FOR WASHINGTON residents who live here by choice -- a presumed majority -- there can hardly be too many books justifying their allegiance. So we can welcome the appearance this fall of Washington: Houses of the Capital, the first splashy, large format, authoritative and pricey picture album of the city to appear in well over a decade.
In recent years a few oversize surveys have included the unique Junior League illustrated history, Lois Craig's architectural documentation of "The Federal Presence," and Robert Cameron's photographs of Washington from the air. But not since 1966 when photographer Evelyn Hofer and artist William Walton collaborated on The Evidence of Washington have we had such a comprehensive picture book with lavish color photography and urbanity of text. Of the book's 242 photographs, 63 are in full color and well over half are devoted to interiors. There are eight pictures of prominent residents in the act of residing and one inexplicable picture of a domestic servant in uniform standing in a half-opened ivy-covered doorway--perhaps an inside joke.
The text (and apparently many of the captions) by The Post's "Earthman" columnist Henry Mitchell provide a discursive narrative of Washington social archaeology as it flourishes or lingers in the 1980s. He is one of the town's most talented writers, and in the present work, he indulges a sure eye for architectural detail. But the modesty of the Mitchell style is here somewhat varnished and his meandering expositions are, as he himself might say, replete with ambages.
Such is the power of the picture over the printed word that it is the photographer in such ventures who is in the catbird seat while the writer plays second fiddle. When you pick up a book of photographs you are more of a looker than a reader; you may scan the captions, but only an addict reads the text. The result is a coffee-table book -- not in the disparage to carry as a guide, too discontinuous to be read as a narrative, and still in its pubescence as an art form.
Americans like to reexamine their domain through the eyes of foreigners, and Moore obliges by approaching the capital with the sensibility of an exotic. It is part of the book's charm that his publishers have indulged his idiosyncrasy in selecting houses he likes as random artifacts of human shelter, devoid of systematic exposition in any particular historic or architectural or esthetic context. Many of the houses are seedy and rundown. Few photographers would linger as long as he has over the many Victorian row houses we walk or drive by every day; his camera catches the vanished craftsmanship of their intricate brickwork undismayed by the surrounding veneer of permastone or rusty fire escapes or painted metal awnings. He also worked assidously last spring to capture obscure fascades before too many leaves came out, while waiting for the verdure of May to soften some harsher elevations.
Moore's hermetic taste has rescued many buildings from anonymity, but the salvage is strictly graphic, as there is no indication of address or even neighborhood. Moore gives us a striking full-page color picture of a turreted mansion now partially occupied by a travel agency with credit card decals in the parlor window. The result is impressionistic rather than documentary. There is nothing in the caption or text or index to tell the purchaser of this $40 book that the photograph on page 166 is the Demonet building built in 1880 by John Sherman at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and M Street NW. It is hard to tell whether the uninformativeness of so many of the captions results from reticence or lack of industry.
Moore has done only one other such book. Two years ago, in collaboration with Brendan Gill, he caught the opulence and originality of California in a book on Los Angeles houses, The Dream Come True. Television has made Washington much more familiar territory in the public eye, and it is a mark of Moore's finesse that he has recaptured the White House in 13 pictures without any hint of cliche, giving us a fresh perception beyond the means of official guide books. (A characteristically capricious caption tells us that ground beetles lurk under the automatic sprinklers of the White House Lawn.)
As a son-in-law of former British Ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson, Moore was more than a casual visitor to the city. That he gained access to so many interiors or private houses (often with tables set and candles burning in the style of Architectural Digest) affords the book its chief distinction. In varying degree of detail his book identifies and provides glimpses of 56 Washington houses, all of them within the District except for the Custis-Lee House in Arlington. Of these 56 houses only 14 (by my count) are open to the public; and even the privileged lack easy access to such bastions as Belmont House, the Belgian Embassy, and the private houses of Georgetown. Georgetown's Tudor Place, though the first to be granted a scenic easement, has been up to now the most impregnable Shangri-La. Moore also bring uas Joseph Alsop peering balefully out of the overstuffed chair in his study as well as the W&J Sloane conventionality of the Sulgrave Club Lounge.
Few books about the capital could have so little indication of power or politics; only two recent or current members of Congress appear in its pages. They are Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and former senator John Sherman Cooper, both occupants of two of the finest houses in Georgetown. Sen. John Heinz's (R-Pa.) Bodisco House also appears, but in an unidentified hallway view. Houses of the Capital netier strives for nor attains any particular demographic balance.
Few Washington houses display much of interior furnishings in the modern style, so it is not surprising to find only two examples here: a molded plastic table in the stair hall of former mayor Walter Washington's house and the corner of a superb Art Deco room in the house of Marjorie Phillips.
This expensive album is seriously flawed by lack of editorial and production care. Captions fail to identify their subject. Text is not integrated with pictures. Double-page spreads are given to unrelated elements; series of different houses overlap and interrupt each other -- to no apparent purpose and without regard to chronological or geographical sequence. For instance, the interiors of the Toutorsky mansion on 16th street and the Heurich mansion on New Hampshire Avenue are confusingly intermingled.
When the progenitor of the picture-album genre, Evidence of Washington appeared in 1966, it included descriptive portraits from the full political and social spectrum, presenting in context a capital society dominated by the "Three B's -- Mesdames Beale, Bacon, and Bliss." The goal of Moore and Mitchell as stated in their introduction is less ambitious: to present "a loving survey of Washington houses that for one reason or another seemed wonderful or lovely or unbelievable or crazy (or all four)." (I mean, who wants to cast a net without some holes in it?) But in their last pages the authors concede another focus: "Washington does seem, sometimes, to be dominated by important hostesses and grandes dames. . . Mesdames Burling, Cooper, Fritchie (sic) and Charles. . . Their houses are notable chiefly because they inhabit them."
The foreword by Gore Vidal is (understandably) about Gore Vidal. He tells us that as a youth he would wander barefoot and in bathing suit onto the Senate floor. And he offers a precious dictum that hats always get larger before a war -- or at least used to. His tone of whimsy is appropriate to the balance of the book, while suggesting indirectly that Washington is ample enough as a city to provide him -- and some of the rest of us -- with a sense of identity and place without detriment to its larger destiny as the capital of a nation.