This city, like any city, is not a random pastiche, but rather is subject to rules, standards, procedures, a reigning intelligence. Washington is an intelligent city, all the way down to the curbs. In most cities and virtually all suburbs, the curbs are concrete. A concrete curb is vanilla-colored, with a rounded edge and granular surface. But in Washington, curbs are granite. A granite curb is darker, bigger, and holds a sharp corner; the streets are more dramatically delineated. The downside to granite is that it costs twice as much per linear foot as concrete. One foot is $30 worth of stone. The upside is that it lasts forever.The light and oxygen come courtesy of the city’s famous height restriction, passed in 1910. In general, a building can be 20 feet higher than the width of the street on which it fronts — to a maximum of 130 feet, no more. Shorter buildings are a Washington tradition going back to 1800; Jefferson had wanted a height limit like that of Paris, where homes were “low and convenient, and the streets light and airy.”The big trees are no fluke either. A hundred years ago, the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage inspired the idea of the “City Beautiful,” and in Washington city planners set about burying the phone lines and planting 65,000 saplings. When you see a mighty oak bursting from its tiny box between the sidewalk and the street, remember that someone once envisioned that.The city now has a block-by-block computer list of its trees: Norway maples, pin oaks, ginkgoes, little-leaf lindens, sugar maples, scarlet oaks (famous for foliage), and so on. On the busiest downtown streets the city plants something called a Bloodgood plane tree. “It’s a type of tree that really takes a beating,” Charles Lindsey, a city tree inspector for 32 years, told me one day when we walked around downtown. Lindsey can explain why there is paper wrapped around the trunks of saplings: It’s to keep car doors from gouging the bark. A tree can die from leaking sap as surely as a person with a gunshot wound can die bleeding.Another day I got led around by James Goode, a local historian, who knows as much about buildings as Lindsey knows about trees. Goode explained all those architectural gewgaws and doodads — the things more subtle than a gargoyle, more elegantly named than a porch. Those covered decks atop apartment buildings — those are “summer houses.” Goode pointed out that the Blaine Mansion at Dupont Circle still has the original porte-cochere, the carriage porch (where I come from you’d probably call it a carport). And if you look really closely at its balcony railings, you’ll see sunflower designs, which are loaded with meaning, because the sunflower was the symbol of the “aesthetic movement” of the 1880s. Frankly, though, I prefer the symbolism of the carved figures along the roof of 2101 Connecticut Ave. They’re not gargoyles — they’re men holding balls over their heads as though they’re going to hurl them down upon unsuspecting pedestrians.
January 19, 2017 at 12:29 PM EST