Monthly Archives: January 2015

Wonky Weather

junoI remember, on the day I decided to do my sabbatical research in Washington, DC, distinctly thinking: Middle Atlantic “winter:” so much milder than Chicago winter. This will feel like spring break!  In retrospect, it’s funny, funny, funny.  Tonight the East Coast is bracing for one wicked nasty storm, and although DC will probably only get the weeny tail end of it, there could be enough snow to separate me from another chunk of nineteenth-century correspondence in the Manuscripts Division of the LOC–which is not as bad as having three feet of snow crush your roof, so I guess I will just sit tight and see if tomorrow is destined to be a Writing At Home Day.

In the meantime, being out of the major danger allows me to indulge in this winter blast as the perfect backdrop to my current extracurricular reading, the Poetic Edda.  If this whole weather system is Thor’s overly enthusiastic sign of approval for my choice of reading material, I apologize to everyone currently scrambling to a Wawa in hopes of getting bread and milk before the power goes out.  Then again, if he’s just mad that the storm has been named Juno, rather than, say, Frigg, that’s totally on the Weather Channel.

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Spirits from the Past

BBFAlthough I find it hard to write about buildings without writing about the people who made them, buildings tend to be at the focus of my research and teaching.  As my new research project foregrounds the people, I have spent a lot of time in journals and other personal papers.  I anticipated learning more of the color of nineteenth-century life, but have run across a few unexpected delights of a different sort.  Twice I read messages apparently recorded from the spirit world through séances (one from the deceased German mother of a draughtsman on the Capitol project, the other from Andrew Jackson), which is not a typical kind of thing for an architectural historian to deal with.  Those are interesting for what they might reveal about the recipients of the messages, but more compelling (messages from dead presidents notwithstanding), I think, is the excerpt you see above, written in the diary of Benjamin Brown French (1800-70).  He’s writing to his son Frank, thinking that the little boy might someday want to read his dad’s diary; why else write, since “no one else, I am certain, will ever waste the time necessary for such an operation…”  If that spirit world is active in the way that French and many of his contemporaries thought it was, I hope he sees that he was wrong.  I am not the only one who has enjoyed wasting my time with his “journalizing” and am, indeed, so glad that he wasted his time writing it all down for me.

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One Week in Washington (Or: Week 1 in Washington)

Slide1My travel to DC was hardly auspicious.  A cancelled flight was replaced by a too-late rescheduled flight later that night (that American would cheerfully change to a reasonable hour the next day for the very unreasonable sum of $525): not a good way to start any trip, especially a two-month residence that is already causing some anxiety in the traveller.  But one week in, I have established just enough of a schedule to feel comfortable about being here.

What brought me here are (primarily) collections in the National Archives, Curator of the Architect of the Capitol and the Library of Congress.  The main reading room of the Jefferson Building (with my favorite seat noted above) is really the most glorious place to sit with a book (even if it is ridiculously frigid in there).  If you can get past the operatic architecture, you’ll see loads of art chronicling great thinkers, profound disciplines, and the whole development of civilization (as considered in 1897, but still) rising up as a great crescendo to the figure in the top of the lantern: Human Understanding lifting a veil from her face.

In some respects the majesty and pomp of this city have ceased to work magic on me, but looking up at that thing always leaves an impression.  I spend most of my time in that room looking down but when I take a break and look up at that painting at the top of the huge, huge dome, it really does give me chills.  Human Understanding, revealed, at the apex of a building that is a three-dimensional hymn to study and the written word, with you as one little piece of the furnishings: If that doesn’t inspire you to knock off checking up on Facebook and get back to reading the nineteenth-century histories and diaries that you travelled 600 miles to read, nothing will.

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