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This Week On Metro Connection: Design

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

Welcome to "Metro Connection.” I'm Rebecca Sheir and today our show is all about design. Now, design, that's one of those words that can mean a whole lot of things. It can relate to fashion.

MS. LISA KATHLEEN-GRADDY

There are different hoops underneath the skirts. The bell shape is not very full. The pagoda shape is very round.

SHEIR

It can involve urban planning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN

We have a limited amount of money to spend and we don't want to spend it solving the last problem. We want to spend it solving the next problem.

SHEIR

And it can definitely play a big role in science and technology.

MR. VINCENT LUCIANI

But you can't feel it, but all the air in this room gets changed over about five times a minute.

SHEIR

And we're going to explore all of those design realms over the next hour. But first, let's talk about design as it refers to architecture. In May, of last year, Washington, D.C. lost one of its musical icons, a man who's affectionately been referred to as the godfather of go-go.

SHEIR

This here is the man, the myth, the legend himself, Mr. Chuck Brown, a Washingtonian who was the driving force behind go-go music. Go-go is a kind of sub-genre of funk, with its mish-mash of rhythm and blues and early hip hop.

SHEIR

The District is honoring Chuck Brown's musical legacy with a brand new memorial at Langdon Park in northeast D.C. The hope is to break ground this summer, and complete construction by fall. Marshall Moya Design is the D.C.-based firm that's designing the Chuck Brown Music Memorial. I recently visited the site with the firm's principals, Michael Marshall and Paola Moya. And Michael, it turns out, was born and raised right here in D.C., just around the corner from Langdon Park.

MR. MARSHALL MOYA

So this is a park that I used when I was a kid growing up and attending Langdon Elementary School, a block away. And so this is a great project for our firm to have. It was a design competition. We won the competition. We didn't get it because I grew up in the neighborhood, but still, that's a nice benefit for me personally on this project.

SHEIR

I noticed you're holding plans in your hand.

MOYA

Yes.

SHEIR

Can we take a look and see? Oh, wow. Can you walk us through this?

MOYA

Yeah. So basically we're taking over where the existing music pavilion is here now. Or at least the band shelter, I should say. And so we will have a new state-of-the-art music pavilion. So we want to line the site with cherry trees and with magnolia trees. I like to think of those as local D.C. landscaping trees. So it's going to be shaped similar to, like, a Roman amphitheater in a sense, but really, really small and intimate. It will hold 150 to 200 people.

MS. PAOLA MOYA

It is a space where they will bring just local artists. And at the back of the pavilion they will have images of Chuck Brown from the beginning of his career to the end. And it will also have a tower that it will display, in chronological order, the music that he played and the songs that he composed when you're going through the tower.

MOYA

The history of his recordings, we're going to use. So we also want it to be a learning environment for the kids here in the city when they come here to see that there is a Washingtonian who basically, with other people, but developed a genre of music that became international and known as Washington sound.

SHEIR

I want to hear more about the tower because you mentioned these kids who might not know who he is. So can you give us a more detailed description of what that's going to entail?

MOYA

Well, the tower, when you're facing the pavilion, it's located to the right side of the state. As you enter to the side and you are embraced through magnolia trees and cherry trees. And you can walk underneath the tower. And at each side of the walls, you will have, by chronological order, the list of the music that he composed and that he played. And then on top of the tower you will have an image of Chuck Brown, one of his, you know, most famous photographs that we will actually, you know, work with the photographer that took these images.

SHEIR

How tall is that tower?

MOYA

It will be about 40 feet tall, which is just a little bit taller than some of the houses here. We really want a marker in the neighborhood. We really want to make a sense of place in the neighborhood. And the tower will give us a vertical element, to see it from a distance because this is a very long park. And we're lucky, also, that we're going to add trees, again, to sort of make a sense of place, a sense of enclosure.

SHEIR

And I love that they're cherry trees and magnolia trees, which are, yeah, so iconic to Washington.

MOYA

Yes.

MOYA

Yes, absolutely. Chuck Brown was iconic to Washington, so why not bring the same thing to the landscaping?

SHEIR

That was Michael Marshall and Paola Moya of Marshall Moya Design, the local firm designing the Chuck Brown Music Memorial, which they hope will open up in Langdon Park later this year.

SHEIR

To see design sketches for the Chuck Brown Music Memorial and to find a link to the official Chuck Brown website, visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

So it sort of kind of goes without saying that memorials, like the one dedicated to Chuck Brown, are designed to be noticed and appreciated. Well, not so much with the structures we'll be talking about next. As Lauren Ober tells us, these things are located all over downtown D.C. and yet they get very little love from either locals or tourists.

MS. LAUREN OBER

This is a story about bollards.

MR. KENT FINNERTY

Bollards? You mean like basketball players who have a lot of money?

OBER

No. Not ballers, bollards, with a "D".

FINNERTY

Oh, bollards. I'm not sure what that means.

