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!

Folklife Festival 2014 Features “America’s No. 1 Enemy” and “Obama’s Birthplace”

Folklife Festival Kenya thatch hut

Peeping Tom at the Kenyan thatch hut (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is the annual event in which America feigns interest in cultural traditions that are not her own, typically from countries we consider to be our pals. But not this year. Throwing caution to the five winds, organizers decided to fulfill the most paranoid delusions of the Tea Party faithful – that Obama is a Muslim, Kenyan-born, kowtowing Commie – by bucking tradition and featuring the cultural folklore of Kenya and China. (Congratulations, China, on surpassing Iran this year as our No. 1 enemy!)

Launched during the Summer of Love in 1967, the free-of-charge Folklife Festival is the largest cultural event in DC, drawing more than 1 million visitors to sweat together under tents each year.

Held outdoors on the National Mall for two weeks every summer, Folklife over the years has brought more than 23,000 artists, musicians, performers, craftspeople, cooks, workers, storytellers and others to the Mall to demonstrate their creative traditions. To help us remember America’s still No. 1, though, the festival always overlaps the Fourth of July. (NOTE: Our tradition of eating BBQ, drinking beer, wearing the American flag and blowing sh*t up will always trump your quaint costumed dances and soapstone hippo carvings.)

Folklife has featured tradition bearers from more than 90 countries and is “an international exposition of living cultural heritage,” according to its producer, the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. It’s a chance for Americans to see other cultures without having to leave America, like visiting Chinatown or going to the Bronx.

Folklife Festival Tian Tian Xiang Shang Gateway

Danny Yung’s comic figure Tian Tian points to his Tian Tian Xiang Shang Gateway. Yung is the founder of avant-garde arts group Zuni Icosahedron and is revered as the “cultural godfather” of Hong Kong. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Programs at Folklife are usually divided into a nation, region, state or theme. Some are more exotic than others. Topics have included Workers at the White House, King Island Eskimo Dancers, Streetplay, Portuguese-American Fado Musicians, Iroquois Confederacy, American Trial Lawyers, Meat Cutters and Butchers, Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon, Gateways to Romania, Organ Builders and Iowa: Community Style.

To bring these programs to life, the Festival has built an array of cultural re-creations, including an Indian village with 40-foot-high bamboo and paper statues, a Japanese rice paddy, a New Mexican adobe plaza and a horse racetrack that stretched from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol Building.

This year, Folklife constructed the enormous Tian Tian Xiang Shang Gateway at the western entrance to the festival, to remind festivalgoers that China has a lighter side, one that it plans to employ when it crushes America with its growing economic power. Rather than showing off its more recent traditions of cultural repression and citizen intimidation, China instead featured such cultural customs as clay sculpture, traditional Inner Mongolian music and kite-making. If you want a taste of real Chinese economic influence, visit DC’s new Walmart at 1st and H Street NW.

The video below features Inner Mongolian ensemble Ih Tsetsn performing at the Moonrise Pavilion on July 5. The band’s name means “broad, inclusive and wise” in the Mongolian language, and their music was just that – showcasing the morin khuur (horse-head fiddle), topshuur (two-stringed plucked instrument), long song and khoomei throat-singing. We dare you not to belch along.

The Kenya programs at Folklife featured natives dressed like Marion Barry during his African-garb phase, wild booty-shaking percussion music and fantastic huts made of recycled bottles, tin, bottle caps, broken tiles and glass.

The video below features Makadem, a Kenyan artist specializing in Benga music, performing with his band at the Ngoma Stage on June 29.

Check out the photos below for more highlights of the Folklife Festival 2014.

Click here to see more 2014 Folklife Festival videos on Heyday DC’s YouTube channel.