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!

Wish We Here — DC Postcards #9

Happy Summer Solstice 2014, the longest day of the year! Here’s our latest altered DC postcard, encouraging you to tour DC’s Space Needle, follow the National Arboretum trail to the top of Mount Hamilton (240 feet above sea level!), kayak Rock Creek (if the water’s at least two feet deep!) and visit a farm(ers market). Just remember: No matter what you do this summer weekend, Obama will be watching you…

DC postcard

(Image By: Matt Wainwright)

Today Washington DC Became Capital of the United States

The U.S. Capitol as it appeared circa 1800, when DC became capital

The U.S. Capitol as it appeared circa 1800 when DC became capital, in a watercolor painting by William Russell Birch (Image Courtesy of Library of Congress)

On June 11, 1800, DC became capital of the United States, leaving the country’s former capital of the previous decade, Philadelphia, to the fate of Pennsylvanians. While Washington, DC, was a young upstart, Philadelphia was the largest city in America at the time, with nearly 50,000 residents.

George Washington never saw the city named after him become the capital of the new nation; he had died more than six months before – his last words: “Tis well.”

In 1800, the U.S. Capitol building consisted only of the Senate’s north wing. The Senate and House members shared this wing until a temporary wooden pavilion was built for House members. Their south wing was finally completed in 1811, but the House members didn’t wait – they left their pavilion and moved into the unfinished wing in 1807.

At this time of the capital move from Philly, there were only about 125 federal employees newly bound for DC, and official documents and archives were transferred by ship via inland waterways.

President John Adams had to move, too, but the “President’s Palace” – which wouldn’t be called the “White House” until 1811 – was still under construction. Instead, Adams took a room over Tunnicliff’s, a Capitol Hill tavern at the corner of 1st and A NE. Good to know that our first DC resident President lived over a bar…

J. Edgar Hoover Ends FBI Legacy Behind Bars

J. Edgar Hoover's gravesite at Congressional Cemetery (Photo By: heydayjoe)

J. Edgar Hoover’s gravesite at Congressional Cemetery (Photo By: heydayjoe)

J. Edgar Hoover, longtime Director of the FBI – the man who spent his life putting others behind bars – spends his eternity behind bars at Congressional Cemetery on the west bank of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington.

The only civil servant to be honored with a state funeral, Hoover served as the head of the FBI for 48 years, from 1924 until his death in 1972. Though his legacy is tainted because of the illegal methods of infiltration, planted evidence and burglaries he condoned, his name is carved in stone at the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue.

A master of blackmail (not to mention bigotry), Hoover loved illegally wire-tapping people to get dirt on them, especially those he detested. He spent countless agent hours and taxpayer dollars snooping on Martin Luther King, determined to prove him dangerous by proving him immoral. And he hated author John Steinbeck so much (convinced that he was a red Communist) that he had the IRS audit him every year.

To J. Edgar, the highest realms of patriotism and virtue were reflected in his personal prejudices and wholesome lifestyle.

J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson enjoy a ride in Atlantic City, NJ.

J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson enjoy a ride in Atlantic City, NJ.

A lifelong bachelor and creature of habit, J. Edgar ate lunch at the same hotel restaurant every workday for 20 years with the same companion, his lifelong friend and FBI protégé Clyde Tolson. (The Mayflower Hotel’s restaurant is now named Edgar Bar & Kitchen in his honor.) He never strayed from his daily order – chicken soup, white toast, half a grapefruit, cottage cheese and Bibb lettuce – and he never tipped back a martini. A teetotaler, Hoover forbade the use of intoxicating beverages by any FBI agent, on or off the job.

In his quest to get “subversive” Americans, J. Edgar didn’t have time for frivolity. Even a party song like the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” aroused suspicion. For two and a half years he had his underlings investigate the song to find hidden sexual messages. The process included interviews with author Richard Berry and members of The Kingsmen as well as repeated listenings of the song at various speeds. The verdict: The study found no evidence of obscenity, concluding that the song was “unintelligible at any speed.”

A DC native, J. Edgar was reportedly born in 1895 at 413 C Street SE, later known as 413 Seward Square SE and now the site of the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. We say “reportedly” because, unlike his two siblings, there is no record of his birth. As a teen, he competed on the debate team and sang in the school choir at Central High School, now known as Cardozo. He later obtained both his law degree and his Masters of Law at George Washington University.

From 1940 until his death in 1972, J. Edgar lived at 4936 30th Place NW (Forest Hills), where he kept files on Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and U.S. presidents. When the current owners moved in, they had the bulletproof-glass windows removed.

When Hoover died, Tolson – his lunch buddy, life partner and possible lover – inherited his estate and moved into the house. Tolson is also buried at Congressional Cemetery, a few yards from J. Edgar.

Burial sites are still available to the general public.