Browsing through The Commons on Flickr, I came across these images of the Woodrow Wilson House, which I often pass by on S Street during a lunchtime walk. I didn’t know Wilson (who died on this day in 1924) was the only president to make Washington home after his time in office (I can’t image a president doing that now), making this the only presidential museum in town. Though not technically in the Dupont Circle neighborhood (rather in the adjacent neighborhood of Kalorama), the streets where the house is located are some of my favorite areas of the city, filled with embassies and home to the Spanish Steps–a great spot for a stroll after time in the galleries.
Front view of President Wilson's S Street residence in Washington, D.C. Date unknown.
Photo from my walk to work, a mural on 17th Street. Photo: Jess Stephens
The spotty, wheezing internet in my Chicago apartment could not accommodate the street level Google map of the Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights neighborhoods in much detail. So in 2007, I moved to D.C. armed only with the images of an unbelievably picturesque November week during a manic educational visit as a teenager.
Before I lived in D.C., I spent over two hours per day commuting on public transit. Long commutes can be a reader’s oasis. A big part of me pines for the pacing and adventure extended commute reading lends to the rest of the day, but long commutes also foster a disconcerting myopia. A fellow bus rider once had to ask me twice if I had a cell phone, needing to call 911 because a man three rows in front of me was having a grandmal seizure. Routinely oscillating between the fiction of stories and actual reality within the collective can seep into non-commute time and dull or disconnect the experiences of daily work and joy.
All of this is to say I was quite excited and curious about my new commute: a twenty-five minute walk to work at The Phillips Collection. D.C. has wonderful density and a kaleidoscope of neighborhoods contending with any number of transposed architectural styles in each square mile.
My commute awakens my legs at the beginning and end of the day. It eliminates the uncertainty of when I will finally be in my cube or home once I’m out the door. It adds a sonic overlay of construction, nature, and myriad shoe heels to the music coming through my headphones instead of just the deafening hum of traffic or trains. Yet, what I seem to have internalized most is the ritual. My walk to and from work does not symbolize anything. It’s not a substitute for exercise or meditation. Nor is it something utilitarian that I have to do everyday, like eating, since I could get to work a number of different ways. Each time I embark on foot, it simply generates value in and of itself because all of my senses are present. Value that I think cannot be deconstructed into irrelevance as many rituals that do not privilege practical function are and should be in the contemporary world.
Jess Stephens, Staff Accountant
Postcards of The Repentant St. Peter by El Greco (left) and Goya (right). Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender
As my colleague Brooke has discovered in her exploration of the Phillips in pop culture, once you start looking for it, you can find the Phillips in the most unlikely places. For example, this “installation” in the windowsill of an estate sale off of Connecticut Ave. Both St. Peter masterpieces could have been mine!