OBER

That was Kent Finnerty (sp?), taking a break from his Sunday roller hockey game outside the Treasury Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, where no one else knew what bollards were either. But Finnerty and his stick-wielding pals playing on the blocked-off street were all benefitting from the presence of bollards. You're going to see the word bollard a lot in this story, so it's probably best to define it.

OBER

A bollard is a thick post embedded deep in a sidewalk meant to prevent bomb-laden trucks from blowing up important buildings. Washington, D.C. has a ton of them, so many you probably don't even notice them anymore. They blend into the scenery like fire hydrants or mailboxes, unless you're a critic of security measures or unless you have to slalom through them in a wheelchair or you're an urban design aficionado. But each bollard is a highly engineered piece of steel meant to withstand an eight-ton truck barreling at it at 50 miles an hour.

MR. WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI

The bollards that we are used to today are security devices.

OBER

That's Witold Rybczynski, an emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and a bollard expert.

RYBCZYNSKI

They are actually quite substantial and they make much more visual impact in the city because they're relatively close together and they're quite big.

OBER

In the architectural canon, bollards go way back, all the way to Renaissance Rome, Rybczynski explains. They were a traffic-control measure to separate pedestrian areas from carriageways. Bernini's famous fountain and the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter's Square are ringed with them. Bollards have been used in the U.S. to help traffic control for years. But it wasn't until after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that they began to proliferate here in D.C.

OBER

Again, Rybczynski.

RYBCZYNSKI

Because the bombing was aimed, obviously, at a federal building, there was a sense that federal workers had to be protected especially. And so the president issued a directive that all federal buildings had to be protected against truck bombs. And this was just an across the board law. It happened within a week of the bombing so it wasn't something that people had deeply researched.

OBER

I'm standing at the corner of Independence Ave and Fourth Street Northwest in downtown D.C. I'm looking across the street at the National Air and Space Museum. And they've got some bollards around the building. They're just your basic stainless steel cylinders, but here at the National Museum of the American Indian, there are heavy stone bollards that look like they're maybe made of granite. There are brown steel bollards that look like they're retractable. And then there are these guys, bollards with a classic copper patina and a basket-weave design that seem to go with the motif of the museum.

OBER

Regardless of what they look like, perimeter security has to be installed around all federal buildings. And that is by law, no argument.

RYBCZYNSKI

Whenever we would question the security experts, you always get to the point where somebody will say something like, well, we can't have one life lost because we didn't do the right thing. And that's such a devastatingly convincing argument that no one can stand up to it.

OBER

In addition to being non-negotiable, these devices aren't cheap. $7,500 will get you a basic bollard. At that price, it's hard to know whether they're worth the investment, especially since there's no hard evidence about their efficacy.

MS. CHRISTINE SAUM

We have a limited amount of money to spend and we don't want to spend it solving the last problem. We want to spend it solving the next problem.

OBER

That's Christine Saum, director of the urban design and plan review division of the National Capital Planning Commission. She spends a lot of time thinking about bollards. The commission is in charge of overseeing planning and development of federal property in the District. And incorporating perimeter security into planning is a must. But bollards aren't the only option.

SAUM

In 2002, NCPC came out with a document we called our Urban Design and Security Plan that was intended to sort of inspire agencies to go beyond the planter or bollard solution and to actually design things around their buildings that fit into the environment and would actually be an improvement. Buildings like the Smithsonian Museums around the Mall or the Washington Monument, they've got a lot of space and so we were able to do landscape solutions that are actually quite attractive.

OBER

At the Washington Monument, perimeter security has been integrated into the grounds. Granite landscape walls surrounding the base have been designed to be a comfortable height so people can sit on them. Yet they are tall enough to prevent a truck from reaching the monument. The security is ingeniously invisible. As more federal buildings get upgraded, so too will their security. Instead of an ocean of bollards, D.C. might see perimeter security camouflaged as planting walls or water features or creative landscaping. Again, Saum.

SAUM

I don't think you'll ever completely eliminate bollards, but you don't want it to be forbidding. We don't want our federal office buildings to be fortresses. And I think that what we're trying now is to make sure that we keep that solution from being the default.

OBER

But for now, until the people who make decisions about security become more design-minded, bollards it is. I'm Lauren Ober.

SHEIR

If you'd like to see photos of some of the many different kinds of bollards in D.C., you're in luck. We have a handy-dandy slide show on our website, metroconnection.org. And we're curious, do you know of any well-designed bollards, outside a local building? Or do you have a great idea for making bollards a bit more, I don't know, pretty? Send us an email. Our address is metro@wamu.org.

SHEIR

Time for a break, but when we get back, will the looming health care overhaul mean a redesign for HIV outreach?

MR. RON SIMMONS

I've already told my staff, I've said, I can't guarantee you that you'll all be here in three years.

