Published: June 30, 2016
By Ed Polk Douglas
Capital Houses: Historic Residences Of Washington, D.C., And Its Environs, 1735–1965 by James M. Goode, photography by Bruce M. White. Published by Acanthus Press, www.acanthuspress.com, 2015; hardcover, 496 pages, $75.
For a variety of reasons, the White House in Washington, D.C., is the most famous domestic structure in the United States; it is also a symbol of America worldwide. First occupied in 1800, unfinished, by President and Mrs John (Abigail) Adams, it has housed every presidential family since then and, quite naturally, makes an appearance in the handsome new book, Capital Houses.
On the other hand, because the White House is office and home and historical shrine, it is rather different from the other 55 current or former homes, all extant, described in this oversized, lavishly illustrated volume chronicling aspects of residential life and taste in our nation’s capital and its environs from the early Eighteenth Century to modern times.
Capital Houses is not the first book to deal with the subject — happily, the number of published works on Washington architecture has grown exponentially since 1960 — but, at present, this book is perhaps the best and most accessible of its genre. Here, we find a thoughtful, well-organized choice of material, an authoritative text, superb illustrations (modern and archival), a useful bibliography and — hooray! — carefully drawn maps and floor plans (by Paul Davidson).
The large body of data in Capital Houses is sensibly divided into ten sections based upon building styles (Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, etc), and the insightful introduction, rather than attempting the nearly impossible task of an overall architectural analysis in brief, summarizes the preservation movement within the city limits, including the intense efforts since 1980 that have resulted in today’s 56 historic districts and the protection of more than 26,000 structures, most of which are residential.
The co-creators of Capital Houses seem to be the proverbial “match made in heaven.” Author James M. Goode, PhD, is a North Carolinian by birth who has resided in the Washington area for more than 50 years. Amazingly, during the course of his employment by several distinguished institutions and private clients, he has produced six previous books on social, artistic and architectural topics related to our capital. They include The Outdoor Sculpture Of Washington, D.C., Capital Losses, Best Addresses, Capital Views and The Evolution Of Washington, D.C. Goode has stated publicly that Capital Houses — almost ten years in the making — is his “magnum opus,” but, in my opinion, each of his works is “peerless” within its respective field.
Photographer Bruce M. White, a native of New Jersey, has equally impressive career credits. His formative years were spent in New York City, working with Sotheby’s and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1991, he returned to his hometown of Caldwell, opened a studio, and, since then, his clients have included leading educational and cultural institutions, noted artists and art collectors. Appropriately, White’s continuing work with the White House Historical Association connected him to James Goode.
Unlike Natchez, Miss., Charleston, S.C., or Newport, R.I., the quality and variety of Washington’s domestic structures is little known outside its region; some might say that it pales in comparison to the city’s governmental buildings, monuments and museums. Goode’s choices seem appropriate and were based upon architectural merit and social associations — historical, political and/or cultural. Half of the houses are in three of Northwest Washington’s historic districts, but the author readily admits that there were other noteworthy examples elsewhere that might have been included if the already-lengthy manuscript could have been extended.
Of course, Capital Houses contains many “old chestnuts,” including Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall, the Octagon, Hillwood and Dumbarton Oaks. Lesser known places were of particular interest to me, including Darnall’s Choice, Hayes, Riversdale, Dumblane, Cafritz, Marden and Slayton. Among the 56 structures discussed, 44 are within the District, and 12 are in Maryland or Virginia suburbs; 19 are accessible to the public on occasion.
Criticizing Capital Houses seems petty, yet I noted a few factual errors, some confusing prose and several problematic floor plans. While views of five important “lost houses” appeared in the introduction, a separate section of captioned archival images should have been devoted to this sad topic for those unfamiliar with Goode’s previously mentioned Capital Losses. The Washington area does not quite have the “build ‘em up/tear ‘em down” mentality of New York City, but many of its finest houses have had incredibly short lifespans.
In closing, a cross-Atlantic leap, since I suspect that a number of readers are familiar with Bavaria’s enigmatic Nineteenth Century monarch Ludwig II (ruled 1864–1886). He is the so-called “Mad King,” although many Germans more romantically know him as “den Marchenkonig” (fairytale king).
Escaping from mundane political responsibilities, Ludwig immersed himself in artistic projects involving architecture, interior design and the performing arts. His surviving castles — Linderhof, Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee — along with his unstinting patronage of composer Richard Wagner almost bankrupted the royal family, leading to his forced abdication. Yet, those creations have proved to be a continuing source of financial gain to the region in tourist dollars.
Ludwig readily admitted that his “three great pleasures” were building, reading and the theater (both music and drama). For those of us without his power, influence or monetary resources, perhaps “a good book about building” is something of a substitute. Capital Houses is such a work, and I congratulate all of those involved in its production. It is a job well done, and, now, Messrs Goode and White, what about a companion volume devoted to the houses that did not make the final cut? I can easily think of a few, and I bet you already have enough material for “the best of the rest”!
Historian Ed Polk Douglas, Lyons, N.Y., knows the Washington, D.C., area well and is familiar with many of the structures in Capitol Houses; he has also traveled in Bavaria.
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