Looking at Washington, D.C.
by Antoinette J. Lee
From any vantage point, Washington, D.C., is a city defined by the geometry of its street plan and by the interrelationships between major public buildings and urban nodes. Within the original L'Enfant City, the street system of radial avenues and grid streets spreads out toward the horizon, punctuated by towers, domes, and obelisks. Only when L'Enfant City merges into the rest of the District of Columbia and then over to the Virginia shore and along the Maryland rim do the forces of geometry lessen, and the built-up city reaches skyward.
The wide radial avenues and major grid thoroughfares knit together the open spaces of the Mall, Rock Creek Park, and the many smaller neighborhood parks scattered throughout the city. From the flatlands of L'Enfant City, the ground rises up through terraces and hills. The open texture of the city and the various vantage points located throughout allow for the viewing of the entirety of buildings and for the full appreciation of their architectural qualities.
In no other city is the architectural experience more dramatic. Most residents and visitors remember the first time they beheld the United States Capitol building and comprehended in actual terms the mythical scale of the structure as portrayed in picture books. Located at the western end of the Mall, the marble Lincoln Memorial reflects the changing colors of the day and of the season. From heights, such as the first ridge north of Florida Avenue, the city's wholeness is revealed as more than the interconnections of its major public buildings. Here, the viewer can see the monuments as well as the binding elements of row house residences, churches, schools, playgrounds, firehouses, and recreation centers. Some buildings, such as Founders Library at Howard University, define the ridge. The sum of the city is more than the combination of major architectural features; it is the complete meshing of the official and residential uses with the topography of the site.
The architecture of Washington, D.C., is known throughout the world. Its Capitol, White House, and major monuments and memorials can be identified by many who have never seen the structures in person. However, the city is a conservative one by any architectural standard. The popular national styles hung on much longer than in other urban areas in the nation, many of which were pioneering new trends. This “burden of history” lingers over much of Washington's architecture, particularly in the twentieth century, when classicism gripped public building design well into the late 1950s.
The rarity of iconoclastic or eccentric buildings in the city can be ascribed to the desire of nationally influential architects to fit their buildings into the context of the city rather than to dominate it or defy convention. The works of trend-setting architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Helmut Jahn, and Frank Gehry would be out of place, except perhaps in isolated suburban spaces. Imaginative but often conservative architects, such as Paul Philippe Cret and I. M. Pei, have found a ready home for their works.
The creation of architecture in the city is heavily influenced by the statutory bodies that oversee projects. The deliberations of these bodies contribute to the conservative character of the city. The regulatory officialdom includes the federal agencies, such as the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, as well as the municipal planning and development agencies. Myriad citizens' organizations also interact with the governmental agencies, including those with a citywide purview and those interested in a specific building, style, or historical period. The Committee of 100 for the Federal City represents citizens' concerns about how projects will affect the metropolitan area. The Art Deco Society of Washington, Save the Tivoli, the D.C. Preservation League, and the Washington Metropolitan Area chapter of the Victorian Society in America join with neighborhood-oriented citizens' organizations to influence the course of projects through review and public participation. As a result of public and private oversight, the architecture of Washington can be said to represent a consensus of a whole rather than purely an expression of an individual designer's creativity.
The Sum of Its Various Parts
“Washington, D.C.,” is a catch-all label given to the Washington metropolitan area. The District of Columbia, originally 10 miles square, was designated by the Congress as the new national capital in 1790. The square was set at the head of navigation on the Potomac River and turned so that its corners pointed directly north, east, south, and west. Within its boundary were the thriving tobacco port cities of Georgetown on the Maryland side of the Potomac and Alexandria on the Virginia side. “L'Enfant City,” also referred to as Washington City, includes that portion of the original District of Columbia south of Florida Avenue (formerly Boundary Street) and east of Georgetown that Pierre Charles L'Enfant planned in 1791. Florida Avenue represents the northernmost boundary of the flat, basin lands before the first major steep rise to higher ground. Outside of Georgetown and Washington City spread the largely rural landscape of Washington County.
The 10-mile-square city was shorn of its Virginia portion in 1849, when it was ceded back to the Commonwealth of Virginia in anticipation that the Virginia lands would not be needed by the federal government. The lack of foresight in this decision became evident when, during the Civil War, a circle of forts located on high ground was constructed to provide protection for the federal city and included major vantage points in Virginia. The District of Columbia remains today a jurisdiction with perfectly straight edges except for the western corner and southwestern boundary, which follow the ragged edges of the Potomac River.
For many years separate governments administered Georgetown, Washington City, and Washington County. In 1871, these governments were replaced with a territorial form of government led by a lower house, elected by citizens, and a governor and upper house, appointed by the president of the United States. The apparent excesses of expenditures on a massive public works program under Alexander “Boss” Shepherd caused Congress to abolish the territorial government in 1874 and to institute a governing system of three appointed District commissioners, one of whom was a member of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (the engineer commissioner). It was not until a century later, in 1974, that the District would elect its government again.
For much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Washington was synonymous with the District of Columbia. Development continued along the major thoroughfares and filled the spaces in between, made accessible by electric streetcar and railroad lines. During the first three decades after the Civil War, many of the subdivisions in the District of Columbia were laid out according to their own street systems because the District government had not provided for a comprehensive street system beyond L'Enfant City. As development pressed farther into the formerly rural lands of the District, the lack of interconnected streets forced the issue. The Highways Acts of 1893 and 1898 finally extended the L'Enfant streets beyond Florida Avenue and grandfathered in the subdivisions that had been built prior to 1893. While some attempt was made to repeat the radial and grid patterns of L'Enfant City, the street plan of the turn of the century was primarily gridlike.
The McMillan Commission Plan of 1901–1902 is most often associated with the revival of classicism and the plan for the Mall, but using the model of the Boston Metropolitan Park System, it also devised a far-ranging plan for park development throughout the District of Columbia and the metropolitan area. The plan was intended not only to provide for parks and recreation as development moved outward from the central city but also to enhance the character of this later development. The plan was implemented during the following decades by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (later the National Capital Planning Commission) and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as those agencies acquired parkland.
Today, Washington, D.C., envelops a virtual regional city, extending as far north as Baltimore, Maryland, and south toward Fredericksburg, Virginia. It also extends east to Annapolis, Maryland, and west to Leesburg, Virginia. Its center remains the monumental core of the national capital city defined by the Capitol, the White House, and the many buildings that make up the Executive Branch. However, federal government agencies have become more mobile and today need not be proximate to one another. Federal agencies are located along the long prongs of the Metro system in northern Virginia and Montgomery and Prince Georges counties in Maryland. Because of the wonders of computer technology, federal workers also are located in the farther reaches of exurbia, including West Virginia and the more peripheral counties of Maryland.
As the world of the federal government and government-related businesses becomes more diffusely spread over the regional landscape, new “edge cities” have developed. These quasi-independent urban centers, such as Tysons Corner in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Rockville in Montgomery County, Maryland, offer their own balance of employment, housing, commercial centers, and cultural facilities that rival those of the center of the District of Columbia. They are connected by beltways and interstate highways, rather than by the traditional radials and grids of the District of Columbia. These urban centers lack the character of true cities. However, they offer convenience, comfort, and relative safety from the hazards of the inner city.
The effect of these regional forces on the District of Columbia has been twofold. Many of the congestion and development pressures that might have befallen the District have been transferred to the less restrictive adjoining jurisdictions; thus, the District retains much of its unique historic and architectural character for residents and visitors to enjoy. On the other hand, the District's economic base is becoming diluted and worrisome. Its ability to retain skilled jobs for its residents is very much in question. The influential middle classes of all races have left the city for the surrounding jurisdictions and have relegated the District of Columbia to both the very rich and the very poor, who live in entirely separate spheres.
A City of Neighborhoods
Much of the L'Enfant Plan was centered on the location of public buildings to accommodate the needs of the federal government. Less well known was the system of urbanization that L'Enfant envisioned to provide the residential fabric of the nation's capital. The major public buildings themselves were intended to serve as centers of emerging residential development: the President's House was intended to be surrounded by an attractive and desirable residential enclave. The Capitol was also to serve as a magnet for the development of its surrounding neighborhood. But beyond these obvious centers, the major intersections of radial avenues and major grid thoroughfares were also to serve as centers for developing residential areas, reinforced by markets and parklands.
Much of what L'Enfant projected for the residential city came to fruition. Lafayette Square across from the White House served as an elite residential setting for much of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth before commercial development transformed the area into a prime location for commercial office space, association buildings, and clubs. The activity around the Capitol generated the Capitol Hill residential neighborhood that spread eastward to the banks of the Anacostia River and connected with residential areas centered on the Navy Yard to the south. The major squares and circles in L'Enfant City also fulfilled their destiny: Mount Vernon Square, Dupont Circle, and Logan Circle became important late nineteenth-century neighborhoods of substantial red brick row houses.
The expansion of the electric streetcar and railroad lines allowed for residential development to occur well outside L'Enfant City. Neighborhoods such as Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Le Droit Park, Brookland, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Cleveland Park, and Chevy Chase offered residential living on higher ground, where the air was cooler. Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights offered large row houses with ample backyards, while other streetcar suburbs provided detached houses and a more rural environment. As the city spread well beyond Florida Avenue, the spaces between these formerly sylvan settlements became filled in. For much of the Northwest Quadrant east of Rock Creek Park, the infill was of row houses, seemingly for blocks on end. The town house and row house clusters of Foxhall Village, Woodley Park, and Burleith were located in the Northwest Quadrant west of Rock Creek Park. The Northeast and Southeast quadrants retained their less dense character because they were less accessible.
