Capitol fixture: Americana or eyesore?

November 01, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It has cast a glow on Baltimore burlesque shows, shone down upon Methodist worshipers, and thrown light on the nation's lawmakers. But now the chandelier with such a radiant past has a distinctly dim future.

Its 148 lamps and 14,500 crystals that first twinkled in the long-gone Maryland Theater on West Franklin Street are out of place in the Small Rotunda of the Senate wing of the august U.S. Capitol, according to no less an authority than George White, architect of the Capitol.

He wants to replace the 20th-century bauble with an electrified replica of a smaller, more graceful oil-lighted chandelier in the style of the 1860s. The Senate Rules Committee has already approved its removal.

But Sen. Alan K. Simpson, the Republican minority whip from the wide open spaces of Wyoming, likes the Baltimore bauble just where it is -- outside his leadership office next to the Small Rotunda.

Mr. Simpson passes it on his way to and from the Senate chamber and committee hearings 10 or 15 times a day. "It's mystic," says the senator, who insists there should be further discussion before the light is consigned to storage.

The lamp's bawdy pedigree adds "another dimension of charm to it," says Mr. Simpson. "Admittedly, the chandelier may not be architecturally appropriate," he concedes. "But burlesque was a great part of America, too."

The lamp first illuminated the Maryland Theater, built in 1903 by local impresario James Kernan. The theater stood beside his Hotel Kernan, now the Congress Hotel, on West Franklin.

During its vaudeville days, the likes of Al Jolson and Will Rogers trod the boards before the Maryland turned to straight drama in 1927. This brought such stars as Leslie Howard and Ethel Barrymore to its stage. In 1941 it became a movie theater.

The theater was auctioned off in 1948 and demolished, according to Isabella Athey of the Maryland Historical Society. She could find no mention of the chandelier. The light next turned up in 1951 at the Capitol Hill Methodist Church in Washington, which was also later demolished. In 1964, Congress bought the chandelier for $1,500 from the demolition company, and it was hung in the Small Rotunda the following year.

Mr. White makes no bones about his disdain for the circa-1925 chandelier, which hangs in a historic area of the Capitol.

"Its size, shape, materials and style continue to serve as a major detraction from one of the Capitol's most superb interior spaces," the architect wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Senate Walter Stuart earlier this year.

His attitude has put him at odds with Mr. Simpson.

After hearing the first rumors that it was to be moved three years ago, Mr. Simpson wrote to Mr. White, saying: "I think that would be a shame . . . I often watch the tourists and visitors to the Capitol marvel over that stop on the tour. I think the public loves hearing about it . . . its history and how it came to be in that locale. People are quite dazzled by it."

The architect replied: "In light of your attachment to the chandelier, I hesitate to have to admit that removing it has been an idea of mine since I first saw it 20 years ago and asked, without knowing its origin at the time, how a movie theater chandelier came to be placed in the Capitol!"

Mr. White acknowledged that his reaction to the chandelier was a matter of "subjective judgment," but insisted that the Capitol should offer "architectural examples of the highest quality as compared with mere novelty." Somewhat grudgingly, he allowed that the Baltimore chandelier was "worthy of display" -- but not in the Capitol.

Mr. White was not available for comment.

Pursuing his campaign to replace it, Mr. White earlier this year visited the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery, which boasts just the style of chandelier he would like to see hanging in the Small Rotunda. He has now sent a photograph of that less ornate chandelier to the Rules Committee, and is awaiting approval to order a similar one.

Does that mean the Baltimore light is about to be extinguished? Bill Raines, spokesman for the architect, said: "Until it comes down and another one goes up, when you work on Capitol Hill, there is always a question."

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