Versailles on the Potomac

Now back to the saga of Versailles.

About the only thing that the Versailles of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI had in common, at first, with the new “Great Columbian Federal City” in 1791 was that they were both located partly on a swamp. But thanks to a Frenchman, they would soon be much more alike.

Charles Pierre L'Enfant

Charles Pierre L’Enfant

Charles Pierre L’Enfant was born in 1754 and grew up outside the chateau at Versailles. Like his father, an official court painter to Louis XV, L’Enfant trained at the Royal Academy. But times were changing when he came of age and, instead of settling down to a government career, he shipped out to the American colonies in 1777 to fight with the revolutionaries.

Assigned to Inspector General Friedrich von Steuben, he worked as a mapmaker and illustrator, and was soon promoted to captain of engineers. L’Enfant went to the front lines during the siege of Savannah, seeking to distinguish himself, but was badly wounded in the leg. From there he transferred to Valley Forge, and his countryman the marquis de Lafayette commissioned a portrait of Washington. Soon the General discovered that Major L’Enfant also had a remarkable talent for staging fêtes and parades, and for designing buildings. And thus began his American career.

Fast forward to 1789. The capital had roamed from northern city to northern city all these years. Virginians wanted it to finally settle down in their neighborhood, just between Virginia and Maryland. And New Yorker (and super rock star) Alexander Hamilton, mentee of Washington and good friend of L’Enfant, was pushing for the federal government to pay off the states’ debts (still dragging along from the Revolution). So it was that these two seemingly unrelated issues came together in the Compromise of 1790. Which, according to historian Jacob E. Cooke, quoted in Wikipedia, ‘is generally regarded as one of the more important bargains in American history.’

The Compromise led to the Residence Act, signed by Washington that same year, authorizing the construction of a permanent capital city along the banks of the Potomac. And thus the new Federal City site was chosen, and the states’ debts settled.

Yes, Washington DC in 1791, as sketched by Thomas Jefferson

Yes, Washington DC in 1791, as sketched by Thomas Jefferson

Charles Peter (he’d Anglicized his name) had established himself as a designer of note by this time, and had offered his services to Washington in designing the new Federal City in September 1789, just two months after the taking of the Bastille prison back in Paris. Washington had great faith in him, and so he received the commission.

More than 200 years before Daniel Burnham may have said, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood” L’Enfant was thinking big. The plans, he wrote to the General, “should be drawn on such a Scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote.” (quoted in “Washington’s Gamble, L’Enfant’s Dream: Politics, Design, and the Founding of the National Capital” by C.M Harris in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3, July 1999))

And so L’Enfant drew up a rough draft of a plan for a spacious city, with broad avenues lined with formal and elegant buildings. It borrowed heavily from the Versailles layout that the architect remembered from his youth. Just as  the citizens of France were beginning their own revolution toppling an absolute monarch and his court at Versailles, the fledgling Republic of the United States of America was borrowing the landscape design. Yet, it was anything but a simple copy. It integrated similar formal spatial organization and expansiveness into the topography of the unbuilt space along the Potomac.

L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the new capital

L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the new capital

Versailles ca. 1710

Versailles ca. 1710

If you look closely at the heart of L’Enfant’s plan, you’ll notice how the major organizing axis begins east of the capitol building (whose footprint itself is very like the shape of the chateau at Versailles). The axis then penetrates the building and continues west to the Potomac River. Six avenues radiate in an expanded patte d’oie, with a grid of streets superimposed. A rectangular formal park, now the National Mall, leads west towards the river. The surrounding city, based on the same point-radiating diagonal avenues, could in theory extend into infinity. Very grand, indeed.

But while monarchs like Louis XIV (Versailles) and emperors like Napoleon III (Paris in the 1850s) could make unilateral planning decisions, the first American president could not—and had no wish to—do likewise.

Next time we’ll look at roadblocks to implementing L’Enfant’s plan, and see how things turned out for the Federal City.

Photo credits:
Charles Pierre L’Enfant portrait,
Others retrieved from public domain

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.

