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These Are the Most Threatened Historical Places in America

Smithsonian Magazine

Each is associated with a priceless moment in history — and each is uniquely threatened. CNN’s Katie Hetter reports that a new list highlights 11 historical sites in the United States deemed “most endangered” in 2015.

The list, which was issued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, covers sites all over the United States and a wide range of historical time periods and facets of history. Hetter reports that each site was nominated by both local organizations and individuals eager to spur preservation and appreciation of some of America’s most important places.

The Trust’s list has been in existence since 1988, writes Hetter, and of over 260 sites listed as endangered over the years, a mere 12 have been lost. That’s a victory for both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and for America, notes the nonprofit’s CEO, who told Hetter that the sites on the list “tell American stories that have been overlooked for too long.”

Here’s the 2015 list:

1. A.G. Gaston Motel, Birmingham, Alabama:

Image by Courtesy City of Birmingham Archives. Press event announcing a truce ending the 1963 protest marches (original image)

Image by Courtesy City of Birmingham Archives. (original image)

A gathering place and strategic haven for Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders, the motel was recently called “a deteriorating relic.”

2. Carrollton Courthouse, New Orleans, Louisiana: 

One of the most significant structures in New Orleans outside the French Quarter*, the courthouse is being prepared for auction to the highest bidder with what the Louisiana Landmarks Society calls “no safeguards in place to retain the historic building.”

3. Chautauqua Amphitheater, Chautauqua, New York: 

Image by Dick Jensen. Amphitheater during a performance. (original image)

Image by Jay A. Reeve. Exterior of amphitheater obscured by modern bleachers. (original image)

The 122-year-old venue called “The Amp” has hosted historic speeches from the likes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony and even Jane Goodall. It’s the center of a debate about whether it should be demolished.

4. East Point Historic Civic Block, East Point, Georgia: 

(original image)

An icon in East Point since the 1930s, the Civic Block consists of a library, park, auditorium and city hall. Neglected and unmaintained, the buildings’ futures remain “uncertain.”

5. Fort Worth Stockyards, Fort Worth, Texas: 

(original image)

An icon of Fort Worth, this historic district, touted as the nation’s most important cattle industry landmark, is being threatened by a $175 million development project.

6. The Grand Canyon, Arizona: 

(original image)

The spectacular canyon needs no introduction, but its pristine natural beauty is being threatened by uranium mining and other nearby developments.

7. Little Havana, Miami, Florida: 

Image by Steven Brooke Studios. (original image)

Image by Steven Brooke Studios. (original image)

Image by Steven Brooke Studios. Little Havana, Miami, Florida. (original image)

“Upzoning” and gentrification endanger the historically working-class district of Havana, which is known for its distinctive architecture and its history as an entry point for Cuban refugees in the United States.

8. Oak Flat, Superior, Arizona: 

(original image)

A sacred site for Apaches and other Native American people, Oak Flat is being occupied by protesters who object to a rider on an Arizona bill that the staff of Indian Country says “in effect gave public land containing the…[site] to a copper mining company.”

9. Old U.S. Mint, San Francisco, California: 

(original image)

Nicknamed “The Granite Lady,” the Old U.S. Mint is one of the only buildings that survived San Francisco’s catastrophic 1906 earthquake. Now, writes the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it is “shuttered, deteriorating, and at risk of being forgotten.”

10. South Street Seaport, New York, New York: 

(original image)

An icon of Manhattan’s early rise as a commercial juggernaut, the seaport is at the center of a dispute over whether it should be developed with condominiums and other modern buildings.

11. The Factory, West Hollywood, California: 

(original image)

Originally built as a camera factory, The Factory became a nightclub to the stars in the 1960s and an iconic disco with significance for gay rights and the LGBT in the 1970s. Now it’s threatened by plans to transform what Curbed’s Neal Broverman calls “greater LA’s own gay-friendly version of Studio 54” into a walkable retail and hotel district.

* An earlier version of this story stated that the Carrollton Courthouse was located in the French Quarter. It is located in the Carrollton neighborhood, outside the French Quarter. We regret the error. 

The Story of Thunder Mountain Monument

Smithsonian Magazine

There are many unusual sights in the vast emptiness along I-80 east of Reno. Steam belching from the hot spring vents near Nightingale. Miles of white gypsum sand with hundreds of messages scripted in stones and bottles. And near the exit to Imlay, a tiny town that used to be a stop for the first transcontinental railroad, an edifice of human oddness.

Thunder Mountain Monument looks as if the contents of a landfill popped to the surface and fell into a pattern over five acres that is part sculpture garden, part backyard fort, part Death Valley theme park. I discovered the monument five years ago on a road trip and have visited it every year since. Not far from the dirt parking lot—usually empty— there’s a gate through a fence made of driftwood, bedsprings, wrecked cars and rusted pieces of metal painted with garbled words about the mistreatment of Native Americans. Inside the fence, a smaller fence bristles with No Trespassing signs and surrounds a rambling three-story structure made of concrete, stone and bottles, with old typewriters, televisions, helmets, even a bunch of plastic grapes worked into the walls. Dozens of sculptures with fierce faces encircle the structure and dozens more are part of the structure itself. At the very top, a tangle of giant white loops makes the building look as if it’s crowned with bleached bones.

On my first visit to Thunder Mountain, the desert wind played a tune over the outward-facing bottles in the concrete. Some of the tumbled-down stones near the fence were within reach—big chunks of quartz and copper ore and agate, a temptation to rockhounds like me. But there was a sign declaring Thunder Mountain Monument a state of Nevada historic site and another asking visitors to refrain from vandalism. All I took was pictures.

But that stop made me curious. What were the origins of this strange outpost? The story began 40 years ago, when a World War II vet reinvented himself on this site. He had been called Frank Van Zant most of his life and had worked, at various times, as a forest ranger, sheriff, assistant Methodist pastor and museum director. He had eight children, then his wife died and, later, one of his sons committed suicide. In 1968, he showed up at his oldest son Dan’s house with a new wife and all his possessions packed into a 1946 Chevy truck and a travel trailer. He was headed east, he told Dan, and was going to build an Indian monument.

“I’m going where the Great Spirit takes me,” he said.

Van Zant had always been interested in Native American history and artifacts; gradually, that interest had become an obsession. He believed himself to be a quarter Creek Indian and took on a new name, Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain. When he arrived in Imlay, he began covering his trailer with concrete mixed with stones he’d dragged down from the mountains. Although he’d never done any sort of art before, Thunder turned out to be a whiz at sculpting wet concrete. One of his first pieces was a large, somber statue of the son who killed himself, dressed in a blue button-down shirt. Others were his Native American heroes: Sarah Winnemucca, the Paiute peacemaker; the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl; Standing Bear, a peaceful chief of the Ponca tribe who was imprisoned for leaving Indian territory without permission. Still others were of Thunder himself: one as a mighty chief wielding a lightning bolt to warn away intruders, another as a bent, humbled figure with a downcast face.

Image by Kristin Ohlson. The three-story monument began as a travel trailer, which Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain covered with concrete and stone. The outside was Thunder’s exhibition space, intended to teach visitors about Native American history. The family lived inside. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. The road that connects the monument to Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain’s hidden retreat above the valley floor. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. One of the many bottle-house constructions at Thunder Mountain monument. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. A sculpture of Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain—dejected and alone—atop one section of the monument’s many walls. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. A concrete sculpture—one of dozens at Thunder Mountain Monument-- juts up from a wall made of rusted cars. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain—formerly Frank Van Zant—had never tried to create a work of art until he settled in Nevada. There, he taught himself to sculpt wet concrete as well as design and build stone structures. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. Dan Van Zant tries to keep the monument in good repair. Inside the family’s old living room at the heart of the monument, he shines a light on his father’s “workman’s tree of life” sculpture made from old tools and metal parts. (original image)

Thunder began to attract followers—up to 40 people at the compound’s height—whom he exhorted to have a “pure and radiant heart.” Soon, there were other rooms adjoining the old travel trailer, then a second story with a patio and tiny third floor. This was the heart of the monument, an inside-out museum with the artwork and messages on the exterior and the Thunders living within. There were other buildings, too, and Thunder was the architect, the contractor and the supplier of materials. He scavenged a 60-mile area around the monument, picking up refuse and stripping wood from tumbled down buildings in ghost towns. “I’m using the white mans’ trash to build this Indian monument,” he told everyone.

