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The Dustshoveller's Gazette: November 2011

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Parliament Buildings of the World: No 3 - USA

Last week I returned from the United States, where I had been attending some events associated with the loan of the 1765 Stamp Act to the New York Historical Society's grand reopening exhibition, Revolution!  I then extended the trip to include Washington DC in order visit the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Archives and the Capitol Visitor Center to bring back ideas for the Parliamentary Archives in London.  It's Thanksgiving today, so altogether this is a good moment to talk a bit about the Capitol as a symbol, in my occasional series about other Parliamentary buildings.

Western view of Capitol Hill from the National Mall

The site of 'Federal City' was established in 1790 by statute - the Residence Act - at a site on the Potomac river nominated by Congress. Work began almost immediately to create a Parliamentary building for the newly-united colonies in what was to become known as Washington DC. As might be expected, the building - whose cornerstone was laid in 1793 - was ripe with symbolism.

The architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch took as their inspiration classical models. With a Senate forming part of the new Congress as well as a House of Representatives - a division of power known as the "Great Compromise" - the site selected for the new building was already set to imitate the Capitoline Hill in Rome, being a wooded slope above the marshy Potomac plain below. The interior halls of the two original wings of the Capitol (one wing for each of the equal parts of Congress) were decorated with Italian-influenced frescoes and a domed central space was planned to join them together. It was clear from the start that Greek and Roman was the favoured national style for the United States; much in contrast, for example, to the Gothick pastiche applied to the old Palace of Westminster at much the same time, and to the so-called 'national style' laid down for a new Parliament building for the United Kingdom some 45 years later: defined as Gothic or Elizabethan.  Eventually, two great ceremonial avenues called 'Independence' and 'Constitution' were later constructed to lead  to the building which stood at the centre of the Federal City and by implication, the whole nation.  And it was ordered that no building should be higher than the Capitol - meaning that at the start of the 21st century, Washington is completely free of skyscrapers and the open sky is remarkably visible in the city.

Rome on the Potomac, not the Tiber.  The East Steps.
Since those early years, the Capitol has been modified and extended many times; a reflection of the search for the ever 'more perfect Union' to which the US Constitution aspires. And its frequent reworkings have reflected the traumas of US history too.  In revenge for the burning of similar buildings in Canada, in 1814 the British burnt both the new Capitol and the White House (the latter getting its permanent name from the whitewash used to cover the smoke staining on its walls).  The Capitol's shell was rebuilt inside, and the Library of Congress (kept inside) was replaced by the purchase of Thomas Jefferson's personal book collection which he sold to pay off personal debts.
During the American Civil War, the Capitol then became a metaphor for what was happening to the nation.  The southern representatives and senators had departed the building and Washington DC, just as the southern states had seceded from the Union.  Parts of the building became barracks for 75,000 troops and the wounded were treated for a short time in 1862 in the Rotunda, the old House Hall, and its corridors.  In the same way, both Union and Confederate states were flooded with casualties.  The construction of the famous Capitol Dome following a fire in 1851 was already underway when the Civil War broke out.  Modelled on the double-skinned classical domes of St Paul's in London, St Isaac's in St Petersburg, and - naturally - St Peter's in Rome - building work continued through the war, leading President Lincoln to see it as sign that the Union would survive the current crisis.  He subsequently gave one of his most famous speeches, the 2nd Inaugural, on the East Front Steps in 1865, and when he was assassinated 6 weeks later, his body lay in state under the newly finished dome, beneath the part-completely fresco of The Apotheosis of Washington. 

But there was, of course, a deep irony in the creation of this secular temple to democracy.  All men did not have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the United States at the time of its construction.  Enslaved African-Americans built the original Capitol, and an enslaved craftsman called Philip Reid oversaw the bronze casting of the great Statue of Freedom (designed in Rome in plaster and shipped over the Atlantic for casting) on top of its dome in the mid 19th century.  He was emancipated in 1862, and so was a free man by the time the Statue was placed on top of the Dome.  In belated recognition of these forgotten people, the huge central space of the new Capitol Visitor Centre, completed in 2007, beneath the building and welcoming millions from around the world every year, was named the "Emancipation Hall" in a long-delayed acknowledgment of the enslaved labourers' contribution.


Friday, 18 November 2011

Cover Story

OUP has now had its editorial and sales meeting and has produced this thrilling cover for my book.  I'm really delighted with it, as it is almost the same as the image I've had in my head all along.  Book covers are often a source of friction between publishers and authors but I couldn't be more happy.  Choosing the book's title, however, has caused me, my agent and my editor much more difficulty - right up to the last moment. I had used the working title of Conflagration throughout the book's creation and that was the title as sent off in various submissions. This wonderfully evocative word was used constantly about the fire at the time. However, I became increasingly nervous that this was not a title which would make the book walk off the shelves, so after much dicussion - with the sales and marketing people having the final say - we have settled on what had emerged first as a subtitle - The Day Parliament Burned Down.  However, a definition of the word 'conflagration' from the Oxford English Dictionary still opens the book: it means a lot more than just 'a great and destructive fire', as the narrative gradually reveals.

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Saturday, 12 November 2011

Parliament Buildings of the World: No 2 - Lithuania

This post is perhaps a tad geeky, but since the all-time most popular entry on this blog turns out to be my musings on the restored Reichstag in Berlin, I now offer you some thoughts on the Seimas in Vilnius, Lithuania.  (This could be the start of a glossy coffee table book, Great Parliament Buildings I Have Known.  Or maybe not.)  Anyway, Parliament buildings are interesting for the way they reflect their country's history of democracy and the relationship with their citizens.  They become symbolic of the society their Parliament represents through their layout, design and the role they have played - as buildings, rather than as legislatures - in their country's political history.

