The thirties. The worst of times. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
But there's hope. Roosevelt's in the White House, and a phoenix -- a streamlined, no-frills, built-for-speed bird -- is rising from the ashes of the Great Depression.
Gone are the gargoyles, the ruffles, the Hepplewhite legs. In their place are buildings that reach for the sky; steel, aluminum and glass brick; chevrons, ziggurats and geometric designs; clothes that are sleek and cut on the bias.
It all started in Paris in 1925, at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The style that made the Atlantic crossing is variously known as art moderne, art deco, streamlined moderne or Depression modern.
Deco-moderne swept over New York, but Washington, swaddled in red tape, embraced the new style with characteristic caution. Deco-moderne only lasted a few years and since Washington's usually a few years behind the times we almost missed the style completely. But, though there's no Radio City, no Chrysler Building here, the spirit of deco-moderne is alive -- in power plants, bars, movie houses, apartment buildings, statues, antique stores, warehouses and public housing projects. There's even some neo-deco, created by fans of the Thirties.
So hop into a Chrysler Airflow and return to the days of breadlines and Busby Berkeley, of Lalique and Raymond Loewy, to a generation that, the New Yorker magazine chided, "designed everything, from automobiles to alarm clocks, to buffet a hypothetical tornado." POWER FOR THE BUREAUCRACY -- The Central Heating and Refrigeration Plant, on 13th Street between C and D Streets SW, has since 1933 fueled many of the government buildings near the Mall. Nothing fired the imagination and the hope of the Thirties quite so much as raw power and the machinery that generated it. Limestone and terra cotta panels on the front of the building, whose lines seem to converge near the top to make it soar, celebrate power. A large panel shows the inner workings of a coal-burning, steam-producing boiler, with workers in overalls. ROADHOUSE REVIVAL -- Clyde's owners Stuart Davidson and John Lattham set up a Thirties-style roadhouse as "a pleasant oasis in the midst of Tysons Corner," of artwork, stained glass, sculpture and furniture. The commissioned work, some of it in the art deco style and some in the art nouveau style of the turn of the century, is supplemented by deco pieces collected by the owners. Note especially the terra cotta figure near the Palm Terrace fountain. She was sculpted in the Thirties by George Stanley, father of the statuette named Oscar. TAKING OFF IN STYLE -- Few of the passengers running to catch the shuttle may take time to notice, but National Airport, completed in 1940, has some fine deco touches. Hidden under the curved portico in front is a blue, gold and white mosaic sky. Inside the original building, cast aluminum banisters lead up the steps to a restaurant. From the sweeping balcony, with its deco-motif aluminum grillwork, look across the room at the etched-glass eagles over the doors that led to the old observation deck. Then close your eyes and watch the DC-3s take off. PUTTING ON THE THIRTIES -- As Times Goes By, 655 C Street SE near the Eastern Market, sells the kind of long, sleek, bias-cut gowns Jean Harlow was always slipping in and out of. The store's wide silk ties come in geometric prints or with hand-painted Shriners' Temples. MODERNITY FOR THE MASSES -- When Queen Juliana of the Netherlands came to Washington in the Forties, one of the sights she asked to see was Langston Dwellings, a subsidized housing project at 2101 G Street NE. Note the curved railings, the moderne marquees over the doors to individual residences and the light fixtures that illumine the street numbers. The project's architect, Hilyard Robinson, also designed the moderne-style Ralph Bunche home at 1510 Jackson Street NE. MUNI-MODERNE -- Like many government buildings conceived in the Thirties, Nathan C. Wyeth's Municipal Center at 300 Indiana Avenue NW mixed classical and deco styles. The most striking deco elements are the cast aluminum doors. Circles on the outcurving doors enclose the monogram "MP," for municipal police. The spaces above the doors hold various motifs: a papyrus, a rising sun, a lightning bolt. Note also the marble mosaic map of the city on the floor of the main lobby. THE NO-POSTER BED -- The double bed on display at the Inglett-Watson Gallery at 925 1/2 F Street NW is of highly polished wood. The abbreviated headboard curves softly at the edges, blending with the curves of the matching night tables. This is the kind of "smart" modernistic boudoir that Hollywood used as a symbol for illicit sex. According to Martin Greif, author of Depression Modern , virtuous women surrounded themselves with chintz-covered neo-colonial furniture while "every kept woman on the silver screen was always accommodated with a modernistic interior . . . a bed without posts, a chair without feet, and a mirror without frame -- for the woman without morals."