With the coming of the automobile, the range of residential subdivision planning expanded. Neighborhoods such as Wesley Heights and Spring Valley surrounding American University in the Northwest Quadrant were designed beginning in the 1920s as comprehensive communities, complete with large single-family residences designed in popular historical revival styles, large private lawns, and much of the natural land forms retained. Constructed by the W. C. and A. N. Miller Company after the model of J. C. Nichols's Country Club District in Kansas City, Missouri, Wesley Heights and Spring Valley included appropriately designed shopping facilities, recreational facilities, and protected parklands. These neighborhoods attracted those families formerly residing in the more congested neighborhoods closer to the center of the city or in gracious but limited apartment houses along Connecticut Avenue.
The Second World War had an impact on the city as well as on surrounding jurisdictions, as provisions were made to house the large number of war workers who had jammed themselves into existing housing. In 1941–1942, the Defense Homes Corporation developed the garden apartment communities of Naylor Gardens in the Southeast Quadrant and McLean Gardens in the Northwest Quadrant to the west of Wisconsin Avenue. During this period, defense housing also was built in Arlington County. With the scarcity of gasoline, however, development had to remain within reach of the public transportation system.
After World War II, the population of Washington, D.C., again became mobile and expansive. Suburban development spread into the remaining corners of the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and the adjoining Maryland suburbs in the form of detached low-slung ranch and split-level houses and upright Colonial Revival boxes. Accompanying this suburban boom were expanded shopping facilities, apartment houses along major thoroughfares, and sleek new schools. This form of postwar suburbia can be found in all quadrants of the city except for the Southwest Quadrant.
The Southwest Quadrant found its own special destiny in the urban renewal forces that swept the nation. As an alternative to the suburbanizing edges of the city, the Southwest Quadrant offered a rebuilt inner-city neighborhood with many of the amenities of suburbia, such as new housing, shopping centers, and schools. The project also offered a new beginning in race relations because it created a new neighborhood, free of traditional racially based residential patterns. Another urban renewal project, the new town of Fort Lincoln in Northeast Washington, also served as a viable and inclusive alternative to both central city living and suburban escape.
Components of Washington's Architecture
In order to appreciate Washington's architecture, one must look at its individual components. In a city so rich with buildings, landmarks, and districts, it is often difficult to distinguish the forest from the trees. The most common division of building types is the separation of the federal city from the local, residential city. Within each of these two major subdivisions are major building types. The federal city consists of the buildings of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, all intended to house official functions. The federal establishment extends to the city's memorials and parks. The residential city includes the buildings in the downtown commercial core, neighborhoods, and industrial zones. Municipal buildings, recreation areas, schools, libraries, firehouses, churches, and commercial centers are essential to the functions of these areas as residential neighborhoods.
The residential city also identifies itself closely with important institutions outside of the monumental core, such as the several universities and colleges that defined the character of communities. Howard University has served as a magnet for the educated, affluent African-American population in the District. Catholic University is part of a larger grouping of Catholic institutions and schools. American University and Mount Vernon College were seen as decided assets in the development of the Wesley Heights and Spring Valley communities. The United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home and Walter Reed Hospital serve as anchors of stability in their respective neighborhoods.
The nature of the city's business produced buildings unique to it, such as foreign embassies and association buildings. Many embassies occupy turn-of-the-century mansions. Others have commissioned their buildings as expressions of their own culture. Association buildings filled with lobbyists range from recycled older residences to association-commissioned buildings, many of which in some way convey their purpose.
Other than building types, the city is carved into distinct economic enclaves that affect the location and character of buildings. The city of affluence is populated by stately mansions, wealthy enclaves, and exclusive homes. The city's vast middle class of civil servants and their families is housed in communities of row houses, duplexes, and detached houses. Apartment houses serve the needs of singles, couples, and small families. The city of poverty is reflected in neglected areas and in public and subsidized housing. The demarcations between economic groups are not static; the lines shift over time as areas fall in and out of favor.
As the city straddles the Northern and Southern states, Washington has its own history of racial divisions. For much of its history, the city was influenced by the separation of the black and white races that was legalized in covenants and molded in everyday practice. Racial segregation resulted in separate housing, schools, and churches, the histories of which served to instruct as well as to inspire. While the binding of segregation has been removed from the law books, its influence can still be seen in the allocation of public services. Today, the city's absorption of new cultural groups has produced adjustments to the city's form. Recently arrived Hispanics and Asians have made their own imprint upon the city.
The Model and Experimental City
Washington also can be examined in the context of the contrast between the ideal and the real city. The city's special role in the nation gives rise to the notion that it is ruled by urban idealism and aspirations toward greatness. The L'Enfant Plan and its successor plans serve as national and international models for inspection and study. The interest of particular presidents in the planning and architecture of Washington inspired new designs for Pennsylvania Avenue, the Mall, and the White House environs, all of which were regarded by the nation's constituents as possible models for other cities.
The location of the federal government on the banks of the Potomac River has provided the city with not only unprecedented economic stability as compared with other cities throughout the nation but also with a ready laboratory of urban experiments. From the late eighteenth century, Washington has been a model in the evolution of national capital cities. Its extensive collection of public buildings and parks has spoken to other nations in succeeding centuries as new capital cities were planned. The city's affluent citizenry served as ready customers for the early neighborhood shopping centers designed for automobile commuters. Washington also became the location of the first and most fully developed urban renewal plan of the post—World War II era.
Even if the city were not a pioneer but a follower of national trends, it is unique. Its comprehensive metropolitan-wide system of parks developed after the inspiration of large park systems elsewhere in the nation. But where else could a park system find such a ready topography or linkages with such nationally significant locations? Likewise the subdivision plans of the early twentieth century that followed neighborhood development models elsewhere in the nation were shaped into the image of eighteenth-century graciousness.
More than any other city in the nation, Washington is both a unique city and a common, familiar city. Its uniqueness lies in its special functions and the monumental buildings that house them. Its commonness and familiarity are based in the building types that can be found in all other American cities. For this reason, the architecture of Washington, D.C., holds a special place in the affection of residents and visitors alike. It calls upon us to respect the symbols of the national government, and it reassures us that the seat of national government is part of the mainstream of American urban life.
Two Centuries of Architectural Practice in Washington
by Pamela Scott
Meaningful cultural ideas and worthy social ideals do not make good architecture; they merely explain why architectural forms, spaces, and details differ from one time and place to another. Good architects make good architecture. Literature communicates ideas and emotions through a written language, architecture via a visual one. Instead of words, architects manipulate palpable form and abstract space and light to create buildings that convey some meaning, whether intellectual, sensory, or affective. As in literature, quality in architecture is dependent on the talent and training of the practitioner, not on outside stimuli. Maya Lin did not have to experience or understand war to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; she had to understand architecture.
Architects practicing in Washington historically have been forced to respond to a particularly difficult mixture of physical, social, and political circumstances. Many were attracted to the city by the possibility of being involved in important and highly visible structures, as public architecture has traditionally been viewed as the highest calling. However, actually achieving beautifully designed public buildings under highly politicized conditions where unqualified people, including presidents and members of Congress, have often had the decisive voice required architects with strong personalities or great persuasive abilities. A number of unusual factors have contributed to architects' practice of their peculiar fusion of art and profession in Washington: a largely transient population for nearly a century, the dichotomy between the public and the private city, evolving bureaucratic structures established by the government to meet its building needs, and, in the twentieth century, the presence of numerous planning agencies with overlapping areas of jurisdiction.
The entire range of Washington's architectural development, both public and private, has been profoundly affected by the city's position as the national capital. This two-century history can be roughly divided into four fifty-year phases. During the first half century, few professional architects practiced in Washington, but they were among the most important in the country; their individual achievements, whether in the public or private realm, have had national significance. During the second half of the nineteenth century, two large and influential federal architectural offices employed numerous architects, engineers, and draftsmen, including many well-trained Europeans. With the extensions to the Capitol beginning in 1851, the Office of Architect of the Capitol burgeoned in relation to the magnitude of the work. In 1852 the Supervising Architect of the Treasury was formally established as a central office for design and construction management to meet the government's national architectural needs. In both instances architects working in these offices designed and built private and a few public structures during the era when residential neighborhoods were extending rapidly beyond the city's central core.
Many of Washington's resident architects during the early twentieth century were primarily involved in its private development, while its public buildings were designed either by federal architectural offices or commissioned from architects of national stature. In the late twentieth century, as elsewhere in the country, international movements and architects were competing with national and local ones as greater Washington grew far beyond the city's actual boundaries. As the national capital, Washington served as a laboratory for many government-sponsored mass and public housing projects beginning in the 1950s, as it had for large-scale urban and regional planning schemes since its founding. The historic preservation movement, in conjunction with planning agencies that were founded to regulate not just the growth but the ambiance of the city, has limited new construction. Much of the city's contemporary architecture is contained within older shells and hence is invisible to the general public.
Throughout its history, the consciousness of Washington's national (and more recently its international) importance has guided the layout and design of its public areas. The city's diverse population stimulated housing types and styles from elegant Beaux-Arts mansions to floating cabanas permanently docked along the southwest waterfront. The largest land area is covered by single-family homes; secure government employment produced a substantial middle class. Row houses dominate many nineteenth-century neighborhoods while major thoroughfares connecting downtown with suburban areas are lined with apartment buildings erected during the early twentieth century.
Washington contains remnants of each part of its diverse history, including habitation by native Americans. The Potomac as a major thoroughfare of the greater Chesapeake region was first explored and mapped by John Smith in 1608. He described the villages of Algonquin and Piscataway tribes as sometimes palisaded enclosures but more frequently as open with groupings of up to one hundred houses. The first European settlement in the area seems to have been about 1703, when Col. Ninian Beall, commander of the Provincial Forces of Maryland, patented 795 acres. While some original structures have survived in Georgetown, none on the actual site of the original federal city has survived, but they were noted on maps made during the 1790s. Some sites have been located in Rock Creek Park, but they are not identified in order to preserve the remains.
