About Haley Morgan

Senior at Vanderbilt University.

The Chilling Past of the Columbia Residences

          When I think of where I live, I think first of the cold. I’ll often walk my dog down 25th Street late at night, when you can walk around in the heart of Washington, DC and not see a single trace of other people except for a light on in one of the dozen or so apartment buildings across the street. I’ll dig my left hand deep down in my pocket, and clutch at the leash the small dog pulls, anxious to get out of the blustery December air. After I walk past the darkened windows of Trader Joe’s, I’ll turn left and see the dark, looming, shapeless building. Skirted by small lights illumining the sidewalk that leads to the front door, the nine-story building fades into the black sky, its slanted roof crowned by a single beacon of light.

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         The building that was once the Columbia Hospital for Women has occupied the site that is now located at the corner of 24th Street and L Street since 1870. In response to the influx of women entering the city in search of missing relatives, the Secretary of War E. N. Stanton designated funds to establish the fifty-bed hospital, specifying that twenty beds be held for widows of Civil War soldiers. Health care facilities in the metropolitan city were laden with injured soldiers, and the women entering the city often faced adversity in pursuit of care. The Columbia Hospital for Women and Lying-in Asylum originally opened in the Hill Mansion at Thomas Circle, but quickly relocated and expanded in 1914 to its current location. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill over to its board of directors, and it became a private, non-profit hospital. Breaking ground in obstetric and gynecology techniques, the Columbia Hospital for Women was the birth site for more than 250,000 babies since its founding in 1866.1

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          The Columbia Residences, a luxury 225-unit, $140 million development of the historic Columbia Hospital for Women, an Italianate building dating from the late 19th century, has several units for sale!2 With the recent addition of two wings on the west and east sides, the building sits on the corner of 24th and L Street, smack dab between bustling downtown and trendy-chic Georgetown – what more could you ask for? How about access to the building’s private rooftop swimming pool, full gym, covered garage, and round-the-clock security service? Still not sold? You’ll have stunning views of the National Cathedral, Georgetown University, and the Potomac River to the East, and K Street, the White House, and the Washington Mall to the West! Steps away from the Foggy Bottom Metro Station, the Columbia Residences is the quintessential location for everything Washington – call to make your appointment to tour TODAY!

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         The cold, white hallway to the gym on the west side of the apartment building feels like a hospital. Halfheartedly decorated with nondescript floral paintings, identical to the hallway upstairs, I rarely pass anyone else as I walk through the least-populated floor of the building. Even at the heart of the Nation’s Capital, the only sound I hear are my keys jingling as they hang off of one finger, and the soft, muffled sound of my feet hitting the drab, olive green carpet. I walk down the hallway further, down a handicapped ramp, and wave the censor on my keychain. A piercing beep indicates my permission to enter the gym. The stark white, sterile walls and overhead florescent lights are almost blinding. A large fan stands on the far side of the room, plugged in, and turned on full speed. The elliptical machines, treadmills, and weights are lined up orderly against the walls, and I feel a chill up my spine when I remember the history my father shared with me about the room: I am standing in the Columbia Hospital for Women’s morgue.

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            After my parents agreed to separate in 2007, my father moved from our family home into a two-bedroom floor unit in the Columbia Residences. Having worked for the company that developed the old hospital, he knew the history of each room before he decided where he wanted to live, and chose the floor unit despite its close proximity to the former morgue. The building’s history is marked by deaths and births, by ends and beginnings. It remains to this day a place for lost spouses, seeking refuge, and looking for answers. The place that represents the end of one chapter of my father’s life is not represented by the new life of the building, but rather the cold, eerie history seeps through the walls and hangs in the air, undeniable and unavoidable. 

The Value of History to Place

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     The image above is of a barn on my aunt and uncle’s farm in Nokesville, Virginia. They live in an old plantation home that they purchased in the 70’s after they were married out of high school. As part of one the oldest properties in their county, only this barn and the original home where they live (not pictured) are part of the original plantation. They have since built two new homes (for their two grown children’s families), a swimming pool, and wildlife reserve/pond. The home has been featured in several local publications for all of the work they have done to it.

      What many people do not know (including a few of my cousins who have actually lived in the house) is that the home is the site of a horrible massacre of an entire family. My mother showed me the newspaper article when I was in high school, but told me to never tell my younger cousins who it would impact most. The home was owned by a man who lived there with his wife and five children (and I can’t remember the years, so please forgive me!), and they had about 7-8 slaves. One night, while the family slept, there was an uprising amongst the slaves, and they brutally killed the entire family and fled. Only 3 or 4 were ever caught. This story reminds me a lot of the erasure of history that we have been discussing in both relation to photography and memory. Images do not give us any more information than what we can plainly see, but the one time my mother showed me the article about the uprising has been burned into my memory.

 

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     What if I told you this was the door to the slave quarters that no one else knew about? This is where the men and women lived who killed the couple who oppressed them and their innocent children. The door is locked. No one has the key. No one has ever entered the home, and no one knows what is in it. Would there be answers to where the slaves who escaped ended up? Would there be clues to how hard they had it, to the point where they would kill an entire family?

