Music | Perspective
August 11, 2017 at 8:00 AM
A little more than 40 years ago, a 195-foot-long barge dubbed the Point Counterpoint II took to the waters, just in time for the country's bicentennial. The boat was designed by the architect Louis Kahn as a floating concert venue for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. Above the waterline it looked a bit space-age, with silver metallic cladding and oversized portholes and hydraulic lifts that opened to make a stage for the orchestra. For decades the boat, which also includes an art gallery, brought music to audiences across America, and in Europe. Today, although the barge is still operational, it is in danger of being sent to the scrap yard.
The man who commissioned Kahn to build it, Robert Boudreau, is now in his 90s, and would like to sell it. He is asking $4 million, money he says he would use to create a program for young people to experience music on a farm he owns in western Pennsylvania. After decades leading the orchestra — which commissioned works from many of the 20th century's greatest composers — he would like to continue his artistic evangelism a bit closer to home.
"If it is taken care of, it has an unlimited life," Boudreau says. "She is built like a battleship," he says, and was designed according to Coast Guard requirements to be oceangoing. He would know: Along with wielding a baton as a conductor, he also spent years piloting the ship from concert to concert.
The boat belongs in Washington, a city both blessed and socially determined by its rivers. The nation's capital was founded at the confluence of the Potomac and the Anacostia, near the ports of Georgetown and Alexandria, and is home to the country's oldest naval base. At times, the city has embraced its river setting, most significantly in 1901 when the McMillan Plan created the Mall, new parks along the waterfront and Memorial Bridge, which created a symbolic (though often illusory) post-Civil War rapprochement between the North and the South by joining the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery.
But the city's rivers have also been lines of division and the Anacostia River remains perhaps the city's most salient geographical and social barrier, with enormous differences in wealth, opportunity and cultural assets, such as theaters, concert halls, museums and parks between Southeast Washington south of the river and the rest of the city.
Many of the most dramatic and some of the most exciting changes in Washington today are clustered along its rivers. The most visible transformation is the District Wharf development, a mile-long commercial project that is radically changing the waterfront along Maine Avenue SW. But projects like the 11th Street Bridge Park, an elevated public space spanning the Anacostia River slated to open in 2019 transcend mere commercial development, and underscore the myriad possibilities of using the river as a means of connection, social equity and public discourse. When it opens, the bridge park won't just reintroduce people to the waterfront, it will use the arts, entertainment, education and environmental initiatives to foster better lives and greater equity.
Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park, says he'd consider partnering with any organization that took up stewardship of the boat. The Anacostia River is navigable up to the 11th Street Bridge, says Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, a group working to clean up the river. And the river is about to become dramatically cleaner once the Anacostia River Tunnel, which will eliminate most of the sewage that flows into the river during major storms, is finished next year. "Things are really coming together," Foster says.
Jenny Bilfield, head of Washington Performing Arts, says: "It would be a lot of fun to program for something like that." Her group, which presents performances around the city, is always looking for unexpected spaces, venues that break with expectations about what the concert experience is supposed to be, and allow the social dynamics to be reinvented each time audiences gather anew. "It is a challenge to find those unexpected, quirky spaces," she says.
Perhaps that's why the original redevelopment plans at the Kennedy Center included a floating performance pavilion on the Potomac River. That fell out of the final plans, in part because of the complexity of maintaining it and because the proposed site was near overflow tanks that often dump storm water and sewage into the river. But it was an intriguing idea given the history of cultural life in the District. In 1932, the city opened what was to be its grand, ceremonial entrance from the riverfront, the Watergate Steps, just west of the Lincoln Memorial. Until the 1970s, people gathered there for concerts, sitting on the stairs while musicians played on a barge anchored just offshore (the excitement of this venue was captured in a mostly dreadful Sophia Loren film called "Houseboat," which includes a symphonic concert at the steps).
Organizations such as the Kennedy Center profess many of the same goals as smaller, more focused groups like the 11th Street Bridge Park, but they often lack a consistent way of reaching new audiences. The Kahn barge would be a powerful tool for Kennedy Center outreach, not just to underserved District neighborhoods but down the Potomac River and beyond.
Right now, the boat is moored on the Illinois River, and Boudreau is eager to hand it off to someone else. "The reason for that is that the Illinois floods a lot, and I want to get it out of there before the big rains start," he says. He wants to find someone to move the boat to safer water in the next month. He estimates the cost of moving it to Washington, D.C. at $50,000 to $70,000.
In June, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma wrote an urgent letter to the New York Review of Books,calling on someone to save the boat. "At a time when our national conversation is so often focused on division," Ma wrote, "we can ill afford to condemn to the scrap heap such a vibrant ambassador for our national unity."
Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, has discussed the idea of the barge with Ma. "A number of us across the country have talked about this for a number of a years," she says. But it doesn't seem feasible to her, given the costs, the programming needs of the center and the obligation to maintain and safely dock the boat. "Those things are not inconsequential."
But Ma, who serves as the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser at large, is right. And D.C. is the right home for the boat. It offers a living connection to one of this country's greatest architects, it comes with a legacy of great democratic achievement in the arts, it would allow the city's existing cultural organizations to further their stated goals of social connection, and it would enliven that part of the city which Washingtonians are rediscovering, its wide, placid, increasingly clean and lovely rivers.