The Kiplinger Washington Collection: 90 years of amazing collecting ... now yours

March 23, 2012

W.M. Kiplinger never went in for office “egowalls,” all those grip-and-grin photos designed to show how well-connected a person is.

“He socialized not at all with politicians and business people in Washington,” remembers his grandson Knight Kiplinger.

Instead, when Willard Monroe Kiplinger — “Kip” to his associates — decorated the building constructed in 1950 to house the growing Kiplinger financial publishing business, he chose a different theme: the history of Washington, D.C. From the early 1920s, until the time of his death in 1967, at age 76, Kiplinger amassed one of the city’s finest collections of Washingtoniana. The tradition was carried on by his son Austin and by Austin’s son Knight.

“My son and I have just gotten it by osmosis,” Austin said of the collecting bug. “I believe that’s the way you acquire these things.”

But after nearly 90 years, the Kiplinger acquiring is over. Last fall, as the company prepared to move from 17th and H streets NW to a new office on 13th Street NW, the Kiplingers decided to donate the 5,000-piece collection. A few items have gone to the National Portrait Gallery, Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Cottage. The bulk is now at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., in the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square (801 K St. NW), where it eventually will be available to researchers and for exhibitions.

It’s a diverse collection that captures the places of Washington and the people.

“A favorite of mine is what I call the ‘gangster Washington,’ ” said Knight, 64. The rare engraving — a fleshy, grim-faced Gen. George Washington brandishing a sword — appeared in London newspapers during the American Revolution. “To England, this was the Ho Chi Minh of America. Washington was not a hero in their eyes. It’s an extremely unflattering portrait.”

The collection has personal significance, too. For Austin, 93, who grew up in Washington, some of the images are forever associated with his youth.

Take the watercolor of Hoover Field, Washington’s earliest airport. That’s where Austin took his first airplane ride, when he was 11 or 12. The pilot was a man named Bernt Balchen, who just happened to have been at the controls when Adm. Richard E. Byrd made his historic flight over the South Pole in 1929.

“Mr. Balchen was out of a job, so he took people up for sightseeing flights around Washington,” Austin said.

After banking over the Mall and the U.S. Capitol, and flying up and down the Potomac, Balchen brought the open-cockpit plane to a landing on Hoover Field’s dirt runway.

“When he landed, he said, ‘You can unbuckle your seat belt now,’ ” Austin remembered. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ ”

He’d never strapped himself in.

“Thank goodness he was a good pilot, and so I didn’t fall out.”

There’s no trace of Hoover Field today. The Pentagon sits where rickety prop planes once lumbered into the sky.

That sense of a vanished Washington permeates the Kiplinger collection. As the city went through the throes of redevelopment in the 1950s and 1960s — rowhouses giving way to office buildings, corner stores to supermarkets — W.M. Kiplinger commissioned artists and photographers to capture what was being lost.

“I’m really not against progress,” Kip told a Post reporter in 1963. “I just want to catch the old sights and scenes before they vanish.”

Of course, Washington has been vanishing — or changing, anyway — since long before it became the seat of a new nation. Just imagine what John Smith would think if he saw it today.

A print of that English explorer was always Austin’s favorite. “It was produced in London about 1636,” he said. “And that is a remarkable thing, when you think that very piece of paper is going on 400 years old. He sailed up the Potomac River in 1608 and was one of the first Europeans to see the site of our capital city. I miss John. He used to hang right outside my office.”

John Kelly is a Post columnist. To comment on this article, send an e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section.
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