    There would not. This is a door of one of the small cottages at Vanderbilt we visited on our tour, built to house undergraduate students during the early years of the University. By prescribing meaning to an image, we give it life, and we give it meaning. We have the power to create history and deepen memory. The power of imagery is profound, and it’s immediate relationship to history shows how possible it is to completely change our perception of what really happened in a certain place.

One Place, Two Stories

This is the Columbia Residences, the apartment building where I live in D.C.

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It is right between Georgetown and downtown DC, and is considered a very desirable location for those, like my dad, who work downtown and want to be close to the restaurants, shops, and other conveniences of Georgetown. He was one of the first tenants of the Columbia Residences after the company he works for developed it into condominiums in 2006. He has a two bedroom condominium on the first floor.

This is the Columbia Hospital for Women (circa 1920)

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Opened in 1870 shortly after the Civil War, the hospital was created due to a shortage of medical care facilities in the area. Secretary of War E. N. Stanton indicated that funds be set aside to establish this 50-bed hospital, as long as 20 of these beds were reserved for the wives and widows of U.S. soldiers. Half of the first floor was the site of the morgue.

When looking at the photography of Jessica Ingram, I immediately thought of my home. Not necessarily because any brutalities took place here (that I know of), but instead because of unknown. I didn’t know what took place in this building until I moved in with my dad six months after he had moved downtown, and he tried to keep it from me, knowing about my intense childhood fear of ghosts. However, the placard above the front door of the building still reads “Columbia Hospital for Women”, and the history of the land the building stands on, and the impurity of place, is ever-present. 

Memories Forgotten

Aside

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          As one of my favorite photographs of my dad and I, the three seconds when this image was captured remains to be one of my most vivid childhood memories. It was taken on a hot, humid summer afternoon at my grandmother’s house in Texas when I was four or five years old, and my grandmother had bought a pinata for my brother and I. I remember having a blindfold tied around my head, snagging my hair in the knot, and my dad spinning me around several times before leading me to the pinata. I remember tilting my head back, sure that no one would notice if I peaked out from under the handkerchief. I remember swinging, and triumphantly hitting the pinata, although no damage was done to the colorful paper mache parrot…..

Or do I?

This picture represents an example of the effect a photograph can have on one’s memory. While I’m certain there is no way I would have recalled this memory without photographic evidence, once I see the picture, I can feel the blindfold on my face, I can sense the warm, humid Texas air, and I can remember the mischievous satisfaction I got from peaking out from under the blindfold. Whether photography has the power to jog memories, or whether it actually recreates moments in time, there is undoubtedly a positive correlation between the details of a photograph and the depth of a memory. I do not remember anything else about this trip besides this picture, so what would it take to conjure those details? I doubt that a story my mother might tell me about my time there would have the same effect. The image stirs something in the viewer, whether they are in the picture or not, and allows them to make a sensory connection to a time and place that they may have otherwise stored away in their memory, never to be recalled again.

Creating Memories through Lying

Jogging Memory through Photograph… Or do I even actually have the capability of remembering this moment?

I found the last portion of Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood the most difficult to imagine, and thus do justice to with one of my own photographs. However, upon further thought, I began to really think about memory and the power that we have as individual to create them for ourselves, and essentially fool ourselves into believing the imaginary event actually took place. When I was a child, I frequently found myself in my parents’ bad graces when I would lie about what I had been doing. I don’t know why I did it (I was always afraid to break rules, so I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble for anything), but I would still invent stories. So now, I have found that many times I am forced to question certain memories I have, asking myself whether they really took place or not, similar to Perec.

Also like me, Matalon creates memories, however she provides concrete proof that the memory “took place” through photographs. Had I seen a photograph of myself on ice skates in a sparkly uniform, perhaps now, 14 years later, I would believe my own childhood lie that I had taken ice skating lessons and was going to start competing. We can use a photograph of a deceased person to remind ourselves that they actually existed, just like we can use a photograph to validate (or is it convince) ourselves that a moment actually occurred. So the question is (and perhaps I’m jumping the gun on the overarching lesson in the course), does photography actually increase or decrease the value of memories?

The photograph I posted above is of my mother, my brother, and myself in 1992. My mother is a flight attendant and would work on the weekend when my dad was home to stay with us. I don’t remember being upset when she would leave, but I remember having fun with my dad and my brother, and being so excited for her to come home on Sunday, like in this picture. Is this true? Was I really unmoved by her leaving? Did I talk about her, or miss her? Did I ever ask her why she left us every weekend? There is a gap in my knowledge, but the only thing I remember is being excited to see her, like in this picture. Did this picture create one of my earliest memories?

(Lack of) Value in Portrait

“In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time. This is what gives them their melancholy and incomparable beauty,” (108).