Beyond Thankful for the Earth

earth_and_limb_m1199291564l_color_2stretch_mask_0How anyone can believe that human activity on the scale we’re doing things now doesn’t have a devastating and probably irreversible impact on our priceless planet, I cannot imagine. But even without believing, the ‘climate deniers’ might still express some gratitude for the incredible resource that is our world, and be courteous and  ‘conservative’ in stewarding earth’s bounty. Keeping the air, the water, the soil clean and renewable–habitat for all creatures, including humans–seems like simple good manners.

air-pollutionAnd could Stephen Hawking, generally considered to be one of the most brilliant humans on the planet, put his thinking powers to use solving the problem of our irresponsible species? Instead of prognosticating about how little time is left before we completely destroy the  earth, and urging us to find a new planet!  Because, of course, we’d only take our reprehensible habits with us.

farm-runoff-gulfIt’s a truism that how we treat other people  and how we treat animals and the environment is in fact a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. So at core, as societies all around the world, we must believe we’re expendable and of no intrinsic value beyond the economic. Stoking our egos by exploiting resources–human or otherwise– is the oldest trick in the book. Limiting ownership of and access to resources has been practiced in culture after culture throughout history. But now the stakes are enormous beyond imagining and there are way too many players. There are no more borders or boundaries to the devastation.


Americans are responding to this, powerfully. The excellent cartoonist Mike Luckovich weighs in.

Bill McKibben in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post.

Shocking news in the Washington Post energy and environment section.

From  Myron Ebell has no scientific experience. He says global warming is a myth. He proudly calls himself a “climate criminal.” He would threaten the health and safety of all Americans.
The good news is that momentum is already building against him. The media has identified Ebell as one of Trump’s most controversial picks. With the transition in disarray, public outcry may be able to stop Ebell’s appointment.

Sign the petition:

And as Michael J. Copps says, “So let’s build on whatever we can find to build on.” Indeed.

And for some hope, drawing on deeper wells, the Spirit Earth Fall 2016 newsletter just published. Find encouragement where you can, take heart, and speak up! Even if all those darned scientists are wrong, really, with what’s at stake, isn’t it better to be safe than cataclysmically sorry?

Photo credits:
Earth seen from space,
Polluting smokestacks:
Fertilizer runoff in Gulf of Mexico at mouth of Mississippi River:
Light pollution in Hong Kong:

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.



Gilt Without Guilt

1280px-chateau_versailles_galerie_des_glacesThe very name “Versailles”—pronounced in French, sort of, “vair-sigh”—is synonymous with opulence and extravagance. If that’s redundant, good. That’s Versailles. Gilt without guilt. Sexual abandon, sensual food and clothing, fabulous jewels and wigs–all juxtaposed with picayune etiquette protocol–and not a heck of a lot to do for the 10,000 aristocrats who assembled in Louis XIV’s court.

As well as expanding the original modest hunting lodge into a vast chateau, Louis extended the grounds to about 2,000 acres, the most extensive and tightly designed gardens in Western history. A fantastic place for lavish entertainments and for the 10,000 to wander. The architects, including the famous but little-known André Le Notre, probably had cast a glance at the great Italian Renaissance gardens, models of symmetry and formality. By taking these elements to their logical extremes, Le Notre created a sense of space and grandeur on an unprecedented scale.

2048px-versailles_plan_jean_delagriveAt Versailles, the Sun King himself served as the organizing principle—his rooms were situated at the very center of the chateau, the hub of the great axis that penetrated the grounds physically from the front court through the building—and Louis’s rooms—all the way through the gardens to the very end of the property.

chateau-de-versailles-rotondeBut Le Notre’s mastery of perspective and mathematics enabled him to continue that axis visually, beyond the chateau grounds and off to infinity itself. What could be a more powerful symbol of a self-styled “sun king’ whose motto was ‘l’etat, c’est moi’?

