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From the mid- to late-1970s, I was finishing graduate school--working toward a Ph.D. in history at the University of Maryland. My dissertation topic involved design symbolism of the 1920s and 30s. This research topic was related to my strong affinity for some of the aesthetic and cultural achievements of the period, including -- and especially -- architecture. This interest, in turn, was leading me to rediscover the city in which I had grown up: to look at the familiar buildings of Washington, D.C. with new eyes. As soon as this process of rediscovery began, however, the buildings that impressed me the most -- the Art Deco buildings -- began to disappear. The Trans-Lux Theatre, the Apex Theatre, the Roger Smith Hotel: victims all, of cruel demolitions. I consoled myself a little by photographing as many of these buildings as I could before they vanished forever.
My photo-documentation project caught the fancy of a faculty member at my university, and this faculty member introduced me to Perry Girard Fisher, who was then the Director of the Columbia Historical Society -- since renamed the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Perry Fisher invited me to give a slide lecture on the subject of Art Deco architecture in Washington. This lecture, which I presented in June 1981, was received politely, and at the reception that followed, a tall, soft-spoken, and wispy-looking fellow with a German accent came up to me and identified himself as Hans Wirz. Hans was from Switzerland. He explained that in the course of teaching architecture at George Washington University, he, too, had become enthralled with Art Deco architecture in Washington -- so enthralled that he had started to write a book on the subject. He proposed that we join forces and become co-authors. I agreed.
Then Hans got a job offer back in Basel, and we continued our co-authorship on a trans-Atlantic basis. In the course of my research, I expanded our initial roster of Art Deco buildings to encompass- over 400, and I spent many days and evenings gazing into microfilm readers looking for evidence in old building permits and press coverage to document the dates and designers of the buildings.
In May 1982 (the month when I received my Ph.D.), I received a call from a journalist named Annie Groer. Annie… a columnist for the "Style" section of the Washington Post, [who] was then the Washington bureau chief of the Orlando Sentinel. An aficionado of Art Deco, she lived in an Art Deco house. In the course of covering historic preservation battles in Miami Beach's Art Deco district, she had come to know the feisty and now-deceased President of the Miami Design Preservation League: Barbara Baer Capitman, the crusading defender of Miami Beach Art Deco. Anne Groer was calling to tell me two things: (1) she had heard about the book project, and (2) she was about to host a visit to Washington by Barbara Capitman. Ms. Capitman was making a whirlwind tour of America to encourage the formation of Art Deco preservation groups in major cities.
So it was that in May 1982 about a dozen of us met with Barbara Capitman in Annie Groer's living room. Though I found Ms. Capitman eccentric, I, like everyone present, was quite impressed by the vehemence with which she exhorted us to found an Art Deco Society. Moreover, I, like everyone present, experienced flutters of anxiety as I contemplated the enormous time-commitment that would have to be made by the person who agreed to become the first President of such an organization. Sure enough, the moment I dreaded and secretly hoped for arrived. Because of my book project, someone -- I forget who it was -- asked me if I would take up the challenge and assume the responsibility of organizing the society. Some deep, histrionic quirk in my nature came alive, and I agreed at once.
I and about a half dozen founding members of the initial Board of Directors incorporated the non-profit Art Deco Society of Washington in fall 1982. Our wisdom and foresight made us quite determined to name it the Art Deco Society of Washington (ADSW) rather than the Washington Art Deco Society (WADS). Several newspaper articles about us by Michael Kernan in theWashington Post brought in hundreds of members right away. We immediately launched a newsletter, Trans-Lux. We initiated plans for an Art Deco Ball in summer 1983. And in summer 1983, we confronted our first preservation emergency: the threat to Greenbelt Center School.
In 1984, Washington Deco was published by Smithsonian Institution Press. Simultaneously, the Art Deco Society launched campaigns to save the Washington Greyhound Terminal and the streamlined Art Deco buildings in downtown Silver Spring, such as the Silver Theatre and Silver Spring Shopping Center complex.
That was how the whole thing began. It continues, and will outlive us all.
Long out of print, you may find Washington Deco on Amazon.com.
ADSW offers this book in association with Amazon.com Books and receives a small commission on sales referred to them.