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DC universities reveal hidden treasures for those who know where to look

A dance performance in the Ira Aldridge Theatre at Howard

Washingtonians, of course you know you’re surrounded by world-class universities here in the District – but you may not know about the jazz archives at one, the chapel adorned with 19th-century Italian tiles at another, the contemporary art collection at a third. Read on for a roundup of some of the hidden—yet open to the public—gems tucked away at these local institutions of higher ed, and make time to explore one or more in 2014.

American University : The American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW

“There are three things we do that no one else does,” says Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the Katzen, which boasts 24,000 square feet of exhibition space and more than 6,000 works of art. “One, we work with governments and embassies and foundations to show contemporary international art. Two, we show politically and socially engaged work that no one else does because no one else can. Three, we can and do focus on regional artists working in the Washington area.”
Offering free admission, an expanding children’s art program called Kids at the Katzen and a museum shop and cafe, the Katzen’s days as a hidden gem may be numbered. “We are working our way into the consciousness of people in the region,” Rasmussen says. “Our ace in the hole? We have parking.”
Click for details of the current exhibitions at the museum, which marks its tenth anniversary next year.

Catholic University of America: The Caldwell Chapel windows, 620 Michigan Ave. NE

A sunny morning is probably the ideal time to visit the chapel, whose glorious east-facing windows have been meticulously dismantled, cleaned and reinstalled by Daniel Wolkoff of Adams Morgan Stained Glass. Once-deteriorating lead joints holding the panes of glass together were also replaced by Wolkoff during the three-year restoration.
First installed in the 1880s, the windows’ colors are “a bit more vivid since the cleaning,” notes CUA’s assistant director of building maintenance Rick Ricker in an email to Elevation DC. Hill residents and other District folks might recognize the name of the chapel’s architect: Adolph Cluss, who also built Eastern Market. Caldwell Hall, where the chapel is located, is the oldest building on the CUA campus. It was named for CUA’s first donor, Mary Gwendolyn Caldwell (1863-1909).
Gallaudet University: Deaf Collections and Archives, 800 Florida Ave. NE

The University’s archives were established in 1967, says Michael Olson, interim director of the Deaf Collections and Archives (pictured is one of the items in the collection, a photograph of the GU library dating to 1910). A number of the books, periodicals and other items in the physical collection have been digitized, including all issues of the student newspaper, The Buff and Blue, which featured book reviews by students, news of graduates being hired and synopses of lectures that took place on campus.
In Olson’s opinion, arguably the most noteworthy item in the collection is a book by a 17th century Spaniard, Juan Pablo Bonet. That book, translated from the Spanish into Reduction of Letters and Art for Teaching Mute People to Speak, “is considered the first modern treaty of phonetics and speech therapy, setting out a method of oral education for deaf children,” Olson writes in an email.  “It contains engravings of hands showing finger spelling for ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and so on.”

The George Washington University: Square 80, 2121 Eye St. NW 

Once a parking lot, Square 80 has been a model of green public space for the past few years, according to Shannon Ross, stakeholder engagement coordinator in GWU’s Office of Sustainability.
The university “turned it into a water reclamation site,” Ross says, explaining that Square 80 uses underground cisterns and special absorbent surfacing to retain rainwater, helping to curb water runoff. Reducing runoff can help prevent flooding, curb erosion and help increase the amount of water that sinks deep into the earth, replenishing wells and helping stave off drought.
Bounded by F, G, 21st and 22nd Streets, Square 80 also features native vegetation such as Carolina Silverbell and Annabelle Hydrangea, Ross says. Students gather here to chat or toss a Frisbee when the weather is fine, she adds. Yet Square 80 has some nifty high-tech features as well. A group of enterprising GWU kids last semester build a solar-powered table to let people recharge smart phones and other all-important electronics. There’s also a solar-powered trash compactor that cuts down on the number of trash pickups that must be made.