The national capital was located on the Potomac River as a result of a political compromise forged in Congress. From 1783 until 1790 more than fifty cities and towns were proposed, but the central location of the Potomac, its accessible but defensible position, the closeness of its headwaters to the Ohio River (and thus a vast area of inland country), and George Washington's sponsorship of the site led to the Residence Act of 1790. In 1785 Washington had been instrumental in organizing the Potomack Navigation Company to build a canal around Great Falls and Little Falls, the only obstructions in the river between Georgetown and Fort Cumberland.
In 1790, when Congress selected the Potomac River for the 10-mile-square federal district, two extant towns were to be incorporated into its boundaries, Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown, Maryland. Alexandria had been laid out in 1739 on a grid and was a sizeable and lively port town, the commercial center for a large number of Virginia plantations, including Mount Vernon. Georgetown, established as a tobacco warehouse depot in 1749, was still a modest commercial port when it became part of the federal district. However, its location just below the fall line of the Potomac River made it the logical place from which to ship goods—principally tobacco and wheat—brought down the river and its tributaries. Two towns in Maryland, Carrollsburg and Hamburg, were surveyed but not settled and fell within the boundaries of the federal city, a separate entity within the federal district.
The Residence Act of 1790 stipulated that Congress would move to the new seat of government in 1800. It gave President George Washington the authority to oversee erection of the public buildings therein, which was to be directed by three commissioners. The city was named in his honor on 9 September 1791. Washington devoted an enormous amount of his time during the last decade of his life to the federal city, becoming embroiled against his will in many personality clashes and minute details, in addition to choosing designs and architects. His secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, was his closest adviser in all of these matters. Washington selected as commissioners Daniel Carroll and Thomas Johnson of Maryland and David Stuart from Virginia, a merchant, a landowner, and a physician, respectively, one of whom had had prior experience in architectural matters. Congress and the president were following the English precedent of selecting impartial men of good reputation who could be depended on to carry on the business aspects of architecture with honesty.
When Pierre Charles L'Enfant was appointed by Washington to design the federal city early in 1791, he supposed he was working directly for the president. In 1788 he had been selected as the architect of Federal Hall in New York, and his appointment as the designer of the new capital three years later was not the result of a competitive process. Rather it reflected Washington's belief that L'Enfant was the only person in the country capable of planning the new city and all of its public buildings. L'Enfant would have been familiar with this kind of deliberate choice, as public architects in France were appointed and held positions equivalent to other high executive officers. Washington's failure to make clear at the outset the lines of command between the commissioners and L'Enfant, as well as his own and Jefferson's level of participation, combined with the inexperience of the commissioners to make an explosive situation. In addition, there were opponents to the new federal capital who were located primarily in Philadelphia, and they were working behind the scenes to undermine the project throughout the 1790s. The entire process was tumultuous, and L'Enfant was fired within a year, a fate that was to befall numerous talented architects during the first decade of the city's existence. A long series of architects became victims of this process in the design and construction of the Capitol. Including L'Enfant, who submitted the initial design in 1791, seven architects were employed in designing and constructing the original Capitol before it was completed in 1829. Throughout its long and checkered history the Capitol was subject to the often uninformed opinions of numerous members of Congress, on whom funding depended.
The scale on which L'Enfant conceived the federal city was immense—6,100 acres—because he saw it as the symbolic representation of the entire country, which he referred to as “this vast Empire.” Having traveled extensively in America both during and after the Revolution, he understood that the original states only began to represent the extent of the continent. In addition to expressing the country's size in his city plan, L'Enfant also incorporated in it the geographical relationship among the states. Streets named for the New England states were clustered in the northern part of the city, the central states in the middle, and the southern states on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the state avenues seem to have been associated with certain buildings in order to recall historical events associated with the establishment of the federal government. The most probable reason that New York Avenue abuts the White House grounds is that Washington was inaugurated the country's first president at Federal Hall in New York in 1789. Pennsylvania Avenue, in addition to being located in the center of the city (as Pennsylvania was in the country), joined both the grounds of the Capitol and of the President's House because of the significance and intensity of Revolutionary-era activity that took place there. Civic events included the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the constitutional conventions; military ones, the encampment of the Continental Army at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–1778.
L'Enfant's response to the picturesque beauty of the local landscape was a key factor in his design. His “Observations explanatory of the plan,” written directly on the manuscript map and published in many newspapers beginning in December 1791, outlined the basic process by which he arrived at the city's major design elements. Prominent landscape features were to determine the sites of public squares; wide diagonal avenues would connect them for ease of communication and for “reciprocity of sight”; and, finally, an irregular grid of north-south, east-west streets would provide the underlying urban infrastructure. This matrix diffused the government's public and ceremonial functions throughout a city of numerous neighborhoods contained within the gridded sections. L'Enfant's intention was to address simultaneously practical, aesthetic, and symbolic issues. He was fired in March 1792 because he was unwilling to submit to the authority of the commissioners, whom he (and others) considered incompetent. His ideal of an entirely new “American” city began to be changed, an organic process that has continued to the present day.
Washington also chose the federal district's first surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, who in turn hired several assistants, including black mathematician Benjamin Banneker, to lay out the boundaries of the 10-mile-square district. Ellicott was later engaged in surveying and laying out the city's streets. In November 1791 Jefferson hired Ellicott to oversee the production of an engraved plan of the city, after L'Enfant's efforts at that task had failed. The first printed map was published in the March 1792 issue of the Philadelphia magazine the Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine. L'Enfant's name appeared neither in the descriptive text nor on the map itself. The impression given was that Ellicott was the city's designer: “in order to execute this plan, Mr. Ellicott drew a true meridian line by celestial observation, which passes through the area intended for the Capitol.” Washington and Jefferson promoted the engraved plans (there were four versions) as the official maps of the city, and distinguished between them and L'Enfant's manuscripts, which they viewed as preliminary essays.
Advertisements for designs for a capitol and president's house, drafted by Jefferson, were inserted in newspapers in March 1792 with entries due by July 15. A few professionally trained architects responded, but most were builder-architects with little or no formal academic training as designers. The eighteenth-century American traditions of the builder-architect, who executed his own designs, and the educated gentleman architect, whose designs for churches or public buildings were recognized by honorary rather than monetary recompense, slowly gave way to professional architects in the nineteenth century. The idea of architecture as a mental activity that required a specialized visual and technical education coincided with the need for large, three-dimensionally complex buildings such as the United States Capitol. During the next century, many of America's most talented architects vied to design buildings for Washington. Often they were plagued by inadequate public funding and a lack of professional standing.
During the twentieth century, architecture in general became a big business that required wide-ranging technical, aesthetic, and economic skills. The government's phenomenal size and complexity mandated that buildings be multi-functional, primarily to serve as offices, and that they also express national character. The preponderance of domestic architecture built in Washington generally shifted from row houses to single-family units, most often built in groups by developers rather than designed for private clients. Personal wealth in America traditionally had been expressed in private houses; its dispersal among a wider population and its concentration in urban areas beginning in the late nineteenth century had particular import for Washington, where population shifts are cyclical and family or business dynasties are rare.
Because of the limited financial resources of the federal government, construction of the early public buildings was protracted. The White House, Capitol, and executive department office buildings were begun in the 1790s, but none was complete by 1800, when the city was officially opened. The new Treasury Building, Patent Office, and General Post Office, begun in the 1830s, were all built in stages, with the north wing of the Treasury not completed until 1869. The Smithsonian Institution and Washington Monument date from the 1840s; the monument's capstone was set in 1884. A similar halting growth pattern of widely scattered domestic neighborhoods is reflected in the sarcastic, but only slightly exaggerated, description by the then architect of the Capitol, Latrobe, that Washington was “the waste the law calls the American metropolis.”1 As late as 1842, Charles Dickens's more famous quip—“a city of magnificent intentions”—reflected how slowly the few developed parts of the 6,100-acre city were being connected to one another.2
Although it was incomplete, Congress and the Supreme Court moved into the north wing of the Capitol in 1800, and President John Adams took up residence in the President's House. Sporadic private development was concentrated along Pennsylvania Avenue between Georgetown and the President's House, on Capitol Hill, and along the southwest waterfront. By November 1801 there were 621 houses in the city, double the number that had existed eighteen months earlier. Although the building regulations published in 1792 stipulated that all houses were to be built of brick, only 207 were, while the remaining 414 were wood.
A few Georgetown businessmen and original proprietors of land within the city built some speculative housing, but most was undertaken by the wealthy developers Robert Morris, John Nicholson, Thomas Law, and James Greenleaf, who had invested heavily in Washington real estate during the mid-1790s. They hired excellent architects, such as the French-trained Stephen Sulpice Hallet, fired after three years as the superintending architect of the Capitol, and Joseph Clark, architect of the Maryland State House since 1785, who had submitted an unsuccessful federal city plan to President Washington early in 1791. The developers also employed a number of architect-builders, such as William Lovering, who were responsible for the largest number of dwellings erected throughout the city in the 1790s. Little of their work survives (see SW 16), but it provided the basic housing and services for working-class families, government employees, the diplomatic community, and the transient congressmen who only spent a few months in the city while Congress was in session during the winter months.
