Craftsmanship and Symbolism in Washington DC
Several weeks ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to make a whirlwind visit to Washington. Both of us had spent time in DC in the past. But we hadn’t been active sight seers in years. So we dedicated one day of our trip to see the White House and Capitol Buildings.
No matter your politics, it would be hard to be unimpressed with the architecture of Washington.
Our first stop was the White House. I remember touring the White House during the inauguration of President Kennedy. I was impressed, but I was only fourteen years old. During our most recent visit, I was struck by how modest the Executive Mansion really is. Many private houses in this country and Europe are much grander. It was clear that the founders would have no Monarch here, whatsoever. That said, go to the buildings associated with the Legislative Branch and things are quite different.
I was reminded that the abilities of the craftsmen who built these places was on a par with masters anywhere in the world. And our guide (a very knowledgeable young intern from Newcastle England) pointed out that many of the hands that actually built these structures belonged to men who were enslaved and had no standing in the eyes of the government, except in their value as property.
Many people never get to the Library of Congress and that is unfortunate. The decor, the Vitruvian proportions and the craftsmanship on display here is stunning. The Hall and Main Reading Room must, surely, be two of the most classically beautiful interiors, anywhere.
Going from the White House to the Capitol, the scene changes, dramatically. While the White House is nicely decorated, it is modest. The Capitol, on the other hand, is imperial. This, no doubt, was a way of saying that the Representatives of the People, hold sway here. Emblems of power are hardly hidden. Fasces, the Roman sign of Authority are to be seen at nearly every turn. The Masons’ work here is of the first order. And, one might argue that there are enough Freemasons’ symbols here to stoke a Dan Brown novel.
Along with the fasces, the observant visitor will note that there are carved rosettes throughout the Capitol. Most Americans are not old enough (or so old they have forgotten) to remember that prior to the 1970’s, Congressional committee meetings and legislative debate took place behind closed doors. Only the obstreperousness of the American people brought about the notion of “Sunshine Laws” and Governmental Transparency. Prior to that clamoring, most legislative activities were done “sub rosa”, the Latin phrase for “under the rose”, the ancient symbol for “in confidence”. In other words, the people entrusted their elected representatives with the future of their individual and collective well being, then stood back and “lived” the result of the legislators activities. Not surprisingly, President Washington warned the electorate about the potential malevolence of special interests and political parties. Clearly, he was a man of great vision. We, perhaps, should be better listeners.
When we think of the Supreme Court today, we see, in our “mind’s eye” the imposing, columned, structure sitting on it’s own plot of ground. But from 1860 to 1935 the Supreme Court met in the Old Senate Chamber (the current Senate chamber being completed in 1860) in the Capitol. From 1810 to 1860 the Court had met in the Old Supreme Court Chamber. This chamber appears more like a cave and must have inspired as much fear as it did the promise of justice. The old chamber has been used for a number of purposes and had been divided into four separate rooms at one point and from, approximately, 1960, stood abandoned until it’s restoration in 1975. It’s difficult to be sure of the “as built” level of decoration but looking at the arches above the Justices’s Bench and the large arch above the small gallery, one clearly sees the rosettes reminding all in the room of the requirement of the court, secrecy, by all, with the exception of the Justices. One might ask why there is a total absence of rosettes over the area in which lawyers would present their cases to the Justices. It may have been that they were the victims of “re-decoration”.
Anyone with any interest in the Classical Orders of Architecture will enjoy a visit to Washington. And, a trip there just might give the visitor a little different perspective on our country’s past. Town hall meetings worked well in New England, not so much in the District of Columbia.