I CONNECT the rise of Victorian style in this capital with the fall of Skylab throughout the world.
There was a time the skies were safe for everybody but Chicken Little and that was the same golden age when Americans did their damnedest to convert all their Victorian junk houses into Georgian.
But of course the strain was more than the national fiber could endure.
The first sign of general incompetence in the skies appeared in the regime of Dwight Eisenhower, a man nobody ever really fussed at for lying to the American people since few thought it made any difference what he said. But the U-2 Incident, as it was called, demonstrated uniquely (at that time uniquely, though hardly unique now) that the government would first blunder about in the sky and then lie about it.
Now it was precisely at that moment of disillusionment with the presidency that the Victorian resurgence commenced.
Needless to say, the essence of the Victorian style and the Victorian soul is horsehair upholstery. The Victorians, when they made something supremely ugly, wanted to be sure it would wear well or (if possible) last forever.
But about 1904 the nation turned its embarrassed back on the Victorian legacy. Frankness and cleanness became goals. The nation was sorry about General Grant and the Executive Office Building.
Americans came to hate (in the period 1904 to 1953) things that were overstuffed, pasty, or lavishly ornamented in the worst possible taste.
Those were hard years for Victorian flimflam.
Victoria herself had had an endless reign in which the world was safe for grouse shooting, smokestacks, travel to inferior nations, and private pornography collections.
Not that the great queen was pornographic herself, God forbid. Indeed the enduring image of her century is that of the ample empress mourning her German knight.
But as the years passed, the essential Victorian mood of solemnity, rectitude and general sham proved too great a strain for the English-speaking world which is by nature given to wisecracks, realism and poetry.
So the snickering began and the Victorian pomposity collapsed and stayed collapsed until the mid-1950s when, as I say, a revival began.
Suddenly Victorian furniture was no longer sold for the going rate for firewood (a use for which its solidity, dryness, and design well suited it) but gradually began to be sold instead of being dumped on the Salvation Army.
An important factor in this revival of Victorian style, decades after enlightened people thought it was gone forever, was the Smithsonian Institution.
Mr. Smithson, himself a Victorian bastard, left to the nation the concept of a national museum in which nothing would ever be thrown away. Since his day the Smithsonian has become preeminent in research and has much improved its image, so that nowadays they do not like to be reminded they are the nation's attic and garage where everything too bulky to throw away is stored.
And always the Smithsonian has occupied its brick "castle," the first gothicized excrescence on Jefferson's Mall. There was flat no way at all to make it look Georgian, so there it has stood for a century in its Victorian bustles while all the buildings around it tried to look slim, svelte, smart.
For many decades the Smithsonian laid low, trying to ignore its Victorian buildings and pretending its collection of women's dresses (gowns of the wives of American presidents) was not at the heart of its operation.
But just as there was a time when the nation cast off the Victorian pall which had so long lain over it, so there also came a time when the nation had had enough of 20th-century cleanness. People began to itch, here and there, for damp brown drawing rooms again, with aspidistras in oversized brass spittoons.
The Smithsonian saw this trend and leapt to lead it. Somewhat tentatively the Renwick Gallery was broached, to see if it would be laughed out of town, and it wasn't. People thought it was just fine with its enormous vases and padded ottomans and air of grandeur halfway between the Paris Opera and the fanciest whorehouse in Chicago.
The Corcoran, long embarrassed by its white marble statuary that was the original inspiration for Ivory Soap, began to exhibit it without blushing, and the National Collection of Fine Arts started dusting off its blanched and meticulous statues of pioneer ladies and pale Indians.
Seeing that nothing terrible happened when these long-forgotten boils came into public view after years of being covered, the Smithsonian decided to wear its tribulation - the tribulation of its victorian heritage like a rose, and even went so far as to design a new Victorian Heritage - like a rose, and even went so far as to design a new Victorian garden complete with crescent-shaped little flower beds (though no flowers to speak of, but mainly the weedy things the victorians liked - hardly any of the old cottage flowers like columbines, hollyhocks, peonies, lilies).
This was an instant success.
Smithsonian horticulturist James Buckler did it. It is considered a period piece of exceptional accuracy and I know for a fact that visitors usually admire it.