SHEIR

That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

ANNOUNCER

WAMU news coverage of labor and employment issues is made possible by your contributions and by Matthew Watson, in memory of Marjorie Watson. And support for WAMU 88.5's coverage of the environment comes from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, dedicated to the promotion of farmland preservation, the reduction of environmental toxins and the conservation of natural resources.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week's show is all about design. And before the break we were focusing on the kind of design we can see all around us here in Washington, monuments, architecture, you know, that kind of thing. But now we're going to turn to something a little bit different. The design of health care. What does that mean exactly?

SHEIR

Well, consider this, D.C. has one of the highest rates of HIV in the nation, with nearly 3 percent of residents infected with the virus. But as the Affordable Care Act takes full effect next year, some organizations that help these residents are struggling to redesign their operations because, as Jacob Fenston tells us, these organizations believe that while health care reform can be great for people with HIV, the law could also have some unintended side effects.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

After Ron Simmons learned he had HIV in 1989, he started going to a support group.

SIMMONS

We had the first support group in the founder's home and I think it was like 22 of us in his living room.

FENSTON

Specifically, it was a group for gay black men who are HIV positive, called Us Helping Us. Simmons found camaraderie, and what was at the time a rare a sense of hope.

SIMMONS

I feel that I owe that group to being able to live with HIV now for, oh, my God, what is it, 24 years. I'm on medication now, but I was able to sustain my immune system until the late '90s when indeed they came up with effective medications.

FENSTON

Over the years, new drugs and new ways of using those drugs, have transformed HIV from a death sentence to a manageable disease. And groups like Us Helping Us have evolved too.

SIMMONS

Our budget is about 1.7 million.

FENSTON

For the past 20 years, Simmons has been president and CEO of Us Helping Us. He's showing me around their offices on Georgia Avenue.

SIMMONS

We have 14 full-time employees.

FENSTON

It's gone from a support group to providing a range of HIV and AIDS services, from testing and prevention, to mental health. Currently those activities are mostly funded through grants from the Centers for Disease Control and the local health department. But that funding structure will likely be changing with the Affordable Care Act.

SIMMONS

It's going to be a challenging time. I mean, I've already told my staff, I said that basically the next one to three years are going to be really challenging. I can't guarantee you that you'll all be here in three years.

DR. JULIA HIDALGO

I am very concerned that the tremendous amount of experience we have now in the HIV care system may potentially be lost.

FENSTON

Julia Hidalgo is a health policy professor at George Washington University. She's also a consultant and she's helping groups like Us Helping Us figure out how to adapt to the new health care landscape. She says the problem is that much of the grant funding that keeps them afloat will dry up, as many of the support services they currently offer will be shifted to a more coordinated primary care setting, not necessarily bad thing, except Hildalgo says that some groups fill very specific needs.

HIDALGO

Many of those organizations provide an excellent service to a very specific set of HIV-infected folks in the community, men who have sex with men, transgender population, racial or ethnic minorities.

FENSTON

The D.C. health department is working to help HIV/AIDS groups redesign. For one thing, the department has offered grants so organizations can hire consultants like Dr. Hidalgo.

MR. SAUL LEVIN

We need those organizations.

FENSTON

Saul Levin is the D.C. Health Department's interim director.

LEVIN

They're the people who truly are out in the community, can really reach out to the populations that they've taken care of throughout this whole epidemic. But we all know in the Affordable Care Act and the changing health care delivery system that all of us are going to have to change.

FENSTON

Groups that haven't ever had to worry about the complicated world of medical billing, for example, may have to figure out which of their services they can charge to insurance or Medicaid.

MR. ADAM TENNER

I feel like I'm moving onto a second career in health care finance to understand the landscape.

FENSTON

Adam Tenner is the executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, which provides prevention and other services to young people in D.C.

TENNER

We've looked for many years at becoming a Medicaid provider. And it's a not very pretty world inside Medicaid. Reimbursements tend to be low and slow.

FENSTON

He says his group is looking at how it can repackage the work it's currently doing. They're also considering expanding in other directions, asking…

TENNER

What are the other health issues that fit within how we do our work, that are also broader than HIV? We provide high-quality of services, but if there's no money to fund it--so we're exploring every option we possibly can.

FENSTON

Some organizations are already shifting focus. Us Helping Us is moving more toward mental health services, because it can bill insurance or Medicaid. And for HIV/AIDS groups that provide medical care, the path forward under health reform is much clearer. Don Blanchon is the CEO of Whitman-Walker Health, a clinic that specializes in HIV and AIDS.

MR. DON BLANCHON

From our perspective, it absolutely should help us financially.

FENSTON

He says about 10 percent of the clinic's patients don't have insurance.

BLANCHON

Right now for some portion of that final 10 percent of our patient base, we're having to raise a lot of money every year to cover the cost of care. So we should get some financial help or relief because some of those individuals now, obviously, we can bill for their care.

FENSTON

But it still means an adjustment.

BLANCHON

It kind of is a bit of a culture shock.

FENSTON

As more people get health insurance, they may have more options for treatment.

BLANCHON

So those folks who now are in that group where they're uninsured or underinsured and who come here because they see us as a safety net or they have no other place to go, they now are going to have coverage. And if they don't like the quality of the care and the customer service we provide, they'll have coverage and they'll be able to go to some other health center or some other private practice.