But in the 1980s, fewer people lingered at Thunder Mountain and bleakness descended upon its creator. Increasingly destitute, he sold his prized collection of Native artifacts. Then an act of arson destroyed all the buildings except the monument itself, and in 1989, his wife and new passel of children moved away. At the end of that year, he wrote a goodbye letter to Dan and shot himself.

For centuries, people with an evangelical bent have built structures along roads to hook passersby with their message—from the shrines built along pilgrimage routes in Europe to the Golgotha Fun Park near Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. Thunder was unknowingly working in this tradition, welcoming tourists to see the art and hear the lecture. In the process he created what’s often referred to as a “visionary environment,” which some people view as a collection of junk and others consider a valuable folk-art installation. Leslie Umberger, curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, an institution interested in preserving such sites, says that hundreds of them have disappeared before people realized they were worth saving.

“These environments were rarely created with the intention of lasting beyond the life of the artist,” Umberger explains. “They’re often ephemeral and exposed to the elements. Sometimes people don’t understand that these places embody aspects of a region’s time and place and culture that are important and interesting.”

Years ago, Dan asked his father why he built the white loops and arches on top of the monument. “In the last days, the Great Spirit’s going to swoop down and grab this place by the handle,” Thunder replied.

But vandals and the desert might get it first. Since his father’s death, Dan’s been steadily fighting both of them. Bored local teenagers break the embedded bottles and the monument windows, which are hard to replace because they’re made from old windshields. Sculptures disappear. The fences keep out the cows—this is open range country—but other animals gnaw and burrow their way in. Winter storms tear at some of the monument’s fragile architectural flourishes. Dan tries to come once a month to work on the place and has a local man look in on it several days a week, but presevation is a tough job. He tried to give it to the state of Nevada, but officials reluctantly declined, saying they didn’t have the resources.

For now, Thunder Mountain still stands. The sculptures are as fierce as ever, the messages fainter but not subdued. When the trees on the site are bare, you can see the monument’s sinewy topknot from far away. It’s easy to imagine the Great Spirit reaching down to snatch it away. That’s the kind of thought you have in the middle of nowhere.

Alexei Leonov and Ron Evans

National Air and Space Museum
Alexi Leonov and Ron Evans, 4/15/74; watercolor of two men lying in capsule as seen from the open hatch; exterior of capsule, shown on the edges done in dark brown with two small touches of red; interior entirely done in pea green and white.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Mock Apollo Command Module

National Air and Space Museum
Watercolor painting on paper depicting Mock Apollo Command Module, 22 December 1972. The mock command module (CM) at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas occupies the majority of the space in the scene, and through the open hatch it is evident that it is fully instrumented in order to train the astronauts. The inside view of the heavy instrumentation contrasts with the smooth metal of the exterior of the CM. A computer lines the wall on the right, and the entire scene is washed in brown with some blue accents on the CM.

In March 1962, James Webb, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, suggested that artists be enlisted to document the historic effort to send the first human beings to the moon. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, was among those who applauded the idea, urging that artists be encouraged "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."

Working together, James Dean, a young artist employed by the NASA Public Affairs office, and Dr. H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, created a program that dispatched artists to NASA facilities with an invitation to paint whatever interested them. The result was an extraordinary collection of works of art proving, as one observer noted, "that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company." Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, the NASA art collection remains one of the most important elements of what has become perhaps the world's finest collection of aerospace themed art.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Interior of Docking Module

National Air and Space Museum
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project interior of docking module, 4/19/74; three technicians in beige and gray uniforms inside the module; men are set within a circular frame which is the exterior of the module; outside edges are blue and black; little red donut-like shape in between the men.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

St. Mark’s Square Walking Tour

Smithsonian Magazine

St. Mark’s Basilica dominates the square with its Byzantine-style onion domes and glowing mosaics. Mark Twain said it looked like “a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk.” To the right of the basilica is its 300-foot-tall Campanile. Between the basilica and the Campanile, you can catch a glimpse of the pale-pink Doge’s Palace. Lining the square are the former government offices (procuratie) that administered the Venetian empire’s vast network of trading outposts, which stretched all the way to Turkey.

The square is big, but it feels intimate with its cafés and dueling orchestras. By day, it’s great for people-watching and pigeon—chasing. By night, under lantern light, it transports you to another century, complete with its own romantic soundtrack. The piazza draws Indians in saris, English nobles in blue blazers, and Nebraskans in shorts. Napoleon called the piazza “the most beautiful drawing room in Europe.” Napoleon himself added to the intimacy by building the final wing, opposite the basilica, that encloses the square.

For architecture buffs, here are three centuries of styles, bam, side by side, uno-due-tre, for easy comparison:

1. On the left side (as you face the basilica) are the “Old” offices, built in about 1500 in solid, column-and-arch Renaissance style.

2. The “New” offices (on the right), in a High Renaissance style from a century later (c. 1600), are a little heavier and more ornate. This wing mixes arches, the three orders of columns from bottom to top—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—and statues in the Baroque style.

3. Napoleon’s wing is Neoclassical (c. 1800)--a return to simpler, more austere classical columns and arches. Napoleon’s architects tried to make his wing bridge the styles of the other two. But it turned out a little too high for one side and not enough for the other. Nice try.

Imagine this square full of water, with gondolas floating where people now sip cappuccinos. That happens every so often at very high tides (acqua alta), a reminder that Venice and the sea are intertwined. (Now that one’s sinking and the other is rising, they are more intertwined than ever.)

Venice became Europe’s richest city from its trade with northern Europeans, Ottoman Muslims, and Byzantine Christians. Here in St. Mark’s Square, the exact center of this East–West axis, we see both the luxury and the mix of Eastern and Western influences.

Watch out for pigeon speckle. The pigeons are not indigenous to Venice (they were imported by the Habsburgs) nor loved by the locals. In fact, Venetians love seagulls because they eat pigeons. In 2008, Venice outlawed the feeding of pigeons, so their days may be numbered. There are now fewer pigeons, but they’re still there. Vermin are a problem on this small island, where it’s said that each Venetian has two pigeons and four rats. (The rats stay hidden, except when high tides flood their homes.)

The tourist information office is nearby, in the corner of Napoleon’s wing. It’s wise to confirm your sightseeing plans here and pick up the latest list of opening hours. Behind you (southwest of the piazza), you’ll find the public WC (€1.50) and a post office with a helpful stamps-only line (usually closes at 14:00).

Now approach the basilica. If it’s hot and you’re tired, grab a shady spot at the foot of the Campanile.

St. Mark’s Basilica—Exterior

The facade is a crazy mix of East and West. There are round, Roman-style arches over the doorways, golden Byzantine mosaics, a roofline ringed with pointed French Gothic pinnacles, and Muslim-shaped onion domes (wood, covered with lead) on the roof. The brick-structure building is blanketed in marble that came from everywhere—columns from Alexandria, capitals from Sicily, and carvings from Constantinople. The columns flanking the doorways show the facade’s variety—purple, green, gray, white, yellow, some speckled, some striped horizontally, some vertically, some fluted, all topped with a variety of different capitals.

What’s amazing isn’t so much the variety as the fact that the whole thing comes together in a bizarre sort of harmony. St. Mark’s remains simply the most interesting church in Europe, a church that (paraphrasing Goethe) “can only be compared with itself.”

Facing the basilica, turn 90 degrees to the left to see...

The Clock Tower (Torre dell’Orologio)

Two bronze “Moors” (African Muslims) stand atop the Clock Tower (built originally to be giants, they only gained their ethnicity when the metal darkened over the centuries). At the top of each hour they swing their giant clappers. The clock dial shows the 24 hours, the signs of the zodiac, and, in the blue center, the phases of the moon. Above the dial is the world’s first digital clock, which changes every five minutes. The Clock Tower retains some of its original coloring of blue and gold, a reminder that, in centuries past, this city glowed with bright color.

An alert winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark and the city, looks down on the crowded square. He opens a book that reads “Pax Tibi Marce,” or “Peace to you, Mark.” As legend goes, these were the comforting words that an angel spoke to the stressed evangelist, assuring him he would find serenity during a stormy night that the saint spent here on the island. Eventually, St. Mark’s body found its final resting place inside the basilica, and now his lion symbol is everywhere. (Find four in 20 seconds. Go.)