Georgetown University: Copley Crypt Chapel of the North American Martyrs, Copley Hall

During one of his years at Georgetown, Kevin Donahue ’94 lived in a dorm room in Copley Hall, three doors down from the entrance to Copley Crypt Chapel. “We’d go hang out there,” recalls Donahue, now a federal employee living in NE with his family. “There was this giant stone table, and a piano.” We wonder if Donahue might think differently after seeing this photo of the vaulting in the chapel.
When students aren’t studying or socializing there, Copley Crypt Chapel is where some of the university’s Catholic Masses and Orthodox Christian services take place, as well as weddings from time to time. In the past, it was used to host wakes for Jesuit priests, who would have been later buried in the adjacent Jesuit Cemetery. You can see some of the religious paintings and icons displayed in the chapel here.
Howard University: The Ira Aldridge Theater and Environmental Theatre Space, 2455 6th St. NW

Howard alumna Tiffany E. Browne well remembers her first visit to the Aldridge.
“I was in the 8th grade and went with a group to see a play about poet Paul Laurence Dunbar,” says Browne, a native Washingtonian and freelance writer for Ebony, Washington City Paper and other publications. “It wasn’t the moment that defined my decision to eventually become a Howard student” – as Dunbar himself once was – “but it’s one of many things I loved about my childhood.”
Browne, who completed her degree in print journalism from Howard in 2010, lives in Southeast but makes a point of visiting her alma mater for plays at the theater. “It’s small and intimate, very much like the [old] Arena Stage. The majority of the performances are by students of Howard’s School of Fine Arts. They are so good you forget you are on a college campus.”
By the way, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) is the only African-American actor whose name is inscribed upon a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where the Bard was born in 1564.
Trinity Washington University: Guastavino tiles in Notre Dame Chapel, 125 Michigan Ave. NE
One of the hallmarks of the Brookland campus of TWU (known at its inception in 1897 at Trinity College) is this chapel dating to 1924. Some sixty feet up, adorning the chapel’s lovely ceiling and dome are tiles and vaulting by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino (1842-1908). The architect was renowned for the tiling system he devised, in which thin, interlocking terracotta tiles were adhered to arches and vaults, creating both an aesthetically pleasing and extremely strong design. Other examples of Guastavino’s “Tile Arch System” can be seen in buildings such as the U.S. Supreme Court and New York’s Grand Central Terminal. TWU spokeswoman Ann Pulley notes that while Gustavino tiles were installed in nearly 1,000 buildings across the country in the late 19th and early 20th century, only about 600 exist today. (Of special note: through January 20 at DC’s National Building Museum, visitors can take in Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces.)
The chapel itself, which won a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1927, was designed by Maginnis and Walsh, leading architects of the era. Click here for a map of other DC sites featuring Guastavino tilework; Copley Hall, where Copley Crypt Chapel is located, is another one.

University of the District of Columbia: Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, 4200 Connecticut Ave. NW

“We keep getting more and more items,” says Judith Korey, curator at the archives, which is comprised of some 45,000 records, 10,000 CDs and numerous 45s and 78s, as well as books, periodicals and recorded interviews with everyone from Cannonball Adderley to Sonny Stitt. “We really need more space!”
Professor Korey, who teaches music theory and jazz history at UDC, says the collections date to 1988 when jazz historian Grant (1918-1993), a radio deejay in DC for nearly half a century, began donating LPs, recordings of interviews with jazz artists and other items to the University (a portion of the collections have been digitized). She adds that the Archives complements other collections of jazz recordings and documents at the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.
Also noteworthy for jazz fans: UDC’s JazzAlive concert series and the Calvin Jones Big Band Festival, scheduled for April 28.

Photo credits: All images courtesy of the respective university. CUA image by Ed Pfueller, The Catholic University of America (2008). Gallaudet image courtesy Gallaudet University Archives. Howard image by Justin D. Knight. 

Read more articles by Amy Rogers Nazarov.

Amy Rogers Nazarov is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist with more than 25 years experience as a staff reporter and a freelance writer, covering technology, adoption, real estate, and lifestyle topics from food & drink to home organizing. Her byline has appeared in Cooking Light, The Washington Post, Slate, Washingtonian, The Writer, Smithsonian, The Washington Post Express, The Baltimore Examiner, The Sacramento Bee, Cure, The Washington Times, Museum, and many other outlets. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors and tweets at @WordKitchenDC.
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