DC as Canvas: International Graduate University Sculpture

  International Graduate University sculpture

Buchanan School (International Graduate University) numbers sculpture (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The placement of this Brutalist sculpture next to an elementary school looks as if it may have been intended to enhance the learning environs by bringing some whimsy to the playground. Hey kids! Hulking blocks of concrete can be fun! Just look at those jaunty integers! Or it may have been a reminder to the young students that school isn’t fun at all – numbers are serious business!

The truth is, this sculpture is a small part of what was a massive redevelopment of a deteriorating inner-city school’s playground facilities. This sculpture and two others are practically all that remains of what was once one of DC’s greatest playgrounds.

Built in 1895, the Buchanan School (1325 D Street SE) was old and run-down by the 1960s. The schoolyard was a barren site hemmed in on two sides by a chain-link fence. It was of little use to students or the local residents.

With the goal of reimagining the desolate schoolyard as an adventure playground for the whole community, the Vincent Astor Foundation, a proponent of innovative social projects, provided $428,940 to the Buchanan School as part of Ladybird Johnson’s “Beautify America” program. The results transformed the schoolyard into one of the best playgrounds in DC.

Buchanan School playground

Buchanan School Courtyard, shortly after opening in 1968 — looks like a lawsuit waiting to happen…

Patterned after the Jacob Riis Plaza Playground in New York City, the revamped site included a sunken basketball court, amphitheater and water-spray area with wall-spray jets that transformed it into an outdoor shower during the hot summer months; a community area with picnic tables, game pedestals and benches; play equipment including bridges, towers, swings, cable jungles, ramps and pulleys on wire ramps for sliding and swinging; and art objects – for climbing!

Buchanan School playground

In the upper-left corner of the upper-left photo, you can see the taller Tarr sculpture. In the photo on the right, live-action Q*Bert! (Buchanan School Courtyard, 1968)

“The play section for children is a dense forest of climbing poles, ‘hills’ of granite cobblestones to climb up on and tunnels to crawl under, sliding boards, a tree house, trampoline boards, a ‘spider’ made of radiating cables, a loose cable with a sliding ring to swoosh, like Tarzan, from hill to hill on, and all manner of stepping stones and bridges. All this rises on a deep layer of sand so no one gets hurt if he falls.” (Washington Post – May 8, 1968)

Buchanan School playground

Buchanan School Courtyard, 1968

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for that sand to be filled with garbage and broken glass.

Before the playground was built, the Washington Post called the schoolyard a “mess of broken concrete, weeds and trash.” Two years after the “children’s paradise” opened, the newspaper reported that “it sits among weeds, litter and desolation.”

So what happened?

Maintenance of the community playground was handed over to the cash-strapped DC Department of Parks and Recreation, which did … nothing. Ceaseless vandalism and poor maintenance plagued the playground. One fed the other until the entire site was dilapidated once more. Now, all that remains of the “round-the-clock community playground” are three concrete-block sculptures designed for climbing.

International Graduate University sculpture

Buchanan School (International Graduate University) tall sculpture, with one of the four campus buildings in background (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Created by William Tarr (1925-2006) and erected in 1967, the concrete numerical block (pictured at top of story) is located on the south side of what was originally the James Buchanan Secondary Learning Center, a high school. A larger, 15-foot-tall concrete column (right), also by Tarr, sits directly west of the main school, facing Watkins Field. This one is carved with circles, squares, arrows and rectangles, all laid in random patterns. It’s just as whimsical.

In the 1960s, urban planners were beginning to recognize that the sites of inner-city schools like Buchanan assume greater significance to the surrounding community than suburban or rural sites, because congested urban areas are often lacking recreational facilities within easy reach of their homes. They realized that many schools had taken on the appearance of prisons. They realized that no one likes to be in prison. They also realized that kids like to climb on things – even if they look like totalitarian totems. What they didn’t realize is that playgrounds need regular maintenance and protection from vandalism. Unfortunately, they left those tasks to the District government, which failed on all counts.