The gorgeous city of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital

So, to Lithuania's story. In October this year, I attended a conference of Parliamentary archivists from across the world, and our proceedings took place in the Seimas, or Parliament, where we had a chance to go on a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour. Like all the Baltic States, Lithuania has a sad history of occupation which goes back centuries. There was a Seimas in the second half of the 15th century, but this disappeared once Lithuania merged with Poland.  United with the Polish Kingdom as a grand duchy for over 200 years, Lithuania was governed from Warsaw, and then annexed to the Russian Empire in 1795. At the Revolution, Lithuania broke away from its colonial overlords, and made a declaration of Independence on 16 February 1918. It had a brief period of democracy from 1920 to 1926 but then the Seimas was dissolved by the President Antanas Smetona who ruled as a dictator, later in collaboration with the Nazis until 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded and Lithuania became part of the USSR. Like other Soviet Republics, the national legislature - known as the Supreme Soviet - was merely a group of puppet representatives following the orders of the local communist party.

The 1950s 'Supreme Soviet' building

As the Soviet Union began to fall apart after the Berlin Wall came down, the reform movement in Lithuania won an overwhelming majority in the first free elections in February 1990.  The Supreme Council of the Reconstituted Seimas declared its independence on 11 March 1990, and the crumbling USSR began to apply political sanctions and an economic blockade against Lithuania, in a desperate attempt to keep its grip on the country.  When those didn't work, a brutal last-ditch attempt to intimidate the Lithuanians was made.

And here is where the Parliament building comes in.  Soviet troops stormed the State TV and Radio buildings in Vilnius on 13 January 1991, killing 14 people and injuring another 600.  Tanks then began trundling towards Parliament.  That met with an immediate response from the people of Vilnius, who raised barricades around the despised 1950s Supreme Soviet building, now reincarnated as a democratic Seimas building, and they camped out to protect it.  Some evocative pictures of that anxious time are here:

Laisvė means Freedom

Fuel for the Protest

Preparing for the Worst

The Seimas behind Bars

No to the New Chains

The protestors continued to protect the building until the autumn of 1991, when it became clear that the USSR had given up its claim and the hardline attempted coup in Moscow was over.  The Soviet army finally left on 31 August 1993, and that's when, for Lithuanians, the Second World War really ended at last. 

To find out more about the Lithuanian Parliament, have a look at their information in English.
A Liberty Bell in the Seimas remembering the dark days of 1991

In recent years, the Seimas has built two new buildings, annexed to the 1950s Soviet Soviet building.  Although the latter now has an iconic place in the story of the independence struggle, there are still bad memories of its use during the Soviet era, so today the Seimas has its chamber in the more modern wings of the building.

Interior of the former Soviet-era chamber

The interior of the new Seimas chamber: a fresh start
And finally, to recall the key role which the barricades played in saving the Lithuanian Parliament, some have been built into the fabric of the new wing of the Seimas.

Concrete blocks (covered with freedom graffiti) which once formed part of the
1991 barricades surround the ends of the new glass visitor centre 
of the Seimas as a permanent memorial.


Saturday, 5 November 2011

Remember, Remember, the Old Palace of Westminster

Because of the 1834 fire which burnt it down, many people don't realise that there was a Houses of Parliament on site at Westminster - the old Palace  - before Barry and Pugin designed the current one.  Still fewer know what it looked like.  That's led to some startling anachronisms when illustrating historic Parliamentary events, particularly in relation to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  Today is Bonfire Night, so I offer these historical thoughts for you to ponder between bangers of all kinds. (For non-UK readers this blog, find out more about Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night before reading on). 

In 2003, I remember being struck by an Institute of Physics project at the University of Wales which had tried to model the impact the explosion would have had, if it had succeeded. The physicists found that the damage to surrounding buildings was enormous, with Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey being flattened and damage as far as Whitehall, over a third of mile away. They worked out that Guy Fawkes had used 25 times the amount of gunpowder he actually would have needed to achieve his aims.  But a newspaper report that caught my eye the next day showed a picture of the new Palace in ruins (not a happy thought).  The Gunpowder Plot is a source of endless fascination and many books, websites and educational items have been produced on it.  But unfortunately, they often make the same mistake and set the Plot against a background of the neo-Gothic Palace, built in the middle of the 19th century.  Some good examples of this are here, here, here and here (hmmm...).

There are exceptions.  In 2005, for the 400th anniversary of the foiling of the Plot, a TV programme simulated the explosion to see what might have happened if the Plot had succeeded, correctly blowing up a facsimile of the old House of Lords, with spectacular results.  The film doesn't give you the impact on surrounding buildings, but you get the idea - and the size and shape of the Lords Chamber is correct, for once (the cross section of the old House of Lords below is held in the Parliamentary Archives: note the ground floor 'cellar' underneath).

In fact, the House of Lords chamber which Guy Fawkes tried to destroy (originally the 13th century Queen's Chamber of the medieval Palace) didn't even make it to 1834.  The Lords moved out of the ancient building in 1801 following the Act of Union with Ireland, and the decaying building was later pulled down by the architect Sir John Soane, to make way for his new Royal Gallery and Staircase (in fact the plan above is by the famous architect).   The Soane buildings survived until 1851 when they  in turn were demolished to make way for the new House of Lords, and there is a fascinating engraving of Queen Victoria opening her first Parliament by processing through Soane's Royal Gallery; not what one imagines at all!  All that remains today to commemorate the site at Westminster is this brass plaque tucked away in one of the inner courtyards of the new Palace, marking the spot of the original House of Lords chamber.

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