An overview of the background, education, and involvement in the city's social, intellectual, and political life of Washington's most significant architects provides a cumulative picture of the changing nature of architectural practice in America; discussion of individual buildings helps to explicate Washington's unique character. Only a few of the architects who had the greatest impact on the city's development have been native Washingtonians. Many in the twentieth century were not even resident in Washington for significant periods of time but viewed the city as an abstract design problem on which an ideal of urban beauty could be imposed.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754–1825) arrived in this country in 1777 to participate in the American Revolution. He was a young engineer who also served as a courier for General Washington and illustrated Gen. Wilhelm von Steuben's manual on military training for the Continental Army. L'Enfant had received his artistic education in Paris from his father, a painter of military subjects; his formal training in architecture and engineering is unknown. In three American architectural projects he undertook in the 1780s—a garden structure in Philadelphia to celebrate the birth of the French dauphin, a pavilion to seat 6,000 participants in New York's parade commemorating the ratification of the Constitution, and Federal Hall in New York to house the First Federal Congress—one of his principal concerns had been to invent or employ a symbolic visual language appropriately expressive of the American experience. He repeatedly used accepted American symbols, such as the eagle from the Great Seal of the United States and the stars from the American flag, in an architectural context. His incorporation of the number thirteen in his designs to signify the importance of the union of the states under the federal government culminated in his plan for Washington.
L'Enfant was in Georgetown for only about eight months in 1791, but he made good friends among the original proprietors of Washington land who urged the president to retain his services again after he had been fired in February 1792. L'Enfant's subsequent career in America was negligible. He returned to Washington in the early 1800s and lived in the city or nearby in Maryland for the remainder of his life, petitioning Congress to be paid for his design and to have his reputation as the city's designer restored to him. In 1806, Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Henry Latrobe noted in his journal:
Daily thro' the city stalks the picture of famine L'enfant and his dog. The plan of the city is probably his, though others claim it. It is not worth disputing about. This singular Man, of whom it is not known whether he was ever educated to the profession, and who indubitably has neither good taste nor the slightest practical knowledge, had the courage to undertake any public work whatever that was offered to him. He has not succeeded in any, but was always honest, and is now miserably poor. He is too proud to receive any assistance, and it is very doubtful in what manner he subsists.3
When Irish-born and -trained architect James Hoban (c. 1762–1831) won the competition for the President's House in 1792, he relocated from Charleston, South Carolina, where he had been practicing architecture for the previous five years. Hoban had studied architecture with Thomas Ivory in Dublin, winning a medal in 1780 from the Dublin Society for some architectural drawings. Although he had been in America from about 1785, little of Hoban's work prior to his Washington career can be documented; his papers and drawings were destroyed by fire in the 1880s. During his early years in Washington, Hoban and his builder-partner erected numerous row houses and at least one hotel as speculative ventures. Other than the White House, Hoban's best-known architectural design was for Blodgett's Hotel (1793–1800), intended as a prize in a lottery to promote the city but ultimately serving as a government office building containing the post office and patent office until it burned in 1836. Hoban was intermittently in charge of the Capitol's construction during periods when there was no superintending architect in residence.
Between July 1792 and March 1793 Hallet submitted a total of five Capitol designs, four in response to suggestions made by the commissioners, Washington, and Jefferson. All were of exceptional architectural quality but costly to build. In January 1793 his fourth submission was judged against a Capitol design submitted by physician and amateur architect William Thornton. Thornton's plan was favored, but Hallet was allowed to present a fifth design, which he said reflected for the first time his own ideas of what form the Capitol should take. The outcome of a conference attended by the architects, Washington, and Jefferson was a composite design that incorporated elements from both Thornton's and Hallet's plans. The judges considered that Thornton had contributed most to the composite plan, but Hallet believed the opposite. Hallet was given the second prize and, as a professional architect, hired to build Thornton's submission. The cornerstone of the Capitol was laid on 18 September 1793; Hallet was soon fired for deviating from the adopted plan by substituting major features of his own, finally leaving the federal employ in 1795. Hallet's subsequent architectural career in America was negligible, the waste of his considerable design talents a sad loss.
William Thornton (1759–1828) was born in the West Indies but educated in England and Scotland, receiving a medical degree from Aberdeen University in 1784. He resided in Paris and then returned to Tortola for a short time before he emigrated to the United States. He became a citizen in 1788 and the following year won the competition for the Library Company in Philadelphia (demolished in 1884, but its facade reconstructed in 1954). Thornton's interests were broad, ranging from steamboat design to a language for the deaf to abolitionism. Upon acceptance of his Capitol design, Thornton moved to Washington, where he played a leading role in its civic, social, and official life for the next thirty-five years.
Washington appointed Thornton one of the three Commissioners for the District of Columbia in 1795, a position he held until May 1802, when the board was abolished. In this official capacity Thornton was able to monitor closely the work of the trained architects who were charged with carrying out his Capitol design. He quarreled with each of them successively, but most bitterly with Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who, under Jefferson's aegis, implemented extensive changes to Thornton's original design. In 1802 Thornton was appointed superintendent of patents, a job he held until his death; he saved the Patent Office from being burned by British troops in August 1814, the only public building to escape immolation.
Thornton's two most significant private commissions have survived in excellent condition, Tudor Place (see GT22), designed for Thomas Peter, and the Octagon (see FB21), John Tayloe's city house. In 1817 Thornton advised Jefferson on his plan for the University of Virginia and contributed drawings from which Pavilion VII was built. Thornton authored several treatises and was voted a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1803 as a result of one of them. He continued his many intellectual pursuits in Washington, writing, promoting a national university, and helping to found the Columbian Institute in 1816.
In 1795 George Hadfield arrived in Washington to superintend Thornton's Capitol design, but he was fired within three years. One of the most talented architects to emigrate to America during this period, Hadfield had been born in Italy and trained at the Royal Academy in London, winning its gold medal in 1784. In 1798 his designs for the executive department office buildings flanking the White House were approved; his dismay at not being allowed to superintend their erection contributed to his dismissal from public service. Hadfield went on to have an important private practice in the city, designing the city's first theater, Carusi's assembly rooms (rooms for private assemblies, parties, and other gatherings), at least two important rows of houses, and the Branch Bank of the United States in 1824. All but the last were lost before the advent of photography.
In 1802 Hadfield became the first foreign-born Washington resident to apply for American citizenship. He lived in the city until his death in 1826; his fortunes varied. In 1804 he was elected to the Washington city council but later had to hock his gold medal (retrieved for him by fellow architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe) and was reduced to working as a draftsman at the Capitol under Latrobe. In 1800 Hadfield patented a brick-making machine and started a business making terracotta roof tiles some time during the next decade. In 1822 Jefferson wrote Hadfield's sister, Maria Cosway, that since Latrobe's death (in 1820) her brother was “our first Architect,” doing well, but might do better “would he push himself.”5
Little of Hadfield's exceptional quality architecture has survived to attest to his finely honed sense of proportional relationships and command of Neoclassical architectural principles. Two of his major public buildings, the Commandant's House at the Marine Barracks (see CN44) and the Old City Hall (see DE06), have been rebuilt and altered by additions. Only two private structures are intact, the Van Ness Mausoleum and Arlington House in Virginia, with its overscaled giant Doric portico designed as a stage set, intended to be visible from central Washington.
In 1801, two years after being fired as the architect of the Capitol, Hadfield advertised his intention to open an architectural academy in Washington, the first such venture in the city. William P. Elliot, son of his friend and city surveyor William Elliot, was Hadfield's only known student. Elliot claimed to have studied with Hadfield for five years before spending three years in London and Paris to finish his architectural education. He entered many architectural competitions, winning for his design of the Patent Office in 1836 and placing among five winners for the Senate Committee on Public Buildings plan for the Capitol extension in 1850. However, Elliot earned his living primarily as a patent agent. He designed and paid for Hadfield's tombstone at Congressional Cemetery upon the elder architect's death and seems to have inherited his collection of architectural drawings (now lost), as in 1836 he entered a design for the Washington Monument in Hadfield's name.
The giant among Washington's early architects was Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820). He emigrated to the United States in 1795 from England, where he had received an excellent training in architecture and engineering. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson chose him to superintend the partially completed Capitol. With only a two-year hiatus during the War of 1812, Latrobe expended much of his professional time and energy on the building until he resigned his position in 1818. During these years he maintained an active architectural practice in both Philadelphia and Washington, undertaking additional engineering and architectural work for the government as well as private commissions to supplement his inadequate salary as Architect of Public Buildings. Saint John's Church (see WH10) and Decatur House (see WH08) remain as the sole exemplars of his buildings for private clients in the city. He had designed a house for John Tayloe, but Thornton received the commission; his H-shaped house for John Van Ness, located on the square that is now the site of the Organization of American States (see FB06) at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, was described in 1830 as “unexcelled by any private building in this country.”6
In 1804 Latrobe was hired privately to design the canal that connected the Potomac to the Anacostia River. It represented one of his many engineering projects to improve inland transportation in the country, a heritage he passed on to his two most successful students, Robert Mills and William Strickland. One of Latrobe's most significant and lasting contributions to American architecture was to establish standards of professional practice in his own work and to impress their importance upon his students and clients. In 1806 Latrobe wrote Mills outlining the responsibilities and rights of the architect: in providing architectural designs that are comely, functional, and buildable, calculating their cost, and overseeing all of the artisans involved in their execution, the architect sells his education, talent, and time. In return he should be allowed to superintend his own design, be paid a set percentage of the total cost of a building (5 percent being common in Europe), and have a decisive professional voice in differences of opinion about design with his client.
Professional associations among builders, developers, builder-architects, architects, and engineers began to be organized in the early 1800s. The first were essentially labor unions comprising stonemasons, bricklayers, and carpenters who were hired on a daily basis to erect public buildings. Because congressional appropriations were erratic and inadequate, all available monies were often expended by the middle of the building season. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the workmen organized themselves in an attempt to regulate their terms of employment, wages, and medical and disability benefits. Their success in securing benefits from their employer, the government, seems to have been limited. Therefore they functioned as benevolent societies, taking care of their own unemployed or injured members. While some were general mechanics' unions, most were organized according to individual trades.
