John Wiebenson

Sam Smith

2004

Architect John Wiebenson died the way he lived – helping somebody and fixing something. He had gone to Martha’s Table to check out a fumed filled space below an old auto garage planned as part of the social service organization’s expansion. The fire department said later that only 4% of the air down there was oxygen, not enough to keep someone alive. In fact, for several hours the only people who went in wore gas masks and hazmat clothing.

But Wiebenson was not easy to dissuade once he decided something needed to be done. And he had imported to this capital of risk aversion some of the casual affection for adventure of the Colorado in which he had been raised. Wieb, as everyone called him, simply did what he thought had to be done.

Which is one reason there was housing for Resurrection City in the 1960s and the Old Post Office is still on Pennsylvania Avenue and some of the niftiest maps of DC were published and Bread for the City got a new headquarters. And some landscaping. The Washington Post reported that the organization had told Wieb it couldn’t afford any landscaping. The executive director “arrived at the site one Sunday to find Wiebenson there, digging with a shovel and pulling weeds.”

Wieb was also one of that tiny party of architects who really understand that buildings are meant to serve people and not the other way around. He also understood that one of the ways this happened is with spaces that made you happy. Joanne Leonard wrote in the Washington Post, “With cutout paper letters stuck to the window of his Connecticut Avenue office, John Wiebenson identifies himself and his partner, Kendall Dorman, as ‘basic’ architects.”

I knew that office well because for 23 years I was a subtenant in a back room at ridiculously low rent. It was a complicated arrangement because while I was Wieb’s tenant, he was my cartoonist, and I had the only fax machine on the floor. And the only bathroom. Wieb created for the DC Gazette (now the Progressive Review) the first urban planning comic strip in the country, Archihorse, a subtle graphic blend of his professional and geographic background.

One of the things I noticed along the way was how comfortable Wieb was with something that either bores or baffles some architects – the details of making your dreams actually function. There was just no conflict in Wieb’s mind between imagination and results. It had to be different and it had to work.

His house was right around the corner on S Street where he lived with Abigail – his wife, anchor to windward, enthusiast, calmer down, brightener up, and head of Lowell School – plus three sons striving to outdo their father in independence, competence, and humor. They lived in an anarchistic mélange of styles, but mostly in a place that, while lacking the look, still somehow had the feel of a western cabin that you had just entered after a long ride in the snow.

It was there that Wieb had presided over Wild Man Nights, Friday meals at which he and his young sons would prepare and eat a meal without any utensils or normal table manners, picking up steaks in their hands and smashing baked potatoes with their fists while reading and discussing the latest comic books. Like most of what Wieb did or built, Wild Man Nights had several primary characteristics: they were different, they were fun, and they worked.

What you have read here over the years has been deeply affected by my proximity to this remarkable man who loved freedom and common sense and helped me to cling on to them. I hope I can still do it without his encouragement and laughter.

Comments at the dedication
of the John Wiebenson playground
Mary 22, 2006

SHORTLY AFTER IT OPENED, I spent a week inside the National Air and Space Museum working on an article for a British magazine. It was the only such institution in the history of Washington that had opened three days early and a half million dollars under budget. As I wandered about, I began noticing something else unusual: the people who created this museum enjoyed it as much as I did. There was a mini-exhibit about the starship Enterprise. And there was a pie tin from the Frisbee Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. I mentioned this to the deputy director. He immediately got up from his desk, went to the closet, pulled out a Frisbee, and then commenced to give me a pleasant lecture on the aerodynamics of the device. Later, I noticed some model plane kits shoved amongst the data in a lateral file, apparently waiting for someone to open them up and start building them over lunch.

At the end of the week, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, rudely remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in his museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, “There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them.”

Those who knew John Wiebenson know why I tell this story, for Wieb similarly understood that childhood was not something to grow out of but to build upon.

He also understood some other things. Such as Albert Einstein’s shrewd observation that imagination is even more important than knowledge. And the point columnist Russell Baker made that too many people in Washington think they are being serious when they are only being somber. John Wiebenson clearly understood the difference.

And in how many different ways did these wise perceptions manifest themselves: Planning of Resurrection City on the Mall for nearly 3,000 members of the Poor People’s Campaign just a few weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Helping mightily to save the Old Post Office Building. Drawing one of the niftiest maps of the city. Bringing Bread for the City a new headquarters. And creating the country’s first urban planning comic strip, Archihorse.

My friendship with Wieb was easy, my working relationship a little more complicated. He was my landlord and I rented his back office for 23 years. But I was also the editor who published his cartoons and, perhaps more importantly, had the only fax, copier and bathroom on the floor. So, as long as I paid the rent, I remained slightly ahead.