FENSTON

D.C. is already further along with health reform than most states. While many are still arguing over whether or not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the District already did, just months after the law was passed in 2010. Now, about 93 percent of residents have health insurance, but that doesn't mean everyone is getting the treatment they need. According to the D.C. Department of Health, just one in four residents diagnosed with HIV gets the necessary treatment and stays on it long enough to keep the virus under control. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

This story came to us through WAMU's Public Insight Network or PIN. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on topics we're covering. You can find out more about the network by visiting metroconnection.org/pin.

SHEIR

All right. We're going to head a bit north of D.C. now, up to Gaithersburg, to check out the design of a very special science lab. What sets this lab apart is actually pretty big. It's built for projects too small for the naked eye to see. Matt M. Casey as the story.

MR. MATT M. CASEY

Before visitors enter the NanoFab facility at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. they must first don an outfit called a bunny suit.

LUCIANI

Put these on the shoes. A couple of gloves. This is the optional face mask. It's personal preference, but the beard bags are just kind of more comfortable.

CASEY

That's Vincent Luciani, the manager of the NanoFab. The full outfit includes a hood, goggles and plastic overalls. Together it covers almost every inch of your body, but these outfits aren't meant to protect the people wearing them.

LUCIANI

Everything that we've put on to go in there is actually to protect the lab from you. Most of the bunny suit and all the stuff we're putting out here is to keep your personal particles to yourself.

CASEY

Those personal particles could spell disaster for the work going on inside. Most of the multimillion dollar machines are so sensitive that a misplaced dust speck could spoil an experiment.

LUCIANI

One dust particle, which can be 100 microns across, can wipe out an entire circuit.

CASEY

The nano in NanoFab stands for nanoscale. Fab stands for fabrication. The researchers here work on structures so tiny that they can't be seen even by the most powerful optical microscope, the kind that you might remember from your high school science class. When working at such a scale, scientists need specialized equipment, not only to create their structures, but also to assess them.

LUCIANI

We have a machine that you'll see in the back that can put down a layer, one-atom thick. Right? And with telemetry you can detect the presence of that one-atom thick layer.

CASEY

To protect machines like that the lab's safety measures extend far beyond bunny suits. A series of sliding doors divide the 8,000 square foot area. A card-logging system allows experimenters to use only those machines on which they've been trained, then there's the ventilation system.

LUCIANI

The entire ceiling is an air output. The entire floor is an air input. So you can't feel it, but all the air in this room gets changed over about five times a minute. So all the air is constantly moving down, so dust particles go straight down. Out in a normal office space or in your house, there's roughly about three-quarters of a million particles per cubic foot. In here there's 100.

CASEY

While the lab itself represents a collection of design challenges, the administrative structure of the lab represents an interesting design choice. The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, which houses the NanoFab along with other equipment and offices, allows any interested researcher to rent NanoFab equipment for an hourly fee.

MR. ROBERT CELOTTA

I should stress, it's a user facility, which means we are here, available to people to come and use our tool set in order to do this basic mission of facilitating technology, science, commerce.

CASEY

That's center director Robert Celotta. He says the NanoFab opened in 2006 with the goal to help advance the field of nano scale science and manufacturing.

CELOTTA

In terms of the research that's come out, one of our most productive programs has been a program which uses scanning tunneling microscopy to look at graphing.

CASEY

The substance and unusual arrangement of pure carbon, has been considered a miracle material for everything from water filtration to quantum computing, but the NanoFab machines used to investigate that material carry such high price tags that it can be difficult for even large companies to justify their purchase.

CELOTTA

The machines not only are expensive, but they don't last that long. Don't get the picture that they're wearing out, but they become technologically obsolete because the field is developing so rapidly.

CASEY

The Center uses a price structure that rewards those willing to publish their findings. If a company wants to keep it's processes private, it's allowed to, but that privacy comes with a higher hourly rate. In the short time since its opening the lab has gotten very busy.

CELOTTA

Five years ago we started with normal business hours of sort of 8:30 to 5:00. And we've extended it now so that we operate 17 hours a day. If you are a trusted user, that is you have passed the safety regulations, tests, etcetera, you're allowed to use the tools 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

CASEY

Celotta says researchers often have experiments running in the wee hours of the morning. Usually, those projects were started and left to run late the night before, but sometimes researchers can still be found at work in the lab at 3 a.m., which raises an interesting question about life design. But that's another story. I'm Matt M. Casey.

SHEIR

You can learn more about NanoFab and see pictures of some of that pricey equipment scientists use there, on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

Here in the D.C. region we have an internationally acclaimed bastion of design, the National Building Museum, which is featuring a new exhibit about design and eco-friendliness in our schools. Lauren Landau swung by the exhibit and by a D.C. school that's working to get students to go green.

MS. LAUREN LANDAU

Imagine an apartment building equipped for all needs, tastes and budgets.