Numerous citizens' groups petitioned Congress for incorporation as developers. In 1804 many of Washington's leading citizens, including publisher Samuel H. Smith and mayors John P. Van Ness and Daniel C. Brent, formed the Washington Building Company to promote the erection of buildings and to provide fire insurance for them. Organized as a tontine, the impact of the Washington Building Company has never been determined. More than thirty years elapsed before another such organization is known to have been formed. In 1838 the Washington Building and Improvement Company sought incorporation to remedy the 25 percent rise in rents due to “want of sufficient buildings” in Washington and to counteract the migration of mechanics, noting, “The number of brick houses annually built has fallen in the last few years from 86 to 16.”7 The company consisted of the builders George Sweeny, John C. Harkness, and Samuel Burch. They were joined by attorney David A. Hall, Charles Bulfinch's son-in-law.
In 1818, when Bulfinch (1763–1844) was invited to take over the Capitol's superintendence from Latrobe, he was one of America's most prominent architects. A mature man of fifty-five, he had been responsible for much of Boston's architectural beauty, including the Massachusetts State House, completed in 1797. During the eleven years Bulfinch was in Washington as the architect of the Capitol, he undertook a few additional commissions, all unfortunately demolished. The first was to design the church of which he was a member, erected in 1821 at 6th and D streets NW. Stuccoed brick, the 50-foot-by-72–foot Unitarian church was entered through an enclosed porch set within a tetrastyle Doric portico, the porch also providing partial support for a cupolaed bell tower. This interpenetration of masses was more reminiscent of Baroque architecture than of the austere Neoclassicism for which Bulfinch was famous, but its walls retained a planar quality, with arched doors and windows cut directly into them. After serving as the police court, the structure was demolished in 1900.
Bulfinch's Federal Penitentiary (1827–1828), located on the site of Fort McNair, was razed in two stages, all traces disappearing by 1903. The central rectangular block consisted of an outer, two-to-three-story brick shell that housed a self-contained, four-story structure of cells arranged along both sides of a central spine, a system that had been developed at the Auburn, New York, Penitentiary early in the century. Bulfinch's writings on prison design while he was in Washington were considered so significant that they were published in the National Intelligencer, as a government report, and in pamphlet form. Additional Bulfinch commissions while in Washington were the Alexandria, Virginia, Jail, the Washington City Orphan Asylum, and renovations and additions to Hoban's Blodgett's Hotel, which served as the Patent Office and Post Office until it was destroyed by fire in 1836. His tenure as the public architect had been so untroubled in comparison to his predecessors that Congress even paid his return fare to Boston in 1829.
Mills's surviving correspondence and journals record many other public projects, large and small, few of which were ever realized. He did undertake some minor renovations at the White House, won second place in the Smithsonian Institution competition and was named its superintending architect, and for twenty years was the caretaker architect of the Capitol. Mills must have done some important private buildings in Washington but no record of them has survived. Toward the end of his life Mills had to go outside the city to find work, traveling to Charlottesville, where he designed an addition to Jefferson's University of Virginia Rotunda, and to Richmond, where for a time he was in charge of erecting Thomas Crawford's Washington Monument, having himself placed second in the competition for its design.
In 1831 Mills advertised the opening of a school of architecture in the Washington Intelligencer; his only known student was Francis Benne, who in 1841 sought Mills's aid in his own efforts to open in Washington an Architectural Drawing School. Benne went on to practice architecture in New Haven, Connecticut. In contrast to all of his predecessors in Washington, Mills never experienced European architecture, his strong sense of the palpable force of stone buildings having been learned from Latrobe, a few other works in America, and secondhand from illustrated books of architectural designs. Mills was himself the author of several books, including three guidebooks to Washington that described the major public buildings, their locations, and the function of the federal offices. His descriptions of the Capitol and its artworks are particularly valuable.
James Renwick, Jr.'s (1818–1895), experience of the Washington architectural scene differed considerably from that of many earlier architects who had sought employment here. His youth, education, intermittent involvement in Washington architecture carried on from his New York office, and the nature of the project that brought him to Washington heralded definite changes in the architectural profession. Renwick was twenty-eight years old when he won the competition for the Smithsonian Institution. He was the son of an eminent scientist and professor at Columbia College in New York, where the young architect had received a broad and excellent education in the classics and sciences, graduating with an M.A. degree in 1839. He spent four years as an apprentice engineer (both of his brothers were engineers) before launching his architectural career by winning the competition for Grace Church in New York, the most sophisticated interpretation of Gothic architecture yet built in America.
Each of Renwick's Washington buildings introduced a new architectural style to the city and set standards of academic correctness in their design, an achievement that was uncommon among American-born and -trained architects of the period. The Smithsonian Institution's (see ML05) hauntingly beautiful skyline frightened Neoclassical sculptor Horatio Greenough, who rightly perceived that it was a harbinger of a new age in architectural aesthetics. Renwick was the first to introduce principles and details of French Baroque architecture to Washington in his 1859 design for the Corcoran Gallery (see WH15). Banker William W. Corcoran was Renwick's patron for numerous other Washington buildings, now demolished, including two groups of fashionable row houses, an office building, and Corcoran's own residence located at 1611 H Street NW, within steps of Lafayette Square.
By the middle of the century the American states extended to the Pacific Ocean. Washington necessarily grew apace, as the country's enormous growth was reflected in the complexity and expansion of the government. Beginning in 1851, massive and elaborate extensions nearly tripled the size of the Capitol, and in 1852 the Office of the Supervising Architect was established under the Treasury Department. Both offices attracted large numbers of architects and designers to the city. Many were Americans who had learned their profession principally through apprenticeships, but a large number of European architects, many German born and trained, came to Washington to work in these large architectural offices. Some went on to be involved in the city's private architectural development, designing houses and churches while employed by the government, or later establishing their own private practices.
Thomas Ustick Walter's (1804–1887) fourteen-year career in Washington, from 1851 until 1865, coincided with the building of his Capitol Extension design (see CH01). During the 1840s Robert Mills had presented two schemes to enlarge the Capitol, one with longitudinal wings added to the existing building and another with a single wing projecting to the east from the center of the building. The latter would have created a Greek-cross-shaped building that left the original Capitol visually intact when seen from the Mall. In 1851 Walter submitted a longitudinal plan similar to Mills's, which won President Millard Fillmore's approval. Part of Walter's success was due to his extraordinary drafting ability. His voluminous and beautiful watercolor renderings, whether perspective views or full-scale details, depicted buildings in all their corporeality, convincingly showing in two dimensions how they would appear in reality.
During Walter's years at the Capitol, his plans for additions to Mills's three major office buildings—the Treasury, the Patent Office, and the Post Office—were accepted and carried out in conjunction with engineer Montgomery Meigs and with Walter's assistant architect and successor, Edward Clark. Mills's obituary in March 1855 noted that the seventy-four-year-old architect never recovered from the seizure he suffered upon learning that Walter's and Meigs's designs to extend the General Post Office had been chosen over his own.
Born in Philadelphia into a family of builders, Walter apprenticed between 1819 and 1824 as a stonemason and bricklayer with his father, who was in charge of building William Strickland's Second Bank of the United States, the seminal building for American Greek Revival architecture. Walter's own spectacularly successful career—more than 400 commissions in fifty-seven years—began as Philadelphia's leading Greek Revival architect, launched by winning the Girard College competition in 1833. Although his formal education in architecture was sporadic, it was as complete as it was possible to obtain in America during the 1820s. As a youth Walter attended a small private school, where he was taught Euclidian geometry by a retired sea captain. During a long apprenticeship with Strickland, Walter learned the rudiments of architectural drawing as well the general principles of architectural design and practice. In 1824 he began attending the School of Mechanic Arts in Philadelphia, where he took classes in architecture from John Haviland (who was born and trained in England) and in landscape painting from William Mason. By 1841 Walter was named professor of architecture at the Franklin Institute; in 1860 Walter taught architecture at Columbian College, the forerunner of George Washington University, where the first formal school of architecture in the city was founded.
Although Walter is best known for his monumental Greek Revival structures, his competence in a wide range of historical styles dates from the beginning of his independent career as an architect. His work in Washington, both public and private, was dominated by the Italian Renaissance tradition, attested to primarily by his Capitol Extensions, but also evident in his Italianate villa Ingleside (see NW07), renovations of Saint John's Church Parish House (see WH11), and the Third Baptist Church, now lost, for which Walter provided a new facade design in 1860. Walter was an ardent Baptist; this church was his own congregation and the center of his private life in Washington. The 160-foot steeple he designed for it blew down in a storm in 1862. Located on the south side of E Street NW, between 6th and 7th, the church's two massive, quoined corner towers and five tall, arched windows exhibited the same sense of strong composition, substantial structural presence, and bold detailing as his earlier Greek Revival buildings had. Walter's experience of architecture was that of a highly educated builder who knew and loved every step in the process of architectural creation. George Hadfield represented the exact opposite sensibility, where materials and construction were visually subjugated to an academic ideal of form and proportional beauty. Yet each is responsible for great works of architecture.
In 1853 superintendence of the Capitol passed from Walter's complete control to shared responsibility with army engineer Montgomery Meigs. In 1865 Walter was dismissed altogether, and his legal efforts to collect payments for his designs of additional government buildings (which he had done outside of regular office hours), located both in Washington and elsewhere, were never successful. Walter had been named vice president of the newly founded American Institute of Architects in 1857 and became its president in 1876. The AIA was founded to gain for architects the same status as other professions where mental labor was a large component of the work. Even by mid-century ambivalent attitudes toward distinguishing between architect and builder still existed. The competing interests of engineers who sought recognition as designers as well as builders was an additional factor that architects had to reckon with for the next century.
