Art and architecture in Washington, DC

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It is always a tonic to return to the USA, especially to its eastern seaboard, to discover that current global perceptions of that great country are not always 100% accurate. Global media might make you think that free time is devoted to watching sports, shopping, eating far too much and such bad-for-you hobbies – and addictions – as gaming. In fact, an important minority not only reads the superb New York Times, which leaves most other countries’ highbrow newspapers in the rubbish, but covers every concert and gallery happening it can.

Right now Washington, DC’s National Gallery of Art is showing Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, and although it has been running for five weeks, and will do so until 21 January 2018, it still attracts at least 2000 visitors a day. I was there at 10am precisely, for its opening one day, and still had to progress through 10 different holding sections (as at Disney, you always think the next holding pen would be the last). Yes, the exhibition included such Vermeers as The Louvre’s Lacemaker, the Gallery’s own Woman Holding a Balance, and its Lady Writing, but what was so fascinating was the similarity, and influence, of similar paintings by Gerard ter Borch (Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis’ Woman Writing a Letter) and Nicolaes Maes (National Gallery of Canada’s Young Woman Making Lace).

I also loved the way similar paintings could be viewed together. It is worth noting that this exhibition, organised by the National Gallery of Art working with the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, and the Musée du Louvre, Paris, is free, with no charge for entry or the full-colour program. Big thanks must go to the main sponsor, BT, and other supporters – including the Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art – illustrating how America’s museums, just like its schools and colleges as well as its PBS broadcasting, are all financially supported by followers. There was also an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. I do wonder if the President knows federal money is being spent in this way, although he should approve, since so many of his own followers have supported the newest of the myriad of museums in this lovely city.

Washington, DC’s excellent public transport also makes it easy to visit so many sites, and as well as city-operated bikes to rent from fixed stands, Chinese companies are also making an impact, offering bikes that are activated anywhere, by scanning machines’ QR codes, and dropped off anywhere, and not littering the scene – yet.

The Museum of the Bible, which opened 17 November 2017, was funded to the tune of $500 million by Oklahama City-based Steve Green, president of the 800-store Hobby Lobby quilting and other crafts chain. It was opened with an 800-person gala dinner (US$50,000 per table) at the city’s stunning and gorgeous new luxury hotel, the 263-room Trump International Hotel Washington, DC. This is one of the city’s oldest buildings, the 1899-vintage Old Post Office, on Pennsylvania Building.

It had its official opening this very February, and from the start guests marvelled at its awe-inspiring beauty. Outside, the historic clock tower dominates. Inside, you are probably riveted first by the 9-floor open atrium, held up, it seems, by late-19th century Meccano. Go up to your floor, wide enough for two basketball players to lie head to foot, and enter your room and a glittering crystal chandelier hangs from the 5-metre-high ceiling. Corner suites, by the way, come with appendage 270-degree sitting nooks, just right for romantic interludes.

I found an envelope waiting on the bed of corner suite 535. Inside the champagne and royal blue-coloured room, on gold-embossed satin-feel paper, was a personal welcome letter from Eric Trump (stylish, said the friends to whom I showed this – apparently he will also come and talk with small group guests, if he is free, or he will make a welcome video). His sister Ivanka, currently not professionally involved with any of the hotels, had a hand in the design here: it must have been she who put its eclectic library, which included a 526-page American military manifest, ETA Catalogue 2017, and, by contrast, Jeffrey Robinson’s 1966 book, The Hotel: Upstairs, Downstairs in a Secret World, about a thinly-disguised Claridge’s in London. Ivanka had even more of a hand in the hotel’s lowest level wellness, the serene Spa by Ivanka Trump – I particularly love the Roman-feel relaxation room and the Natura Bissé products.

The versatile David Burke does the one restaurant here, BLT Prime. It occupies a mezzanine terrace, allowing a marvellous view both to the lobby’s main floor sports bar, with a wall of bottles behind, and up the soaring atrium. I was with the hotel’s energetic GM, Mickael Damelincourt, who insists he is primarily a businessman (he learned many tricks from his mother, who ran a Paris antiques shop). After a tuna tartare on a base of avocado, and a cowboy USDA Prime 30-day dry-aged bone-in rib, and a glass of Streicker Bridgeland Block Syrah 2011 from Western Australia, there was sadly no room for David Burke’s signature cheesecake lollipop tree with bubblegum-whipped cream… In the morning, similarly, there was simply no space for the bestselling Clocktower Omelette (Virginia ham, white Cheddar, bell peppers, candied bacon, potatoes, toast – and, I presume, eggs).

I had been met at the station, before arrival, by Chriselle Aquio, the head Attaché, customer service agent, who had followed Mickael Damelincourt from Toronto. She was at her desk as I left, and gave me her card, which was extremely fortuitous as half an hour after exiting this stylish luxury hotel I realised I had left something vital behind. I called her mobile, and the errant item was with me in 20 minutes – oh what service. Mr Damelincourt had said how much he enjoys hiring and working with young people – he also mentors veterans – but he wants them to have a goal. Too many do not have the confidence and determination to be positive enough to succeed, he admits. The way he structures his morning meetings, for instance, show his direction: as well as going through current and coming guests, one participant recounts an experience he has set, say visiting a local mall and analysing the guest experience. This is the kind of business leader the hotel industry needs so badly, and fortunately he wants to continue running hotels rather than heading into the obscurity of the two impersonal Cs: consultancy and corporate.

Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com

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