MR. DAVID HILMY

Accommodation free on a first-come first-served basis, extended family, occupation encouraged, utilities included, located amidst one acre of private gardens with a gated entry and a garden penthouse on the roof.

LANDAU

If that sounds like a sweet set up, don't bother calling your real estate agent, unless you have six legs. That was physical education teacher David Hilmy describing the digs at the bug motel on the farm at Walker-Jones Education Campus, a preschool through grade eighth school in northwest. The farm is divided up into five fields, which are cared for by different grade levels.

HILMY

Everything on the farm, the kids are involved with. And instead of me having just one club, as it were, I have about 12 or 13 different student groups that I rotate through and they have different responsibilities on the farm.

LANDAU

Field 1, for example, belongs to the kindergartners and first graders who grow potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Students learn about scientific classifications, organic farming and how different insects, such as the farm's honeybees can lend a helping wing. But the farm serves another important purpose.

HILMY

We're kind of in a very ultra-urban, inner-city environment. About 95 percent of our kids are free/reduced school lunch kids. Obviously a Title I school.

LANDAU

Hilmy says the farm's primary purpose is to grow food, which the kids take home to help feed their families. There's even a kitchen lab where students learn how to cook the food. And the kids aren't the only ones reaping the benefits from the seeds they've sown. People from the local neighborhood can also enjoy the farm's fresh produce.

HILMY

So we have some older people living across the street. They'll come over with a plastic bag. They'll do a little bit of work for, you know, 10 or 15 minutes to have a bunch of collard greens or chard and they're happy with that.

LANDAU

In addition to the farm, the LEED Silver-certified school also boasts a 27,000 square foot green roof. But as Hilmy explains, design is just the first step in creating a truly green school.

HILMY

What really is required is some training and education. For example, with the green roof there was no maintenance contract put in place. No one was trained to maintain it. The roof failed.

LANDAU

Walker-Jones is featured in the new Green Schools exhibit at the National Building Museum. Curator Sarah Leavitt says that for many of these schools going green isn't the challenge, it's staying green.

MS. SARAH LEAVITT

When we talk to one of the architects that came to speak with us about what he does in terms of his green practice at his firm, he said, you know, we build this beautiful green school and then the day it opens everybody comes in and they use their same toxic chemicals and they are shading our beautiful daylighting windows and the day-to-day green is not really there.

LANDAU

Leavitt says this is a topic that touches many Americans, even if they don't realize it.

LEAVITT

Twenty percent of our population spends their day in a K-12 classroom. That's a lot of people. That's 60 million people every day. It's something that we can all relate to as community members, as parents, a concern that we all should have if we don't.

LANDAU

So what kind of problems are schools dealing with?

LEAVITT

Toxic cleaning chemicals, that's certainly one. One of them is the ribbon windows that are the narrow windows that don't open that don't allow a lot of daylight into the room. They don't allow the teachers to regulate the temperature in the room. One that we've seen, of course, in the last maybe 30 years is asbestos in the classroom.

LANDAU

The projects featured in the Green Schools exhibit range from composting programs to solar panels and green building materials to a school in Hawaii that actually has a river running through it. More than 40 schools are featured, including 10 in our region.

LEAVITT

It would be wonderful if people left the exhibition thinking about what they could do in their own communities and their own schools and really encourage those programs and really see the difference that this kind of thing can make for all of our kids.

LANDAU

D.C. resident Olivia Borland and her daughter Layla visited the exhibit on opening day. Layla is only 10 years old, but she will ultimately pursue her education at either Woodrow Wilson high school or School Without Walls senior high school. The latter of which is included in the Green Schools exhibit.

MS. LAYLA BORLAND

It was very interesting to see that School Without Walls was taking an initiative on being green. So let's say I go to School Without Walls, they probably have a lot of green projects, planting trees and all that stuff after school. So being part of one of those projects would be fun.

LANDAU

Sarah Leavitt says that the push for green schools often comes from the students themselves. And that a lot of these programs empower kids to think about what comes next. Back at Walker-Jones Education Campus David Hilmy is also looking toward the future.

HILMY

What will the world look like tomorrow or even in 50 years? We have no clue. We don't know how businesses will operate. We don't know how governments will operate. The one thing that is true is that we will still be in a threatened environment. And so for me, green living, or green education, that should be a habitual, normal part of living.

LANDAU

Hilmy says he wants to teach his students how to care for the environment just as he coaches them on how to take care of their bodies in gym class. Both are personal responsibilities he hopes they will carry into adulthood. I'm Lauren Landau.

SHEIR

The National Building Museum's Green Schools exhibit runs through next January. You can learn more about it and watch a video featuring some of our local green schools on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

Up next, a designer and activist whose legacy will never go out of fashion.

MR. TAZEWELL THOMPSON

So imagine she is a former slave who bought her own freedom and made these clothes for some of the city's most prominent women. Extraordinary.

SHEIR

That and more is coming your way on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.

