Mark Twain was thinking big in 1874 when he moved into his new 19-room mansion in Hartford, Conn. The Missouri-born writer was not one to economize. Following the success of “Tom Sawyer” in 1881, he hired none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany to “do” the interior.
It seems fitting that Twain wrote “The Gilded Age” there and – knowing how gilded ages tend to end – had to leave in 1894 because he was close to broke. Bad investments and bank panics had destroyed his fortune.
Fast-forward to 2009, when America is trying to recover from another era of overreach. The Mark Twain House is now a tourist site but again faces bankruptcy. This time it’s through no fault of the “Huckleberry Finn” author. The culprit is an education and visitors center built next door. The 35,000-square-foot facility opened in 2003 to warm applause but with only a vague plan to pay its $16.3 million cost.
The Mark Twain House is superb, but does the experience of visiting it require a gigantic museum in addition? The center’s expense had forced the layoff of 30 employees, which kind of negates the “education” function. (An Annenberg Foundation grant is giving the house breathing space while it tries to rework its finances.)
As the gold leaf rapidly flakes off the recent era of excess, the bare surfaces are showing in the finances of cultural institutions as well as of risk-taking investors. Executive directors and their boards had caught the fever for building and building big. An outbuilding to house the ticket counter, gift shop and toilets would no longer do.
The Taj Mahal of binge building has to be the new Capitol Visitors Center in Washington. The center was born out of concerns for security and for the comfort of visiting tourists. What resulted was an underground metropolis spreading over 580,000 square feet and costing $356 million more than it was supposed to.
But bankruptcy will never threaten this monument to another monument. While the Mark Twain House must ask private benefactors for help, the Capitol Visitors Center simply sends the bill to the U.S. taxpayer.
You’d think that $621 million would buy some kind of masterpiece. What emerged is a cold and vast tomb reminiscent of airport waiting areas. A bizarre collection of statues of great Americans – from Hawaiian warrior Kamehameha I to Apollo 13 astronaut John Swigert – decorates the inside. There’s also a female Statue of Freedom bearing an odd resemblance to Elisabeth Rohm, who played an assistant D.A. on “Law & Order.”
The exhibits include self-flattering tributes to Congress and, in the name of geographic balance, important Americans from every region. And goody, there’s a Wall of Aspirations.
One could write off the building as an extravagance had the architect not also wrecked an American masterpiece – the 1874 landscaping of Frederick Law Olmsted. Hundreds of trees were ripped up or moved in the construction.
Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott writes that the Capitol’s east face had been “demolished,” taking on “a false and slick pomposity created by an impressive promenade over an imposing bridge, which seems to cross a kind of moat.”
The planners will tell you that the center was put unobtrusively underground. But as Kennicott points out, there is no such thing as a truly underground building. One needs entrances and other above-ground features. For example, elevators for handicap access rise up like guard towers.
The silver lining of our collapsing gilded age is that there’s less money around to finance mistakes. If dusty old museums and historic sites can’t raise their attendance numbers, so be it. They’ll have their day again, and meanwhile, the institutions won’t go broke.
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