it last fall let it decay, let the pipes freeze, and then, when spring came, demolished its chimney, ripped half its roof off, and left it exposed to the torrential rains of recent weeks. All this with a permit for "interior demolition only".

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Improvements in Episcopal Church Wayfinding and Welcome

This is a drive-by post — literally! Brief background: Washington, D.C.'s oldest church, St. Paul's–Rock Creek Parish (founded 1712) sits in the middle of a huge, historic cemetery. The church is not easy to find within the cemetery, and the cemetery's main gates are hard to find in the streets of the adjacent neighborhood. To make matters more confusing, most people encounter the cemetery as they zoom past on a high-speed stretch of North Capitol Street, where there is a tantalizing view of the cemetery grounds, and a gate, but no place to stop, and no safe way to cross from the neighborhood just to the east. 

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A Skylight on Folsom Place (article preview)

Here's an advance copy (PDF) of an article about research in progress for a house history I'm working on in Cleveland Park. This will appear in the forthcoming issue of the newsletter of the Cleveland Park Historical Society. (Check out my house history and research services business here.) Enjoy!


Chairless at the Cathedral

What if the Cathedral could serve as a liturgical laboratory for the diocese?

Last week, the Washington National Cathedral removed all the chairs from its nave and held a series of events to allow people to explore the empty, altered space in various ways. (Read more about the week's events here.) As you know, I am passionately interested in the way people experience space in Episcopal churches. I've known the Cathedral literally as long as I can remember – I started Beauvoir when I'd just turned 4 – and had never seen the nave empty of chairs, so I was definitely not going to miss this.

I was able to attend two evening events during #WNCnochairs week. On the Tuesday night, I went to Evensong, which was held in St. John's Chapel, alongside the Great Choir. The nave was completely empty, and before Evensong, the Cathedral was completely silent. The floor of the nave, it turns out, is sea-green marble, which is almost entirely covered by the chairs in their normal configuration. With the chairs gone, you can read the full height of the nave arcade, and the piers appear to rise from a placid sea.

The few minutes I had to explore the space before and after the service went a long way to recapturing, for me, the feeling of the Cathedral as permeable sacred space as I knew it during my free-range childhood in the neighborhood. It used to be possible to go in any door at almost any time, and simply let your imagination rebound off the stone. The Cathedral has increasingly — and for understandable reasons — closed off ways of entering in recent years. The transept doors have been closed since the 2011 earthquake, and now, partly for security and partly because of the urgent need to raise restoration funds, visitors must enter through only one door at the west end and present themselves to staff before entering. Although entry for worship is free, the requirement to account for your purposes in visiting has largely shut off the sense that the Cathedral might be a place of private wonder. (I assume it goes without saying that a child of 9 or 10 would never be allowed to roam the Cathedral unaccompanied nowadays.)

During no-chairs week, however, there was almost no gatekeeping — none at the entrance, one helpful Purple Hat Lady within, and absolutely mimimal ushing and shushing. The empty space was defamiliarized. People who clearly know the Cathedral well gathered in small groups to point and exclaim and share their renewed wonder at the space.

On the Wednesday evening, I went to the informal choral concert. A choir sang first from the crossing, then moved up to the high altar for a second piece, and then deployed around the nave for Tallis's "Spem in alium". The people were free to move around the nave ad lib. during the singing.  Two things I particularly noticed (in addition to the stunning music, that is):

An audience (or congregation) free to move is much better at stillness than one forced to sit still.

People in wheelchairs were moving about the space with particular freedom.

I think of myself as pretty attuned to accessibility issues, since my dad used a wheelchair, but I didn't realize until that evening how much of a barrier the ordinary arrangement of chairs presents.

The new sense of freedom in the space, and the defamiliarizing effect, made me wonder about the liturgical implications.

What if the Eucharist came together like a flash mob in the midst of the people as they milled about in the great space?

What if the Cathedral took advantage of its vast range of different types of liturgical spaces to have a liturgy that danced and moved, as at St. Gregory of Nyssa?

What if the Cathedral could serve as a liturgical laboratory for parishes in the diocese? Congregations might come and worship in any of the Cathedral's spaces and see what it's like when a familiar community brings their worship into unfamiliar configurations.

I don't know to what extent Seeing Deeper was driven by liturgical concerns and to what extent it was a product of the visitor services side of things. On the latter front, I think it was a great success, but I hope the implications on the liturgical side aren't lost. Obviously there was a lot of clergy participation in the week's events, and the Dean was out and about, welcoming people and experiencing the space (and recording it with his iPhone). I didn't detect much public diocesan engagement with the experiment. I hope people will continue to compare notes (including in comments here) on their no-chairs experience, and that the Cathedral and our congregations will take inspiration from it in the year ahead.

Did you go to the Cathedral during #WNCnochairs? What was your experience? What might we take away from the experiment?

Addendum: Kathy Stuadt has a wonderful reflection on Seeing Deeper at the diocesan blog.