SHEIR

Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week we are talking design. So far this hour we've learned the secrets behind one of the District's most ubiquitous architectural features, we've checked out innovations designed to get students to go green and in just a bit we'll hear about the first ever international design festival to be held right here in Washington, D.C.

SHEIR

First though, we're going to tip our hat to a master of design from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a master of clothing design who created couture for the creme de la creme of Washington society, including the first lady of the United States.

MS. SAMEERAH LUQMAAN-HARRIS

"Listen to me, I never have, nor never will send you forward without you looking your most extraordinary best. After all, you represent me, as well."

SHEIR

This is a scene from Mary T. & Lizzy K., the world-premiere play now running at Arena Stage in southwest D.C.

LUQMAAN-HARRIS

"Imagine for yourself, box pleats of gold taffeta, your bodice side drapes and back tabs in woven gold and copper stripes brocade--"

SHEIR

And this here is our designer extraordinaire, Lizzy K., a.k.a. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, the personal dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln.

MS. NAOMI JACOBSON

"The dress is going to be beautiful."

LUQMAAN-HARRIS

"Already is, even with pins holding it together."

SHEIR

The play explores the relationship these women developed during Mrs. Lincoln's time in the White House. And as playwright and director Tazewell Thompson points out, the two made for a rather unlikely pair.

THOMPSON

There was something so compelling and so complex and so unbelievable that during the 1860s, during the Civil War, that there would be this close and unique friendship between a former slave and the first lady of the land.

SHEIR

Indeed, Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in 1818, in Dinwiddie, Va. In 1852, she bought her and her son's freedom for $1,200. Eventually she made her way to D.C., where she opened her own dressmaking business.

THOMPSON

A thriving business. She made clothes for the top women of society in D.C., including Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

SHEIR

But in 1861, when Keckley met Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, the seamstress became the sole designer and creator of the first lady's wardrobe. And you can see an item from this wardrobe…

MS. LISA KATHLEEN GRADDY

She made this dress for Mrs. Lincoln. We believe it was worn in the winter social season, 1861-1862.

SHEIR

…at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of women's political history, can tell you all about it.

GRADDY

It's purple velvet, and it's really a skirt with two bodices. So there is a daytime bodice with a higher neck, longer sleeves. It's got beautiful mother of pearl buttons up the front, a little lace collar. Then as you're getting ready for evening, you can put on an evening bodice, which has a much lower neck, shorter sleeves.

SHEIR

It seems to show a lot of skin.

GRADDY

This is popular at the time, but Mary Lincoln was fond of a low-cut top. And there's a story that one time Mrs. Lincoln was wearing a dress with a low-cut bodice and a long train. And her husband remarked that she looked very nice, but the cat might be better if there was more of the tail up top.

SHEIR

Again, though, you have to remember Elizabeth Keckley was more than just Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker. She was also her friend.

GRADDY

You know, let's not kid ourselves that it's an equal relationship. But it's a very intimate thing to create clothes for somebody. And she had a relationship with the president and his children and frequently would, you know, brush Mr. Lincoln's hair. He called her Miss Lizbeth, and would ask her to smooth down his bristles.

SHEIR

Clearly, the Lincolns cared for Keckley. And they donated generously when, in 1862, she reached out to struggling former slaves by founding the Contraband Relief Association. In doing so, she was actually joining a network of highly-educated black women doing the same kind of thing.

MS. SYLVIA ROBINSON

Well, even though you probably didn't hear a lot about it because they were still black women and they were still not talked about prominently, this was a whole movement of reintegrating a whole new people into the society.

SHEIR

Sylvia Robinson runs the Emergence Community Arts Collective, a non-profit located in a big brick building at 733 Euclid Street Northwest. It's actually the same building that once housed the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, which Elizabeth Keckley helped found in 1863.

ROBINSON

And that organization was responsible for taking women and children off the street. And it would house them and clothe them and educate them.

SHEIR

But here's where our story takes an unfortunate twist. Despite Keckley's many successes, her liberation from slavery, her social activism, her position as private dressmaker to the First Lady of the United States…

SHEIR

It's my understanding that she died penniless?

ROBINSON

She did.

SHEIR

Here's what happened. It's 1867, okay. And the now-widowed Mary Todd Lincoln is hoping to raise some money.

GRADDY

She believes that she's impoverished and she's trying to raise money to take care of herself and her family.

SHEIR

And so, says Smithsonian curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy, Mrs. Lincoln asks Mrs. Keckley to join her on a trip to New York, so they can secretly sell some of her old dresses.

GRADDY

Mrs. Keckley was sort of a go-between with these brokers that Mary Lincoln was trying to engage to sell clothing.

SHEIR

But word of the endeavor got out and Mrs. Lincoln was severely criticized for, A, trying to unload her possessions and, B, trying to do it on the sly. In fact, the criticism was so harsh that the whole affair eventually earned a nickname.

GRADDY

The Old Clothes Scandal. And it actually prompts Mrs. Keckley to write her memoir.

