Over the centuries, Washington has evolved from a swampy backwater town to a sophisticated cultural destination. Museums and monumental architecture here are world-class with spacious light-filled galleries and exquisitely curated shows. Dozens of museums, galleries and public art spaces, most free, dot leafy streets and line the National Mall.
The art is impressive in quality and diversity, from Old Masters’ paintings to abstract bronze sculptures; from exquisite glass vessels to deeply carved woodwork; from imposing buildings to finely stitched tapestries.
Many museums are on the tourist circuit but I tempt you to veer off the beaten path to visit five lesser-known gems.
The personal collections of wealthy individuals often formed the crux of a new institution. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s collection in 1936 formed the National Gallery of Art; Duncan Phillips’ collection in 1921 The Phillips Collection; and David and Carmen Kreeger’s in the 1990’s is today’s Kreeger Museum, our first stop.
The Kreeger Museum is an unparalleled jewel hidden behind a stone wall on five acres of urban woods in the secluded but close-in residential Foxhall neighborhood.
Architect Philip Johnson completed this post-modernist glass and stone structure for the Kreegers in 1967. It was designed as a residence, a showcase for their 19th-and 20th-century collection of European and American art. He also designed an intimate performance space for concerts, which continue today.
Kreeger was a government official, former president and CEO of GEICO, and a local cultural icon. It was always his intention to donate his art collection.
Dubuffet and Bonnard; Braque and Chagall; a Calder mobile and Brancusi head; bronze panels along the staircase and an atrium of verdant tropical palms are all in my frame of vision as I step over the threshold.
One glass wall in the Monet Room overlooks a terrace of Arp, Lipchitz and Maillol sculptures. Three walls are covered with Monet’s fluid light and shimmering water scenes. In addition to these pieces in the permanent collection are works by Picasso, Kandinsky and Corot.
The building design is ingenious because from any vantage point you have a view of the outdoors.
On special exhibit until July 31 is the complete Kreeger collection of Joan Miró including The Mallorca Suite, a folio of three dozen etched engravings and aquatint in black and color hanging in four horizontal rows. Miró created these pieces in celebration of his 80th birthday in 1973, which the Kreegers attended.
The Textile Museum in the Dupont Circle neighborhood is a repository for more than 19,000 historical textiles, a selection of which are on display in low light, cool and humid-free galleries to protect the fragile fibers.
From ancient times through the Renaissance, hand-woven textiles were among the most valuable objects one could own. They conveyed prestige and wealth, so even fragments flaunt delicate stitches and beautiful color.
In celebration of the recent 100th Cherry Blossom Festival, exquisite Japanese ceremonial court robes and silks commissioned for the Imperial Household are on display in Woven Treasures of Japan’s Tawaraya Workshop until Aug.12. The luminescent luxury fabrics are decorated with hollyhocks, wisteria, stylized slices of melon and peonies in patterns, weaves and combinations of tangerine orange, teal gray, emerald green and snow white. They are gorgeous.
Sourcing the Museum’ (until Aug. 19) brings textiles to the contemporary fore with fabric creations inspired by ancient remnants. For example, artist Lisa Cook designed Coptic Manga, a large tapestry wall hanging of faces. At first glance they look like the Simpsons, but on closer observation the faces are portraits of smiles, frowns and puzzlement. Cook said she was inspired by a mini tapestry fragment from 6th and 7th century Syria that showed “subtle nuances of recognizable human expressions.”
CELEBRATION OF ARCHITECTURE
Take the Metro to Judiciary Square Station, climb the escalator to the sidewalk and zoom in on a massive red brick building encircled with a terra cotta frieze depicting Civil War infantry, cavalry, artillery and medical units.
Wow, you will exclaim!
This is the National Building Museum, once the U.S. Pension Bureau and now an example of spectacular architecture.
Civil War Quartermaster General for the Union Army, Montgomery Miegs, designed the building in 1881 to serve Civil War veterans. The Renaissance Palazzo Farnese in Rome, built to Michelangelo’s specifications in 1589, served as his model and inspiration.
The lavish interior, larger than a football field, is decorated with about 185 columns and a central fountain shooting water high up in the five-story space.
Today the building is a private non-profit, National Historic Landmark and popular venue for Washington black-tie galas. It has hosted Inaugural Balls since Grover Cleveland’s presidency in March 1885, including January 2008 when President and Mrs. Obama danced the night away.
Rotating exhibits explore cities, urban design, engineering and architectural drawings, some centuries old. A Lego room with models of the tallest buildings around the world and thousands of Legos to play with is perfect for your children and the child within you.
Meander up The Hill taking in the setting of the Capitol grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and the magnolia-scented pathways crisscrossing the grassy knoll.
Folger Shakespeare Library, a block from the Capitol, is a museum; shrine to the playwright with the world’s largest Shakespeare collection; theater space for early music, Shakespeare’s plays and poetry readings; and center for scholarly research. A corner garden replete with benches, trees, shrubs and sculptures is perfect for reading your favorite work by the Bard.of Avon.
Great Hall, adorned with pale green and rose stained glass celebrates Shakespeare’s Sisters, educated high society 16th century women who yearned to stretch their minds. On view are handwritten manuscripts and palm-sized devotional books of comedy, love and religion, all in elegant penmanship.
WORLD’S LARGEST LIBRARY
Around the corner, across from the Capitol, is the Library of Congress, fronted by a massive ornamental fountain of Neptune surrounded by sea nymphs, sea horses, frogs and turtles.
You could spend days in this magnificent complex wandering marbled hallways, staring at painted ceilings, exploring dozens of Americana exhibits such as George Gershwin’s music, Bob Hope’s comedy and Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, attending talks and concerts, and, of course, reading. This is the world’s largest library with more than 151 million items in practically every language.
Politics and the Dancing Body, on display until July 28, displays photos of dancer Jane Dudley, a copy of her FBI file and the note blacklisting her husband, documentary filmmaker Leo Hurwitz. The exhibit also includes the 1936 letter to Martha Graham inviting her to participate in the XI Berlin Olympiad, next to her refusal: “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time.”
In the Sakura/Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship exhibit, which runs through Sept. 15, is a tiny framed handwritten letter dated Feb. 26, 1911 from Yei Theodora Ozaki to President Taft’s wife:
“My dear Mrs Taft,
On the 14th of February … my husband shipped off 3000 cherry trees which he hopes will form an avenue in Washington as a memorial of national friendship between the U.S. and Japan …”
I am deeply touched by this seemingly unremarkable note. Yet it too is a piece of art. And it makes me appreciate the city I live in as much as the curve of a Henry Moore shoulder or the asymmetrical face of a Picasso muse.