City Paper is not for tourists
Washington doesn’t lack for appreciations of its architectural past. We venerate and preserve our old buildings, while putting in historical trails around the city. There’s a whole blog—-now a book—-devoted to the stories of buildings that didn’t make it.
A new blog delivers something more immediate: Stark before and after shots, presented only with a location, and maybe a short comment. It’s an intentional part of the effect for the blog’s author, local architect Simon Jacobsen.
“What I’m trying to do is make this a drive-by shooting a little bit, just spark somebody’s interest. I’m not putting any facts down,” Jacobsen says. “It’s just to give the viewer that visceral immediate reaction as they walk from point A to point B, that it didn’t always look like that.”
The Ruined Capitol—-a reference to how people used to refer to the city by its most iconic building, rather than as a CapitAl unto itself—-started as an e-mail distribution list with images culled from Shorpy and the Library of Congress, and went public in October. Jacobsen, who practices with his father Hugh Newell Jacobsen, calls himself a “glass box guy” when it comes to design (most of their projects are out of town). But he grew up in Georgetown, and remembers many buildings from the Old Washington that were leveled for the giant blocks of the New.
“I was conscious when much of downtown looked like these images,” he says. “A lot of those buildings were there, and they were terrible. Shaw was really beginnning to get terrible…I always thought the buildings were brownstones, it was just dirty.”
Replacements for the quaint old brick structures often seem brutal by comparison: Monolithic office complexes and condo buildings, or sometimes just parking lots. And there’s no better way to hammer home the reality of highways plowed through Southwest Washington than an image of a rowhouse, immediately followed by one of rushing traffic.
Of course, Jacobsen recognizes that a lot more happened in between the two photos. For that, there’s John DeFerrari‘s Streets of Washington. “Streets of Washington is the four course dinner. Mine is the martini, that gets you over the rim,” Jacobsen says. “There is a shock value to comparing these pictures side by side. We look at the early picure and the latter picture. What it doesn’t show is the life that happened in between, and it’s not really fair. There could have been two or three buildings there.”
Much of the content so far has focused on the downtown structures that have been lost. But Jacobsen says he plans to spend most of his time in the neighborhoods.
“I’m trying to focus on residential buildings, because I really think that’s where humanity lives,” he says. “You judge a city by how its people lived, and the neighborhoods they lived in.”