Venice’s many lions express the city’s various mood swings through history—triumphant after a naval victory, sad when a favorite son has died, hollow-eyed after a plague, and smiling when the soccer team wins. The pair of lions squatting between the Clock Tower and basilica have probably been photographed being ridden by every Venetian child born since the dawn of cameras.

The Campanile

The original Campanile (cam-pah-NEE-lay), or bell tower, was a lighthouse and a marvel of 10th-century architecture until the 20th century (1902), when it toppled into the center of the piazza. It had groaned ominously the night before, sending people scurrying from the cafés. The next morning...crash! The golden angel on top landed right at the basilica’s front door, standing up.

The Campanile was rebuilt 10 years later complete with its golden angel, which always faces the breeze. You can ride a lift to the top for the best view of Venice. It’s crowded at peak times, but well worth it.

You may see construction work around the Campanile’s base. Hoping to prevent a repeat of the 1902 collapse, they’ve wrapped the underground foundations with a titanium girdle to shore up a crack that appeared in 1939.

Because St. Mark’s Square is the first place in town to start flooding, there are tide gauges at the outside base of the Campanile (near the exit, facing St. Mark’s Square) that show the current sea level (livello marea). Find the stone plaque (near the exit door) that commemorates the high-water 77-inch level from the disastrous floods of 1966. In December 2008, Venice suffered another terrible high tide, cresting at 61 inches.

If the tide is mild (around 20 inches), the water merely seeps up through the drains. But when there’s a strong tide (around 40 inches), it looks like someone’s turned on a faucet down below. The water bubbles upward and flows like a river to the lowest points in the square, which can be covered with a few inches of water in an hour or so. When the water level rises one meter above mean sea level, a warning siren sounds, and it repeats if a serious flood is imminent.

Many doorways have three-foot-high wooden or metal barriers to block the high water (acqua alta), but the seawater still seeps in through floors and drains, rendering the barriers nearly useless.

You might see stacked wooden benches in the square; during floods, the benches are placed end-to-end to create elevated sidewalks. If you think the square is crowded now, when it’s flooded it turns into total gridlock, as all the people normally sharing the whole square jostle for space on these narrow wooden walkways.

In 2006, the pavement around St. Mark’s Square was taken up, and the entire height of the square was raised by adding a layer of sand, and then replacing the stones. If the columns along the ground floor of the Doge’s Palace look stubby, it’s because this process has been carried out many times over the centuries.

The small square between the basilica and the water is...

The Piazzetta

This “Little Square” is framed by the Doge’s Palace on the left, the library on the right, and the waterfront of the lagoon. In former days, the Piazzetta was closed to the public for a few hours a day so that government -officials and bigwigs could gather in the sun to strike shady deals.

The pale-pink Doge’s Palace is the epitome of the style known as Venetian Gothic. Columns support traditional, pointed Gothic arches, but with a Venetian flair—they’re curved to a point, ornamented with a trefoil (three-leaf clover), and topped with a round medallion of a quatrefoil (four-leaf clover). The pattern is found on buildings all over Venice and on the formerly Venetian-controlled Croatian coast, but nowhere else in the world (except Las Vegas).

The two large 12th-century columns near the water were looted from Constantinople. Mark’s winged lion sits on top of one. The lion’s body (nearly 15 feet long) predates the wings and is more than 2,000 years old. The other column holds St. Theodore (battling a crocodile), the former patron saint who was replaced by Mark. I guess stabbing crocs in the back isn’t classy enough for an upwardly mobile world power. Criminals were executed by being hung from these columns in the hopes that the public could learn its lessons vicariously.

Venice was the “Bride of the Sea” because she depended on sea trading for her livelihood. This “marriage” was celebrated annually by the people. The doge, in full regalia, boarded a ritual boat (his Air Force One equivalent) here at the edge of the Piazzetta and sailed out into the lagoon. There a vow was made, and he dropped a jeweled ring into the water to seal the marriage.

In the distance, on an island across the lagoon, is one of the grandest scenes in the city, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. With its four tall columns as the entryway, the church, designed by the late-Renaissance architect Andrea Palla-dio, influenced future government and bank buildings around the world.

Speaking of architects, I will: Sansovino. Around 1530, Jacopo Sansovino designed the library (here in the Piazzetta) and the delicate Loggetta at the base of the Campanile; it was destroyed by the collapse of the tower in 1902 and was pieced back together as much as possible.

The Tetrarchs and the Doge’s Palace’s Seventh Column

Where the basilica meets the Doge’s Palace is the traditional entrance to the palace, decorated with four small Roman statues—the Tetrarchs. No one knows for sure who they are, but I like the legend that says they’re the scared leaders of a divided Rome during its fall—holding- their swords and each other as all hell breaks loose around them. Whatever the legend, these statues—made of precious purple porphyry stone—are symbols of power. They were looted from Constantinople and then placed here proudly as spoils of war. How old are they? They’ve guarded the palace entrance since the city first rose from the mud.

The Doge’s Palace’s seventh column (the seventh from the water) tells a story of love, romance, and tragedy in its carved capital: 1) In the first scene (the carving facing the Piazzetta), a woman on a balcony is wooed by her lover, who says, “Babe, I want you!” 2) She responds, “Why, little ol’ me?” 3) They get married. 4) Kiss. 5) Hit the sack—pretty racy for 14th-century art. 6) Nine months later, guess what? 7) The baby takes its first steps. 8) And as was all too common in the 1300s...the child dies.

The pillars along the Doge’s Palace look short—a result of the square being built up over the centuries. It’s happening again today. The stones are taken up, sand is added, and the stones are replaced, buying a little more time as the sea slowly swallows the city.

At the waterfront in the Piazzetta, turn left and walk (east) along the water. At the top of the first bridge, look inland at...

The Bridge of Sighs

In the Doge’s Palace (on your left), the government doled out justice. On your right are the prisons. (Don’t let the palatial facade fool you—see the bars on the windows?) Prisoners sentenced in the palace crossed to the prisons by way of the covered bridge in front of you. This was called the Prisons’ Bridge until the Romantic poet Lord Byron renamed it in the 19th century. From this bridge, the convicted got their final view of sunny, joyous Venice before entering the black and dank prisons. According to the Romantic legend, they sighed. As you will, too, when you see the scaffolding.

Venice has been a major tourist center for four centuries. Anyone who’s ever come here has stood on this very spot, looking at the Bridge of Sighs. Lean on the railing leaned on by everyone from Casanova to Byron to Hemingway.

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
a palace and a prison on each hand.
I saw, from out the wave, her structures rise,
as from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand.
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
around me, and a dying glory smiles
o’er the far times, when many a subject land
looked to the Winged Lion’s marble piles,
where Venice sat in state, throned on her hundred isles!
• from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
• Sigh.

For more details, please see Rick Steves’ Venice.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

In a New Film, Master Artisans Share Their Passion for the Labors They Love

Smithsonian Magazine

“You’re always learning, always refining your skills. You never stop accumulating a more intimate understanding of your craft.” —Dieter Goldkuhle, stained glass artisan (1937-2011)

They use trowels and tongs, buckets and brushes, vices and pliers. They set blocks of limestone and carve rows of Roman letters and solder strips of lead and hammer pieces of hot metal. They are masons and metalworkers, plasterers and painters, carvers and adobe workers, and the filmmakers’ cameras followed them—all vital links between the past and the future, keepers of the building arts, masters of their craft.

They build. They adorn. They preserve. They restore.

And they do good work.

Image by Paul Wagner. Hispanic adobe craftsman Albert Parra from Albuquerque, New Mexico. (original image)

Image by Paul Wagner. Albert Parra works to re-plaster the adobe walls of the 300-year-old morada, a chapter house of the Penitente community, in Abiquiu, New Mexico. (original image)

Image by Paul Wagner. Los Hermanos and Good Work film crew in front of the morada in Abiquiu. (original image)

These artisans and their crafts are the subject of Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts, an hour-long documentary produced and directed by Marjorie Hunt, folklorist with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Paul Wagner, an independent filmmaker.

