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Two Washingtons, Under One Roof

Nor 1942. There's a tremendous three-minute film on view that vividly demonstrates the amazing influx of "government girls" during World War II.

Nor 1916, when African American teenagers flocked to the newly opened Dunbar High School, which in an era of segregation became nationally renowned for the quality of its faculty and graduates.

Nor, for that matter, 1791. All roads in the Washington story eventually lead back to the amazing Maj. L'Enfant, the visionary Frenchman "who so admired America that he preferred to be called Peter rather than Pierre." The real fruit of L'Enfant's admiration, of course, was his brilliant plan for the new capital city.

As in the original "Symbol and City" exhibition, the two scale models made for the Senate Park Commission in 1901 are featured attractions. These consist of a "before" model showing in great detail how central Washington looked at the beginning of the 20th century, and an "after" model of the dramatic changes the commissioners proposed. Many of these changes were carried out in the following decades, producing the Mall pretty much as we know it today.

Unfortunately, this time around the organizers decided, presumably for lack of space, to show only the central portions of the models, reducing their size by two-thirds and thereby eliminating lots of fascinating detail. Focusing on the Mall is understandable, but even so, slicing and dicing these invaluable artifacts is a great shame.

The remnants are safely stored away, thank goodness. In another decade or so, maybe the museum will come to its senses and put Humpty together again.

Happily, the exhibit organizers did better by the other important models in the show -- detailed renditions of the Capitol, White House and Lincoln and Jefferson memorials constructed by model-maker Rebecca Fuller. Conceived on the same scale, the models are made to be touched, a benefit to the blind and sighted alike.

The presence of the "Symbol and City" exhibition somewhat softens the impact of the City Museum's unhappy announcement that it will close all its exhibitions, including "Washington Perspectives." With its scattershot approach to the historical material, that exhibition, in any case, needs to be rethought.

Washington's history probably is rich enough to sustain two museum exhibitions, but the second would need to be carefully adjusted to the first so they complement each other. As of now, "Symbol and City" definitely is number one.

Washington: Symbol and City will remain on view indefinitely at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

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