The Office of the Supervising Architect was established under the Treasury Department in 1852 because it was the executive office whose agencies required federal buildings at locations around the country. These were principally federal customhouses, marine hospitals, and assay offices, although designs for federal courthouses and post offices were also produced by the office. New England architect Ammi B. Young (1800–1874) was the first incumbent, a position he held from 1852 to 1862. Young worked under army engineer Alexander H. Bowman, chief of the Bureau of Construction from 1853 to 1860, on a series of prototypical models for these public building types, devising castiron construction and decorative techniques intended to ensure that each structure would be solid, permanent, and handsome. His imposing and severe granite customhouse and post office for Georgetown (see GT07) is typical of those designed for forty-one towns and cities from Waldoboro, Maine, to Galveston, Texas.
Young's successor was also born and trained in New England. Isaiah Rogers (1800–1869) held the position for just over two years, from 1862 to 1865. Both men made the transition from talented builders to creative architects with little formal training, their outstanding talents leading them to the most significant position in American architecture during their lifetimes. In spite of their enormous impact on national architecture, their influence on Washington architecture, outside of their respective wings for the Treasury Building and Young's Georgetown Custom House and Post Office, is apparently negligible, as no private works in the city are known to have been designed by either.
The third Supervising Architect, Alfred B. Mullett (1834–1890), resided in Washington from 1861 until his death. He trained two of his sons as architects, and they joined their father in private practice. In addition Mullett apprenticed many other young men, both in his official and private architectural offices, who went on to practice architecture in Washington. Mullett came to Washington as a clerk in the office of the secretary of the treasury. Although Mullett was born in England, his family emigrated when he was nine years old. In 1860 Mullett visited Europe for three months, traveling from England through the Low Countries as far east as Munich, then spending three weeks in France, visiting Versailles, the Louvre, and numerous churches and cathedrals in and around Paris.
Mullett came to architectural maturity while serving as the Supervising Architect; his massive French-inspired, multi-functional buildings were erected to serve as combination post offices, courthouses, and sometimes customhouses in every major American city, forceful embodiments of the federal government's presence. Between his appointment in June 1866 and his resignation on Christmas Eve 1874, Mullett designed thirty-six government buildings. In Washington, his State, War, and Navy Building was the most prominent, but he also designed the District of Columbia Jail, a Greek-cross-shaped building with heavily rusticated walls coupled with a simple but strong fenestration pattern of tall, narrow, arched windows with circular windows above them. Among his private commissions done in conjunction with his sons is the Apex Building (see DE12), a twin-towered, heavily rusticated building that also had a strong French flavor.
James G. Hill (1841–1913) had served a three-year apprenticeship with Boston architects Gridley J. F. Bryant and Arthur Gilman before entering the Supervising Architect's office in 1862. Fourteen years later Hill was appointed Supervising Architect but resigned in 1883 to establish a prolific and respected private practice in Washington. Twenty-three of Hill's buildings were published in the American Architect and Building News, America's first and most influential architectural periodical. During the 1880s and 1890s Hill designed sixteen stores, banks, and office buildings in Washington's commercial core, concentrated along F Street between the Treasury Building and the Patent Office. Those that remain, including the Riggs National Bank (see DE35.2) at 9th and F streets NW, and especially the National Bank of Washington (see DE13) at 7th Street and Indiana Avenue NW, illustrate Hill's personal and sometimes very beautiful interpretation of the Richardsonian Romanesque idiom. Adoption of this distinct treatment of rusticated stone walls punctured by low, arched openings that were decorated with foliate ornament contributed to a conscious nationwide movement to promote it as an American architectural style that had developed on this continent with no immediate nineteenth-century European forebears.
Hill's innovative design to provide health and social services for the small army of government workers employed at the Government Printing Office brought him back into government architectural circles as a private architect. He had worked vigorously with many other American architects to pass the Tarnsey Act in 1893, which opened design of government buildings to architects in private practice. Architects generally believed that the staff of the Supervising Architect's office had become too entrenched and bureaucratic to respond adequately to rapidly changing trends in American design. Hill's contributions to the profession were recognized by the American Institute of Architects in 1888, when he was named a fellow. A decade later he served as the vice president and then the president of the newly established Washington chapter of the AIA. Although best known for his commercial work, Hill designed thirty-eight known residences in Washington and made additions or alterations to forty additional structures.
No subsequent supervising architect had the national reputation of the first five, although output continued to be considerable. The office was incorporated into the General Services Administration when it was established in 1949. The title of superivising architect continued until 1956, when it was changed to assistant commissioner for design and construction within the General Services Administration. By the mid-1950s, the Public Buildings Service had evolved into an essentially administrative organization.
The presence in Washington of the headquarters of the Army Corps of Engineers played an important role in Washington's building history, one that was often in competition with that of local professional architects. It was Thomas Jefferson who had recognized the role a well-educated national corps of engineers might play in developing as well as defending the country. When he founded the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802, he included in the curriculum courses in architecture as well as in civil and military engineering. The Army Corps of Engineers under the War Department not only designed, built, and maintained the military installations in and around Washington but also exercised considerable control over many aspects of the city's civilian government architecture. Washington's bridges and canals were often designed by architects but frequently built by army engineers. As the Potomac's width was considerable and it often froze during the winter, early bridges with wood piling had to be replaced several times. The most unusual early bridge was the Aqueduct Bridge at Georgetown, designed by topographical engineer William Turnbull and constructed between 1831 and 1835 to carry the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Maryland to Virginia.
The technical expertise and organizational abilities of the engineers often led to their supplanting architects during the construction phase of public buildings. Thomas Lincoln Casey was appointed to complete the Washington Monument, the State, War, and Navy Building, and the Library of Congress, in the latter two instances against the wishes of the still-living architects. Smithmeyer and Pelz, designers of the Library of Congress, sued the government for the loss of their professional fees; they eventually won the case but were never appropriated the money.
Although the engineers and architects were often at odds about their respective roles, some engineers contributed significantly to Washington's architectural beauty. The most important was Montgomery Meigs (1816–1892), a graduate of West Point in 1836, who spent most of his career working in Washington; his lovely watercolor and pencil sketches recorded the city's bucolic urbanism before its great expansion and redevelopment. He designed the Washington Aqueduct in 1852, devising not only the system of aqueduct bridges and conduits to bring water from the upper Potomac into the city but also small Neoclassical structures for buildings to house the machinery. Meigs's Cabin John Bridge, erected as part of this system, was the longest masonry arch in the world until the twentieth century. As superintendent of construction for the Capitol extensions, Meigs suggested and directed some alterations to Walter's building, including placing the legislative chambers in the center of each wing and introducing pediments on their east-facing facades. Meigs's role in devising the constructional system of the Capitol's cast-iron dome was crucial to its form and erection. To recover from the strain of having served as quartermaster general during the Civil War, Meigs spent several months in 1867 touring Europe, where he became particularly interested in Italian Renaissance architecture. Two years later he designed his own house, a small rendition of a monumental Italian palace with its entire ground story rusticated; it stood at the corner of Vermont Avenue and N Street until 1962. Meigs returned to Europe in 1876 to study exhibition architecture for the government, later advising on the design of the National Museum. His most lasting contribution to Washington's architecture is the Pension Building (see DE07). Its massive form dominates its local skyline, and its vast interior space has been used for numerous inaugural balls.
Washington during the Civil War was an armed camp located on the edge of enemy territory, protected by a series of sixty-eight forts and batteries around its outskirts, some of which remain intact today. Fort Reno with its grounds is now a park located between Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues; Fort De Russey, located just above Military Road in Rock Creek Park, is a picturesque ruin. Because of this surveillance the city did not suffer the ravages associated with war, as did many southern cities. Its public buildings were used for hospitals but were not damaged; bread for troops was baked in the basement of the Capitol, but the building was never attacked; a herd of cattle to feed the army was grazed on the Washington Monument grounds, but the monument itself was not defaced. The war left its impact on the city's streets, deeply rutted from the movement of cannon and other military armaments through them, and on its public squares, left in shambles.
The Board of Public Works, established in 1871 under the direction of speculator and developer Alexander R. Shepherd (who later became mayor), expended upward of $30 million to level, pave, and extend streets beyond L'Enfant's boundaries and to install under them sewer lines and water mains. In 1883, Joseph West Moore wrote in Picturesque Washington:
In ten years from the time the Board of Public Works began its improvements, the city was transformed. The streets were covered with an almost noiseless, smooth pavement. Fifty thousand shade-trees had been planted; the old rows of wooden, barrack-like houses had given place to dwellings of graceful, ornate architecture; blocks of fine business buildings lined Pennsylvania Avenue and the other prominent thoroughfares; blossoming gardens and luxuriant parks were to be seen on all sides; the squares and circles were adorned with the statues of heroes, and bordered with costly and palatial mansions; splendid school-houses, churches, market buildings, newspaper offices had been erected. The water-works and sewer system were unequalled in the country. Washington had risen fresh and beautiful, like the Uranian Venus, from stagnation and decay.
The city benefited enormously, but so did Shepherd, whose extensive real estate holdings increased greatly in value. In 1888 his building operations were said to have exceeded those of any other person in the United States and were valued at $10 million. Historians have noted that Washington's economic expansion during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was based on real estate investment. Shepherd was the leader, the first developer in Washington to build entire city blocks of row houses that followed coherent, architecturally integrated designs. Frequently Shepherd's architect was Adolph Cluss (1825–1905), among the two or three most important German-trained architects to have settled in Washington in the mid-nineteenth century. Cluss designed Shepherd's Row, built in 1872 on the northeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW; the developer resided in the turreted corner house and Cluss was his next-door neighbor. These substantial, well-designed stone houses were typical of many of the upper-middle-class residences that Shepherd built in the city's fashionable and rapidly expanding northwest neighborhoods.