Hunt and Wagner’s previous collaboration, the 1984 documentary The Stone Carvers, won both an Academy and an Emmy award for its account of the Italian-American stone carvers whose decades-long work adorns the National Washington Cathedral. This month Good Work makes its national debut, airing on local PBS stations and streaming on the PBS website. The film, Hunt says, is an “inspirational call to craft. This is dignified and important and satisfying work, and I hope the film can help people see that.”

Seventeen years in the making, Good Work has its roots in the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where Hunt and her colleagues gathered artisans, including those featured in her film, for a ten-day program, “Masters of the Building Arts.” Over the course of the festival, Hunt observed the audience: “I saw this increase in understanding, this appreciation for the artisans’ skill and knowledge, this realization that these people weren’t just practicing their trade as a default or a Plan B because they had been unable to go to college. These craftspeople—their quest for mastery, their desire to excel, their intimate knowledge of the material, their deep connection with fellow craftspeople—were passionate about their work, about using their minds and their hands to make something that is lasting.”

Image by John Canning & Company. John Canning and his daughter Jacqueline Canning-Riccio paint stencil patterns for Trinity Church in Boston. (original image)

Image by John Canning & Company. Decorative painter Jacqueline Canning-Riccio gilding horses for the San Francisco Opera House. Photo courtesy John Canning & Co. (original image)

Image by John Canning & Company. John Canning worked on the restoration of Grand Central Terminal in New York City. (original image)

Image by John Canning & Company. Decorative painter John Canning and his team of artisans at John Canning & Company worked on the restoration of the renowned John La Farge murals at historic Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston. Photo courtesy John Canning & Company (original image)

The film’s series of six-minute profiles documents the artisans as they go about their work and as they pause to reflect on the passions and processes and traditions of their trades: John Canning and daughter Jacqueline Canning-Riccio are preserving the John La Farge murals on the ceiling of Trinity Church in Boston; Patrick Cardine is hammering and bending a bar of hot metal in his Virginia studio; Albert Parra and his fellow workers are participating in an annual rite—the refurbishing of the adobe exterior on a 300-year-old morado in New Mexico.

In a bittersweet turn, the film memorializes two of the craftsmen—Earl Barthé and Dieter Goldkuhle—who passed away before the film was completed. In New Orleans, Earl Barthé, a fifth-generation Creole of color plasterer, is restoring the decorative plasterwork of an historic home in New Orleans.

On a jaunt to the French Quarter, Barthé and his grandson Jamie visit St. Louis Cathedral, where Barthé and his brother, like their father and grandfather before them, can claim as their own a portion of the building’s history. Seated in a pew, Barthé waves his arm and draws Jamie’s attention upward, musing about visitors who might have gazed at the glorious vaulted ceilings: “They look so beautiful! I wonder did they ever stop to think, ‘Who done that work?’ Somebody—some plasterer—done that work.” Up there lingers the legacy of Barthé and his ancestors.

Image by Nick Spitzer. Fifth generation Earl Barthé shows off an ornamental plaster medallion. (original image)

Image by Paul Wagner. Master plasterer Earl Barthé gestures to his grandson Jamie at some of the plastering restoration work that their family has done in New Orleans over the generations. (original image)

Image by Tom Pich. Earl Barthé, a fifth-generation plasterer, poses in front of one of the many buildings he restored in New Orleans. (original image)

That legacy of excellence, often unseen, unnoticed, unrecognized, has something to do with the soul of a building. By way of example, preservation architect Jean Carroon, who supervised the restoration of Trinity Church, cites a series of 12 intricate paintings by La Farge—a portion of the Cannings’ restoration work for the church. The paintings, 120 feet above floor level, are virtually lost to view. At the National Building Museum recently for a screening of Good Work and a panel discussion, Carroon observed, “Nobody can see the paintings, but somehow, the fact that they are there is part of what makes the space resonate so much. You feel how many hands have touched that space, how much love and care have gone into it.”

Surely, the late Dieter Goldkuhle, a stained-glass artisan who created more than 100 windows for the Washington National Cathedral, understood that setting aside ego, even in the impossible pursuit of perfection, is part of the ethos of craft. Good Work captures Goldkuhle at the Cathedral, where he is removing an early and now buckling stained-glass window, and in his studio, where he places a large sheet of white paper over the window, rubbing a pencil across the lead ridges, to create a record—a key for later reassembly of the glass pieces, when Goldkuhle secures the piece of glass on the panel with channels of bendable lead.

Image by Donovan Marks, courtesy Washington National Cathedral. Stained glass artisan Dieter Goldkuhle installs a window at Washington National Cathedral. (original image)

Image by Colin Winterbottom, courtesy Washington National Cathedral. The magnificent west rose window at Washington National Cathedral was fabricated and installed by Dieter Goldkuhle. Over his long career, Goldkuhle crafted more than 100 windows for the Cathedral. (original image)

“I do not design my own work,” he says in the film. “I have been quite content with working with a number of artists in a collaborative effort to be, somehow, the midwife to the window, comparable to what a builder is to an architect, a musician to a composer. I feel, also, that I am married to the material, which I just adore and have the greatest respect for.”

The film also highlights the work of Nick Benson, stone carver, calligrapher, designer and 2010 MacArthur Fellow. Viewers meet Benson both in his Newport, Rhode Island, studio, the John Stevens Shop, and in Washington, DC, on the then-construction site of the National World War II Memorial. At the busy site, Benson—wearing a hard hat, open-fingered gloves and protective goggles—guides his power chisel through the granite, forming the shallow trenches and sharp edges of a single letter. Later, he fills the pristine cuts with black ink, taking care to stop shy of each edge, lest the ink bleed beyond the confines of the letter. But in the end, it is the content of the inscription that the letters serve, however fine the hand-wrought aesthetic and humanity of his work may be. “That’s the funny thing about good lettering—they don’t even see it,” Benson says of visitors to this or any monument. “They don’t understand it. They take it all for granted. So, my job is to make something that people take for granted because it works so beautifully they don’t even think twice about it.”

Image by Richard Latoff, courtesy World War II Memorial. Nick Benson (right) designed and carved the inscriptions for the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (original image)

Image by Paul Wagner. Nick Benson staining letters at the National World War II Memorial. (original image)

Image by Nick Benson. An alphabet stone designed and carved by Nick Benson. (original image)

Benson, the son and grandson of renowned stone carvers whose work adorns the U.S. Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial, the National Gallery of Art and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, grew up steeped in the craft, carving letters on gravestones when he was a teenager.

“You spend years learning just how far to push the material before you get into serious trouble,” he said in a recent interview. “That skill that is established before you are ever allowed to carve on anything of any value.” But the time came when Benson, aged 18, found himself at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where his father was working on a project in the West Building’s Rotunda. Ushered onto a hydraulic lift, Benson found himself aloft, facing a wall, his father instructing him to carve one of the headings for the growing list of museum trustees.

“That’s 120-year-old Indiana buff limestone that doesn’t exist anymore. There I am, about to sink a chisel into this wall. I was petrified.” But once he started carving, the fear subsided. Benson’s father—“he had a preserve joy in throwing me into the deep end of the pool”—knew that his son was ready. And now, more than 30 years later, Benson regularly returns to the National Gallery to add inscriptions to that trustees wall. Does he check on that early work? “Sometimes, I’ll go all the way to the top and see how it looks.”

Image by Colin Winterbottom, courtesy Washington National Cathedral. Joe Alonso and stone carvers Sean Callahan (left) and Andy Uhl continue repairs at the National Cathedral following the 2011 earthquake in Washington, D.C. (original image)

Image by Colin Winterbottom, courtesy Washington National Cathedral. Joe Alonso repairs earthquake damaged sections of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (original image)

The filmmakers’ cameras followed Joe Alonso, master mason, to the Cathedral, where he has worked since 1985. Alonso is setting a block of limestone, which dangles from a nearby chain hoist. With a few swift strokes of his bucket trowel, Alonso spreads a bed of mortar atop an already-set block, “fluffing” the paste to create low ridges and troughs that will hold a light sprinkling of water. He buries little lead “buttons” in the mortar, a trick of the trade that will preserve a quarter-inch joint between the layers of blocks. Lowering the block onto the mortar bed and checking its alignment with a level, Alonso delivers a few quick strikes with his rawhide-tipped mallet. Done. “On a hot day,” he says, “you’ve probably got about two minutes to get that stone where you want it.”