William Tarr’s concrete and steel sculptures appear to have been influenced by the anti-bourgeois nature of Soviet era architecture. (The Buchanan School sculptures are reminiscent of Brutalist architecture works in DC, such as the FBI Building and the University of Washington DC). His most famous work in DC is the 5,900-pound bronze “Gates of Hell,” also known as the “Gates of the Six Million,” displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Tarr’s sculptures for schools are still visible in both cities: New York landed the 63-ton welded-steel tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Manhattan, and DC ended up with a few concrete totems for a Capitol Hill elementary school.

The secondary school that had since become James Buchanan Elementary School had been slowly deteriorating for decades before it closed around 1994. In 1999, former professor and septuagenarian Walter Boek bought the four-building campus and converted it into the National Graduate University (dubbed the International Graduate University in 2009), saying that he was heeding the call of Congress for instituting such a school.

No one has been able to verify any of Boek’s statements regarding the origin or legitimacy of the university.

International Graduate University sculpture

The abandoned International Graduate University (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Given its mysterious origins, it’s not surprising that International Graduate University has a very weird history, with at most one or two rooms ever being used for classes on its massive campus. DC Councilmember Tommy Wells said of Boek in 2012 “… the guy creeps me out.” In November 2012, Boek died at age 89, leaving the fate of the International Graduate University in limbo. The William Tarr sculptures still grace the school grounds, just waiting to greet the next batch of students and haunt their dystopian dreams.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated after a reader notified us of factual in accuracies in the original. Thank you, friend of Heyday. You know who you are!

DC’s Oldest Apartment Building Hangs On — Barely

DC's oldest apartment

The Harrison Apartment Building — DC’s oldest surviving apartment building (Photo By: heydayjoe)

In the late-nineteenth century, DC residents weren’t too keen on living in apartment buildings. Washingtonians at the time associated “apartments” with New York City’s festering, crime-ridden tenements – filthy, overcrowded buildings packed with recent immigrants and lacking the basic amenities of civilized society.

When tasked with designing an apartment building, architect Charles E. Gibbs (co-founder of local architectural and contracting firm Johnson and Company) decided to disguise his apartment building as row houses, which were more acceptable to DC dwellers. The idea is akin to designing new “loft apartments.” Completed in 1890, the Harrison Apartment Building at 704 3rd Street NW (corner of 3rd & G NW) is the earliest extant example of the row-house style in DC – and the city’s oldest known surviving conventional apartment building.

The Harrison was built for Harvey Spalding, a prominent Washington lawyer who also had an eye for real estate investment. Conveniently, Spalding’s law specialties were “Government Claims, Land and Patent Cases, Postmasters’ Claims under ‘Spalding Act,’ and Claims of Soldiers Charged with Desertion.” Spalding likely named the Harrison in honor of Republican president-elect Benjamin Harrison, who defeated Democrat incumbent President Grover Cleveland in the 1888 election.

Harrison Apartments oldest DC apartment

The original-arch entryway on the east side (3rd Street) of Harrison Apartments, looking north (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The Harrison was constructed in two sections in 1888-90. The southern section was apartments in the form of super-size row houses with projecting bays. Just as the residences were being completed, however, the federal government decided to lease the building from Spalding to use as an executive office for the Census Bureau, which was ramping up its staff for the 1890 census. The feds offered to pay Spalding handsomely for the rental if he agreed to build a northern addition, to be completed by the end of the year. The Census Office stayed for only a few years before the entire building reverted to its intended use as apartments.

The five-story brick Harrison features 79 apartments and a Romanesque Revival façade, with classical Roman arches, cavernous entryways and rounded towers. (The Smithsonian Castle, c. 1847-55, is the first American representation of the Romanesque Revival, predating the second revival that began in the 1870s.)

In the late 1880s, the neighborhood around 3rd & G NW consisted of row houses that surrounded the commercial center of DC. The Harrison was the first multi-family building in the area, with a single apartment entrance that led through a spacious vestibule to a reception room and a public dining room. Originally, a barbershop and drug store also occupied space on the first floor, with their own separate entrances. The basement level served as a café around this time.

