The Old Razzle Dazzle

Hildreth Meière is not a household name. But her legacy gets a sizable boost thanks to a retrospective at the National Building Museum. “Walls Speak” shows how Meière's stunning murals and mosaics—in particular, the floors and ceilings of her pièce de résistance at the Nebraska State Capitol—came to define American Art Deco.

This city provided Meière an early break. In 1923 architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue commissioned her to decorate the dome of the National Academy of Sciences. That success led to decades of high-profile projects—from the glitzy façade of Radio City Music Hall to the Byzantine interior of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Yet D.C. factored later in her career, too. In 1951 the National Cathedral hired Meière to create an apse mosaic (visible still) but then rejected her narrative friezes. By the late ’50s, it seemed, abstract art had become the new vogue.

Back to the Future
Work less. Relax more. Live better. So promised six world’s fairs that stirred the imagination between 1933 and 1940. The National Building Museum revisits those optimistic notions in the sweeping exhibition “Designing Tomorrow,” which displays nearly 200 artifacts from building models to promo posters and vintage film. Curators set their sights on the expos’ architects, engineers and designers who were described by one fair guidebook as “true poets of the 20th century.”

Amid the uncertainties of the Great Depression, world’s fairs flaunted a future of prosperity—namely, a society saved by consumerism. Architects built fantasy pavilions with vrooming swoops and in shapes like elephants or, most blatantly, cash registers. Meant to last only a season or two, the spectacles served as futuristic frames for the wonders inside. Like those 1930s fairgoers, today’s gallery visitors ooh and aah at “new-fangled” appliances (toasters! TV sets!), flashy modes of transport (think Chicago’s 1933 Sky Ride “rockets”) and, yes, “helper” robots. At 7 feet tall, Elektro the Moto-Man could talk, smoke and even blow up balloons.

D.C. Goes Deco
When President Franklin Roosevelt pledged a New Deal for America, he encouraged “bold, persistent experimentation.” With D.C. as its HQ, the era brought wealth and building projects to the capital. And with new development came a style of architecture particularly suited to Washington.

In the 1930s, federal buildings took on restrained, Modernist shapes inspired by Roman classicism. But facades and interiors featured decorative flourishes à la Hollywood, an aesthetic later called Art Deco.

That confluence of efficiency and pizzazz—now known as “Greco-Deco” or “WPA Moderne”—surfaces around town from the
Kennedy-Warren Apartments in Northwest to the Federal Reserve Building north of the Mall.

This month the
Art Deco Society of Washington offers several ways to explore the era and its relics. June 3 through 7 the preservation organization hosts a "World’s Fair Weekend" with lectures on Hildreth Meière and Modernism plus exhibition tours at the National Building Museum.

June 4 and 5 is the 28th annual Exposition of 20th-Century Decorative Arts, with more than 40 dealers including perennial favorites such as "Deco Doug" selling vintage objects like bronze sconces, chrome shakers and neon clocks.

Find locations, times and event registration details at www.adsw.org.