Image by Paul Wagner. Blacksmith Patrick Cardine of Bealeton, Virginia, with a hand-forged decorative grille (original image)

Image by Patrick Cardine. Patrick Cardine hammers a scroll on his anvil. (original image)

Like Benson, himself a third-generation stone carver, Alonso, the son of a Spanish-born mason, straddles the workaday present and the still-living past, keenly aware of the men, the teachers, now gone, who cut and carved and set so many of the blocks—by today’s count, some 150,000 tons of stone—one by one, forming the Gothic structure—its nave, its apse, its transepts, its towers, its buttresses. In his early years at the Cathedral, working on the construction of the west towers, Alonso would look eastward, along the roofline of the completed nave, and sense the presence of his predecessors: “I was always aware that all those guys who had come before me were right there, in spirit, watching me,” he said, in a recent interview. “I thought that—I really did.”

That intimate connection with the past helps define “good work.” “When you work on a cathedral or a monumental building, you know there were generations before you working on that same structure, so ‘good work’ means being as good as those who came before you—trying to do as well as they did, because they passed their knowledge on to you.”

The masters featured in Good Work form an elite group. Few can do what they do. But, as Paul Wagner, Hunt’s partner in the project, suggests, their work ethic can be our work ethic. “If only all of us could bring their level of care, attention, respect, integrity, honesty and beauty to what we do,” Wagner says. “The film is a lesson in how we can approach work in our own lives.”

Q&A with Director John Gray: Welcoming a new museum to the National Mall

National Museum of American History

Our next door neighbor, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opens on September 24, 2016, and our whole staff is abuzz. I sat down with Elizabeth MacMillan Director John Gray to discuss this exciting moment in American history as well as what's ahead for this museum when a new wing opens in summer 2017.

an exterior shot of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on a sunny day with a blue sky with clouds. The photo is taken far away from the building so you can see sidewalks, grass and a short wall. The building has three levels of metal walls that are stacked on each other.

We recently partnered with two other museums to present Many Lenses, a digital experience that explores objects from different perspectives. Can you tell me more about this collaborative project?

American history is infinitely interesting and complex because of the differing views and associations we have with objects, from the seemingly mundane to the most dramatic national symbols. The purpose of "Many Lenses" was to look at the same object, the same idea, in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian. We tried to find and illuminate the different perspectives, relationships, and connections around objects, and I think we've done that.

It's essential for the Smithsonian to talk about one American story that is inclusive and complex. We have multiple lenses or views, but it's still one story. Many Lenses is a clear demonstration of that basic belief that we live in one America with differing experiences and perceptions but ultimately share the same American experience.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opens on September 24. I hear that you've taken a preview tour. Can you tell us what caught your eye?

When I was there, I saw a stunning object from the "Many Lenses" project in person—the 1968 mural from Resurrection City, USA. Its scale and its impact are so dramatic, and you can really hear the multiplicity of voices that are painted on it. Standing in front of the real object, I experienced something very different than what I saw on the Many Lenses website. I was so struck by how it frames the much larger story of the 1960s and the way in which some of us lived in the '60s or fantasize about the '60s.

The experience of seeing the mural online and in person will help visitors to NMAAHC understand the deeper meanings underpinning such a complex object as well as the spirit of the movement taking place around it.

The abolitionist tea seat that our curator Fath Davis Ruffins writes about on "Many Lenses" is another wonderful example of how you can look at an object through cultural, personal, economic, and so many other lenses. You'd normally make an assumption about what a fancy tea set means in a museum and you might be bored with that assumption because it doesn't interest you. But all you have to do is go one layer down and you'll see there's this incredible story, symbolism, and message in how a family used this tea set in their everyday lives. That's a potent object.

What else stood out to you in your exploration of NMAAHC?

The architecture and exhibition design work in concert to create an extraordinary emotional and experiential setting for visitors. Another highlight are the beautiful, profound, and sometimes agonizing quotes inscribed on the walls of the building. You can't help but be hugely moved, and then reflective in your response, and then so aware of how far we have come as a society, with yet so much more to do. This museum presents some of the most difficult subjects for America in a way that's honest, straightforward, painful, and at the same time you feel connected to the very ideas of American history.

What will be different once NMAAHC opens?

What's important is that the American story is presented through the experience and the histories of African Americans in America. And that really focuses our understanding of history in new ways from any other place on the National Mall.

The visibility of that story on the Mall is significant to all Americans. We hope that there's an increased level of visitation to Washington to see NMAAHC and that the experience people have going to that museum spills over to the rest of the Smithsonian museums, as where they can explore many facets of the American story. And likewise, people who come to this museum will also go over to NMAAHC. Visitors' experiences will be more complicated, richer, and much more expansive than they would be without that museum.

A photo from the museum of the installed portion of the counter from the Greensboro diner. It includes the countertop, four chairs, and part of the back wall with a mirror on it.

One thing the two museums have in common is that we both share the story of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter where students and community members in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged sit-ins and boycotts for six months in 1960. What will be different about the ways the two museums highlight that story?

One of the most exciting things I saw during my time at NMAAHC was the high tech interactive display they've built to bring the story of the lunch counter to life. You can sit at a counter and have a profound media experience about the actual sit-in and ask questions and learn.

But the authentic counter itself remains at this museum. Soon, we'll be moving it to another location on the second floor where we will frame this national treasure in a new way and offer immersive, in-person programs to help our audiences understand its powerful history and meanings. So between the interactive component at NMAAHC and the original lunch counter here, we really can explore the role of civil rights in America through many different entry points.

Beyoncé is said to be planning to launch a television channel that will air documentaries on American history. The Get Down about the history of hip-hop is a very popular series on Netflix. Ben-Hur is in theaters right now. History appears to be cool again. How is the museum working to share American history with our audiences in a way that connects with where they are now?

The approach for our West Wing is one of making history engaging, really experiential, and deeply moving for visitors. People are interested in things that they relate to or that make a difference in their own lives. The subjects, topics, points of view that will be expressed in the new galleries on our second floor, which opens in summer 2017, will make a difference in the lives of many people. I think that's the point.

You've been very enthusiastic about encouraging your staff to use our collections and expertise to make the world a more humane place. And part of that is responding to current events. What are relevant topics you'd like to see museum draw connections to and help people to understand?

There's no doubt that this election season in America is dealing with one key subject: what does it mean to be American? Inherent in that question is: how do you act as an American, what do you think as an American, what do you believe in as an American? Our focus on the ideals and ideas of America throughout the museum directly relate to the exact discussions and topics of today. We argue that understanding where you came from and where you want to go informs the debate enormously, helping our audiences construct a future that is more humane.

One of the best things for us to learn about democracy is that those who participate in the democracy triumph. When we open our new floor in summer 2017, our goal is to help our visitors realize how important their participation is in American Democracy. Whether it's at the ballot box or their protesting, supporting, petitioning, volunteering, donating—it counts. We're inspiring our audiences to engage with and to determine what it means to be American.

In our exhibition Democracy: The Great Leap of Faith, visitors will see a range of objects from past elections. Every candidate has had to engage the public, win them over, and encourage them to vote—and the techniques of the past are fascinating to compare with the strategies of today. In Many Voices, One Nation, visitors will see how many different communities negotiated a way to come together. That profound experience of negotiating together-ness, which is totally American, has been so successful for so long. To ensure a more humane future, every American needs to actively participate and contribute to building our society.

In the first floor lobby, cutout figures stand amid voting machines carrying candidate signs over their heads for the 2016 election

In the first floor lobby, cutout figures stand amid voting machines carrying candidate signs over their heads for the 2016 election

Secretary David J. Skorton has encouraged us to advance the Smithsonian's mission in new ways. He recently wrote to the Smithsonian staff that, "To broaden our reach and create visibility, I think we can and should take a more prominent role in convening discussions important to people, even when these reveal differences. Climate change. Cutting-edge art. Evolution. Cultural concerns and ethnicity." Can you talk about how you see us doing that at this museum?