Dan Inglett and Gene Watson are the local gurus of deco-moderne. In addition to racy boudoirs, they carry a large selection of the big names of the genre: Gilbert Rohde chairs, Herman Miller desks and Robert Ryland paintings. MONDO MODERNE -- "Carter discovered King Tut's tomb in 1928, so in the Thirties the papyrus was everywhere," said Michele Santillo, explaining the motif in the chrome light fixtures, and on the etched-glass partitions, on the silverware, even on the matchbooks of his posh plum-and-gray Ristorante Piccolo Mondo at 1835 K Street NW.Sit on the gray suede-covered Thirties chairs and eat pasta, or belly up to the huge, curvy, wood and etched glass bar for something more liquid. CRET-ABLE -- Most architects of Washington's government buildings were reluctant to depart from the tried-and-true post office Roman style. But Paul Cret managed to put a moderne stamp -- sometimes referred to as "stripped classicism" -- on the buildings he designed in the Thirties. Good examples of his work are the Federal Reserve at 20th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, and the Bethesda Naval Hospital on Wisconsin Avenue. DECO, BY GEORGE! -- Much of George Washington University's Foggy Bottom campus was built in the Thirties, with appropriate art deco touches. Note the standing aluminum light fixtures outside Stuart Hall at 2013 G Street NW. The curtain at Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H Streets NW, was painted by Thirties artist Augustus Vincent Tack. RUSSIAN TEA -- The Soviets had a moderne movement, too, and you can view -- or buy -- a splendid example of Ukranian avantgarde design in the form of a very angular, color-splashed tea set at Jameson & Hawkins, 3061 1/2 M Street NW. If you prefer to sip your tea from the softly curved cups of designer Russel Wright's American modern ware, they have that, too, along with Thirties clothes, furniture and celluloid jewelry. ARTFUL APARTMENTS -- Apartment living was considered very chic and urbane in the Thirties, and many of the apartment houses of that era were built in the deco-moderne spirit. The Wiltshire, for example, at 819 East Capitol Street SE, has a curtain motif etched in glass on its front door and a polished black glass marquee over the basement doctor's office. The Bader, at 2515 K Street NW, has moderne curved bays and casement windows. The Sedgewick Gardens at 3726 Connecticut Avenue NW has deco lighted and sculpted figures on its portico.
The moderne Gwenwood, built in 1939 at 1020-19th Street NW, is soon to be replaced by a modern office building. While it lasts, go see the building's sensational deco door. The stainless steel door with two glass half-moons is framed with a mosaic of red, gold and crimson stripes, columns of light and a black marble border and topped with a stainless steel marquee.
The grande dame of deco apartment houses is the Kennedy-Warren, which opened in 1932 at 3133 Connecticut Avenue NW. Note the angular eagles in relief above the windows, the aluminum entrance portico with its stained glass panels, and the art deco light fixtures in the sunken living room off the lobby. WHO'LL TAKE MANHATTAN? -- Now fire-damaged and forlorn, the Manhattan Laundry at 1326 Florida Avenue NW, was a moderne masterpiece when it was built in 1935. Enameled metal panels with red, white and green waterlilies still sit over the casement windows set in walls of glass brick, but many of the windows are broken and some of the metal panels are missing. The property is for sale, and odds are against the survival of what James M. Goode, author of Capital Losses , calls "one of Washington's few distinctive art moderne buildings." AM I BLUE? -- Thirties people spent a lot of time looking into blue mirror glass, which was used to make everything from radios to coffee tables to clocks. Time and Again, 2900 M Street NW, has a good selection of blue mirror items, along with chrome cocktail shaker, green marble deco nudes and brass torchieres. DESIGNS BY DELAUNAY -- Cubist Robert Delaunay painted on canvas, but his wife, Sonia, designed women's clothes in the cubist mode. Silkscreen prints of many of her designs may be seen -- and bought -- at Ken Forster Antiques in the Thieves Market on U.S. 1, three miles south of the Beltway in Alexandria. Forster specializes in non-furniture art deco and art nouveau items such as jewelry, glass and pottery. WIRELESS WIZARD -- Guglielmo Marconi, father of the invention that helped shaped the Thirties, died in 1937. Shortly thereafter, a