May 7, 2013

Embrace Your Surroundings: Introducing Our Building Hugger-in-Chief, Lindsay Rowinski

  • By: Julia Rocchi

Union Station statue hug. Credit: Lindsay Rowinski
Lindsay Rowinski's puppeteered arms extend around Columbus Fountain in Washington, D.C.

Preservationists have long held the moniker "building hugger" close to their place-saving hearts, considering it a term of endearment for the important work they do in protecting the past and enriching the future. Now, we at the National Trust are making the term official with our new "Hugger-in-Chief," artist and place-lover Lindsay Rowinski.

Lindsay embraces places -- literally. She has created long red puppeteered arms capable of extending around buildings and structures with the help of a few volunteers and a lot of creative moxie. Her goal: inspire people to look anew at their surroundings and make what they see an integral part of their daily experience.

Our Hugger-in-Chief makes her official debut this Saturday, May 11, during National Train Day at Union Station in Washington, D.C. If you're in the area, meet us at the center triumphal arch to the left of the main entrance at 12 p.m. Then, move with us throughout the station as we hug special features that speak to the historic building’s past, present, and future as a major transportation hub.

Can't join us in person? Follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #buildinghugger for updates, photos, and videos of the lovefest.

In the meantime, let's get to know Lindsay better, as you'll be seeing lots of her (and her red arms) in the months ahead.

Fish House hug. Credit: Lindsay Rowinski
The arms hug an abandoned fish fry restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Current Occupation: Artist/Museum Technician for the National Postal Museum

What You Do When You’re Not Hugging Places: Work on other art projects; write and perform songs.

Previous Hugging Experience: In Baltimore, where the project began, I started by hugging a van, a dumpster, a garage, and the Francis Scott Key Memorial Monument. Last June, when I revamped the piece in D.C., I hugged an abandoned fish fry place, an old library building, and the Columbus Fountain outside of Union Station.

Top Skill: Re-calibrating the experience of everyday life.

Education: Graduated from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2009 with a BFA in Sculpture.

Awards, Accolades, and Exhibitions: My most recent exhibits include:

Trash Talk. 2013. Torpedo Factory. Alexandria, Va.
Puss Fust. 2012. D Space. Baltimore, Md.
Art Maryland 2012. 2012. HCCA. Ellicott City, Md.
The Wedding. 2012.Fringe Festival. New Orleans, La.
Trying to be There. 2011. Transformer Gallery. Washington, D.C.

Place You Can’t Wait to Hug Next: I have been dreaming of hugging the water tower on top of the old Hecht’s building. I drive past it all the time on my way to work and to my studio. You can see that tower from so many different locations in northeast D.C. as well. Every time I see it I imagine the red arms wrapped around it. I also do this with the Hirshhorn Museum. I am dying to hug them both.

Artist's rendering of hugging the Hirshhorn Museum. Credit: Lindsay Rowinski
Artist's rendering of hugging the Hirshhorn Museum.

What inspired you to start hugging places?

It was actually a response to an assignment for a class I took while at MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] called Puppets and Prosthetics. I never got to fully complete the piece in the way that it deserved, so I decided to come back to it last year. The concept originated from a growing sense of urban discontent while living in Baltimore. It is a hands-on attempt to reconnect with my surroundings in a directly heartfelt way.

How do you make your arms?

They are basically long skinny pillows. I use a sewing machine and a leaf blower. Why a leaf blower, you might ask? This is a little trick I picked up while working in the home furnishing trade. If you use a leaf blower with the vacuum attachments and the pillow as the bag, you can feed stuffing into pillows in half the time. It’s an incredibly handy trick, and the blower is one of the best investments I have made in a long time.

How do you decide which places to hug?

Objects, structures, and buildings that are round or have a bulky mass are best to hug because it looks more natural than hugging a square. It is funny what you start seeing around a city once your priorities are geared toward a certain purpose. Now I am constantly on the lookout for round structures and when I see one I try to note where they are.

Like several of my other projects that deal with objects in public space, I have a mental map of the city based on where the “huggable” places are. When I am with friends and we are coming up on something on that map I will usually say something like, “On the left, this building right here, I really want to hug that one day.” It usually always gets a laugh, though I am so desensitized to it at this point I forget it is going to sound funny.

Artist's rendering of hugging the old Hecht's water tower. Credit: Lindsay Rowinski
Artist's rendering of hugging the old Hecht's water tower.

If walls could talk, how do you think they’d respond to your hugs?

I think that buildings, monuments, and oversized objects alike have their own character much like people. Each would have their own personal reaction to being hugged. For example, the Hirshhorn has a cold, heavy aesthetic and I imagine it would groan and reluctantly accept the hug, whereas the water tower on the Hecht’s building seems a bit lonely atop a now-vacant building and would probably welcome the hug.

Why do you think more people should embrace places?

I think that when you live in a city you become jaded to your surroundings. Maybe this is a sort of residual survival instinct that only allows people to focus on a few things at one time. With all of the hustle and bustle of making your way through town on any given day, it seems that buildings, places, and objects become obstacles more than anything else, which is kind of unfortunate. We don’t have time to look up, and if you do you are considered lost or an out-of-towner. It’s a keep-your-head-down-and-keep-moving mentality.

Other than the utilitarian aspect of ignoring our surroundings, I think that people get overwhelmed by being around so many large and fast moving things, yet can’t allow themselves to give into this feeling. We retreat mentally to make it easier to get through the day without constantly giving in our sensory experience. I think it gets hard for people to actually see anything.

For all of these reasons I think people should embrace places, or rather, it is why I embrace places. If nothing else, it is a moment to actually look at something that might otherwise just exist in the periphery of your everyday experience. I am hoping that people will begin to see these things as more than just large-scale obstacles and more as beings unto themselves.

It follows along the Buddhist idea that there can be beauty found in all things. Don’t change the thing; change your thoughts about the thing. In working with the National Trust, perhaps people will discover something in a building or place that they never saw before, therefore making it of interest to help preserve.

Learn more about Lindsay and her work at

Julia Rocchi is the director of content marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.


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