We very much appreciate that the Secretary sees the Smithsonian as a contemporary, active institution that has an impact on people today. We work very hard to make sure our visitors' experiences in this museum are far from dry or dusty—and that we address topics important to people today. For example in American Enterprise our exhibition on the history of American business, we talk about the role of slavery in the development of the nation from an economic and property perspective. This results in a more complicated, realistic, and deeply painful understanding of the role of slavery in the nation. That discussion has been so important. As we continue our project on Latinos in Baseball, it raises all the questions and many answers about how people create an identity around being an American. And so framing these questions to be open, inviting, and interesting will generate not only much more discussion but also a higher level of understanding and compassion among all of the citizens.

If you go to the first-floor Constitution Avenue lobby today, you'll see the Hooray for Politics display with Clinton and Trump campaign signs set within a display of historic election booths. You can see visitors standing there and talking about the current campaign as well as reflecting on past campaigns and the role of voting. Here's an example of an exhibition that truly comes alive through the discussions the visitors bring with them.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. She recently helped create a Facebook Live video about some of the interesting objects in NMAAHC's Cultural Expressions gallery, a great opportunity to learn about African American foodways. 

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - 08:00
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Visit These Ten Sites Celebrating Major Anniversaries in 2017

Smithsonian Magazine

From Europe to Africa to North America, 2017 is a year full of spectacular anniversaries – and plenty of travel opportunities. Jane Austen lovers can revel in the 200th anniversary of her birth, hikers can wind their way through Denali National Park and history buffs can visit Germany to honor Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses.

Founding of Denali National Park & Preserve – 100 Years

Image by sarkophoto / iStock. Denali Mountain reflected in Wonder Lake, Alaska (original image)

Image by evenfh / iStock. Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska (original image)

Image by zzvision / iStock. Mount McKinley (original image)

As recently as 2016, the mountain towering over the park’s 6 million acres was named Mount McKinley, after the American president whose popularity soared following his assassination in 1901. Assisted by the Boone and Crocket Club (a hunting and conservation league), naturalist Charles Sheldon lobbied Congress to establish it as a national park, fulfilling his goal in 1917, when Congress established the park and named it for McKinley. But in 1980, in a compromise arrived at by Congress, the park changed its name to Denali National Park, after the native Athabascan name for the mountain, while the mountain remained McKinley. In 2015, President Obama visited the country’s tallest mountain to officially declare the mountain would return to its indigenous designation of Denali.

Despite the winter season, the Park Service is hosting birthday festivities this February that will include snowshoe walks, skiing, ranger-led bike rides, and the Human Hundred Centennial Challenge (which requires logging 100 human-powered miles across the terrain, be it on foot, ski, sled or by bike). 

The Virgin Islands Become Part of the U.S.– 100 Years

Image by cdwheatley / iStock. Carambola Beach, St.Croix (original image)

Image by Starcevic / iStock. Caribbean colonial architecture in St. Thomas (original image)

Image by Mirrorimage-NL / iStock. The Battery in St. John (original image)

This year is the 100th anniversary of the transfer of the islands of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas from Denmark to the United States for $25 million. Plans for purchasing the islands began in 1867, with Secretary of State William Henry Seward hoping to extend U.S. territory and influence through peaceful means. But it wasn’t until after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1917 that the islands became truly important to U.S. foreign policy. At that point, the government, fearing the German annexation of Denmark could lead to Germany using the Danish West Indies as a naval base, opened negotiations to purchase the islands from the Scandinavian nation.

Located about 40 miles from Puerto Rico, the islands offer innumerable opportunities for exploring the natural world and the history of the Caribbean. Visitors can snorkel Hurricane Hole off St. John, a vibrant coral reef filled with a rare abundance of species, or stop by the Whim Plantation Museum on St. Croix to see an authentic Dutch sugar estate from the 1700s. To make the journey even more enticing, the U.S. Virgin Islands Centennial Commemoration is offering $300 in spending credits for anyone who comes to one of the three islands for three nights or more, books their travel before October 1, 2017, and stays at a participating hotel.

Ghana’s Independence – 60 Years

Image by demerzel21 / iStock. Elmina Castle World Heritage Site, History of Slavery (original image)

Image by EunikaSopotnicka / iStock. Nkrumah Memorial Park, Accra, Ghana (original image)

Image by mtcurado / iStock. Market day on the creek in Ghana, Elmina (original image)

After decades of colonial rule, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African nation to throw off its European imperialists and declare independence on March 6, 1957. The independence movement was led by Kwame Nkrumah, who fought for sovereignty throughout Africa, saying “Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.” Although Ghana dealt with corruption and economic mismanagement early in its history, it has since recovered and become a model of political reform. Celebrate Ghana’s independence with chichinga beef kabob while listening to horn and guitar infused Highlife music. To learn more about Ghana’s history and connection to the Atlantic slave trade, visit the slave castles that once served as fortified trading posts and later shifted to holding slaves.

Celebrations commemorating the anniversary will be held in the capital city of Accra, where an annual Independence Day Parade will be held on March 6.

Jane Austen’s Death – 200 Years

Image by Sunnybeach / iStock. Entrance to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, United Kingdom (original image)

Image by AmandaLewis / iStock. Jane Austen's House (original image)

Image by Wikimedia Commons. Inscription on Jane Austen's House (original image)

Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley—Jane Austen has given the world some of its most memorable romantic entanglements. Though Austen never married, she created a world populated with love and longing and social blunders. Her stories have played a role in the public consciousness ever since.

To recapture some of her magic, there will be celebrations all across England. A Grand Jane Austen Ball near Winchester, multiple live performances in Hampshire, Jane Austen Study Day at the British Library and plenty of events at Jane Austen’s House Museum. And if you’re lucky, the Jane-embossed British 5 pound note, which is worth nearly $25,000.

Canada’s Independence – 150 Years

Image by Murphy_Shewchuk / iStock. Norse sod hut at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland (original image)

Image by lightphoto / iStock. 'Anse Aux Meadows Viking Settlement (original image)

Image by Barbara Vallance / iStock. The plaque explaining the timeline and historical significance of the L'anse aux Meadows site in Newfoundland, Canada, by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. (original image)

America’s neighbor to the north is celebrating a big anniversary in 2017: the 150th year of independence. Home to indigenous people for thousands of years, the country was first colonized by Vikings from Iceland at l’Anse aux Meadows on the island of Newfoundland. Several hundred years later, John Cabot’s 1497 expedition resulted in the first map of Canada’s east coast. In the following years, the nation was tugged between Britain and France, as its modern multilingual regions prove. As the country evolved and grew, the movement for a Canadian federation arose alongside the desire for a national railroad system and a solution to the conflict between French and British factions. Canada Day marks the occasion of three provinces becoming one country. On July 1, 1867, the Constitution Act united Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Canada province (including Ontario and Quebec). In the following decade, the country acquired the provinces of Manitoba and Prince Edward Island as well as the possessions of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary, all national parks will be free and open to the public, and there will be numerous celebrations throughout the year, from National Aboriginal Day (celebrating indigenous people with concerts and powwows) to Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (which celebrates French heritage in the province of Quebec). Travelers can also visit the historic tall ships that will be visiting 30 Canadian ports over the summer.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses – 500 Years

Image by typo-graphics / iStock. Church Reformer Martin Luther (original image)

Image by LiliGraphie / iStock. Market square in Wittenberg Monument of Martin Luther (original image)

Image by wayra / iStock. Wittenberg, Castle and Tower of All Saints Church (original image)

For the first decades of his life, Martin Luther was no more than an anonymous monk. But in 1517, after years of disagreeing with the practice of indulgences (in which parishioners could pay for their sins to be absolved without doing penance), he wrote a text that would profoundly shake and reshape religious tradition for the next 500 years. Luther’s 95 Theses criticized the Catholic Church, proclaimed the Bible as the central religious authority and claimed Christians could achieve salvation through their faith. His theses spurred the evolution of Protestantism, fracturing what had once been the central faith of Europe.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther finishing his theses in Wittenberg, travel across Germany to learn about the age of Reformation. From museum exhibitions to church services, there are dozens of options for exploring Luther’s life and the impact of his teachings.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – 125 Years 

Image by itchySan / iStock. Sherlock Holmes museum (original image)

Image by itchySan / iStock. Sherlock Holmes' address sign, 221 B Baker Street, London. (original image)

Image by LiubovTerletska / iStock. The Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street (original image)

For fans of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Britain’s preeminent detective, there’s reason to celebrate: 2017 marks the 125th year of the publishing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was a doctor by training, and wrote his Sherlock Holmes mysteries in his spare time, inspired by authors like Edgar Allan Poe. In addition to his medical and literary work, he also traveled as a ship’s surgeon on a whaling boat in the Arctic Circle and later to Africa. Eventually, after a virulent flu nearly killed him, Conan Doyle abandoned his medical career to focus solely on his writing.