The design worked beautifully;  most other European monarchs  scrambled to create their own versions. But none of their landscape architects seemed to quite get the ‘infinity’ concept (and of course none of them had 2,000 acres.) Still, the organizing axis and the ‘pattes d’oie’ (goosefoot pattern of three or five  avenues radiating from one point) were replicated all over because they were an elegant means of framing views, moving large groups of people efficiently through the garden spaces, and offered a means of changing up the scenery.

piazza-delIn the urban planning business, Versailles is often referred to as the early modern example of city design. (Of course the XVIII century French architects may have considered how the city of Rome was reorganized under Pope Sixtus the Fifth in the mid XVI century–that’s the Piazza del Popolo patte d’oie you see there.)

a82f3c18-a464-8430-cba2-c2e0f358e938fileAnd, in fact, a Frenchman named Pierre Charles l’Enfant, who grew up right outside the chateau gates during the reign of Louis XV, would use it as a model when he created the first plan of Washington, DC in 1791.

We’ll take a look at Versailles in the US next time. It’s an odd choice for a new democratic republic to plan its capitol city after the extravagant landscape of an absolute monarch. But maybe good city/spatial planning knows no bounds.

Photo of Galerie des Glaces by Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,; other photos public domain.

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.


It’s Halloween!

img_1021What a holiday season, as October rolls over into November! Three days of celebrating the dead, known as Allhallowtide. Halloween (based on the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain) on October 31, All Saints Day on November 1, and All Souls Day/Dia de Muertos on November 2 make up the ‘triduum’ of this much-loved spooky time.

Samhain, pronounced ‘sow (as in now) in’, is a Gaelic word, but we don’t have to even leave English to find equally astonishing pronunciations. Think of the town in Cheshire spelled ‘Cholmondeston’—locals call it ‘Chumston’. Or the Wilshire berg of ‘Etchilhampton’—‘Eyeshalton’. So much for your grade-school phonetics lessons.

lamp-pumpkin-for-witch-1383167764_94For the Celts, who could pronounce Samhain naturally, it was a big event, celebrated in some form since the beginning of their history. But as with so much of our understanding of Celtic culture, things are kind of vague because they didn’t keep written records. The holiday had been celebrated in late spring until the 9th century, when, under Christian patriarchal guidance, it was moved to its current mid-autumn time. It became a harvest festival and thin time, when the veil between this world and the next might allow for souls to pass through.

Headless horseman and his horses.

Headless horseman and his horses.

All Saints’ Day follows, and honors, simply, all the Christian saints in the Western tradition, as well as any religiously significant people in an individual’s life.

And on the third day, there is All Souls’ Day, to memorialize all the good dead, those who lived up to expectations and should now be enjoying their eternal reward. But apparently some are not, as some traditions still practice offerings of food and drink for the dead, including a little treat known as a soul cake.

The custom of making ‘soul cakes’ to give as alms to children and the poor on All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints, and All Souls days is a venerable one, going back to Medieval England. It’s not hard to imagine this as the progenitor of our modern trick-or-treating. But soul cakes were also put out to propitiate  dead spirits  that might be wandering around their former dwellings, feeling like causing trouble. There’s a reason that Halloween imagery is creepy and spooky.

Dia de Muertos altar.

Dia de Muertos altar.

And a much more lively, colorful variant on All Souls’ Day is of course Dia de Muertos. Like Samhain, this, too, was an ancient tradition celebrated in early summer. But with the arrival of the conquistadors and Christianity in Central America, this fête was also moved to mid-autumn. The customs are similar—offerings of food and drink for the departed, and visits to graves.

But in the Mexican tradition, marigold-bright orange is the reigning color and skulls made of sugar or chocolate are both offered to the dead and eaten by the living. The theme of skulls and skeletons is portrayed with wild abandon in every sort of art.

img_0323As endearing as the dead may seem at this time of year, with all the attention and food offerings, what if they actually did return from the grave? Chances are both the living and the dead are grateful that they don’t. Halloween season isn’t about actually crossing that boundary; it’s about playing with it–which people around Chicago are doing with gusto.


Jack o’lantern photo retrieved from public domain; all others by author.

Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.

Pushing Up Daisies and Oak Trees and Big Blue Stem

640px-a_gaenseblume4So maybe you’re not quite ready to be honored, yourself, this Dia de Muertos, All Soul’s Day, or Samhain. But there will come a day for each of us when we cross that boundary from this world to the next. And when we do, what will happen to our mortal remains?