When I walked out of my office I looked directly into his at the end of a short hallway. Sometimes Wieb would be bent over his high desk figuring how to where to put the bathroom or skylight. . . Sometimes he would be talking to a contractor with a remarkably detailed knowledge of the work to be done. . . And sometimes he and his partner, Kendall Dorman, would be sitting around a low coffee table, covered several times over with books, folders, and samples of window moldings, bricks and other construction effluvia, reading the paper, drinking coffee, and discussing a recent comic strip. While contributing to the office’s enthusiasm, skill, or public concern, Kendall also added some Midwestern sanity to the aura of the Wild West that floated around Wieb, who was a true son of uninhibited and then mostly uninhabited Colorado.

Wieb’s approach to fatherhood was as interesting as some of his designs, including the infamous Wild Man Nights when the family ate steak with their fingers, mashed baked potatoes with their fists, and read and discussed comic books at the table.

And what did this produce? Well, there’s son John, director of operations at Martha’s Table, so competent and kind that his first name is “Let’s Ask” as in Let’s Ask John. There’s Derek, director of product development for something that I can’t even pronounce. And then there’s Sam, whom I have to constantly remind is only the penultimate Sam on this planet, but who has risen from being, while in high school, John’s and my combination trash hauler and computer expert to becoming a highly skilled something or other at the Rand Corporation. I’m not cleared to know exactly what but strongly suspect it involves creating a hybrid RV. About a year and a half ago, Sam told me how to deal with a laptop malfunctioning during a damp summer. He said to put it in the oven. Initially stunned, I then thought: well, that sounds like something his father would have said. Since it was either Best Buy or the oven, I put it in for an hour at 150 degrees and it still functions to this day.

Now, it is true that having so much talent, imagination, and fun in one home is actually a violation of the DC Housing Code, but they never got in trouble thanks to a critical factor: Abigail Wiebenson, wife, mother, and luckily a wonderful educator well used to dealing with boys with various attention disorders. She added peace to chaos and direction to anarchy, though it must be admitted that it often had the feel of Rostropovich trying to conduct the Rolling Stones.

One of the times I miss Wieb is when new issues com up. Like the reports that a city government that helped chase over 100,000 children out of town over the past three decades thinks that small schools and playgrounds aren’t cost effective. And so a lot of them will be closed. This despite evidence such as the study that found “when students from similar backgrounds are compared, those in smaller schools are safer, have higher graduation rates and test scores and are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities. They’re also likely to have involved parents and more satisfied teachers.”

I know something about this because I went to an elementary school just about the size of Ross. It was, in fact, also on R Street just 13 blocks to the west of here. But unlike Ross, at Jackson we only had 4 teachers for 160 kids. Two of the teachers were maiden sisters, known to everyone as the Fat Miss Waddy and the Thin Miss Waddy. The Fat Miss Waddy was sweet and kind, the Thin Miss Waddy was tough as nails, and together with the other teachers at this understaffed and inefficient school, they helped produce – just among my contemporaries – one head of the Catholic University art department, one director of energy in Puerto Rico, one professor of urban planning, and a NY Times reporter.

And here’s another interesting thing: the DC city government actually closed Jackson in an economy move two weeks before the start of a school year. All the furnishings were removed. But the parents petitioned and managed to reverse the move and classes resumed only two days late.

When I heard about the proposed new school closings, I thought about Wieb. I imagined suggesting to him that all the students in endangered schools be given T shirts that read, “DON’T LET A LOUSY CONDO REPLACE MY COOL CLASSROOM’ and then have them stage a mass march on the school headquarters. An image leaped to my mind of Wieb stopping his work on a new house, pulling out some of that strange textured architect’s paper and sketching a design, complete with Archihorse’s face. And then arguing with me over the words ‘lousy’ and cool.’ It made me miss him all over again.

Then the old labor song came back
We shall not, we shall not be moved
We’re fighting for our children,
We shall not be moved

Especially now there is this great playground from which we shall not be moved, the ultimate school without walls. Yes, to succeed one must pass those tests inside, learn to spell and count, and get your work done on time. But out here is where the body is strengthened, happiness blossoms and dreams are born. I ask the teachers to remember this when you are little slow coming back in. Certainly Wieb would understand if not, in fact, being a co-conspirator in your delay.

Out west they say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens on the Ross playground can be with you the rest of your life. Use it well and if you want to thank Wieb, just make somebody smile.

A BIT OF WIEB

 

 

 

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