Celebrate the mystery of the famed author’s creation with a Sherlock Holmes Anniversary Tour around London, go on a multi-day tour around England, or visit the Museum of London for a dedicated exhibition this fall. You can also revisit the original stories online.

Marie Curie’s Birth – 150 Years

Image by Wikimedia Commons. An exhibition at the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum in Warsaw (original image)

Image by Wikimedia Commons. Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum in Warsaw (original image)

Image by fotokon / iStock. Birthplace of Marie Sklodowska-Curie on Freta Street in Warsaw (original image)

Marie Curie was a woman of firsts. The first woman in Europe to receive a doctorate of science, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for physics with her husband and Henri Becquerel (for the discovery of radioactivity) and the first—and so far only—person to win a Nobel Prize in a second science (chemistry). Sadly, her work on radioactivity was also what ultimately ended her life.

Curie’s is a life well worth celebrating and 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of her birth. The Museum of Marie Sklodowska-Curie in Poland (where she was born) will feature a new exhibit in honor of her birth, and the Musée Curie in France (where she worked) offers several anniversary exhibits throughout the year.

Langston Hughes’s Death – 50 Years

Image by Elvert Barnes / Flickr. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (original image)

Image by Wikimedia Commons. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (original image)

Image by Wikimedia Commons. Langston Hughes house at 20 East 127th on National Register of Historic Places in New York City (original image)

Poet, novelist, jazz aficionado and one of the leading members of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes died 50 years ago this year. He wrote extensively about black life in America. Inspired by the likes of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, Hughes worked to give an honest perspective of life for African-Americans, which earned him a fair amount of criticism from other writers. But he was also an inspiration, and as Du Bose Heyward wrote in 1926, when Hughes was only 24, “always intensely subjective, passionate, keenly sensitive to beauty and possessed of an unfaltering musical sense.”

To celebrate his life, you can stroll by the poet’s Harlem home, where he lived for the last 20 years of his life and which reflects his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. It was saved from gentrification in 2016 and is now being turned into a cultural center. You can also visit the National Museum of African American History And Culture in Washington, D.C. to see the massive display of Hughes’s poem “I, Too” on the wall of the new museum.

Finland’s Independence – 100 Years

Image by Ojimorena / iStock. People skating on the rink on The Helsinki Icepark at the Railway Station Square (original image)

Image by Jekurantodistaja / iStock. People watching Candy House light art installation by Sun Effects collective displayed on the exterior of Ateneum Art Museum at the Lux Helsinki light arts festival (original image)

Image by Jekurantodistaja / iStock. Helsinki Samba Carnaval in Helsinki, Finland (original image)

Beginning as early as 1155, Finland slowly fell under the dominion of Sweden, the regional power. Despite hundreds of years of living under Swedish rule, the ethnic Finns maintained their language and gradually developed their own culture beyond that of more general Nordic culture, including music produced by the ancient string instrument called the kantele and their smoke saunas. In the beginning of the 19th century, Finland came under Russian control as a spoil of war between Sweden and Russia, becoming an autonomous Grand Duchy, which meant Finns had a role in governance but the Russian emperor in St. Petersburg was ultimately the highest ruler. But after more than 100 years under Russia, the country sought its independence. In 1917, taking advantage of the Russian Revolution, the Finnish Parliament approved a declaration of independence, resulting in a civil war and ultimately the establishment of the Finnish republic.  

To celebrate 100 years of the country’s independence, Finland will be hosting events across the country and throughout the year. There will be concerts, ice skating tours and art exhibits from the artist cooperative ONOMA

The World’s Most-Visited Castles and Palaces

Smithsonian Magazine

Imagine a castle: it probably looks a lot like Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle, the turreted inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Each year, more than 1.5 million travelers are inspired to make the steep walk or catch a horse-drawn carriage to reach this castle perched on a rocky outcropping in the Bavarian countryside.

"People have always been interested in celebrities and powerful people and their homes," says Cordula Mauss, PR officer for the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces. "Immediately after the death of Ludwig II in 1886, the first tourists came and wanted to see what their king had built as his private residence."

While castles, palaces and châteaux naturally pique such curiosity, not all have Neuschwanstein's European fairy-tale looks. Some of the world's most-visited castles, found across Asia, feature red exteriors, pagodas and gates.

Consider Bangkok's gold-spired Grand Palace, where Thai kings lived for 150 years, and where 8 million annual visitors now traipse through ornate rooms, manicured gardens and temples, including one that houses a revered Buddha carved from a single block of jade.

Other longtime royal residences have been repurposed as museums. St. Petersburg's riverfront Winter Palace, for instance, is the sixth-most-visited castle, thanks to the appeal of masterworks by Titian and da Vinci along with lavish restored interiors, where Catherine the Great once held court.

America's closest approximation is California's Hearst Castle, though it fell short of our top 20 list with only 750,000 annual visitors. And while Windsor Castle squeaked in at No. 19, Buckingham Palace didn't make the grade (567,613 annual visitors), nor did Romania's Bran Castle (542,000) or a single Irish castle. Ireland's most visited, Blarney Castle, welcomed 365,000 in 2013.

That said, there can be a downside to having too many visitors—these are delicate, historic structures that have existed for hundreds of years, and some, like Neuschwanstein, limit the daily entries. But it's hard to stem curiosity when it comes to the lives of the blue-blooded.

The Methodology: To tally up the world's most-visited castles, Travel + Leisure gathered the most recent data supplied by the attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports and reputable media outlets. In most cases, it was 2013 data.

See eight destinations below and the full 20 on Travel + Leisure.

Other articles from Travel + Leisure:

No. 1: The Forbidden City (Palace Museum), Beijing

Image by © Alan Copson/JAI/Corbis. Tourists in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (original image)

Image by © Imaginechina/Corbis. View of the Palace Museum on a clear day. (original image)

Image by © Frederic Soltan/Corbis. A detail on the Nine Dragons Screen in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity in The Forbidden City. (original image)

Image by © Chen Yehua/Xinhua Press/Corbis. A watchtower of the Palace Museum in the early morning. (original image)

Image by Hemis / Alamy. The Forbidden City (Palace Museum), Beijing. (original image)

Image by © Chen Yehua/Xinhua Press/Corbis. Forbidden City watchtower in the snow. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 15,340,000 (Source: China National Tourist Office)

Each day, tens of thousands of visitors pour through the Forbidden City to see the 178-acre walled compound that once shielded the Imperial Palace from public view—while housing Chinese emperors and their extensive entourages. (To handle the volume, the government has started requiring advance ticket sales during festivals and holidays and prohibiting annual ticket holders from visiting during peak seasons.) Bright red buildings topped with golden pagodas exemplify traditional Chinese architecture, while the Palace Museum showcases art, furniture and calligraphy.

No. 2: The Louvre, Paris

Image by iStockphoto. The Louvre, Paris. (original image)

Image by © Horacio Villalobos/epa/Corbis. Tourists snap photos of Leonardo da Vinci's "La Gioconda" (Mona Lisa). (original image)

Image by © Scott Stulberg/Corbis. Louvre museum and pyramid at night. (original image)

Image by © Philippe Lissac/Godong/Corbis. School children admire the "Diana of Versailles" in the Louvre's Galerie des Caryatides. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Interior of the Louvre Museum. (original image)

Image by © Arnaud Chicurel/Hemis/Corbis. The Louvre palace and architect I. M. Pei's glass pyramid. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 9,334,0000 (Source: Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency)

The largest and most famous museum in the world—displaying masterpieces like La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa) and the Winged Victory of Samothrace—got its start as a palace. The U-shaped Louvre housed generations of French kings and emperors beginning in the 12th century, and the remnants of the original fortress that occupied the site (built for King Philippe II in 1190) can be seen in the basement of the museum. The building was extended and renovated many times. Head to the decorative arts wing for a glimpse of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie's opulent state apartments, built between 1854 and 1861.