Leave it to humans to take a natural process like dying and turn it into an abnormal event that must be denied.  And then make that be the cultural norm and charge lots of money for it.

The average, “traditional” funeral (a rather recent tradition) today costs more than $8,000. Embalming (in which the deceased’s blood is replaced with preservatives like formaldehyde, a toxic and potentially carcinogenic chemical) and facial cosmetics are employed to get the corpse ready for its “close-up” in the $3,000 decorative casket for viewing at the funeral home.

In the meantime, the cemetery will have sent out someone with a backhoe to “open” the grave and get it ready for the burial. Then the cortege from the undertaker’s to the cemetery, where, after a short graveside service, the casket will be lowered on a specially-designed, well, casket lowering device. But it will not be sullied by being lowered into the earth itself. It will go into a concrete burial vault; world-class powerlifters couldn’t push daisies up through that.

Ostensibly all of this should preserve the body for a while. But not so. The embalming only lasts for perhaps a week, just long enough for the ‘viewing’. Unless, of course, you are an Egyptian pharoah–your ancestors were deadly serious about embalming and mummifying. Or unless you’re Lenin.

What about the casket seal and a concrete burial vault—made of 5,000 psi concrete and lined with a metal such as bronze or stainless steel, or plastic? Probably won’t keep moisture, bacteria, and earth-borne micro-organisms out for very long. The vault’s real purpose is to keep the ground from sinking as the casket deteriorates. And all this begs the question: why would you want to preserve a dead body, anyway?

There are other choices. Maybe, like the cemetery administrators in our last blog post, you find cremation to be a more palatable solution. It’s got issues, too.  A retort requires a fossil fuel source and puts an unreasonably large amount of carbon into the atmosphere. If you’re a trendy sort, you might instead choose the new ‘biocremation’ technique that uses water and potassium hydroxide—and was approved by the American Chemical Society in 2010—to reduce the body to bones, or “B2B”, as they seem to say in the industry, leaving a very small carbon footprint.

Bicycle hearse, Sunset Hills Cemetery, Eugene, OR

Bicycle hearse, Sunset Hills Cemetery, Eugene, OR

Or, instead, come full circle and return to what most people have done throughout history—simply be placed in the earth and naturally decompose at their own pace, letting their remains go back where they came from, the old “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” sentiment. “A dead body plays host to a whole ecosystem of insects that help to decompose the body and return it to nature.”  So you won’t be malingering.

Green or natural burials are also much less expensive than a “traditional” burial, costing $3,500 at Natural Path Sanctuary, for example.

Pathway to Peace at Natural Path Sanctuary

Pathway to Peace at Natural Path Sanctuary

With this minimal-impact approach to burial, a body is either wrapped in a natural fiber shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin—woven willow, cardboard, simple wood. And then buried 4 feet down, not 6 feet under. That’s too deep and creates anaerobic conditions; not 2 feet because that’s just too close to the surface. In a Goldilocks sort of way, 3 to 4 feet is just right.

While many urban cemeteries now set aside an area for natural burials, the true green cemeteries, like Natural Path Sanctuary at the Farley Center in Verona, WI, go farther. They embrace the “be a tree” philosophy of allowing your remains to nourish and sustain the earth. An Aldo Leopold quote on the website says it all: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The management here maintains the cemetery in a semi-wild state, so you can literally be pushing up native plants and trees. Makes you wonder how we ever got so far away from such a simple concept.

But we can’t wrap this up without a quick look at the two latest possibilities: the mushroom suit and body composting. Composting is still in the experimental stage, but looks hopeful—after all, it’s become a fairly common procedure on dairy farms with dead animals larger than an average human.

Jae Rhim Lee in her mushroom burial suit

Jae Rhim Lee in her mushroom burial suit

The mushroom suit, proper name Infinity Burial Suit, hit the news last spring when it was first unveiled and ready to sell. More than just a passive, eco-friendly burial shroud, the suit is sown/sewn with varieties of mushroom spores that can use the decomposing body as their substrate, speeding up the process and sequestering toxins to boot. And you go out in a catsuit, looking chic like Emma Peel. Amazing.

