September 22, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

                                       DUPONT CIRCLE CIRCA 1983

I'm not the most organized person, so when I went on another trip into my archives, and found some slide pages that were actually "catalogued", I was absolutely shocked. This week I will explore a number of images that date back over forty years and were all listed under "details." I think that they have less value as historic artifacts than as links to a young man who was about to become an architect, after another seven years of education and apprenticeship. these details show that my camera was already pointed at architectural details before I ever stayed up all night in architecture school. I  would bet that after forty years these small vignettes have not changed one bit, which shows in some way how the built environment can persevere if we don't go out of our way to obliterate it. To my mind they also show how delightful a walk in the city can be if you slow down and enjoy the details around you.

This first image is nothing special to most of you, but it is a view of most of my afternoons in the early 1980's. I was a waiter in a wine bar in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. for seven years, and walked through this delightful piece of urban design most days before work. I worked here before, during , and after architecture school, somehow avoiding a pretty justified firing as a New York waiter in Washington, D.C. I survived only because I was "employee number three" after the two owners and fit in among a collection of "waitrons" that included writers, actors, opera singers, and other ne'er-do-wells. An architect was only another part of  very eclectic mix, and I could write the list of desserts on the blackboard like nobody's business. Fran occasionally filled in as a bus girl, as long as she could was allowed to be "Inga" whose only English was"more bread?"

                                                                  A WROUGHT IRON KIT OF PARTS AT AN ENTRY

I carried my first real camera, and then my first real SLR, on my walks around some of the older neighborhoods in D.C. like Dupont Circle and Georgetown, where Fran worked as a pastry chef in a fancy catering company. There were plenty of wonderful details to notice, most which seemed far too  "highfalutin" for the architecture they were attached to. They alluded to the pride of early developers, as well as the fact that both architects and craftsman had come really cheap back in the day. This ornate little entrance stair on a row house is an example of a common tactic to make yet another row house kind of special. What intrigues me is that these seven steps are exactly the same walk up as the stairs as my 1911 bungalow 3000 miles away - the dimensions and material are completely different, but I get a basement and these people probably lived above a lower-level apartment.


What caught my eye, and still makes me smile forty years later, is that this more expansive entry stair in Georgetown shows such attention to detail in its design while not caring a whit that beautiful brick steps  will probably have to be rebuilt every decade. I'm sure they are still there, although the fancy car parked next to them on the front terrace/parking space has no doubt been replaced a dozen times. Hopefully someone fixed that errant fence picket!


I seemed to be drawn to the details even when I was touring a piece of architecture with a capital "A".  Here is a detail of one of the incredible arched windows at the newly restored Union Station. I was fascinated by the grid of windows that allowed for and enlivened this early window wall. They are almost an exact match for similar monumental windows at the main building at Ellis Island in New York. I'm old enough that this building is again being restored.

                                                                   PUBLIC ART THAT MIGHT NOT PASS MUSTER TODAY

This incredible sculpture is just one of the art pieces that embellished the Depression Era government office buildings known as the "Federal Triangle" off Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. I don't know about you, but somebody wasn't paying attention when this nearly homoerotic horse and wrangler greeted government workers every day.


Sometimes Robert Venturi and his firm could be too clever by half, but this plaza along Pennsylvania Avenue, which shows the plans of the Capitol and the White House in sight of the buildings themselves is probably the best way anyone ever actually explained and illustrated  L'Enfant's plan of the new Capital city. Amidst all of the monuments of Washington it is probably still my favorite.

                                      DETAILS FOR THE PEOPLE!

This downspout was a few feet from the garden apartment row house where Fran and I, and then Benjamin, lived in Arlington outside of D.C. This downspout shows the attention to detail that such a modest apartment complex could contain if people cared about such things as apartments for workers. This development was built to accommodate some of the first workers at the new Pentagon, a few miles away by dirt(!) road. When Fran and I and others were insulted by the "inside price" that a developer offered us to buy our new condo, we successfully created the first affordable housing project in Northern Virginia. Much to the horror of our middle class neighborhood, Fran and I, a waiter/architecture student and a pastry chef, were the richest tenants among 140 units, which still included a dozen people who had moved in forty years earlier. In doing my research, I found the original plans and realized that our courtyards, which resembled college quads, were supposed to be parking lots that the original developer had "forgotten" to build. Our new affordable rent rose from $200 to $800 a month, but we kept our apartment.

                                                                     DETAILS BY A MASTER

On to some famous architecture that I visited in those years when I was broadening my "architecture vocabulary". These two images are from two houses by Frank Lloyd Wright. One was a "modest" home built near D.C. contemporary with our apartment complex. This was an example of a "Usonian" house which Wright promised would cost only $5000 to build. Yes, it like most of its cousins ended up more likely  in the low teens, but you did get to live in small house by Frank Lloyd Wright. I would spend next thirty-five years trying to convince my clients that they deserved such attention to detail, and never got a chance to build a "window wall" of french doors like the one shown here.

                                                                 SOMETIMES A WINDOW IS NOT JUST A WINDOW

This image is a detail of one of the most famous houses in the world, Falling Water. I infamously once drove a tourist board employee to near tears when I insisted that she must be mistaken when I insisted that Falling Water was just outside of Scranton when it is really located near Pittsburgh. Yes, it is built over a waterfall, but what impressed me most was this window wall, built of a multitude of small industrial casement windows. Not only were they built into the adjacent stone wall without any frames, but he had the guts to paint them a wild red-orange! Forty years after our visit we painted our bungalow a similar shade.

I hope you have enjoyed this walk down memory lane. Remember that not only is "God in the details", but some of our the best recollections of our past can be found there.