Out on the steamy Mall last week, it didn't look like much -- some fencing, pieces of wooden platform, unraised tents on the grass. "It'll be ready on time," said Smithsonian crew chief Don Boyce, squinting in the midday sun. "It's got to be."

He's right. Because beginning Wednesday, close to 1.5 million people -- 150,000 a day -- will descend on the Mall for the 21st annual Festival of American Folklife. This year's fete, honoring Michigan, Washington, D.C., and American language, will take place between 12th and 14th streets from June 24-28 and July 1-5 from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. each day.

Over near the boat in the Michigan section, there will be an exhibit on Michigan waterways, featuring fishing nets, an ice fishing shanty, lure makers and boat builders. That state, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, will bring 90 participants to show people that Michigan is more than just a place that makes cars (though there will be a program on autos). Michigan cooks will prepare muskrat and smoked fish; Michigan craftspeople will make black-ash baskets, rag rugs and wooden shoes; and Michigan trappers will talk about pelts and game.

The only sign of this city's contribution now is an empty white tent. But under that tent, Washington will be represented with music. Expected sounds: go-go, salsa, reggae, gospel, blues, Chinese opera and more.

Last week, the only sound was that of a bulldozer over by the Cultural Conservation and Languages section. This oddly named exhibit will showcase Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Lao Americans and Appalachians, exploring their attempts to keep their cultural heritages alive. There will be dances, games, songs and even a Lao rain-inducing rocket festival (don't ask, just go see on Sunday).

Besides all that, there will be the food. The food booths -- including an American beer & barbecue stand and lime fizz stands -- were so close to complete last week that Boyce said he was frequently accosted by tourists asking if they could get some food.

"They ask every question," said Boyce, weary after six weeks of setting up. "Like, 'What are you putting up?' 'Where's the Air & Space Museum?' and mostly 'Where's the bathroom?' "

(P.S. Outdoor concert pick of the week: The music on the Mall, of course. Also worth a look, the fifth-anniversary Sisterfire concert out at the Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro on Saturday and Sunday. There'll be rock, soul, a cappella and folk, along with dance, poetry and crafts.)

Meridian House Acquisition

Meridian House International, an organization that helps international visitors understand the United States through lectures, programs and arts, has bought the building next door. Though the group purchased the gracious Georgian mansion at 1624 Crescent Place from the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation for $2 million, it is projected that it will cost more than that to renovate the run-down edifice and keep it up. The Meridian House just initiated a campaign to raise the $2.8 million needed.

Both houses were designed by the same architect, John Russell Pope, in the 1910s for two ambassadors. The Meridian House, at 1630 Crescent, is still sumptuous and elegant, recalling those halcyon days of well-kept lawns and enormous drawing rooms. The place next door has seen better soirees and garden parties. At 1628 Crescent, leased since 1971 for $1 annually and used as a library by Antioch College School of Law, the walls have been plastered with institutional signs, the marble fireplace mantels with metal bookcases, the sweeping ceiling with neon lights and the majestic glass doors with iron gates. Outside, the once pristine gardens are overgrown.

Yet there's still a stateliness of another time that can be glimpsed by the curve of the driveway to the columned portico and the weed-covered outlines of a serpentine brick walk in the flower garden. Steven Bedford, an architectural historian, will oversee the renovation with architect Belinda Reeder. He tells tales of owners past as he tours the rooms, pointing out what used to be here and there. "It just needs a good paint job and cleaning," he says. "The beauty of this place will come out by itself."

Aviation Art

Though it's not sophisticated art, the new aviation art exhibit now at the Air & Space Museum, "Into the Sunlit Splendor: The Art of William S. Phillips," elicits that old childlike wonder at the miracle of flight. It's a joy for those weary of cattle-car commercial jumbo jets.

The 40 oil paintings, drawings and sketches tend toward bold colors and overly luminous backgrounds, but the planes are the thing. This is flying, from the sleek lines of an F4 Phantom jet to the slickly patriotic Thunderbirds shooting straight for the sky to the classic beauty of the feisty Spitfires and lumbering Ford Tri-motors.

"I want to instill the emotion and ballet of flight," explains Phillips. When he started, he says, there wasn't much market for aviation art. "I just kept trying," he says. Now he sells 15 paintings a week ("mostly to corporate types") for $2,000 to $35,000.

And though many of his subjects are military in nature, he says, "I want to stress the beauty and precision, without the killing and aggressiveness." Phillips hopes that mood will come through to the enormous crowds the popular museum attracts. "Maybe some kid will come in here and try to do this same thing," he says.