Monday, May 24, 2010

The word of the day is: Kitsch

I went to the National Arboretum today, the first stop on my Tour of Suburban D.C. Oddities. I only intended to see the columns that were removed from the east front of the U.S. Capitol when it was expanded in the 1950s, but I got sucked into the place by the awesomeness of it.

The columns are arranged on a slight rise, in the same pattern as when they were attached to the portico. These were the columns that were there when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated, and Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, and his cousin Franklin, and Harry Truman and Ike. They were taken down so that government could bloat without leaving the building, and thirty short years later, they found a home here on this hill in the farthest corner of the District of Columbia.

Now they stand like melancholy ruins. And like the delapidated ruins of Athens and Rome, they evoke a sort of awe. Their clean classical lines, their ornate Corinthian capitals, their lack of further function evoke a sense of how great must have been the people who made them. Their location, so remote from the crowds of busy cities, and from even the hordes of tourists that assault more ancient ruins, give them an aura of forlornness.

They were once at the center of power, the heart of a great empire. They witnessed power; they surrounded it; they ornamented it. Now, stark and alone on this little hill, they embody it.

Across the little valley in front of their reflecting pool stands a single carved stone. From this distance, I can't tell what it is, so I walk across the valley to see. It is a capital, brought down to eye level, where I can appreciate the work of carving acanthus leaves in sandstone, up close. I can look back at the columns. From here, their isolation is even more marked. They are utterly alone and unwanted.

Well, as long as I'm here across the valley, with such a long walk to the car, I think I might as well walk along the road instead of back along the grassy path. This proves to be a mistake. There is a koi pond with water lilies in it, the most perfectly formed water lilies I've ever seen. And next to that, across from the National Herb Garden, is the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. I don't know what Penjing is, but I know what bonsai is, so I go in for a quick look.
Wow. Wow. Oh, wow. These little tiny trees and bushes are astounding. I will not try to describe them. After an hour and a half I realize I will have to come back here with a certain genetic biologist of my acquaintance, so I tear myself away and go see the dogwood grove on the farthest edge of the arboretum. But you can see the pictures I took here.

The Dogwood Collection, according to the official brochure, sits in a "tranquil setting with lovely vistas of the Anacostia River." That's partly true. It's a tranquil setting: long alleys lined with trees that seem exhausted by the weight of blossoms; a fountain, some well-placed benches, some colourful flowers. But the lovely vistas of the Anacostia are undone by the muddiness of its water and the masses of leaves that all but hide the river from view. Being really into Views From On High, I leave disappointed.

That feeling gets worse at the next stop: Castle Good Knight. After seeing the exceptional castle created by one man in Ohio, I can hardly wait to see the creation of another in Maryland, one that is described in the literature as a "castle complex" and billed as a children's museum and "enchanted kingdom."

Can you say "kitsch"? Plywood walls painted to look like grey stones pierced with lancet windows conceal three acres or more of ticky-tack. A weird assortment of dross, from Krewe of Rex banners to bengal tigers wearing saddles, is sprinkled among shabby plywood sheds dressed up like stubby towers. A statue of faeries done in a classical style -- Disney-classical, that is -- has pride of place in the courtyard, but it can't help the aura of seediness that pervades the place. Well, I suppose your average five-year-old won't see it the same way. Fortunately. Because I thought it was just trashy.

On to the next stop: the nation's only remaining wrought-iron bridge, in Savage, one of the hundreds of indistinguishable municipalities that stretch from south of Richmond to north of Boston without significant interruption. As I drive through this endless concatenation of polities, it strikes me that this place gives sprawl a bad name. Anything that is unique, anything that has character, is eventually subsumed in the unremitting sameness of progress. Every major intersection is a cookie-cut shopping center, with all the same stores as are in the cookie-cut shopping center in front of our hotel.

So my arrival in Savage is restorative: this town is centered on a precious little historic district, featuring the bridge and a partially-renovated mill complex housing an assortment of local shops. No Hallmark Card shop, no Restoration Hardware, no Barnes and Noble here. Inside the mill-mall I find ... Curmudgeon Books. That's right: Curmudgeon Books. Imagine how touched I felt. Also a gift shop featuring some of the funniest birthday cards I've ever seen. I stock up. And perhaps the most unique mall denizen I've ever encountered: Terrapin Adventures, where you can learn to ride down a zip line or kayak on the Patuxent River out back. If I'd had someone with me, to drive me back from the hospital, I might've taken advantage of that.

My last stop is the National Cryptology Museum, an outpost of the National Security Administration, a half-hearted attempt to lighten up a little. Not a lot to take pictures of in here; it reminds me of the little museum at Stinson Field in San Antonio: a lot of old photographs of airplanes and machinery, and some old machinery. The whole thing looks like it was done by volunteers with no budget. There's a mock-up of a Vietnam-era listening post, some uniforms, some obsolete computers. The most interesting exhibits were a collection of Enigma machines from World War II, and the United States National Seal, hand carved by Young Pioneers (the Soviet version of Boy Scouts) and presented to the American Ambassador, who hung it in his office for six years, not realizing that it contained a KGB microphone. Can we really have ever been so naive?

1 comment:

  1. National Cryptologic Museum be one of weird museum in US


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