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Two Washingtons, Under One Roof

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2004; Page C05

The Washington show is back at last.

"Washington: Symbol and City," at the National Building Museum, reopens today in a new and improved version after three years of downtime.

It's a really good show, the kind you can take your mother to, or friends from out of town, so they can acquire in a reasonable time a fair understanding of the peculiar dynamics of their capital city. Less than an hour will do the job, although for Washington history buffs, more than an hour will be amply repaid.

The exhibition originally opened in 1991 and was closed in 2001 for an overhaul. In the meantime, the City Museum of Washington, a new institution with its own Washington show, opened last year just a few blocks away, raising a serious issue of redundancy.

Not to worry. "Washington: Symbol and City" possesses a compelling story line, something the City Museum's exhibition lacks. (The exhibits there will close in April.)

As its title hints, the Building Museum show has tension at its heart -- tension between the broad diagonal boulevards and the narrower right-angled streets, the national constitution of the democracy and the city's votelessness, the behemoth federal government and weak city administrations, the monumental core of the city and its street-corner neighborhoods.

The list just goes on and on, but basically it boils down to the single, overriding push and pull built into Washington's dual history as glorious national capital and vibrant local city.

This duality is the inescapable theme of Washington life, hard to avoid even if you try. It is almost impossible to travel around the city's neighborhoods without encountering a reminder of the capital's symbolic import -- the poignancy of the Civil War forts, for instance, or the unforgettable constancy of the Washington Monument or Capitol dome on the city's skyline.

The Building Museum exhibition derives its cogency from this theme. Occupying three galleries on the museum's first floor, the exhibition begins with a room devoted to the history of the monumental city -- the L'Enfant plan, the Capitol, the White House, the Mall, the major monuments. This forms the essential background for the rest of the show, which is taken up with compact examinations of particular subjects such as housing, transportation, culture, parks, education and religion.

Truth be told, the presentations often seem too compact, leaving a visitor wanting to see more, learn more. This is greatly preferable to information overload, a common malady among educational exhibitions. The Building Museum show, at the very least, is a great inducement to hit the books or, even better, the city's sidewalks.

Much of the show's impact is due to the excellent selection of materials. It is easy to tell that folks who know the city well were in charge -- the lead curator was architect-historian Don Hawkins, whose knowledge of the city is encyclopedic, and he was assisted by Portia James, curator at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum.

Take, for instance, the immensely informative photograph of downtown Washington in the Christmas season of 1948. It is like a novel of Washington life at mid-century.

Observed from a window in the second or third story of a building looking east along F Street NW, the image shows sidewalk crowds that, today, seem almost incredible. Postwar prosperity is at its height. Sleek new cars are beginning to replace the bulkier prewar models, but automobiles must share the roads with streetcars. Downtown was the region's commercial hub. The doorways to the Woodward & Lothrop department store are jammed with people. Small, locally owned, non-chain businesses predominate.

It is an everyday scene that, we now know, would change dramatically in the years to come as downtown, for a potpourri of reasons, lost much of its allure. Half a century later, downtown is staging a remarkable comeback, but, to state the painfully obvious, it'll never be 1948 again.

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