Harrison-Apartments-Bliss-Native-Herbs-DCIn 1899, Spalding sold the Harrison to Alonzo Ogilvie Bliss, who thoroughly renovated the place and renamed it the Astoria. Bliss had served in the 10th New York Calvary in the Civil War and later became a businessman, marketing the popular cure-all “Bliss Native Herbs” and owning and managing about a dozen apartment buildings in DC.

After 1941, the name was changed to the Canterbury. Today referred to as the Harrison, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Sadly, the interior of the building is not designated historic, and the non-loadbearing walls, which delineated the apartments, were demolished years ago.

Harrison-Office-Rendering-PQLivingFrom 2006 to 2011, the building changed ownership three times. At one point it was slated to become part of an office development (see rendering at right). The Harrison’s current owner has proposed to construct a 12-story hotel addition to the landmark apartment building, keeping only the exterior walls of the historic building – but nothing’s happened yet. Our guess is that the owner is waiting to move forward until the massive nearby Capitol Crossing project is completed.

In the meantime, the grand old Harrison continues to deteriorate. Since it’s had so many owners, the City doesn’t know whom to blame for the Harrison’s neglect. Boarded up and vacant for the past 11 years, the property is currently the squat of some of DC’s homeless population. Here’s to hoping that the grand old Harrison Apartment Building can retain some of its past glory and live on as a historical reminder of DC’s past.

Black Israelites DC: Hating and Berating at Gallery Place

Black Israelites outside Gallery Place in Chinatown DC

The Black Israelites want to make you cry. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

If you’ve ever walked by the corner of 7th and H streets in Chinatown on a Friday afternoon, you probably heard the amplified tub-thumpings of the Black Israelites of DC long before you saw their shoulder pads and flowing black robes. Although they may look like a gothic super-hero tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire, their ultimate vision is the impending bloody demise of whites and other enemies at the hands of a vengeful returning Christ.

The Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK), Inc. (yes, they are incorporated, as a nonprofit) is a sectarian faction of the Black Israelites, whose members believe they are direct descendants of the ancient Israelites. The Black Israelites follow the teachings of the Kings James Bible and adhere in varying degrees to the religious beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism. The guys from ISUPK, though, are a far cry from the Judaism of Eric Cantor or Drake.

Given what these particular Black Israelites profess not to like, it’s hard to imagine what would make these radical rabbis smile. The Black Israelites hate homosexuals, “fraudulent” Jews, Asians, abortionists, promiscuous black women, Martin Luther King (“a no-good, low-life traitor”), Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama, the Virgin Mary and Santa Claus. (No word on how they feel about puppies and babies.) They have a special hatred for the white man, who is believed to be evil personified and deserving of only death or slavery.

Next time you see them on the streets, you can try asking them about it (tip: bring your own megaphone). Or you can do what gay rights activist Qween Amor did. S/he tangoed with the Black Israelites at Gallery Place, foiling their bigoted bluster as a dancing David to their blow-hard Goliath.

The first time Qween Amor danced in front of the group, s/he was arrested for indecent exposure. But s/he kept coming back to dance, and the Black Israelites didn’t appear on the corner for months. Amor has since moved to New York, and the Israelites are back! You can catch their next show on any given Friday around rush hour, live and uncut, on the southeast corner of 7th & H NW. But remember, according to their preachings, God hates the sin, the sinner and this world in general — yes, that means you. Enjoy!

[dropshadowbox align=”center” effect=”lifted-both” width=”500px” height=”” background_color=”#f3e7fd” border_width=”3″ border_color=”#39006b” ]BONUS: Here’s a list of famous people that most folks think are white but that, according to the ISUPK, are actually black: Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare, Tom Jones and Henry VIII, to name a few.[/dropshadowbox]

Wish We Were Here: DC Postcards #11

Our latest hand-altered DC postcard reflects how having more guns on the streets of DC would simply require more Dirty Harrys on the grounds of the White House. Last weekend, U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin, Jr. struck down DC’s ban on carrying handguns outside of a person’s home, which is just fine with Dirty Harry’s brand of vigilante justice.

Dirty Harry White House

(Image By: heydayjoe)

“Go ahead. Make my day.”