I don’t know if people send postcards anymore. For a lot of folks, carefully curated Instagram shots and selfies on Facebook have probably replaced those old vacation staples.
But old postcards still have charm as historical artifacts that offer a window to familiar landmarks — and save for posterity some unfamiliar ones.
More than 300 vintage postcards — or, rather, scans of postcards mounted on foam board — are on display at the District Architecture Center in a show called “Wish You Were Here!” There are Washington Monuments and White Houses and Smithsonian Castles galore. There’s also “The House By the Side of the Road,” which sounds like the name of a horror movie but was actually the name of a tourist hotel. (Those are where people stayed before Airbnb.)
“The House By the Side of the Road” — a typical Washington rowhouse with lovely red-and-white striped awnings — does not show famous, tourist Washington. And neither do the dozen or so black-and-white postcards from the D.C. Public Library’s Willard R. Ross collection that depict downtown intersections: old cars, streetcars, average Washingtonians scurrying to work.
Each postcard is a little time capsule. There’s the Greyhound bus station from before it was subsumed into an office building, its great art deco limestone sail sticking into the air. There are vanished nightclubs like the Blue Mirror, the Silver Fox and the Casino Royal, the postcard of which depicts five showgirls prancing in front of a band. That was in the club’s pre-porno days, but, still, probably not a postcard you’d send home to Mom.
It’s not the easiest exhibition in the world to actually see. Part of it is under a dim stairway. And postcards are, by design, small. I wish they’d blown up a few to gargantuan size, like they did for an introductory poster. That one shows the U.S. Capitol, and at four-feet wide you can see large yellow and pink plants that surround the building. Hollyhocks?
Not all postcards depict the actual cities they’re sold in. Some are generic, like one at the end of “Wish You Were Here!” An illustration shows a uniformed doughboy and his sweetheart standing on a boat as it steams away from a dock. It could be any town. The text reads: “Should we be glad or sorry to leave Washington, D.C.?” In Boston, it probably read “Boston.” In Philly, “Philadelphia.”
Still, in a neat hand, someone had inked in “Sorry.” I’m glad that all those years ago they had a good time in Washington.
The exhibition is up through Sept. 8 at the District Architecture Center, 421 Seventh St. NW. It’s free and open weekdays. On Aug. 31, at 6:30 p.m. Jerry McCoy, who lent some postcards from his collection, will lecture on the history of postcard production in the United States and give a virtual tour of the District as depicted on its cards. The cost is $35 for nonmembers of AIA; $10 for students.
I think my favorite postcard from the exhibition is one that shows the U.S. Capitol bathed in multicolored stripes of psychedelic light, from Creamsicle orange to patriotic red, white and blue. The caption reads, “Aurora Borealis illumination of United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.”
Say what now? The Northern Lights are one of my obsessions. I want to see them some day and have always assumed I’d have to venture to the frozen Arctic. Did they once reach down here?
No. I did some sleuthing and it turns out that on Nov. 11, 1921 — and on the two following nights — a massive light show was held in Washington. It marked the opening of the world’s first disarmament conference, held in our fair city.
At 8 p.m. on the 11th, President Warren G. Harding stood on a platform in front of the Pan-American Building and threw a switch that powered illuminations from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, transforming the Mall into “a veritable fairy land.” Shafts of light crisscrossed the skies in all directions. The display near the Capitol was meant to approximate the aurora borealis.
It sounds pretty cool, especially after a battery of artillery pieces was fired, producing smoke that was illuminated with alternating shafts of colored light.
The central feature of the illuminations was the Arch of Jewels, two 85-foot obelisks constructed at 17th and B streets NW and joined by a bejeweled necklace composed of 37,000 colored crystals. The coats of arms of the participating foreign nations — Belgium, China, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and Portugal — were in the center.
Sadly, the designer of all this colorful, electrical excess wasn’t around to witness it. His name was J.W. Schaeffer, and he was laid up in his hotel room being ministered to by doctors.
Wrote The Washington Post: “After working night and day to finish the arch and electrical arrangements, Schaeffer collapsed yesterday. Physicians say he suffered a nervous breakdown.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.