SHEIR

Titled, "Behind The Scenes," or "Thirty Years a Slave And Four Years in the White House."

GRADDY

Because she's hoping to paint Mrs. Lincoln in a better light. She feels Mary Lincoln's misunderstood.

SHEIR

Basically, Keckley has the kindest of intentions. But once her book comes out, it's viewed as a ruthless, indiscrete tell-all that's anything but kind.

GRADDY

It actually generated more bad publicity for Mary Lincoln. And Mary Lincoln never spoke to her again. She felt betrayed by someone that she had called her dearest friend.

SHEIR

After the book, Keckley's clientele basically vanished. She managed to land a university teaching gig and organize a fashion exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. But it wasn't long before she found herself destitute. So she returned to Washington, D.C., and took refuge at, of all places, the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. And, in 1907, that's where she died.

SHEIR

That is so tragic.

GRADDY

It's very sad. It's really very sad.

SHEIR

But despite that sad ending, says Lisa Kathleen Graddy…

GRADDY

Nothing can take away the fact that this woman of incredible determination purchased her own freedom and that of her son and established an incredible business in Washington, D.C., became a philanthropist and the confidante of the first lady of the United States. That's an incredible move from being a slave in Dinwiddie, Va.

SHEIR

Which is why, back at Arena Stage, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, the actress portraying Elizabeth Keckley in Mary T. & Lizzy K., says she feels so honored to be playing this role.

LUQMAAN-HARRIS

She has an extremely intrepid spirit. She never gives up. She climbed her way out of slavery to become a superstar. I just don't know how you do that.

SHEIR

But, somehow, Mrs. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley did it all, weaving together strength, determination and prodigious talent to fashion a truly extraordinary life.

SHEIR

Mary T. and Lizzy K. runs through April 28 at Arena Stage. To see photos from the production, along with sketches of some of the costumes, visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

Our next story in today's design show is about the people who come up with new ways of thinking about everyday objects, like lamps or chairs. It's a field called industrial design. And you can attend shows dedicated to this specialty every year in places like Berlin, Vancouver, Dubai, and New York. Well, we can now add D.C. to that list. This year marks the first ever Washington, D.C. International Design Festival at Artisphere, in Rosslyn, Va. The festival kicked off about a month ago, and continues through the middle of May.

SHEIR

It's an assortment of film screenings, panel discussions and an ongoing exhibit of the latest and greatest in industrial design from all over the world. Emily Berman takes us to Artisphere to learn more about bringing international design to Washington, D.C.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

If you want to know what the 21st century looks like, you have come to the right place.

MR. DOUGLAS BURTON

So this is the plume sofa designed by the Borleck (sp?) brothers.

BERMAN

Douglas Burton and I are sitting on a couch that looks like a cherry jellybean. Burton is the curator of this exhibit, and the owner of Apartment Zero, an online boutique that sells the latest in home furnishings. This sofa is one of his favorite pieces in the show.

BURTON

It's really one large piece of molded foam, with a fabric stretched over it. It floats so beautifully off the ground.

BERMAN

Like most of the things he selected, it's a new take on an everyday object. That's what industrial design is, Burton explains, taking something we use and making it more efficient. And ideally, more beautiful. Take lighting, for example. There's a lamp, and then there's the Scott Franklin wet lamp.

BURTON

And at first, when you look at them, they almost look like a chemical experiment.

BERMAN

They're two glass containers that look like clear water balloons. In one glass, there's a skinny light bulb, submerged in salt water. That's connected with a wire to the other glass, where you see a metal rod sitting just above the water line.

BURTON

So as you push this metal rod into the water, it creates immediately an electrical current. So the salt acts as a conductor. The deeper you push this rod into the water, the brighter the light gets.

MS. ANNIE GROER

And it turns this ordinary light bulb into a piece of art.

BERMAN

Annie Groer is a D.C. based design writer and critic. The lamp impressed her because it changes the way we think about water and electricity. It forces us a little further into scientific contemplation, but her favorite object...

GROER

And I stared at it for a really long time, because I don't quite still know how it works, is the Dyson Bladeless fan. It costs under $300, and it blows like a bear.

BERMAN

Dyson, of Dyson vacuums, redesigned a fan to work without blades.

GROER

It looks like a large magnifying glass, so there's this big circle, on kind of a cylindrical base, and it's fascinating. It'll be conversation piece at your next party.

BERMAN

It doesn't look like anything you'd expect in the historic homes of Washington, D.C., but, Burton says, our super traditional reputation is quite outdated.

BURTON

Even though Washington is a traditional city, it has really dramatically changed since when I moved here in 1997. I have seen incredible changes in architecture, in interior design, in the type of products that people are buying. And you have people that love design just like you have people that love fashion.

BERMAN

And some of our design lovers, happen to be design makers as well. There are seven locals represented in the show. One of them is Polygraph Creative, which makes plastic covers for outlets. The covers are shaped like Band-Aids, signaling to kids that they shouldn't stick something in the socket, because it'll hurt. Burton also showcases an office chair, designed by Jeffrey Jenkins, who works out of northern Virginia.