Cluss had been educated as an architect and civil engineer in Württemberg, Germany, the son and grandson of architects, graduating in 1846 and emigrating to the United States two years later. He held government surveying and drafting positions before joining the Supervising Architect's office in 1855, where he was in charge of one of the drafting rooms for four years before transferring to the Navy Yard's ordnance office. In 1862 Cluss won, with Joseph von Kammerhueber (a fellow German-born architect who worked under Walter at the Capitol), the competition for the Wallach School. Upon completion in 1864, the building committee noted, “Comeliness and beauty in a building are more dependent upon the taste and skill of the architect than upon the amount of money expended.” In 1865 Cluss's Franklin School (see DE19) was begun; an articulated model costing $1,000 was exhibited at the World's Exposition held in Vienna in 1873, where it excited the interest of educators and architects alike and won a Medal for Progress in education and school architecture.
Thomas Franklin Schneider (1859–1938), a native Washingtonian and the son of German immigrants, entered Cluss's office in 1875 for an eight-year apprenticeship. During his first three years in private practice, Schneider designed about seventy-five detached and row houses for private clients. However, in 1886 he took the step that determined his career, becoming a developer as well as architect by undertaking to finance as well as design a group of fifteen row houses. The following year Schneider began development of the 1700 block of Q Street, by which time his philosophy toward architectural design was firmly established. Within a common framework of Richardsonian Romanesque forms and decorative language, details were varied to make each house unique. This turning away from the more “tasteful” uniformity of Cluss's rows toward a lively mixture of architectural elements in order to express individuality did not result in better architecture but did express an ethos that was more typically American.
Although John Granville Meyers (1834–1902) was born in Pennsylvania, his family's background was German (he changed his name from Johannes), and his father, a mason, and brother, a brick maker, were involved in the building trades. Meyers himself was listed in the Washington city directories as a carpenter or builder from 1865 until 1875, when he appeared as an architect. Although best known for his house for Washington's German brewer Christian Heurich (see DU36), Meyer designed 115 documented buildings in Washington, principally residences commissioned by individual clients. His most active period was the decade of the 1880s, when three-quarters of his known buildings were erected. During the same years Meyers was granted five patents relating to improved building technology, particularly fireproofing methods. Although Meyers thought of and advertised himself as an architect, justifiably so as he designed the buildings he erected, he moved in a different level of society than his professionally trained colleagues. He never joined the American Institute of Architects but rather was a member of the Masonic order and the Odd Fellows.
John L. Smithmeyer (1832–1908), born in Vienna, Austria, and Paul J. Pelz (1841–1918), born in Silesia, Germany, both came to America as youths and learned their profession as apprentices in architectural offices, Smithmeyer in Chicago and Pelz in New York. Both came to Washington shortly after the Civil War to work in government architecture offices, Smithmeyer spending five years in the Supervising Architect's office, and Pelz working for the United States Lighthouse Board. In 1872 they formed a partnership, pooling their experience and talents specifically to enter the competition for the Library of Congress (see CH12). In 1873 they won the first prize of $1,500, and for the next fifteen years their careers were dominated by the library commission, which went through several design stages and culminated in Smithmeyer's dismissal in 1888 and Pelz's four years later. Pelz was replaced by Edward Pearce Casey, the twenty-eight-year-old son of Gen. Thomas Lincoln Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers, who had been in charge of constructing the library since 1888 and was the cause of Smithmeyer's earlier departure. Although they had a successful private practice designing many buildings in and outside of Washington, Smithmeyer's failure to receive the fees he lost on the Library of Congress commission, which he had been awarded by a court, led to a suicide attempt in 1899. He died destitute in Washington in 1908.
The nature of clients, major commissions, and the education of architects changed considerably toward the end of the nineteenth century. Members of Congress began to maintain residences in Washington as the legislative terms lengthened due to the growth and complexity of the nation and its government. Many wealthy self-made men wintered in Washington if they were not socially acceptable in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia society. Both groups either bought or commissioned substantial homes and many invested in Washington real estate schemes. Sen. Francis Newlands of Nevada backed the Chevy Chase Land Company. Although this tract was outside the district's northwestern boundary, its development required the introduction of amenities that benefited city residents, including apartment houses lining Connecticut Avenue above Rock Creek and a trolley line that served Northwest residents as well as those in Chevy Chase.
Opportunities for those Americans who wished to receive an academic education in architecture were severely limited until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Richard Morris Hunt had traveled to Europe to attend the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1845. He returned to America a decade later, spending a few months working at the Capitol under Walter before establishing himself in New York. Although the first architecture school in the country was founded in 1865 (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), many young students, whether or not they had attended or completed a course in architecture in America, chose to experience and study the sources of the Western architectural tradition firsthand. As the Ecole not only offered a highly evolved system of instruction but also had a tradition of welcoming students from many parts of Europe, it became a mecca for young American architects. The classical French approach to architectural design emphasized highly organized spatial progressions and universal principles of design applicable alike to city plans, public buildings, and private houses. Abstract ideals of beauty and harmony, it was believed, could be taught systematically and applied in any cultural context. In addition, the actual experience of architecture—walking around and through buildings—cannot be satisfactorily replaced by theoretical knowledge or two-dimensional information gleaned from engravings or photographs.
Washington offered some unique advantages for architects trained at the Ecole. The monumental core of L'Enfant's plan included public spaces that are similar to those of Paris. The 1902 Senate Park Commission Plan that transformed the city's central area from a fragmented group of buildings nestled amidst a densely planted picturesque garden into a coherent, orderly, and architecturally unified ensemble set in an open park was primarily inspired by French academic ideals and carried out by American architects, some of whom had been students at the Ecole. Washington's residential neighborhoods, as delineated on L'Enfant's plan, contained numerous irregular lot shapes that are comparable to those in Paris, but they were also similar to those that students at the Ecole had been typically assigned as projects. Washington's rich complement of mansions from the Gilded Age in the Dupont and Sheridan circle areas and on Meridian Hill reflect historical architectural styles from the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, primarily those found in France.
Joseph C. Hornblower (1848–1908) and J. Rush Marshall (1851–1927) formed an architectural firm in 1883 that was not dissolved until 1923. Their varied architectural educations, a mixture of American and European experiences, seem to have given them the design freedom to create an identifiable architectural image akin to Richardson's. They applied French academic planning and organizational principles to a mixture of “American” styles current at the turn of the century—Richardsonian Romanesque, Arts and Crafts, and Colonial Revival—to invent their own eclectic substyle. Both architects were active in Washington's intellectual and social clubs of the period: Hornblower was a member of six clubs in Washington and New York, including the Cosmos Club, to which he was elected in 1883. Marshall was also a member; they were jointly responsible for remodeling the club's headquarters at 1520 H Street NW. Both were also members of the AIA and active in its Washington chapter. In the early years of their partnership they employed many young architects who went on to establish their own firms, notably William J. Marsh and Walter G. Peter.
After graduating from Yale in 1869 with a degree in philosophy, Hornblower worked in Washington as an architectural draftsman in the Supervising Architect's office until his departure for Paris in 1874. He studied in the atelier, or studio, of Jean-Louis Pascal in 1875 and 1876, a common preparation for admittance to the Ecole. However, Hornblower returned to Washington in 1877 and began to practice architecture with the education he had obtained as an apprentice. Between 1895 and 1900 Hornblower was the head of the architecture department at Columbian College and continued to teach architectural history there until 1906. Hornblower made two additional trips to Europe, in 1902 and 1908, to study museum design in conjunction with the firm's commission for the Natural History Museum (see ML15); he died at The Hague while on the second trip.
Marshall, whose father had been a professor at Dickinson College and later United States Consul in England, spent three years studying architecture at Rutgers College Scientific School beginning in 1868. After traveling in Europe with his father, Marshall entered the Supervising Architect's office in 1871, where he worked for the next twelve years before becoming Hornblower's partner. Marshall seems to have been the interior design specialist in the firm; his tasteful decoration of the great hall of the Pension Building for President William McKinley's inaugural ball in 1901 was widely praised. The firm's creative phase ended with Hornblower's death, as the office had no further major commissions.
Most Ecole-trained architects who practiced in Washington from the 1880s until the 1930s adhered to the formal, academic European styles taught in Paris. Jules Henri de Sibour (1872–1938) was born in France; his father was Vicomte Gabriel de Sibour and his mother an American. He was educated at Saint Paul's School in New Hampshire, graduated from Yale University in 1898, and spent the following year at the Ecole in Paris. His first professional experience was with Bruce Price's New York firm in 1902, where he stayed until 1908. Beginning in 1908 Sibour maintained offices in both New York and Washington, finally settling in Washington in 1911, where for thirty years he was one of the city's most prominent architects, designing a number of elegant mansions in academically correct American versions of French seventeenth-and eighteenth-century styles, including houses for Clarence Moore and Thomas T. Gaff (see DU24 and DU29). In 1924 Sibour's important works were published privately in Selections from the Work of J. H. de Sibour, Architect, Washington, D.C.