So I was not all that surprised to hear from Douglas Sprunt that the Victorian garden of the Heurich Mansion at Dupont Circle was being restores. The mansion, complete with furnishings, is home of the Columbia Historical Society. The large garden (the plans of which were generously given by Buckler) is now a priceless green retreat where office workers bring thier brown-bag lunches.
The main interest of the garden is the row of ginkgo trees across the street and visible over the wall, and the designer wisely did nothing to compete with them.
Sprunt is one of a committee of women who spend hundreds of hours pulling weeds and otherwise getting the place in shape. It will eventually be a perfect setting for the remarkable house.
There really should be an official city honor for those who make these rare green spaces available to all, including Buckler whose labor of love at the Heurich Mansion has never been recognized.
Well. The next day came an invitation to a Victorian Ball at the Smithsonian, with Ceil McGhee as chairman.
This woman, apart from being one of the best-known and most affable in the East, is one of the kindest. She once danced with a wallflower fellow at the German Embassy which has the alarming habit of letting women choose partners from time to time. She has rescued many a slob in her day.
"Is it Bavarian?" a woman asked of her gown at the ball. (Victorian dress was called for).
"I'll kill her," said the chairman softly.
Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian, sailed past to the thundering music holding a pot of flowers on his head. He knows one dance in which you bend the knees and slither down till you almost touch the floor then shoot up with vigor.
A young woman was flung out by her partner and pulled back, the two of them crashing into the chair of Nancy Robinson (who was mercifully not in it, being off to rest her ears from the decibels). The dancer's green silk was split up the back to reveal clever brief little trousers shaped to the figure, of the same green silk, admired by all and envied by some.
Marielle McKinney, near the chair-bumping, registered the charming scene but spoke only of Jerusalem, Milton and Wilder. She does not make cracks about other women's clothes.
"Thank God for Anne Blair, who knew whether Victorian Washington printed their menus in English or not. She happened to know they printed them in French," said McGhee.
They had quail legs, which are similar to hummingbird tongues, and such recognizable things as green beans.
All this was under a striped tent with millions of candelabra stuffed with skyrocketing roses and snapdragons, unequaled since Eden or Nero.
Washington is one of the few cities where you dance till you're 92 - it's not just for the young - and if you're 97, you dance till then, too. Congas, and mysterious current dances alternated with polkas and the waltz. All this celebrated the Smithsonian's garden displays and great gardening exhibits planned for next year.
Two days later the same tent was packed with a garden-party crowd drinking punch and strolling with sunshades. Dorothy Clagett was understandably mistaken for the queen of England's mother in full garden-party regalia of fawn color (stated by authorities present to be Edwardian, not Victorian, however).
Anne Blair said the reason she knew about the menus being in French was her research for a book about a mouse that lived in the White House. Gen. Grant's menus were in French, she discovered.
During the Smithsonian festivities one woman fainted dead away on the lawn, caught by a handsome swain. Smelling salts were available, it was learned, and the woman was later seen dancing, fully restored.
There is something fresh about human begins - much country square dancing at the garden party - and a natural vigor that keeps the Victorian revival semi-sane.
But of course the same national temper that has brought us to a revival of Victoriana has also led us to flashy projects like Skylab, which went up with great fanfare and will fall, everybody hopes, on inconsequential folk out West somewhere or else on Italy where it possibly would not be noticed.
The thing in our country now is to blast it up. Never mind how you get it down.
More plush. More gimcrack. More Gothic vaults of papier-mache (as at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, a notable Victorian building) that look as good as stone. More flashy triumphs that dazzle the noonday sky - go now, pay later.
The DC-10 airplane is in the Victorian mode. Big and impressive. Never mind if the doors fly off and the floors collapse and the hydraulic power system fails.
But hark. Sooner or later there will be a return to Georgian plainness and light. The even better style of Wren and of Mozart will return.
In that day we will not esteem Gen. Grant's style any more, but will return to the virtue of the Early Republic and will ask of engineers:
"Yeah, and how many lives do you reckon it will cost?" And of the city's women we shall then ask once again, "what's all the bustle for?" CAPTION: Picture, Queen Victoria