Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Imagine if the curators at the National Gallery walked their halls without ever noticing the "Ginevra de' Benci," Leonardo da Vinci's only painting in the United States.
That's more or less what's been happening for years now in downtown Washington, every time locals have strolled up 10th Street NW between E and F. There, on a jumbled block of storefronts opposite Ford's Theatre, the Waffle Shop has gone 56 years without attracting more than a glimmer of attention. That's a surprise, considering that the ancient restaurant is a stunningly preserved instance of classic 1950s coffee shop design, now almost extinct in Washington -- and with this last example now facing disappearance, too.
The shop is a masterpiece of the high-tech, high-polish, streamlined style properly known as American Moderne -- or, as it's sometimes called, Doo Wop. It's all swooping stainless steel, gold-and-red abstract mosaics and sexy curves of sleek formica. On its own terms, the Waffle Shop is a Mona Lisa that's gone missing.
This talk of art and masterpieces isn't hyperbole. For at least a century, art museums everywhere have preserved great examples of everyday design. The venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art devotes space to a classic Japanese teahouse. The great Metropolitan Museum in New York preserves the 1820s facade of a bank branch from Wall Street, along with 25 period interiors from archetypally American buildings.
Washingtonians get to see a similar historic treasure, but with its context left intact. Visiting the diner at 522 10th St. NW is like visiting a Renaissance altarpiece still standing in its church.
The Waffle Shop continues to speak of the design ideals that reigned when it was made. Its high plate-glass facade dissolves the gulf between outside and inside, public and private, civic and commercial, at just the time that American ideas on markets and marketing were gaining traction all around the world. The Waffle Shop didn't want to be a place apart or refuge from what went on outside; it proclaimed its place in the urban thick of things.
Its lavish steel-and-neon sign (now sadly left unlit) helps with this trumpeting effect. In classic modern style, the sign doesn't add the serifs and flourishes that had made earlier calligraphy stand out. It gets all its decorative force by working on its letters' fundamental, necessary forms. The sign pretends to be a "machine for selling," with forms reduced to the minimum it takes to do its job -- which, of course, is what gives it such a stylish, period edge.
For the Waffle Shop, selling in the public square is good, honest, American work. Soon after the diner opened in 1950 eminent Washington photographer Theodor Horydczak, who took some of the classic shots of the White House and Washington Monument, was commissioned to document its glories in a lavish suite of pictures now at the Library of Congress. He even shot the cutting-edge air conditioners on the roof: With all that glass, AC would have been both necessary and a major selling point. The same year the restaurant opened, a study pushing the new technology claimed that "families living in air conditioned homes sleep longer in summer, enjoy their food more, and have more leisure time."
Even the diner's steeply raked ceiling helps the place embrace the world outside. It starts at the top of the double-height front windows, then runs down to just above head height at the restaurant's rear wall. The ceiling's slope turns the whole diner into a kind of band shell, Hollywood Bowl-style, with passersby as spectators of the latest, modern way to eat your lunch.
The line of horseshoe counters speaks of similarly neighborly ideas. In the Waffle Shop, there are no tables where you sit secluded with the people you came in with. You find a place at the counter alongside patrons who would have got there first, and you're ushered into close camaraderie with them. To this day, the Waffle Shop's layout generates more buzz and energy inside than the most crowded McDonald's.
This crucial social dimension to the Waffle Shop gives it still more in common with important art. The Waffle Shop's mosaic waves evoke Picasso's 1930s curves; the skew grid of its terrazzo floors speaks of a Mondrian crisscross; the red and chrome of its stools descend from Russian constructivism. Yet the diner's not a freestanding exercise in modern forms. Like all good art, it speaks of and with the world around it.
The diner's crowd of regulars doesn't come because of any special food they're served -- regulation breakfast-joint fare. (The waffles -- still cooked, it's said, in the same line of 56-year-old electric irons -- are a relative standout.)