BURTON

We all know that there are thousands of task chairs on the market, Knoll, Herman Miller. This, for example, just has a completely different way of looking at ergonomics.

BERMAN

Just across the gallery, there's another chair on view.

BURTON

But what you wouldn't necessarily know is that this completely folds flat. And it is bent into this three dimensional shape which can actually then hold up to 300 pounds.

BERMAN

And then there are more conceptual pieces. Like two ceramic birdhouses designed to look like houses of prayer.

BURTON

One of the birdhouses is a Christian church, and the other one is a Muslim mosque. The message here is, birds do not distinguish what religion they are interested in when it comes to finding their own home to nest in. They couldn't care less.

BERMAN

There are more than 150 pieces in the exhibit, and the common thread among them isn't always clear.

BURTON

You are seeing products designers, furniture designers, industrial designers doing things that are super minimal, super whimsical, over the top. What's happening now is probably a mix of every style that we've ever seen in industrial design. It's being chewed up, mixed up and spit out in a whole new way.

BERMAN

And even though it'll take another 50 years, Burton says, before we can say exactly what defined the style of this decade, bringing a design festival here to the nation's capital lets Washingtonians get in on that conversation. I'm Emily Berman.

SHEIR

The Washington D.C. International Design Festival runs through May 19th at Artisphere. For a list of festival events and to see photos of some of the pieces mentioned in the story, visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

And now, our weekly trip around the region. On today's Door to Door, we visit Brentwood, Md. and D.C.'s Dupont Park.

MS. ANEEKA HARRISON

My name is Aneeka Harrison. I am 35 years old, and I live here in Brentwood, Md. Brentwood, Md. is located between Mount Rainier, Md. and North Brentwood, Md. We go from Bladensburg Road all the way down to Allison Street, and then from 34th Street down to Volta. We have a variety of homes in Brentwood. A lot of the homes here are, I guess a cottage style house. We have some Cape Cod type houses.

MS. ANEEKA HARRISON

We have this thing now going on in Brentwood where we're having developers come into town and either properties that were abandoned due to foreclosure, or you know, were burnt down for a reason, they're building new homes, so we have a lot of new home building going on in Brentwood as well.

MS. ANEEKA HARRISON

The demographics have changed a little bit. When we moved here, I would say that it was a working class neighborhood. It's still somewhat of a working class neighborhood, but moving more to middle class. So I see that change with just the people that are moving into the town. It's an art district now, we're part of the Gateway Arts District. And there's development going on, and things of that nature happening that we've never had before.

MS. ANEEKA HARRISON

My favorite thing about living in Brentwood is that I can go to the city and I could have fun and you know, go out and see things, and then I can come back to a nice quiet neighborhood. That's my absolute favorite thing about Brentwood.

MS. BARBARA MORGAN

My name is Barbara D. Morgan, and the neighborhood that I live is considered Dupont Park, and for tax purposes, they have us as Hillcrest. We run from Eli Place all the way over to Pennsylvania Avenue, down to Fairlawn, which is right there at, just below the railroad track there, and all the way up to, I would say, Texas Avenue. We have some of the most gorgeous trees, and so forth, in this community. And as you ride through, we have beautiful homes over here.

MS. BARBARA MORGAN

It's unfortunate that our houses are not equated with the houses, price-wise, in Ward 4 or 3. But for me and some of us, I have been here, I wouldn't take anything for living in the southeast. We have deer, which is in the park, and we see those. And about two months or three months ago, I saw two fox. To me, it's the best the best country-in-city living.

SHEIR

We heard from Aneeka Harrison in Brentwood and Barbara Morgan in Dupont Park. If you think your neighborhood should be part of Door to Door, just send an email to metro@wamu.org. Or visit us on Facebook, that's Facebook.com/metroconnection.org. And to see a map of all of the doors we've knocked on so far, visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jacob Fenston, Emily Berman, and Lauren Landau, along with reporters Lauren Ober and Matt M. Casey. WAMU's managing editor of news is Memo Lyons. Metro Connection's managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our intern is Robbie Feinberg. Lauren Landau, Robbie Feinberg and John Hines produce Door To Door. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.

SHEIR

Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts" and our Door To Door theme, "No Girl" are from the album Title Tracks by John Davis, and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. All the music we use is listed on our website, metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song. Also on metroconnection.org, you can read free transcripts of stories. And if you missed part of today's show, you can hear the whole thing online anytime. You can also find us on iTunes and Stitcher.

SHEIR

We hope you can join us next week when we'll bring you a show on energy. We'll visit local communities at the epicenter of fracking and uranium mining debates in our region. We'll talk with the D.C. centenarians about the energy involved in living a long, healthy life, and we'll consider how a neighborhood's energy changes, when new residents come in.

WOMAN

I do feel that they don't want me here, and I have been here since '94.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir, and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
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