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“Southern City, National Ambition”

To March 3 at the Octagon and Anacostia Museums

“The Dome: Symbol of American Democracy”

To April 14 at the National Building Museum

These are precarious times for both cities and museums. Undermined by federalism, massive subsidies to automobile travel, and anti-urban policies that stretch all the way back to misguided polymath Thomas Jefferson, America’s cities yield their sovereignty to blank, burgeoning, environmentally unsupportable suburbs. Out in those tract developments, meanwhile, cable, video, and CD-ROMs promise to replace concerts, films, exhibits, and books. A downtown exhibit about the development of a downtown can hardly expect to compete with football on TV, horny chat on the Internet, or the highlights of the National Gallery’s collection on disk.

“Southern City, National Ambition” is not precisely the place to take a stand against such barbarism. This small exhibition has limited appeal and takes a dubious approach. Like other recent historical exhibits—notably, most of the ones at the Holocaust Memorial Museum—it’s really a book posing as museum show. Though its collection of historical documents, maps, and drawings is not without interest, these items are essentially illustrations for the text. Without the materials on display, the exhibit would be essentially the same.

In this case, the book actually exists: Southern City, National Ambition: The Growth of Early Washington, 1800-1860, edited by Howard Gillette Jr., includes four informative essays and reproductions of many of the drawings and texts currently on the walls of the Octagon and the Anacostia Museums. The organizers of this project were right, of course, to think that relatively few will read this volume, and viewing the two linked exhibits does provide a reasonable précis.

For those who’ve been introduced to the history of antebellum Washington, the Octagon portion of the show will contain few surprises. There are even some images whose irony is commonly understood, such as the 1849 “View of Washington” that portrays as built structures that didn’t exist at the time (and, in the case of the Washington Monument, were never erected in the form shown here). Also familiar are such fiascoes as the C&O Canal—superseded by the B&O Railroad—and the disparaging comments of 19th-century visitors like Charles Dickens, whose characterization of Washington as a “city of magnificent intentions” is already chiseled onto a postmodern Pennsylvania Avenue plaza.

The exhibition also notes some Washington accomplishments: It was one of the first “Southern” cities to establish a police force and—at the direction of President Martin Van Buren—the first American metropolis to cut the typical workday to 10 hours. Thanks to the transience of its population, the city had in Brown’s Indian Queen the nation’s largest hotel, and by the 1840s had embarked on an ambitious program of public improvements. These transformed Washington in more ways than one: Fourteen years after the period covered by this exhibit, their expense led Congress to take control of the city from the mayor and city council, and it was ruled as a territory for almost a century after that.

In the years before the Civil War, Washington also had one of the country’s largest populations of free blacks. The slave trade wasn’t abolished in D.C. until 1850, but freedmen already outnumbered slaves by the 1820s. To learn more about this aspect of Washington history, it’s necessary to leave the Octagon for the Anacostia Museum; the exhibit’s organizers have divided it, somewhat arbitrarily, between economic and social history, and placed the latter in the Smithsonian’s Southeast gallery. (On Wednesdays and Saturdays, a free shuttle bus connects the Octagon and the Anacostia Museum, whose Fort Dupont Park location is well beyond the downtown-museum orbit.)

Like its Octagon counterpart, the Anacostia show doesn’t trust the curiosity of viewers; both are interrupted occasionally by patronizing injunctions to “Stop & Look” at something or other. Such commands shouldn’t be necessary here: These details of African-American life in antebellum Washington will likely fascinate even those with a passing familiarity with the city’s history. The text (and the subsidiary artifacts) reveal how intertwined classes and races were in early Washington, how free blacks lived with and helped emancipate their enslaved cohorts, and how the conditions of free blacks fluctuated with economic up- and downturns. (When times got hard, the “Black Codes” got harsher.)

The exhibit makes apparent the paradoxes of the situation: Blacks were allowed to call on the White House on open-house days, but were barred from an 1820 production of The Gladiators, a play that dramatized the slave uprising led by Spartacus. Free blacks formed such cornerstones of civilization as schools, churches, and burial societies and held “emancipation teas” to raise money to free relatives and friends, yet still risked being kidnapped off the streets of Washington and sold into slavery.

Ironically, one of antebellum Washington’s best-documented slaveowners was John Tayloe, the builder and original owner of the Octagon. He maintained not only household servants but “several enslaved jockeys” to race his thoroughbreds. Discovering this at the Anacostia Museum demonstrates the problem of splitting the show; the shuttle bus is a nice touch, but presenting the information in the venerable Octagon itself would have been apt. Wherever encountered, though, such details put meat on the bones of the exhibition’s often-dry artifacts. They might even make some people want to read the book.

Much simpler in scope, “The Dome: Symbol of American Democracy” doesn’t really attempt to live up to its lofty subtitle. Though the exhibit includes an introduction that puts America’s capitol domes into historical and architectural context and a collection of postcards and plates that increase the kitsch quotient, it’s fundamentally an exhibit of a modernist art project.

Inspired by a glimpse of Indiana’s capitol dome, photographer Eric Oxendorf set out to capture the interiors of all 50 statehouses. Rigorously conceptual, he photographed each one with the same camera, same film stocks, and same procedure. The result is part historical documentation, part abstraction of already abstract (albeit generally in an old-fashioned way) representations of the glories of American accomplishment and potential. These worm’s-eye views of the inner domes depict the symbolic bluster of many statehouses: The embellishments tend toward earnest Middle American glorifications of agriculture, technology, and other, less savory forces. (Nebraska’s, for example, depict “religious and civic virtues in the form of Nordic angels.”) At the same time, however, the pictures flatten and denature the spaces, making them more architectural patterns than expressions of civic pride and ambition.

Puckish observers can still have some fun with the latter, of course. Now that the Great Plains states exist principally as missile-silo sites, their aspirations seem comic, as do the statehouse plaques that commemorate the Ohio-born presidents: Since the plaques fill all the available space, they seem a tacit admission that the state’s days of political leadership have passed. Also entertaining is the iconographic confusion of elements like North Carolina’s statue of George Washington as an emperor in Roman armor—which Rome were we emulating, anyway?

Most of the capitols depicted—both in Oxendorf’s photographs and on the postcards and plates—utilize classical-via-Renaissance models. The more compelling ones, though, are not too specific, either in form or ornament. Whether depicting the stripped classicism of Oregon, the deadpan classicism of Maryland, or the restrained colonial style of Maine, these photographs make a powerful argument for subtlety and restraint. Still, a certain sense of solemnity is in order: Connecticut’s statehouse interior is so Victorian-men’s-drawing-room that it suggests a set for Maverick, while the stained glass of the old Louisiana statehouse (replaced by a new capitol in 1932) is a little too honky-tonk.

With contemporary architecture’s taste for stylistic burlesque, classical matrices are losing their meaning. In Washington, for example, neoclassicism has broken free from the Federal Triangle and hopped the Avenue: Just north of the National Archives, Market Square is an office/condominium building posing as an oversize Roman temple. The possibility of such transgressions calls for even more timeless forms, so it’s more than chronologically fitting that Oxendorf’s photos end with Hawaii’s statehouse, which lacks a built dome. Instead, the building’s central atrium offers a open view of the first dome ever glimpsed by human eyes: the sky. It’s a suitably grand prospect, yet one that abandons the ostentatious view of an American destiny that’s largely been trashed since the capitols of the once-striving Midwest were erected. This view argues for the sublimity of creation, not for what overweening Americans mean to make of it.