It used to be that whenever an old building in D.C. was about to be torn down, a tiny woman with a thick Austrian accent appeared. Pulling a drawing board and little pots of ink and paint out of her sack, Lily Spandorf would go to work capturing the soon-to-be gone scene.

“Lily Spandorf’s paintings of Washington neighborhoods are an invaluable record of the changes that happened between 1960 and 2000,” when the artist died, says D.C. historian Jane Freundel Levey, curator of “For the Record: The Art of Lily Spandorf,” which opens Saturday at the George Washington University Museum.

Born in Vienna in 1914, Spandorf, who was Jewish, escaped to England in 1938 — the same year as Kristallnacht, the night when government-supported mobs destroyed Viennese synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses and the German government began sending Austrian Jews en masse to death camps. No one knows what became of Spandorf’s family members.


“She never spoke publicly of her life in Austria or how she got to England, and at what cost,” Levey says.

In a 1963 interview with The Washington Post, Spandorf said a “combination of wanderlust and the spirit of adventure” brought her to New York in 1959. Soon after, she visited D.C., where she broke her wrist. The injury kept her in the District longer than expected. As she watched the seasons change, she caught what she called “Potomac fever,” and decided to set up shop in Dupont Circle.

“She really loved the European feel of the city, with the low-rise buildings, the little Victorian houses with the turrets and gables,” Levey says.

Spandorf moved into a modest apartment, which also served as her studio, and made a living drawing illustrations for the old Washington Star newspaper, The Washington Post and National Geographic. Mostly, she painted cheerful scenes of D.C.’s changing seasons — a snow-dusted hotel decked out in Christmas wreaths, summer shoppers at the fish market in Southwest.


You’d never guess that these happy scenes were the work of a Holocaust survivor.

“She had a rough life, but she drew resilience and cheer from her art,” Levey says. Plus, “you have to realize that, as an independent artist, she had to be a good salesperson, and a good salesperson is also a positive salesperson.”

Even when documenting old buildings just before being bulldozed, Spandorf often painted them in a warm palette of gold and red, as if illuminated by the setting sun.

One notable exception is Spandorf’s illustration of the Metropolitan Theatre, a 1,400-seat movie palace that once stood at Ninth and F streets NW.

“Instead of all her usual pretty colors, it’s all done in grays and lavenders. She got there when it was already being demolished, and you can see the fallen-in beams,” Levey says. “It’s so sad-looking. I’m sure she painted that one for herself.”

George Washington University Museum’s Albert H. Small Gallery, 701 21st St. NW; starts Sat., free.

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