monument to the inventor of radio was built at 16th and Lamont Streets NW with donations from the public. A bronze bust of Marconi sits on a granite pedestal. On a taller pedestal behind it towers an art deco sculpture which its creator, Attilio Piccirilli, described as follows: "Symbolic of Marconi's contribution to science, the Wave, speeding through ether, covers the earth. There is the fleetness of lightning in the backward sweep of hair and drapery. There is direction in the outthrust arm guided by the noble head which, as the figureheads of ships dominated the sea, now commands the heavens. With Promethean gesture, the uplifted hand reaches for still greater gifts to man." p DECO DECOR -- On the sixth floor of Woodies' F Street store are sample rooms from all eras, including the deco decade. Designer Carol Bladergroen evokes the Thirties with prunella-painted walls, wall lights in a palm leaf motif and a hassock that curves like a Tootsie Roll. The plexiglass stands are by Jeffrey Bigelow, who also made the captain's stand at the Tysons Corner Clyde's. LIGHT 'EM UP, JOE -- Gallaghers on the Hill, an unassuming little neighborhood pub at 637 Pennsylvania Avenue SE where the decor runs to pine paneling and linoleum tile, has a spectacularly curvaceous polished-wood and mirrored bar. No one seems to know its origins except that it was inherited from a previous establishment in the same building. Coax the bartender into turning on the colored lights. Just down the street, Machiavelli's at 613 Pennsylvania Avenue SE features a more studied, high-camp gangster deco theme. THIRTIES UTOPIA -- Greenbelt, Maryland, was one of three communities built by the federal government in the Thirties -- a New Deal experiment in community planning. Planning -- some say regimentation -- was so pervasive that there were set hours when residents could use their clotheslines (and never on Sundays). No longer federally owned, Greenbelt was a model of new towns to come, with its network of pedestrian paths, central shopping and recreation center and clustered homes in a parklike setting. Note especially the Greenbelt Center Elementary School with its streamlined moderne contours and heroic sculptures by Lenore Thomas illustrating the Preamble to the Constitution. Just across Crescent Road from the school are some of the town's original apartments, which let in light through long vertical panels of glass brick. WORTHY WAREHOUSE -- The Hecht Company's warehouse at 1401 New York Avenue NE won honorable mention in the prestigious Pittsburgh Glass Institute competition in 1937, the year the warehouse was built. Note the glass brick, which serves as both wall and window, and the thoroughly moderne corner tower. DOMESTIC DECO -- The colonial mystique never lost its hold on the housing market, but some Thirties home-builders dared to be deco. The house at 3718 Calvert Street NW on the corner of Tunlaw Road, for example, looks like a streamlined, white brick ship, complete with portholes and decks. Another daring deco home at 2915 University Terrace NW has no sharp edges at all. It's all soft edges with a curved marquee over the door. THIRTIES THEATERS -- Many of the best Thirties theaters -- such as the Trans-Lux on 14th Street and the Apex on Massachusetts Avenue, are gone, but some neighborhood Thirties theaters survive. The Penn Theater at 650 Pennsylvania Avenue SE is a study in curves, from the marquee to the brass door handles to the half-moons etched in the limestone facade. Other examples of the genre are the Uptown Theater at 3426 Connecticut Avenue NW and the Bethesda Theater at 7719 Wisconsin Avenue which also boasts a Thirties organ. ALUMINUM ART -- Aluminum was the "in" material for deco adornments and even government buildings got the treatment. The light stands that look like stylized flowers outside the Justice Department at 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and ships, planes and trains on the doors of the Federal Trade Commission at Sixth and Pennsylvania are aluminum. Nor were funeral parlors immune from aluminization. Chambers Funeral Home at 517-11th Street SE has aluminum panels in a papyrus motif beside the entrance, a curved aluminum marquee and long, angular aluminum shafts enclosing lights. DECO: IN MEMORIAM -- Art deco didn't take hold in the cemeteries, with at least one exception. The Hitt Monument, erected in 1938 in Section A of Rock Creek Cemetery, eschews sentimental Victorian cherubs for an art deco Adam and Eve, with muscular power.