Portrait Of a City in Bloom

Posted March 30, 2009 at 4:29pm

On bookshelves just in time for the National Cherry Blossom Festival tourists is a book inspired in many ways by the blossoms themselves.

“It always happens when I explore a city so intimately — I fell madly in love with DC,— author and illustrator Diana Hollingsworth Gessler wrote on her Web site. “One spring I was standing on the National Mall in wonderment, surrounded by clouds of pink cherry blossoms, the Capitol, museums, and monuments, when a rush of pride made me feel like opening my arms and shouting, I’m an American citizen and this all belongs to me.’—

Much of this pride is evident in Gessler’s newest city tour book, “Very Washington DC: A Celebration of the History and Culture of America’s Capital City.—

The self-described “travel guide with character— is different from any other Washington guide in several ways, but namely in that almost all of the images are watercolors that the author painted.

Gessler started her career as a graphic designer but always loved to travel, and while doing so, she always kept illustrated journals. “In fact that’s how these books were born,— she told Roll Call.

She had filled 24 journals covering more than 25 years of travels when the idea came that she could sell them. She took the books to a publisher, and they worked together to redefine the idea to make it more tourist-friendly.

This is Gessler’s fourth “Very— book — others include New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., and the state of California — and she admitted that Washington was a very different experience from her previous adventures.

In other cities, she sometimes had trouble filling the pages, but “D.C. just fills the pages,— she said. “I could have used more pages.—

Gessler spent more than a year working on the D.C. book, including two months of reading and research before she even came up from her Florida home. She stayed in Penn Quarter with her husband, getting up at 7 each morning just to “see what people are doing. … I walked the city every day for a month or so, 10 hours a day, and just explored.—

During her walks, she took photographs and drew sketches where she could, but she found that D.C. presented “new tricks— because a lot of places — including the museum at the Hillwood Estate and the Supreme Court — do not allow you to take pictures, or even draw, on the premises.

It seems that the hours of walking the streets worked to the readers’ advantage, as some of D.C.’s more hidden gems are featured. The paintings of the Hillwood Estate are just as beautiful as the real destination — even though she wasn’t allowed to photograph or sketch inside the estate home, forcing Gessler to go in and try to memorize everything, then run out and sketch, and then run back in.

And some of my favorite places and works of art are captured here beautifully, including the “Monkeys Grasp for the Moon— sculpture that hangs the height of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the captivating Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery, which is a great place to bring a book and relax.

The book offers interesting descriptions that are brief enough not to lose the reader and in-depth enough to be very informative.

Gessler does all of her own research for the books but admits that she’s “an artist first, a researcher second.—

The first few pages, which outline the history of D.C. as the nation’s capital, are worthy of note and quite revealing. Included is a page each about the Potomac River, Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s vision for the city, a timeline of when various parts of the Capitol were built and information about several of the famous works of art in the Capitol.

“I was looking for information that isn’t included in the typical— guidebook, Gessler said.

Also adding to the fun of the book are the pages of random facts, such as the ones on the historic grand hotels of Washington (the Willard’s mint julep is a must-have) and the first pets of the White House (including Caroline Kennedy’s pony, Macaroni).

Gessler included a bit about Old Town Alexandria and Mount Vernon in the last chapter. It seems like an afterthought, but a very well-illustrated afterthought.

While the watercolor illustrations are beautiful — I would love to have prints of some for my living room — they aren’t always helpful in describing the details of history or capturing the mood of a destination.

For example, the illustration of the original Star-Spangled Banner literally leaves holes in the details and the painting of Meridian Hill Park doesn’t come close to doing the cascading fountains justice.

But you can easily get past much of that when you find out that the paintings in the book are actual size — so the detail is much more impressive.