Powell gets Pythagorean at Dumbarton House
On March 15, the Citizens Association of Georgetown gathered to talk a little classical architecture at Q Street’s Dumbarton House, itself a beautiful specimen of neo-classical building techniques.
The point? To show and tell listeners how the iconic houses of Georgetown, now themselves becoming historical artifacts, owe much of their design to the olive-skinned, near-mythical cultures a half world away and over two millennia gone past.
The keynote speaker for the evening was Claudia Powell, who heads up her own eponymously named interior design firm after steeping herself in the fundamentals of ancient architecture at New York’s Institute of Classical Architecture. She lamented the sharp departure of modern architectural education from the tried and true classical methods, and was eager to give Georgetowners a crash course in building buildings, as the Greeks saw it.
Powell first discussed the concept of the golden ratio — which, for the record, is 1 to 1.618 — a proportion found so often in nature that Greek mathematicians, from Pythagoras to Euclid, thought it auspicious enough to use in human constructions. The ratio is found throughout classical architecture.
She went on to point out the finer subtleties of the three Greek columns — the stocky, stoic Doric type, the stately, majestic Ionic style and the florid Corinthian variety — as well as the strange decorative sculpture adorning joints and molding (acanthus leaves, teeth and lambs’ tongues were all favorites with the Greeks).
So, what have flowers of stone to do with Georgetown? As Powell explained, the Federal style borrows heavily from the classical tradition, and as the mecca of early American architecture, it’s tough to walk around Georgetown without seeing your share of columns, friezes and stone ornamentation. The latter is especially prevalent in Dumbarton House — Powell pointed to several examples of gadrooning, a convex, gourd-shaped style of ornamentation, and light fixtures incorporating urns of fire, a staple decoration among ancient structures.
Looks like history has visited the village yet again.