Friday, May 1, 2015

This shouldn't have taken THREE FULL DAYS to write.

Back in May 2013, I wrote an article about the USS Maine Mast Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The memorial's designer was Nathan C. Wyeth, who was (according to what I read at the time) a major architect in Washington, D.C., in the first three decades of the 20th century. But no article about Wyeth existed. Someone eventually did a two-line stub, but without citations it got deleted.

In the interregnum, I wrote several articles about rooms in the White House. Wyeth's name kept popping up, and I learned that he designed the West Wing. Which means he designed the Oval Office. That's big-time history, bub! So where's the article about this very important architect?

If not me, then who? If not now, then when? That's my motto.

I started investigating Wyeth.

But there is just so much crap out there about this guy!! For one thing, there's no biography of him anywhere. What exists are puff pieces that lack dates, the name of works, and detail. One of the major problems I began confronting almost immediatelyl was that Wyeth had been Municipal Architect for the District of Columbia from 1934 to 1946. In those 12 years, the city built four court buildings and an office building around Judiciary Square, erected about 20 schools (including three new high schools), and built a bunch of library branches.

That doesn't mean Wyeth designed every. single. goddamned. building. in the city during that time.

I quickly re-learned an old lesson about the Internet: Don't believe everything you read. If someone says "Wyeth designed Calvin Coolidge High School", then you better find three or four more sources that agree with this claim. And those sources can't just blandly assert the fact; they have to discuss Wyeth's contributions in detail. For example: Many sources assert Wyeth co-designed the D.C. War Memorial on the National Mall. Indeed, Wyeth's name is inscribed on the memorial as "Associate Architect". But two U.S. National Park Service studies of the memorial clearly show that the designer was Frederick H. Brooke, who created it in 1919. When the memorial had trouble getting through the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Brooke added Wyethe (and another well-known local architect, Horace W. Peaslee) to his team. Wyeth was so well known in D.C. and so respected, just adding his name to the effort got the war memorial past the Commission on Fine Arts.

It's also widely asserted that Wyeth designed "Thomas Jefferson High School" and Woodrow Wilson High School. The problem is that there is no Thomas Jefferson High School in Washington, D.C., and there never was. There's a Thomas Jefferson JUNIOR High School, but Wyeth told Congress that the designer of this building were Jessie I. Cuthriel and M.F. Coe. There is a Wilson High School in D.C. But it began construction just a month after Wyeth became Municipal Architect -- hardly enough time for him to have been the chief designer of the structure! Just a tiny bit of digging showed that Wyeth himself attributed the design to two architect-contractors...both of whom were hired and finished their work before Wyeth was hired as Municipal Architect.

The New York Times claimed its obituary of Wyeth that Wyeth also designed the Canadian Embassy at 1746 Massachusetts Avenue NW. But in fact that building was designed by architect Jules Henri de Sibour in 1909 for Clarence Moore and his wife, Mabelle Swift Moore (heir to the Swift meatpacking fortune). Perhaps the Times meant the Canadian chancery? Nope. That structure, at 2450 Massachusetts Avenue NW, was not built until the mid-1950s -- a full decade after Wyeth had retired at the age of 76!

A lot of my sources were by architectural historians. But they invariably got things wrong. Why? Sloth, I guess. They merely repeated what others had said before them, or what was easily found in newspaper obituaries. They didn't do any primary-source investigation, never verified what others had asserted (without a smidgeon of proof).

Had the so-called "architectural historians" done their goddamned jobs, I wouldn't have had to.

No comments:

Post a Comment