Borrowing the marvelously phrased words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Dennis White, the first person intending to be buried in the suit, writes: “I would request that my body in death be buried not cremated, so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the earth, so that the flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined upon flora and fauna during my lifetime.” What a way to get ready for Dia de Muertos!

NEWS FLASH! I read today’s Guardian just before I posted this, and here’s yet another possibility . . .

Photo credits, in order: Bohringer Friedrich (Wiki Commons);;;

Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.

Death in the Time of Cholera

325px-choleraJust two weeks to go and the World’s Columbian Exposition will close forever—123 years ago, that is. Rough estimates show that about 25 million people came through the gates in the 6 months—just 6 months—the fair was open. They came from everywhere in the world—South Sea islands, Lapland, the Caribbean, as well as Egypt, Japan, Great Britain, and Brazil.

And they came right in the middle of what the World Health Organization calls the fifth cholera pandemic, 1881-1896. The Exposition directors worried about how all these folks might get along with one another, and hired a private police force to maintain the peace. And one of those directors was concerned about the possibility of a cholera outbreak.

Bryan Lathrop was the president of Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery and a director of the Exposition (as was his real estate magnate uncle, and founder of the cemetery, Thomas Barbour Bryan). Lathrop had gone to Europe with the cemetery’s landscape-gardener O.C. Simonds the year before the fair opened. They toured the continent’s great estates, botanical gardens, and parks looking for new ideas for their impeccable, park-like graveyard. But when they sailed back to the US and their ship docked in NY harbor, Lathrop and Simonds were peeved to discover that the boat would be quarantined for 2 weeks. There had been a cholera outbreak in Hamburg, Germany and US officials were taking no chances.

cholera-egypt Imagine being stuck in NY harbor with no cell phone, no internet. What do you do? Well, you think and you worry. (Does the ability to text anytime, anyplace, relieve 21st century people of worrying?) So that’s what Lathrop did. He worried about the possibility of a cholera outbreak at the fair. Not an unlikely concern, by any means. What would they do with the sick and the dead? Although a London physician named John Snow had pretty well figured out cholera’s profile in the 1850s, people still didn’t really know how to manage it. Lathrop was concerned that an epidemic at Chicago’s event-to-end-all-events would lead to disaster. And as a cemetery director, he was naturally concerned with the prospect of cholera being transmissible by corpses (apparently it’s not). Hundreds, thousands of potential corpses. Way too many to bury quickly.

cholera-sickleSo cremation seemed like the solution. But in the 1890s that was a long, slow process, requiring several cords (128 cubic feet per) of wood, taking a couple of days to get up to full heat, and an equal number of days to cool down. Not the quick disposal method Lathrop was seeking. He asked Simonds to look into alternative fuel sources when they finally returned to Chicago—specifically what modern factories were now using for clean, hot, efficient furnaces

Simonds discovered that the new fuel of choice was–-oil! And so Graceland Cemetery installed, in 1892, the world’s first oil-burning crematorium. As it turned out, the exceptional hygiene at the fairgrounds—clean drinking water, plenty of sanitary ‘comfort stations’, and a thorough cleaning of the sidewalks and buildings everyday in the wee small hours—prevented any outbreaks of disease at all. (And the police force at the fair had little to do, as visitors mostly behaved very well.)

Columbarium for cremated remains

Columbarium for cremated remains

It took a while for Chicagoans to warm up to the idea of cremation instead of burial, but slowly Graceland’s revolutionary crematorium was used more and more frequently, until it was no longer new and threatening. But technology has changed drastically since 1892, and despite updates to the retort over the years, by 2010 it was no longer feasible to keep it up to city requirements. The historic furnace was taken out of service and removed from its original location under Graceland’s chapel.

Ironically, serial killer Henry Holmes had beat the cemetery to developing an oil-fired retort. He had installed a  glass-bending kiln in the basement of his “murder castle” in Englewood a few years earlier … which he used, not for bending glass, but for incinerating the remains of his human victims, some of whom he met at the World’s Columbian Exposition, just three miles east of his hotel.

