Artist James McNeill Whistler’s most famous painting is probably his portrait, Whistler’s Mother, but to Washingtonians, there is another work that captures the imagination.
Tucked away in a corner of the Freer Gallery, Whistler’s “Peacock Room” beckons people with its distinct lure. Victorian gas lamps, gilded patterns of gold, and Chinese pottery all come together to create quite a spectacle. This is not just a normal art exhibit, however. It's more of a story.
One of the things that helps make Washington's vistas so grand--but continually frustrates developers and architects--is the district's Congressionally-imposed115-year-long ban on skyscrapers. Congress passed the 1899 Height of Buildings Act, and then modified the law in 1910, creating a complex set of restrictions based on location and street width.
It might seem intuitive that the skyscraper ban was imposed to protect views of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. But oddly, Congress was prompted to restrict construction heights because of Dupont Circle residents' griping about being overshadowed by what today is regarded as one of the District's architectural treasures--The Cairo apartments at 1615 Q Street NW.
Around the turn of the century, Washington, D.C. had a distinct lack of single men. In any era before, the women of the city might have resigned themselves to the life of the scorned “old maid” in a corset and lived a boring existence with their parents before finally dying. But not these ladies. No, starting in the late 1890s, many women in the capital city began to push for a more open society, pursuing higher education, living alone, and managing their own affairs. This was the dawn of the Bachelor Girl age.
Bachelor girls were a point of controversy in the Washington press. Some columnists were shocked and appalled with these independent ladies’ leaps into the future.
Women’s fashion is a complicated subject, but one doesn’t usually think of it as deadly. However, the fatal dance between health and beauty was a reality for Washington women in the 19th century.
The “corset problem,” or the “corset question” as it was called in the press, was the phenomenon of tightly lacing corsets to constrict the waistline to about 16 inches and sometimes even as small as 13 inches; basically, the smaller the better. These miniscule waists, also called “wasp waists,” were in style in the first half of the 1800s, reaching their peak in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Starting in the latter half of the century, the style began its descent and area newspapers began to debate the practice.
I came to the Tenth Precinct Police Station just a little way down the street and pondered again the story of a crafty escape artist who managed to break out of a jail cell in less than 20 minutes. Got any guesses on who the trickster was?
Even Washington D.C. couldn’t hold Harry Houdini, the original handcuff king. On New Years Day in 1906, the infamous Houdini broke out of what was said to be the strongest and toughest jail in the city.
On the evening of June 13, 1902, Mary Custis Lee was arrested on an Alexandria streetcar for sitting in the section reserved for black patrons. As the daughter of Robert E. Lee, the General of the Confederate Army, the incident caused quite a stir within the community.
On her way to visit a friend, and being burdened with many large bags, Miss Lee chose to sit near the rear of the car in order to easily exit upon arriving at her destination. Shortly after she sat down the conductor Thomas Chauncey “explained the Virginia law on the subject, but being ignorant of the existence of the law herself, and also being loth [sic] to move her baggage, she protested.” At that time, Chauncey let her stay seated, but that wouldn't be the end of the incident.
Though it may not really feel like it when you go outside lately, spring is almost here. It won't be long before people all over the DMV are sipping drinks by the pool. Pina coladas... mojitos... and, of course, everyone's favorite homegrown cocktail, the daiquiri.
Okay, okay, the daiquiri is not truly a Washington creation -- it was first mixed in Cuba -- but it has a strong early connection to the District. So, we have some basis to claim it. Read on!
Nowaways nearly everyone knows that Orville and Wilbur Wright were the “First in Flight,” but that wasn’t always the case. A local scientist almost knocked them out of the history books... twice. In 1903 a team under the direction of Smithsonian Institute Secretary Samuel Langley attempted a manned flight of a motor-powered airplane from a houseboat in the Potomac River. If successful, it would have been the world’s first flying machine.
The flight was a spectacular failure, but for 30 years the Smithsonian recognized Langley's Aerodrome -- and not the Wright Brothers' flyer -- as the world's first manned aircraft capable of flight. Needless to say, Orville and Wilbur were not pleased.