Befitting a game best known for Mad Hatter dimensions and a deep appreciation for all things pirate and/or windmill, the National Building Museum's minigolf exhibit is by turns whimsical and thought-provoking, kitschy and surreal.
It's also brutal on visitors' scorecards.
"I don't know if anyone has shot par," said Holly Wiencek, a Building Museum intern. "Everyone I've heard from is way, way over."
Surprise. Delight. A backdoor architectural education. Relief from Washington's soggy summer heat. Many, many mulligans.
Such are the elements of the museum's newest attraction, an indoor, fully playable 12-hole minigolf course designed and built by local architects, construction firms and urban planners.
Eschewing traditional minigolf tropes — think fanciful castles, papier-mache dinosaurs and scale replicas of the Egyptian Sphinx — the exhibit features a series of unique concepts, including one hole shaped like a skateboarding half-pipe and another inspired by the glowing innards of a smartphone.
The museum's goal? Offer something fun — and also make people more aware of the constructed world around them, the streets, monuments and federal buildings that make Washington a living city and not just a cluster of trees alongside the Potomac River.
"We want people to walk out of here understanding the built environment and looking at buildings differently," said Cathy Frankel, Building Museum vice president for exhibitions and collections. "It's sort of silly, but minigolf does that in a fun and different way."
Mini to the max
Once upon a time in America, minigolf was, well, maxi.
(Important tangent: Among serious players and aficionados, minigolf is called putt-putt. Not garden golf, rinky-dink golf, crazy golf, goofy golf, pee-wee golf or wacky golf. Putt-putt. Knowledge is power.)
Putt-putt's origins date to 1867, when the Ladies' Putting Club of St. Andrews was founded in Scotland. All-female and all-putts, all the time, the organization was born out of the widespread belief that regular golf — note: the future sport of John Daly — was too strenuous for women to play, at least if they had to lift their clubs past their shoulders.
(Putt-putt: a Tiki-hut-based tool of the patriarchy! Again, knowledge is power.)
Fast forward to the 1920s, when a Tennessee man, Garnet Carter, opened a golf club next to his Chattanooga hotel. According to lore, Mr. Carter's practice putting green proved so popular that he expanded it into a short pitch-and-putt course.
Calling his pitch 'n' putt paradise the Tom Thumb course, Mr. Carter took two crucial steps: charging admission and purchasing the patent rights to the use of cotton-seed hulls for minigolf greens. Sales subsequently exploded — so much so that a breathless 1931 article in Modern Mechanics called putt-putt a "1930 Gold Rush that has sent real estate values skyrocketing and banks hiring extra tellers."
The same article cited a Commerce Department report claiming $125 million was invested in 50,000 minigolf courses around the country.
According to the Building Museum exhibit, there are just 5,000 minigolf courses in the United States.
"It was very surprising to me to find out how many more courses there were in the 1920s," said Sarah Levitt, a Building Museum curator. "I kept seeing references to minigolf courses on rooftops in New York City.
"Carter was credited with starting the obstacles. His hotel was called the Fairyland Inn, and he had fairies and elves and hollowed-out tree trunks. The windmills and tiki huts came later, in the 1950s. All of the courses from the 1920s were run-down. The industry was falling off, and they tried to rev it back up."
Building Museum officials settled on minigolf as a way to attract children and families, take advantage of their large, air-conditioned indoor space and create what Ms. Frankel called a "town square environment."
The Building Museum isn't the first institution of its kind to embrace minigolf. Art museums in New York City, Houston, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Boca Raton, Fla., have exhibited popular, playable artist-designed courses with avant-garde holes ranging from a model White House made from pill bottles to a hole that requires visitors to ride a stationary bike while putting.
Reaching out to Washington-area architects and designers, the Building Museum gave purposefully vague directions: Create a hole that relates to "the built environment."
Local architect Erik Hoffland was asked to participate but declined because of time constraints. He said the task is harder than it seems.
As an architecture student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Mr. Hoffland designed and built a minigolf hole as part of a departmentwide challenge.
"The challenge that architects have with this is that we're always so serious about our work, designing things that will stand the test of time and hold up under the scrutiny of future designers," he said. "But with minigolf, it's really about whimsy, being playful.
"Most architects aren't used to catering to that. We often try to put ourselves in the minds of our clients. In this case, the client is different. It's children and families. So we have to let our guard down, be a little off the wall."
Carmel Greer took up the challenge. Owner of the local District Design firm, she drew on her childhood minigolf experience — playing with her cousins on "supercheesy, neon" courses along North Carolina's Outer Banks — and her graduate school work on 18th-century Italian architect Giambattista Piranesi, well-known among architects for his surreal style and use of incomplete shapes.
Ms. Greer's concept? A slick-surfaced, multihole, half-pipe design inlaid with a graphic inspired by a Piranesi etching of Rome.
Ms. Greer said the most difficult part of the project came en route to the Building Museum, when her creation fell off a delivery truck.
"One of the wooden side panels broke," she said. "Fortunately, the museum has a great wood shop, and we were able to make a replacement. It was kind of hilarious.
"We generally do condo conversions, single-family homes, restaurants, projects that need plumbing and heating. No golf balls flying around. So this was fun."
Over par for the course
Piranesi's Half Pipe is something else: devilishly difficult. Players putt from the bottom of a half circle, aiming for three holes drilled along the half pipe's incline.
Miss a shot, and the ball rolls back to you. Over and over and over again.
"We wanted to make ours challenging," Ms. Greer said. "It's funny, because it looks really easy. Everybody thinks, 'I'll whack the ball once, and it will go in.'
"I've watched a bunch of people play it. Some get it in right away. I think you do that or die trying."
According to the exhibit, the chances of making two holes-in-one in a round of actual golf are 67 million to 1; by contrast, the odds of shooting par (a total course score of 30) at the Building Museum only seem that remote.
The hole Daedalus' Journey mimics the winding, circular, mazelike floor plan of a labyrinth in an old cathedral — and an accompanying sign invites visitors to have "fun in the journey" by having a "par 40 instead of a par 4." Likewise, the slanted green of Mulligans on the Mall seems designed to prolong the journey, mostly by using gravity to return missed shots to senders.
Other holes are more charming than maddening: A Hole Lot of Events mimics the hoity-toity table settings of a Washington dinner party, albeit on a tiny scale; Always a Hole in One uses gleaming neoclassical white columns to frame a hole that lives up to its name.
The most striking hole is Hole in 1s and 0s, a large wooden box that sports light bulbs and wires along its interior walls and is intended to invoke the innards of a smartphone — perhaps a sly social comment on Washington's oft-entrapping relationship with its portable electronic devices.
"I cannot make that one," Ms. Leavitt said. "It's frustrating."
On-course frustration hasn't driven visitors away: According to Ms. Frankel, the exhibit drew 4,700 people over its first 11 days. By contrast, the average Building Museum exhibition draws about 4,000 people per month.
Discussions already are under way to bring back minigolf next summer — and perhaps expand to a full 18 holes. "We've gotten such a great response," Ms. Frankel said, "that there's a pretty good chance you'll see another course next year."
WHAT: Minigolf at the National Building Museum
WHERE: 401 F St. NW
WHEN: Through Labor Day during regular museum hours, plus evening sessions on July 26 and Aug. 23
WHO: Ages 4 and older
TICKETS: $5 per person per round
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