No. 3: Grand Palace, Bangkok

Image by © Corbis. Grand Palace Bangkok, Thailand (original image)

Image by © Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters/Corbis. Tourists explore the interior of the Grand Palace. (original image)

Image by © Corbis. (original image)

Image by Michael Snell / Alamy. Grand Palace, Bangkok. (original image)

Image by © John Philip Harper/Corbis. Temple of the Emerald Buddha on the grounds of the Grand Palace complex. (original image)

Image by © Corbis. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Garuda and Nagas statues decorate the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace Complex. (original image)

Image by (original image)

Image by © Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters/Corbis. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 8,000,000 (Source: Thailand Tourist Services)

Royal offices are still used within the Grand Palace, and state visits and royal ceremonies like the Royal Birthday Anniversary of the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej are held there each year. This was also the official residence of Thai kings from 1782 to 1925 and counts numerous buildings, halls, and pavilions set around open lawns and manicured gardens. The palace’s Temple of the Emerald Buddha is considered one of the most sacred sites in Thailand. Its Buddha was carved from a single block of jade, and his garments, made of pure gold, are changed in a royal ceremony three times a year to reflect the Thai seasons.

No. 4: Palace of Versailles, France

Image by © Bertrand Rieger/Hemis/Corbis. The Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), designed by architect Jules Hardouin Mansart (1678-1684), features 17 windows and 357 mirrors. (original image)

Image by © Arcangelo Piai/SOPA RF/SOPA/Corbis. Palace of Versailles. (original image)

Image by © Jose Fuste Raga/Corbis. Versailles gardens. (original image)

Image by © Marc Dozier/Corbis. The 1792 Room in the Chateau de Versailles. (original image)

Image by © Yoshio Tomii/SuperStock/Corbis. Ceiling detail. (original image)

Image by © Charles Platiau/Reuters/Corbis. Hall of Mirrors. (original image)

Image by © Bertrand Rieger/Hemis/Corbis. Park of the Chateau de Versailles outside of the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). (original image)

Image by © Thierry Borredon/Hemis/Corbis. Performance at the Academy of Equestrian Arts in Versailles. (original image)

Image by PhotosIndia.com LLC / Alamy. Palace of Versailles, France. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 7,527,122 (Source: Versailles Press Office)

When Louis XIV built Versailles in the late 1600s, it became the envy of other European monarchs in Europe, and the opulent estate retains an unmistakable allure. Versailles gets seven times the visitors of any other château in France (apart from the Louvre); it helps that it's easily accessible from Paris. No other palace in the world can match the grandeur of Versailles's Hall of Mirrors, dripping with chandeliers, and Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, decorated with hand-stitched flowers. The vast grounds are free most days and an attraction in themselves, with 50 water fountains, a parterre (formal garden), a grand canal, and other sites like the Grand Trianon, built for Louis XIV as a refuge from court life, and Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon.

No. 5: Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Image by © Martin Siepmann/Westend61/Corbis. Baghdad Kiosk, Topkapi Palace. (original image)

Image by © Martin Siepmann/Westend61/Corbis. Room of the sultan's mother, Topkapi Palace (original image)

Image by Age Fotostock / Alamy. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. The Central Gate of Topkapi Palace (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. View of Galata from Topkapi Palace. (original image)

Image by © Martin Siepmann/Westend61/Corbis. Private apartments of the Crown Prince, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. The Harem in Topkapi Palace. (original image)

Image by © Martin Siepmann/Westend61/Corbis. Mustafa Pasa Kiosk, Topkapi Palace (original image)

Image by © Neil Farrin/JAI/Corbis. Queen Mother's Apartment, Topkapi Palace (original image)

Image by © Geray Sweeney/Corbis. Iznik tiles and calligraphic inscriptions decorate the walls and domed ceiling inside Topkapi Palace. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 3,335,000 (Source: Go Turkey, Official Tourism Portal of Turkey)

With a lovely setting overlooking the Bosporus and Sea of Marmara, Topkapi Palace was the royal residence for about 400 years until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. The sultan lived with his wives, concubines, mother and children in the harem, under the fierce protection of eunuchs. Look for the Privy Chamber of Murat III, with its indoor pool, gilded fireplace and walls decorated with blue, white, and coral Iznik tiles from the 16th century. The Palace Kitchens reopened in September 2014, displaying fine china and large cookware. And the complex also includes courtyards, gazebos, gardens and the Imperial Treasury. An emerald-and diamond-studded bow and quivers sent by Sultan Mahmud I to the ruler of Persia is just one example of the lavish gifts on view.

No. 6: The Winter Palace (State Hermitage Museum), St. Petersburg, Russia

Image by © Michael Runkel/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis. The front of the Winter Palace (original image)

Image by © Jon Hicks/Corbis. The State Hermitage Museum. (original image)

Image by © Belinsky Yuri/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis. Grand Church of the Winter Palace. (original image)

Image by © Michael Runkel/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis. Inside the Hermitage (Winter Palace). (original image)

Image by © Metzel Mikhail/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis. The renovated Grand Church of the Winter Palace at the State Hermitage Museum. (original image)

Image by © Jon Hicks/Corbis. Marble sculpture in the Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting. (original image)

Image by © Jon Hicks/Corbis. The New Hermitage portico, supported by sculptures by Alexander Terebenev. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 3,120,170 (Source: State Hermitage Museum Press Office)

Catherine the Great and Nicholas I are among the Russian royals who occupied this green-and-white baroque palace along the Neva River from 1762 to 1917. Today, the palace is a museum with one of the finest collections in Europe, including works by Titian, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci (Benois Madonna). Much of the palace was destroyed by fire in 1837, but the beautifully restored interiors speak to the opulent tastes of the Russian elite. St. George Hall (a large throne room) features two tiers of windows, double Corinthian pink marble columns, patterned parquet floors and gilt bronze details.

No. 7: Tower of London

Image by © Michael Tubi/Demotix/Corbis. An installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies surrounded the Tower of London in November 2014 to commemorate Remembrance Day. (original image)

Image by © John Harper/Corbis. The Imperial State Crown, embedded with 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies, displayed at Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters/Corbis. Likenesses of the faces of Kings of England displayed at the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Reed Kaestner/Corbis. Interior of the Chapel of St. John inside the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Charles & Josette Lenars/CORBIS. Beefeaters stand guard at the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Steven Vidler/Corbis. Suit of Amour displayed in the White Tower in the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis. Armor display in the White Tower in the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Tetra Images/Corbis. Tower of London (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces. Tower of London. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 2,894,698 (Source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions)

This medieval fortress on the north bank of the River Thames was built to intimidate Londoners and keep out foreign invaders. The oldest part of the structure, the White Tower, dates back to the 12th century. While it originally served as a royal residence, the tower has become notorious for its use as a prison and the site of executions that included Henry VI and Lady Jane Grey. Millions flock to the tower today to see historical reenactments as well as the British Crown Jewels, among them, the Sovereign's Sceptre containing the Great Star of Africa, the largest colorless cut diamond in the world. In 2014, the tower's moat was filled with 888,246 ceramic red poppies in remembrance of British soldiers who died in World War I—an example of art installations and events held regularly.

No. 8: Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna

Image by © Rudy Sulgan/Corbis. Fountain in front on Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Private garden of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Doug Pearson/JAI/Corbis. Schönbrunn Palace garden. (original image)

Image by © Daniel Kalker/dpa/Corbis. The front of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Palm house on the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Daniel Kalker/dpa/Corbis. Gloriette of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Topic Photo Agency/Corbis. The painted ceiling of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Danica Jorge. Visitors outside Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 2,870,000 (Source: Schönbrunn Palace)

Austria's most-visited site is this Rococo palace, a summer retreat for Hapsburg emperors from the 1700s until 1918. Of the 1,441 rooms, the most famous is the Mirror Room, with white and gold Rococo decoration and crystal mirrors, where Mozart is said to have performed his first concert at age six. The palace's elaborate gardens can claim the world's longest orangerie and the site of the first zoo (est. 1752). The guided Grand Tour provides access to all 40 rooms open to the public, including the Gobelin Salon with tapestries from Brussels and the Millions Room, an office paneled in rare rosewood.

See the next 12 most visited castles and palaces on Travel + Leisure.

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