Creating a Site of National Memory: Congressional Cemetery, 1807-1875

Lecture by Julia A. Sienkewicz, Smithsonian Postdoctoral Fellow
January 27

In 1807 the Washington Parish Burial Ground was established on an elevated tract of land above the Anacostia River. Owing in part to its location and prestigious funders, the cemetery soon became the city’s premiere graveyard. In the wake of the War of 1812, which was devastating to the new federal capital, the cemetery donated one hundred grave sites for the exclusive use of the federal government. The government began to construct uniform monuments on these plots to commemorate the Congressmen who died while in office in Washington. By 1820, the site had come to be known as the National Burying Ground or more commonly the Congressional Cemetery.

This lecture narrated the early history of the site, its gradual transformation into the “Congressional Cemetery” and considered the national significance of the site through the end of the Civil War. This lecture located the particular physical and emotional relationships between the cemetery (as a ritual landscape and a site of memory) and the nation’s capital for which it was formed. It demonstrated that, from the tense and uncertain years following the War of 1812 through the fissures of the Civil War, the Congressional Cemetery offered a secure site of national memory. The grave sites of many of the nation’s early leaders set within a landscape that echoed crucial physical and aesthetic characteristics of the federal buildings, helped to inscribe a sense of national memory, and perhaps of participatory citizenship, on its visitors. In the wake of the Civil War, a larger scale of memorialization was needed, and the federal government shifted its attention from Congressional Cemetery to Arlington National Cemetery. As a final moment, then, this lecture  considered the enduring significance of Congressional Cemetery as a precursor of the more formal federally funded National Cemeteries and as a rare and remarkably intact landscape of the early national period.

Members-Only Study Tour of the Cosmos Club

February 20

Led by Charles Robertson and Andrea Schoenfeld

Boston and the Second Empire:  The Architecture of Gridley J. F. Bryant and Arthur Gilman

Lecture by Roger Reed, National Register of Historic Places
March 9

Gridley James Fox Bryant (1816-1899) began his practice in 1837 and became the most prolific architect in Boston during the mid-nineteenth century.  His father was the inventor of the granite railway and a master of granite construction.  Bryant trained under Alexander Parris, the architect of many major granite buildings in Boston.  Continuing in the tradition that came to be known as “the Granite style”, Bryant shaped the architecture of Victorian Boston more than any single individual.  Less well known is the man with whom he associated for six incredibly productive years during which the stylistic influence of the French Second Empire dominated the architectural character of the city -- Arthur D. Gilman (1821-1882), an architect known in his own time as a man of uncompromising opinions and for a vision grounded in the belief that the Paris of Napoleon III was the premier city for Boston to emulate.  Gilman’s artistic vision supplemented Bryant’s extraordinary skills as a construction supervisor.

 Like the more famous (but equally brief) partnerships of Adler and Sullivan or Burnham and Root, Bryant and Gilman were two men of very different skills and temperaments.  Their association combined the talents of a supervising architect and a theoretical designer in a way that enabled the two men to secure all of the major commissions in Boston for a brief but important period in the architectural history of the city.  Beginning in the late 1850s and continuing through the Civil War years until 1866, Boston continued to grow with major building projects and the expansion of residential neighborhoods like the Back Bay.  The popularity of the Second Empire style, so characteristic of Boston’s Victorian architecture, coincided with the association of these two men.

Widely acknowledged as one of the most significant and talented 19th century French photographers, Charles Marville is best known for his series of photographs of "Old Paris," executed from about 1865 to 1870. Commissioned by the city under the aegis of urban planner Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann, Marville recorded, in large format albumen prints, the narrow streets and crumbling buildings of the pre-modern city at the very moment they were threatened by demolition. The photographs were also created systematically, in advance of the city's plans for renovation, and with an eye toward recording maximum visual information that would prove useful to a variety of audiences: archivists, architects, and city planners. Rich in texture and crystalline detail, the photographs are captivating for their formal rigor and their historical poignancy—in many cases, these photographs serve as the only visual record of sites that have long since vanished.

