Artist Lily Spandorf Paints a Vanishing Washington

Watercolor Show Documents City’s Changes

Vanishing buildings dominate the 54 paintings of a new exhibit, “Lily Spandorf: Washington Never More,— on display at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The Washington-based artist is known for what have been called her “watercolor documentaries.—

In particular, Spandorf is known for her paintings of the White House Christmas decorations and the National Cherry Blossom and Smithsonian Folklife festivals. A Spandorf collection is also found in the United States Senate.

In 1999, the historical society bought Spandorf’s “Washington Never More— collection depicting old Washington buildings and neighborhoods, including more than 150 works.

The exhibit is housed inside the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square, the first public library in D.C. The nonprofit organization aims “to preserve and present Washington, D.C.’s history,— exhibit co-curator Margaret Hutto said.

Spandorf “was trying to get people to understand how important it was to keep old buildings,— Hutto said. “People started to call and let her know that buildings were torn down. She went to the sites and tried to capture it.—

The explanation accompanying the exhibit points out that “there was no significant legislation protecting historic sites or delaying or preventing their demolition.— Spandorf’s work in Washington parallels the rise of the historic preservation movement.

“She was one of the leaders in the fight to get a strengthened preservation organization,— Hutto said. Spandorf opposed history disappearing from “a combination of the riots and demolitions.—

Hutto credited at least a part of the rethinking about the value of old buildings to Spandorf’s paintings and advocacy. “Fifty percent of buildings in D.C. are old,— Hutto said, adding that such a large amount is rare in American cities.

Entering the Beaux-Arts building, people get a glimpse of its librarian past, with the interior listing the names of such minds as Homer, Plato and Newton. In 1970, the public library moved to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

The watercolors on display in the exhibit begin with quaint Washington neighborhoods, but the atmosphere dramatically changes two-thirds of the way in and the rest of the exhibit depicts the tearing down of buildings.

The centerpiece is a painting of Rawlins Park, portraying people in a serene park that is surrounded by trees and houses. Her technique includes watercolors, ink or gouache (a type of paint made up of pigment suspended in water) and it is reinforced with pen lines or lines in sepia.

The largest surprise of the paintings is in what has happened to the D.C. scenes since Spandorf painted them. In the exhibit, recent photos accompanying the paintings show that buildings are gone or have been replaced. “The park has changed also,— Hutto said.

Before coming to Washington in the 1960s, Austrian-born Spandorf had exhibits in Europe and New York. “She fell in love with D.C.,— where she had her three most productive decades, Hutto said. “She worked almost every waking minute.—

Spandorf died in 2000.

Also on display at the historical society is “Portraying Lincoln: A Man of Many Faces,— an exhibit with portraits of Abraham Lincoln, including a limited-edition print of Salvador Dali’s portrait of the president.

On the second floor, another exhibit, “Quilts for Obama: Celebrating the Inauguration of Our 44th President,— includes a petite, shimmering quilt called “Ascension— by Linda Gray with a circle symbolizing President Barack Obama’s journey.

The “Washington Never More— exhibit runs until Aug. 23, “Portraying Lincoln— runs until Nov. 8 and “Quilts for Obama— runs until July 26.