Images by author or retrieved from public domain.

Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.






Airbnb, Back in 1853

“The room was fourteen feet square, with battens of split boards tacked on between the broader openings of the logs. Above, it was open to the rafters, and in many places the sky could be seen between the shingles of the roof. A rough board box, three feet square. . . held the store of meal, coffee, sugar, and salt. . . We all sat with hats and overcoats on, and the woman cooked in bonnet and shawl.”

Ybarbo Ranch house, Nacogdoches.

Ybarbo Ranch house, Nacogdoches.

So wrote Frederick Law Olmsted of one stop on his journey southwest in 1853, on horseback from Nacogdoches, Texas to Crockett. He continued:

“A pallet of quilts and blankets was spread for us in the lean-to, just between the two doors. We slept in all our clothes, including overcoats, hats, and boots, and covered entirely with blankets. At seven in the morning, when we threw them off, the mercury in the thermometer in our saddle-bags, which we had used for a pillow, stood at 25º Farenheit.

Frederick Law Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted.

We contrived to make cloaks and hoods from our blankets, and after going through with the fry, coffee and pone again, and paying one dollar each for the entertainment of ourselves and horses, we continued our journey.”

Four years later he and new business partner Calvert Vaux would win the contest to design Central Park in New York City. But for now he was traveling through the deep South and the new state of Texas, reporting back to the New-York Times [as the paper styled itself then] about the every day living conditions in this part of the country.

From Crockett, Olmsted and his two companions continued southwest to Caldwell, Texas, about 45 miles northeast of Austin.

The Excelsior Hotel in Austin, TX, in continuous operation since the 1850s. Poor Olmsted didn't stay anyplace this ritzy.

The Excelsior Hotel in Austin, TX, in continuous operation since the 1850s. Poor Olmsted didn’t stay anyplace this ritzy.

“The “hotel” was an unusually large and fine one; the principal room had glass windows. Several panes of these were, however, broken, and the outside door could not be closed from without; and when closed, was generally pried open with a pocket-knife by those who wished to go out. A great part of the time it was left open. Supper was served in another room, in which there was no fire, and the outside door was left open for the convenience of the servants in passing to and from the kitchen, which, as usual here at large houses, was in a detached building. Supper was, however, eaten with such rapidity that nothing had time to freeze on the table.

We slept in a large upper room, in a company of five, with a broken window at the head of our bed, and another at our side, offering a short cut to the norther [“Chiefly Texas and Oklahoma. A cold gale from the north, formed during the winter by a vigorous outbreak of continental polar air behind a cold front.”] across our heads.

New Braunfels, 1874.

New Braunfels, 1874.

We were greatly amused to see one of our bed-room companions gravely spit in the candle before jumping into bed, explaining to some one who made a remark, that he always did so, it gave him time to see what he was about before it went out.”

Sometimes, they just camped out, as they did in the Trinity River bottom lands, north of Houston. In order to be safe from their “dirty persecutors, the hogs”, they “pitched their tent within a large hog-yard, putting up the bars to exclude them. The trees within had been sparingly cut, and we easily found tent-poles and fuel at hand.” The plantation they were squatting on had been sold recently, for two dollars an acre.

A Texas-style camp, March 1861, three months before the start of the Civil War.

A Texas-style camp, March 1861, three months before the start of the Civil War.

And so it went. Feeding themselves and their horses wasn’t any easier or pleasanter than their lodgings. But, of course, there weren’t any alternatives, and if you wanted to travel, this is how it was done.

Somehow in the midst of all this Olmsted managed to take detailed notes and get his dispatches back to the Times. The Yankee readership was fascinated by Olmsted’s narrative. Later, he collected all of these essays and published them as The Cotton Kingdom, in 1861. Olmsted’s articles  provide a truly remarkable first-person sociological study of the South before the Civil War. And we can only imagine what Olmsted would have written about thesse less-than-4-star lodgings if only he’d had access to the internet and a blog!

Public domain images from Library of Congress.

Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.