Images of America: Woodley Park

Reading for Summer Camp

Reviewed by Michael K. Wilkinson

Get ready, Woodley Park. You’re about to get attacked by the mad purveyor of historical factoids.

I really, really don’t want to recycle all the phrases and linguistic tricks I have used in the past writing reviews for this newspaper on earlier installments by author Paul K. Williams in the DC editions of Arcadia’s “Images of America” series. But it is so difficult not to slip into the now-trite “Did you know?” motif for introducing Williams’ latest delightful work of photographic and factual research. There is so much in this book that I want to tell you about, because I think you will revel in the silliness, fascination and obscurity of the facts and photographs that he has presented. For this review, however, I will try to simply convey the facts.

Something New in Things Old

Two things set this book apart from the author’s previous works in the series: First is a clearly emerging trend in the photographs and the facts revealed toward the “camp.” Throughout this book, on a neighborhood as stately and elegant as Woodley Park, Williams and his co-author Gregory Alexander have found highly entertaining snippets of history that make you think twice about how conservative-looking the area really is today.

Having met the authors numerous times, I can just hear the late-night cackling that rang through the corridors of Williams’ apartment building, as the authors were trying to write captions for the book, but were
only able to create a ludicrous fictional dialogue between characters in a photograph. If you put your imagination into it, you too, can probably create a very rich story to accompany each of the images. It will be best if you shed your “buttoned-down” image of the neighborhood as you read the book, look through the pictures and imagine life in Woodley Park as seen through the eyes of Williams and Alexander.

The second difference is in the organizational structure of the book. It is set up into six sections: Early Estates; Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo; Impressive Bridges and the Subsequent Housing Boom;
Churches, Commercial Areas and Grand Hotels; Introduction of Apartment Buildings; and the Washington National Cathedral. Williams has written most of his earlier books in either chronological order or geographically. This new structure, in this reviewer’s opinion, makes a lot of sense, and allows the authors to maximize the impact of their photographs and historical facts.

A Few Minor Shortcomings

My main criticism of the book, and this is not of the author’s doing, but applies to the entire Arcadia series, lies with the publisher’s very unimaginative layout for their its, which, after four by this author on our
neighborhoods, is getting old.

Type is completely non-distinctive and, in this reviewer’s opinion, undersized, and hugs the bottoms of the photographs too closely. The elements of the pages are not balanced very well: photographs fill a sizeable
portion of the page, with a disproportionately small and narrow band of text hugging the photograph, with the remainder of the page filled with ungraceful white space. To me, it feels like hearing an accomplished pianist hit a wrong note in the middle of every song he is playing. It could have been so much more compellingly presented.

Also, the book concludes rather abruptly on page 128, the last page in every book in the series. The ending
might as well be the middle of the book. You’re left wondering whether a final chapter got left out. Perhaps this feeling just comes from the fact that American readers expect an ending to their stories.

One last shortcoming that needs to be mentioned is that, by the nature of the age and obscurity of many of the photographs uncovered by the authors and reproduced in the book, the images in the book are often muddy and flat. Certainly, little can be done to spruce up a century-old copy of a photo that was never very good to begin with. However, taken together with the layout concerns noted above, this reviewer finishes the book feeling as though it falls somewhat flat, visually. For a picture book, more contrast is needed, and a higher proportion of visually simple, uncluttered images might be the answer if these books must stop at page 128.

The Reviewer Gives In to Temptation

That said, it is in the combination of images, extremely informative and often irreverent text, and an overall sense that the authors had an alternative motive, not specifically spelled out anywhere in the book, to infuse as much “campy” imagery and folklore in the book as they could, that makes this book shine.

OK, I give up. I can’t resist making a list for you, as a way of piquing your interest enough to want to buy the book. (At least the review has not dipped into the tried and true “Did you know?” trick this reviewer
has overused in previous reviews.) What are some of the images selected by the authors to illustrate this stately neighborhood?

  • A leggy female Maret student sitting with the school’s two obedient French poodles, Cyrano and Caniche, reading aloud for the class (and the dogs?);
  • Famed developer Harry Wardman lounging on his side on a lawn, doffing a top hat for the camera;
  • Speaking of Wardman, the builder’s butler holding up a live opossum, by the tail no less, found on the lawn of Wardman’s massive (then semi-rural) estate;
  • The Zoo—what more do we need to mention on this? Monkeys, elephants, penguins, and shrieking boys and girls, not to mention a five-piece band and a dancing flapper wooing the polar bears sometime in the 1920s;
  • Speaking of flappers, what is shown of the stately Wardman Park hotel? Six fat, furry cats shown by two overdressed, furclad flappers during an annual cat show hosted by the hotel, also in the ‘20s.

This book is summer camp for city slickers. Despite some production shortcomings, it is just a hoot to read, and should provide great summer party conversation (along with any of the other books in this series) if you place the book strategically on a coffee table or kitchen counter when you have guests over. Enjoy it!