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Historian Michael Cullen was a contrarian even before he became well-known for it. Some weeks before his bar mitzvah, the rabbi asked him to switch the date of his ritual arrival into the Jewish community. After all, the rabbi’s son-in-law was scheduled to marry on the same date. Cullen responded with a polite no.
When the neighborhood kids in Brooklyn were playing stickball, Cullen was listening to Beethoven and Bach, and playing Mozart on the piano. During America’s fierce anti-Communist period of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Cullen studied Russian at Brooklyn College.
When travel to Germany was taboo for an American Jew, Cullen took a job in Munich. He ended up staying in Germany permanently.
When it was unthinkable for an American to become one of the most recognized experts on the history and architecture of a European city—in his case Berlin—Cullen did just that. And, in yet another career twist, Cullen flew into Washington from Berlin last month to begin work on his latest project: to write the definitive history of the Washington Monument.
“I’m interested in monuments,” Cullen says, aloof to the possibility that there might be something weird about a Brooklyn Jew, living in Germany for more than 35 years, writing about America’s best-known obelisk—which now stands dressed head to toe in Michael Graves’ fabric grid. “The Reichstag. The Holocaust Memorial [now under construction in Berlin]. What can I say?” He rattles off a list of buildings, topics, theories, and intellectual currents that pique his interest: the politics of water in Los Angeles, Germany’s hideous past, the monument to German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck just south of Hanover. He speaks erratically but somehow manages to focus on each issue with intensity and depth.
Cullen, who is 60, is a slight man with a forceful manner. With his bushy gray beard and deep, set-back eyes, he resembles an old Talmudic scholar. He exudes a sense of curiosity that is reflected in the massive, floor-to-ceiling library in his grand Berlin apartment. He’s lived at this spot for more than 30 years; it’s become his salon of sorts. Back in the late ’60s, he hosted art exhibits for David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj. Photographs on the wall chronicle the career of Bulgarian “wrap artist” Christo.
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“I wrote Christo a postcard in 1971 suggesting he wrap the Reichstag,” he says. “We met later that year in Zurich.” They’ve been close friends since. In 1995, they realized their mutual dream of seeing Germany’s massive parliament building—abandoned since it burned shortly after Hitler became chancellor in 1933—wrapped in fabric. Berliners still talk about it as one of the greatest art installations this city has known.
Berliners also devote a great deal of time to discussing the controversial Holocaust Memorial, designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman, for which construction is scheduled to begin next year. Should Germany have a national Holocaust memorial? Should it stand in the center of Berlin, just a few hundred meters from the Brandenburg Gate? Does it have to be so large? Why can’t Germans emerge from the shadow of their past?
“The Holocaust Memorial debate was getting to be ridiculous,” Cullen says, “so I started to look into the Washington Monument and found out that it took 103 years to get it together. The Holocaust Memorial has taken 10 years so far, and people here think that’s a long time!”
Cullen discovered that a complete history of the Washington Monument doesn’t exist. “The first thing I find out,” he says, “is that the monument isn’t where it was intended to stand.”
He ventures over to the Washingtoniana section of his personal library and grabs a map of the District. He unfolds it carefully over his baby grand piano. “According to L’Enfant’s original plan, the Washington Monument should have been here,” he says, pointing to a spot 50 yards northwest of its current location. “L’Enfant wanted the monument to stand at the exact point where the north-south axis of the White House and the east-west axis of the Capitol building intersect. What we see on the Mall today is off so very slightly, in order to give the illusion of seeing the monument and the site of the Lincoln Memorial in a direct line.” Had it been placed at the intersection of the axes, the razor-sharp view from the west side of the Capitol building—with the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument directly in line—would have been a tad off.
L’Enfant also envisioned the memorial as an equestrian statue, Cullen says, not an obelisk.
But the District’s architect was a busy man. The dream of creating a lasting memorial to the first president died with the architect and was not resurrected until the Washington National Monument Society was founded in September 1833. The society decided to do away with the idea of an equestrian statue and solicited proposals for a new design. Robert Mills’ entry was selected in November 1845, and the society began to raise funds aggressively.
According to Cullen, the society ran out of money in 1851 and sent out a call to world leaders, asking them each to contribute the money for one block of the monument. Some nations also donated stones; one was sent from the Vatican. In 1854, members of an anti-Papist party, the “Know-Nothings,” broke into the storage site near the current site of the monument and pilfered the papal contribution. They smashed the stone and dumped the pieces into the Potomac.
“I love the stories behind these monuments,” he says. “I find out bits and pieces, and I become obsessed with finding out more.”
Leonard H. Babby, a professor of Slavic linguistics at Princeton and Cullen’s closest friend from his Brooklyn College days, marvels at Cullen’s autodidactic pursuits of esoterica.
“He really is a self-made man. He never studied German, but he speaks it fluently. He never studied art but managed to become very well-versed in the field. He became an expert on the history of Berlin with no formal training,” says Babby. “He’s unbelievably enterprising. His life is the kind of life that some professors lead, except he did it on his own terms. He didn’t take the easy road.”
Washington appeals to those who value traditional architectural design. Massive white columns, marble, grand domes—it is the capital of the modern-day Roman Empire. It’s a far cry from Berlin, the historic and now rehabilitating capital of Germany. Some of the old architecture of Nazi Germany continues to cast a shadow over the course of Berlin’s new, ultra-modern direction.
The site of Hitler’s Reichsbank, where Nazis stockpiled billions of dollars’ worth of stolen gold, is being transformed into the new Foreign Ministry. In the lobby that once housed gleaming eagles and red swastika banners, the city has installed glass and steel, and painted the ceiling sky blue. The Reichstag building, a building often associated with Nazi Germany (though Hitler never governed from the site), has a new glass dome. On Potsdamer Platz, Europe’s largest urban construction site, massive glass-and-steel skyscrapers are going up at a frantic pace. The idea is that glass is transparent. So is democracy. This is how the city confronts its past.
Cullen reckons with his own history by keeping himself an ocean’s length from the U.S. He left for Germany as a young man to work for Radio Liberty in 1962. “My mother refused to see me off,” he recalls. “My father said, ‘The only good German is a dead German.’” Cullen’s parents had fled European anti-Semitism during World War I.
“But I was curious about Germany,” he says. “What happened there? Why did it happen? Can I find out about this? I was very Europeanized in my heart. I read the Manchester Guardian and Pravda.”
Today, he holds court in his 19th-century apartment building, just off Berlin’s posh Savignyplatz, as a sort of American-in-residence. His life here is frantic. One minute, he’s working on the restoration of the Brandenburg Gate; the next, he’s writing an Op-Ed piece in one of the stern German dailies; and the next, he’s lecturing on U.S.-German relations.
For the past year, Cullen has been heading up the research department at Berlin’s new Jewish Museum. Still, his mind constantly wanders. A few days before his departure for Washington, I mention Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park. Off toward the quiet side, near 15th Street NW, stands an obscure memorial to President James Buchanan. Salivating, he writes it down. “I must see it,” he says.
Then there’s this story he heard about Thomas Jefferson. It seems the third president wanted the prime meridian to run through the White House. Alas, a conference convened in 1884 in Washington and decided upon Greenwich, England. Cullen also found out that Cass Gilbert, architect of such capitalist-society landmarks as the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Treasury Annex, and New York’s Woolworth Building, corresponded with fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini during the last 10 years of the architect’s life. “Did it have any influence on his design?” Cullen wonders. “When I think about it, the pieces start to fall into place.”
He continues on: “Were Indiana and Pennsylvania Avenues [NW] meant to intersect at the original site of the Washington Monument?…” CP