As I strolled toward the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square on Tuesday evening, I spied a boy kicking around a soccer ball with his mother on the square’s grassy green.
I’ve always liked that square, though it can seem remote, a castle behind a vehicular moat, multiple lanes of traffic rushing along New York and Massachusetts avenues. The homeless don’t mind fording the traffic, ensconcing themselves, as they often do, on the curving, marble seats on the south side.
Inside the building, things were a little less physical. A jazz band played, and guests mingled at an awards reception for the Historical Society of Washington. It was the society’s 120th birthday, and historian Kathryn Schneider Smith was being honored.
Kathy has a long history with the city’s history. She’s a former president of the society. She revamped its journal. She helped develop the D.C. history curriculum that was taught for years in city schools. She edited the book “Washington at Home,” the definitive guide to the District’s neighborhoods. And as the head of Cultural Tourism D.C., she set in motion the transformation of the city’s police and fire call boxes, hundreds of once-rusting street furniture turned into art.
“It was one of the craziest things I ever thought of,” Kathy told the crowd Tuesday. “I had no idea what I was going to do with them. I thought they could be neighborhood icons.”
And so they are. In Mount Pleasant, artist Michael K. Ross created sculptures depicting scenes from the neighborhood. Tiny bronze children play on a tiny bronze street. A tiny bronze wagon is pulled by tiny bronze horses.
“That first winter, some residents knitted little hats for the call-box sculptures,” Kathy said.
Kathy and her husband have retired to Maine, where, no surprise, she is active with the Maine Historical Society.
Much of the informal chatter at the party centered on the plans to insert the Spy Museum into the Carnegie Library, or, rather, under it, since most of the exhibit space will be subterranean.
The renovations call for additional structures on the north side of the building and alterations to the square’s grassy areas. In the view of the city’s Historic Preservation Office, which just released a report and will meet Thursday on the issue, these alterations will have “adverse effects” on the sanctity of the square. The office recommends that the concept be improved and the design resubmitted.
I hope some acceptable middle ground can be reached. What the square needs is people, people such as the tourists who would be drawn to the Spy Museum, but also such as the mother and son I saw kicking a soccer ball.
Does reading books keep you young? Apparently so. My recent columns about long-standing book clubs in our area surfaced a few others. Ellen Young is a member of the Friday Morning Book Club, founded in 1960. She joined in 1962, but original founders who still participate include Diane Mesirow and Ellen Atlas.
“Our rules were fairly loose,” wrote Ellen Young. “We met monthly, going alphabetically, at each others’ homes. The hostess would provide background material on the author and lead the discussion. The food was secondary but when appropriate, we tried to coordinate it with the theme of the book. The only requirement was that you should read the entire book, a rule that I confess was occasionally flouted.”
An unbroken streak of 54 years is pretty good for a book club. But Irma Kramer’s club has it beat. Hers was founded in 1952, a whopping 62 years ago.
Back then, the members were young mothers living in the Southern Hills apartments in Southeast. “We began meeting once a month to discuss works of fiction,” Irma wrote. “Over the years we moved to other locations and nearly all returned to work outside the home. We were public school teachers, museum docents, nurse, librarian, editor, administrator.”
Irma lives in North Bethesda now. The club’s 12 members include five of the founders.
Wrote Irma: “The books we have read and the discussions they have sparked taught us to appreciate the beauty of language, the frailty of life, the universality of human experience, and the majesty and mystery of the universe.”
To mangle the Bard: If literature be the food of life, read on.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.