The Old Paris series is not, however, the only work that Marville undertook in his thirty-year career as a photographer. This talk first considered how Marville's seventeen-year tenure as an illustrator before taking up photography shaped and directed his talent for landscape and especially architectural work, paving the way both visually and professionally for his municipal views. Secondly, the talk examined how Marville recorded the emergence of modern Paris by photographing dam building projects, churches undergoing renovation, and a host of modern conveniences, such as the elegant gas lamps that were installed throughout the city, Morris columns, Wallace fountains, and even the poetically-named vespasiennes (public urinals) that cemented Paris’s reputation in the 1860s as the most modern city in the world. Sharp-edged, beautifully detailed and brilliantly composed, Marville’s photographs of the new city—a phoenix arisen from the ashes of the Commune and Franco-Prussian war of 1871—construct the visual rhetoric of modernity as characterized by abstraction, clarity, and a formal rigor that elided but did not wholly obscure the city’s more troubled political and social histories. As the talk suggested, Marville’s photographs of Paris do not simply document change but in their very form, they explore and present the aesthetic and spatial paradigm of modernity as it was being consolidated in the 1860s and 1870s.

Charles Marville:  Photography and the Architecture of Haussmann's Paris

Lecture by Sarah Kennel, associate curator of photography, National Gallery of Art
May 5

Dr. Mary Ellen Hayward, author of a book on Baltimore’s alley houses, and Jonathan Sager, an expert on D.C.’s alley houses, will compare and contrast this specialized housing form as it appeared in both cities. During the second half of the 19th century, when large numbers of foreign immigrants or rural African-Americans began pouring into U.S. cities, they had to be housed. Instead of building tenements, land developers in Baltimore and Washington opted for the solution of erecting smaller, single-family houses on narrower, mid-block streets.

In Baltimore, smaller houses began to be built on the “alley” streets that bisected most city blocks as early as the 1780s and this development pattern continued unabated until 1909, when the city council outlawed further building on streets less than thirty-feet wide. Over the course of the nineteenth century, alley houses in Baltimore were built in vernacular versions of Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Neo-classical styles, usually by the same builders who were erecting larger, main street houses at the same time.  In many cases these smaller, more affordable houses became the homes of the most recently arrived new immigrant group. Thousands of Baltimore’s alley houses survive and many located within a few blocks of the ever-expanding rehabilitated waterfront are now considered desirable homes.

In Washington, most alley houses were built in the decades immediately following the Civil War, in a modified Italianate style, and many were located on inner block courts with limited access to main streets. As in Baltimore, developers erected the small structures to meet the housing needs of the poorest element of the population—in Washington’s case, the large influx of freed slaves and later, poor black tenant farmers, seeking to relocate in the city in search of better jobs. Today, relatively few D.C. alley houses survive, but photographs document this once-important urban housing resource.

Baltimore's Alley Houses:  Homes for the Working Poor since the 1780s with a comparative at the Alley Houses of Washington, DC

Lecture by Dr. Mary Ellen Hayward, with Jonathan Sager
September 28

Study Tour of Washington National Masonic Memorial, Alexandria, VA

October 9

For nearly half a century, Mary Colter (1869-1958) designed buildings and interiors that charmed travelers to the American Southwest. Created for the Fred Harvey Co. and its partner, the Santa Fe Railway, Colter's hotels, tourist attractions, railroad stations, restaurants, shops, and furnishings -- located along Santa Fe's main line and at the Grand Canyon -- delighted the eye and engaged the mind. All of them were inspired by the region's rugged landscapes and its rich Native American and Hispanic cultures. Once obscure, Colter is now celebrated as a pioneer in the development of a truly American architecture.

Arnold Berke will trace the life and career of Mary Colter, who grew up in the Midwest, influenced by the American Arts and Crafts movement. The talk will showcase all of Colter's major works, placing them in the cultural and economic contexts of their time and revealing how they influenced later architecture. A writer and editor in historic preservation, architecture, and urban planning, Arnold Berke is the author of Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest. He was until recently executive editor of Preservation magazine.

Drawn From the Desert: Mary Colter's Architecture of Travel

Lecture by Arnold Berke, Senior Contributing Editor of Preservation Magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation
November 17