 

I hate this photograph. It was taken over Thanksgiving break when my friend Catie and I travelled to London to visit friends, and had afternoon tea at Harrods. We splurged after walking around all day, and ordered an entire spread: sandwiches, croissants, and pastries. The second the waitress sat them down on our table, we dug in, and before we knew it, we had devoured the first two layers of the beautifully crafted display. I immediately regretted that I had failed to capture a picture of the tray, but luckily, the people who sat down next to us had ordered the same thing, and it was being set on their table right as soon as my regret sat in. I asked them if I could take a picture of their feast, secretly longing to get the chic British couple in the shot, but they both sat back in their seats, avoiding my lens. I love candid pictures, capturing people in their natural environments, enjoying their tea and making eyes at each other over the table, and was disappointed by my poorly-composed image.

In regards to this photograph, I can understand Benjamin’s claim in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility” in section VII that the human face brings a certain value to many photographs. There is nothing to wonder about this photograph, there is nothing particularly intriguing or interesting about its composition, there is no human interaction that leaves the viewer curious to know more about the relationship or thoughts going through the subjects head. However, as Benjamin deduces, images without a subject can “unsettle the viewer [as he] feels challenged to find a particular way to approach them,” (108).

This image was taken on the same trip in a quiet side street near our hotel. Similar to Atget’s photographs of streets in Paris, I find this photograph haunting, and almost eerie. How is a city known to be bustling with residents, visitors, and students studying abroad so quiet? Without a caption, and without an explanation, the viewer would never know this was taken around dinnertime on a Sunday. The lack of people is, in fact, what makes this picture so special and so haunting to me personally. It exemplifies Benjamin’s explanation of the value of photography in capturing the details, the contrast, and the ironic emptiness of a place.

Challenging Barthes’s Punctum

What does it take to move someone through photography? Does one have to be emotionally connected to the object or person being captured, or does recognizing the story behind a photograph allow for the same haunting, jarring, or otherwise disturbed feeling one gets when being visually exposed to history? Barthes suggests that a certain emotional connection to a photograph, or the punctum, is the reaction one immediately experiences the first time they look at a photograph. This response lingers with the viewer like a wound. However, not all photographs can elicit the prick – Barthes maintains that one must have a personal connection to the moment in time – and any photograph cannot simply move you. The question that I struggle with when evaluating Barthes’s argument is: how emotionally involved must one be in a particular moment in history to find value in a photograph?

I. Connected to the photograph itself because of the story behind it

The photograph I posted of the four generations of men preceding my father undoubtedly pricks me. I admitted in the post that the story behind the photograph, the essential lie that the fake poses attempt to cover up, is what gives the photograph value to me personally. It represents the end of this family and the beginning of the new one, where the only remnant that remains is not event the family name, but instead the dark brown eyes that all of the men in my family have carried on. Similar to Barthe’s Winter Garden Photograph, my photograph, “at most [might] interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound,” (p. 73). Perhaps after knowing the story, however, an outside viewer could be moved enough to feel the prick of the similar brown eyes, or perhaps find their own punctum.

II. Interested in the mystery behind the photograph

            Another post similarly places value on a photograph she does not necessarily have an emotional connection to. However, instead of being moved by the story that explains it, she is moved by not having an explanation. Alexlouisealonso’s post, “Mystery to me,” defines the punctum according to Barthes almost identically, stating that, “the punctum holds all of the personal ties, emotional reactions, and feelings that the viewer hast to the photograph.” The author claims that the mystery of the Spanish captions telling her the time and place of the photograph, combined with her “own absent connection with [her] ancestry is, in Barthes’ terms, the ‘wound’ that [she] discovered.” She is not moved by the story of the photograph, nor the emotional connection she holds with a single person in the photograph, but with the mystery surrounding the moment in time.

III. Moved because of the relationship depicted in the photograph

            Similar to the aforementioned posts, hannahfiasco admits that, “to an outsider the image above is nothing.” While the story behind the image is what affects me, as an outsider, the author is moved – similar to Barthes – by the relationship she shares with the additional subject in the photograph. Unlike the two previously discussed posts, this image “represents what [the author] considers the most powerful device of photograph – its ability to actually trigger memory.” Thus, the punctum strikes her in a different way than the punctum of my photograph strikes me, which is different from the way Alexlouisealonso’s photograph strikes her. Photography for hannahfiasco is valuable because it triggers memories that she may have forgotten. The value in her photograph does not speak of death, as Barthes suggests his Winter Garden Photograph does, but instead allows her to reflect on the happier moments she shared with her stepfather, bringing true value to the art of photography as it helps her overcome her grief.

Through these three photographs, it is evident that photography can move anyone –even outsiders with no connection to the subjects – in remarkable ways. All images are valuable; they reflect a moment of time that was deliberately captured and preserved. Whether explanation, relationships, or even mystery is involved with finding the viewer’s personal punctum, every photograph has the potential to wound, for “reality itself is the wound,” (p. 49) and a photograph is a representation of, “not a memory, an imagination, a reconstitution… but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real,” (p. 82). To say a photograph does not have value is to say time does not have value, and reality does not have value. The punctum is an internal feeling toward a real moment in time that just so happened to be captured.