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Historical Society Resumes Library Service After Long Hiatus; Special Showing of Treasures Marks Opening

By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the Decmber 2012 issue PDF

In a long-awaited Christmas gift to Washington local history buffs, serious scholarly researchers, and journalists searching for photographs and illustrations, early maps, and hard-to-find ephemera, the Historical Society of Washington announced last month the re-opening of the handsome and commodious Kiplinger Library on the second floor of the historic Carnegie Library building in Mt. Vernon Square — the District’s original, never segregated Central Library — directly across from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The Society’s announcement of the Mondays and Wednesdays library re-opening coincided with its launching of permanent public access to the Kiplinger Collection of nearly 4,000 prints, drawings, paintings, maps, and photographs chronicling the development of Washington, DC, as the nation’s capital and a vibrant modern city — gifted to the Society earlier this year together with the resources to process and house the collection by the Kiplinger family, owners of the renowned Kiplinger Washington Editors publishing and financial counseling firm.

This launching is two-fold: a splendid exhibition of illustrative examples of works from the collection’s treasure trove of 18th, 19th, and 20th century rarities — which will be on view on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays through April, 2013, in the Small-Alper gallery adjacent to the library — and a digitized Kiplinger Collection available on-line at www.kiplinger.pastperfect-online.com in a comprehensive, fully-indexed data base, with sparkling and colorful images of the works.

The exhibition, titled “Window to Washington,” draws from the strengths of the Kiplinger Collection in early maps and birds-eye views, 19th and 20th century prints, mid-20th century oil paintings, watercolors, and photographs, with special strengths in Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner works, and the extraordinary documentary photographs commissioned by the Kiplingers to capture in professional photographs the buildings of downtown Washington in the 1950s before this part of the city’s built environment fell to the wrecker’s ball. William Barrett, for example, took 931 irreplaceable photographs for the collection; his terrific 1963 shot of 18th century Rhodes Tavern at 601 15th Street — alas, no longer with us — is in the exhibition. Similarly, John Bryant’s black and white photograph of Washington’s Western Market at 21st and K Streets, NW, shows a treasured structure no longer with us.

Upon entering the exhibition one first sees a print of the first published version of Pierre L’Enfant’s famous 1791 map depicting the gifted French architect and urban planner’s vision for a capital city worthy of comparison with those of great European nations.

The show continues with such gems as the large color lithograph of Washington City and Georgetown published in 1849 by Casimir Bohn comprising a large, central view from the Capitol of the Mall, complete with a Washington Monument, as yet unbuilt. This central view is surrounded by elegantly composed views of DC scenes, some built, some never built, and some simply imaginary. Nearby is Matthew Brady’s stunning imperial print photograph of Samuel F.B. Morse, the accomplished 19th century artist and alert entrepreneur who secured the first U.S. patent for a working telegraph. This time-worn print was rescued from Brady’s abandoned studio during the early 1960s downtown business district demolition and re-construction. Alexander Gardner’s pristinely preserved triple portrait photograph of three early to mid-19th century Washington mayors — Roger Weightman, William Seaton, and Peter Force — drew admiring views by attendees at the exhibition’s opening, including that of seventh generation Washingtonian Jayne Plank, whose mayoral connection is highlighted by her having served as mayor of Kensington, Maryland.

Moving into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one encounters a charmingly composed and colorful small depiction of Hoover Airport, painted in 1929 by Edwin Dorsey Doniphan. This airport, which sat on the site of the subsequently constructed Pentagon, was Washington’s first airport; it opened in 1926. The composition of an 1893 Walter Paris “plein air” watercolor of the David Burnes cottage, located on the site of the Van Ness Mansion — later replaced by the commanding headquarters building of the Organization of American States — included a background image of the Washington Monument, the incongruity of which was pointed out to this reporter by Sally Berk, well-known Washington historic preservation scholar and activist. And watercolors are among the gems of the collection. Lily Spandorf’s delightfully eccentric 1963 view of Sheridan Circle and Paul Hoffmaster’s domes blowing in the wind watercolor view of an old Washington Synagogue — the one at 8th and H Streets, NW — are two of my favorites.

“Window to Washington,” an understated but important exhibition of exemplary works from the Kiplinger Collection, on view through April 30, 2013, is professionally curated and installed, and chock full of fascinating maps, prints, watercolor paintings, and photographs. Its incorporation into the re-opened Kiplinger Library, together with the Library’s re-opening marks a hopeful new beginning for the Historical Society of Washington.