Nathan C. Wyeth (1870–1963) retired in 1946, after a distinguished career in both the public and private sectors of Washington architecture. He had graduated from the art school at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889 and then spent ten years in Paris studying architecture at the Ecole. In 1899 he joined the Washington office of Carrère and Hastings and subsequently was employed both by the Supervising Architect's office and the Architect of the Capitol. Between 1905 and 1919 Wyeth designed a number of private mansions located principally in the Sheridan Circle and Meridian Hill areas, including residences for Gibson Fahnestock and Franklin MacVeagh (see SK20 and MH27). His skills and practice, however, were not limited to such elite commissions, but ranged broadly to include bridges, hospitals, and the Battleship Maine Monument in Arlington Cemetery. During the First World War, Wyeth designed hospitals for the Office of the Surgeon General and spent the last dozen years of his career as the Municipal Architect of the District of Columbia.
The most popular society architect during Washington's Gilded Age was George Oakley Totten, Jr. (1866–1939), who almost single handedly created Meridian Hill's cosmopolitan ambiance in addition to designing several key structures on or near Sheridan Circle. Totten received his initial architectural education at Columbia University in New York, graduating with an M.A. in 1892. The following year he was awarded the McKim Travelling Fellowship, which allowed him to spend two years of advanced study at the Ecole in Paris. He immediately settled in Washington upon his return to America in 1895, where for three years he was chief designer in the Supervising Architect's office. He practiced in partnership with his college roommate, Laussat R. Rogers, until 1907, and thereafter independently. Totten's output was almost exclusively lavish residences or embassies, including one in Istanbul in 1908 for the Turkish Prime Minister. The overthrow of Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1909 curtailed Totten's appointment as “private architect to the Sultan of Turkey.”
Totten's involvement with professional organizations was local, national, and international. He served as a delegate to eight International Congresses of Architects from 1897 until 1932, traveling to Brussels, Paris, Madrid, London, Vienna, Rome, and Budapest to represent American architects. He was president of the Washington Architectural Club in 1896–1897 and the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1932. In 1926 Totten published Maya Architecture, an illustrated scholarly study of native South American architecture that included color plates. Totten's especial interest in architectural decoration may have been a factor in his stylistic eclecticism, as he experimented continuously with a wide variety of western European historical styles, in many cases designing unique exemplars of them for Washington.
Other architects to practice in Washington who had the advantage of Parisian education included William Penn Cresson, who attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years before enrolling at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and then the Ecole des Sciences Politiques. Cresson came to Washington in 1905, practiced architecture for just two years before becoming a Nevada cattle rancher, and eventually a diplomat with postings in England, Ecuador, Panama, Russia, and Portugal. Wyeth ended his somewhat unusual career as the Fletcher Professor of International Law at Tufts College in Massachusetts.
Waddy B. Wood (1869–1944) had a long and extremely prolific Washington career, active in federal, city, and private architectural circles, designing everything from bridges to apartment houses to the Interior Department Building (see FB20). While working as a draftsman in several firms during the 1890s, Wood was granted permission to study all the architecture books in the Library of Congress in the evenings, a considerable undertaking. In 1903 he went into partnership with Edward W. Donn, Jr., who had been educated as an architect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University, and with William L. Deming, an engineer educated at Columbian College in Washington. After 1914, Wood practiced on his own until his retirement in the late 1930s.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Wood, Donn and Deming firm was the large group of pleasant Colonial Revival, Spanish Colonial, and Arts and Crafts houses and row houses that provided quiet but lively streetscapes in the neighborhoods surrounding Dupont, Sheridan, and Kalorama circles. In 1906 a writer for the Architectural Record noted:
They have developed the pictorial, they have demonstrated the value of color and texture, they have put some old materials to some good new uses, and have met, in measure at least the needs and requirements of a peculiar place and time. Their buildings are not all faultless, but are simple, dignified, and of fair proportion. They stand for integrity and character.9
While the majority of Washington's private buildings in the early twentieth century were designed by architects in practice in the city, the major government commissions went to architects with national reputations. Daniel Burnham (1846–1912) of Chicago, Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909) of New York, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870–1948), from Boston were responsible for redesigning central Washington under the auspices of the Senate Park Commission in 1901–1902. Burnham's career began in Chicago, where he was an apprentice in architectural and engineering firms in the mid-1860s. In partnership with John Wellborn Root from 1873 until Root's premature death in 1891, Burnham was a leader of the Chicago school during the years when the American skyscraper was formulated.
Burnham's talent for orchestrating large and complex architectural and planning projects, demonstrated in the Senate Park Commission Plan for Washington, had been tested in 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. It marked a distinctive shift in Burnham's architectural thinking away from the progressive and innovative ideals of the Chicago school to conservative and academic ones espoused by the American architects who trained in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In the decade following the fair Burnham's office designed large civic centers for a number of cities including Cleveland, Detroit, and San Francisco. Of all his urban plans his proposal for redoing central Washington was the most successful because the landscape matrix was already in place and because the precedent of L'Enfant's grand vision could be and was invoked to ensure its success.
Louis Sullivan, the major practitioner of the Chicago style, condemned the return to European precedents as “snobbish and alien to the land,”10 and predicted that the pernicious influence of the Columbian Exposition would last for half a century, a prophesy that came to pass, as the Jefferson Memorial, completed in 1943, was the last major Beaux-Arts-inspired building erected in America. Burnham's success in overseeing the design and implementation of the Senate Park Commission Plan, including gaining the support of public and private groups and promoting it among congressmen and the general public, led to his commission as architect of Union Station (see CH10), a key component of the plan.
A host of federal agencies, District of Columbia offices, and citizen's advisory groups have regulated the public and private development of Washington throughout the twentieth century. The earliest was the Commission of Fine Arts, established by Congress on 17 May 1910, “to advise upon the location, [models, and selection of artists] of statues, fountains, and monuments in the public squares, streets, and parks in the District of Columbia.”11 The Capitol and Library of Congress were excluded. Subsequent executive orders soon clarified the role the commission was to play. On 25 October 1910, William Howard Taft signed the order stipulating that all plans for public buildings erected by the government in Washington be submitted to the commission for approval. Three years later Woodrow Wilson extended the commission's purview to any new structures in the District erected under the direction of the federal government “which affect in any important way the appearance of the City.”
Establishment of the Commission of Fine Arts replaced ad hoc committees, frequently composed of laymen appointed for the duration of each project, with a group of design professionals. The first chairman was architect Daniel Burnham, who served two years until his death in 1912; his successor was sculptor Daniel Chester French, who served for only three years. However, succeeding chairmen have been professional administrators in the fields of art, architecture, or planning who have served long tenures, committed to the orderly and harmonious development of Washington's public spaces. As the custodian of the Senate Park Commission Plan, the commission has reviewed tens of thousands of proposals to add to or alter buildings in Washington's monumental core, defined at the present time to include all structures on public grounds (except the Capitol complex), the “private or semipublic buildings adjacent to public buildings and grounds of major importance,” and all of Georgetown. The commission's design review process includes consideration of the overall impact of buildings on the city, including “height and appearance, color, and texture of the materials of exterior construction.” Public hearings are an important part of the commission's process, and their decisions are legally binding. The commission's first major project was to review designs for the Lincoln Memorial; the most recent for the Holocaust museum. The commission's consistently conservative viewpoint has preserved central Washington's open, horizontal, and essentially classical ambiance into the modern era of vertical urban architecture.
Although there had been resident architects of the Capitol since 1793 and a formalized office structure had been in continuous operation since the early 1850s, the incumbents after Thomas U. Walter's departure in 1865 were caretaker architects without national reputations for their design abilities. Recognition of the importance of outstanding designs for the new Senate and House office buildings (see CH02 and CH03) that obliquely faced the Capitol led to the selection of John M. Carrère (1858–1911) and Thomas Hastings (1860–1929) as their architects in 1905. Founders of a prestigious New York firm, both had been educated in Paris and had secured the commission for the New York Public Library in 1902, immediately recognized for its superior architectural quality. They were selected in 1906 to design the Carnegie Institution headquarters (see MH05) because their work (specifically the library) was known and admired by members of the institution's board of directors. Their earlier renovation in 1901 of a Victorian house into one of Washington's most beautiful turn-of-the-century mansions for Richard and Mary Scott Townsend (see DU35) had introduced their talents to Washington. More modest Washington residential commissions did not follow until 1929, neighboring brick houses at 2200 and 2222 S Street NW (see SK61 and SK62) designed by the surviving partner Hastings during the last year of his life.
In 1900 the American Institute of Architects held its annual meeting in Washington. Glenn Brown (1854–1932) of Washington, secretary of the American Institute of Architects from 1898 to 1913, lobbied attendees to give lectures at the meeting (members of Congress were invited to attend) and prepare plans for modernizing central Washington so that American architects would play a key role in the inevitable development of the Mall and its surrounding areas, including its new extension to the west. Future public buildings, monuments, and sculpture were to be incorporated into a coherently designed landscape. Many architects participated; Brown's own scheme was published in the August 1900 issue of the Architectural Review. Cass Gilbert (1858–1934) presented a plan and outlined its principles. Brown included Gilbert's design and text in a group of essays entitled Papers Relating to the Improvement of the City of Washington, District of Columbia placed before Congress and published by the Government Printing Office in 1901. Brown's foresight led directly to implementation of the 1901–1902 Senate Park Commission Plan, which transformed monumental Washington into its current form.
Brown built a dual career in Washington as a prolific architectural writer and as a practicing architect, opening his office in 1879 after studying architecture at George Washington University and the Massachusetts Institute of Architects. His monumental two-volume History of the United States Capitol, published in 1900 and 1903, remains the seminal study. In an article, “Domestic Architecture in Washington City,” published in the Engineering Magazine in 1896 Brown analyzed numerous irregular house plans (including his own designs) occasioned by Washington's street patterns but focused on praising Richardson's great Washington houses, which he illustrated with photographs and plans. Brown himself designed more than a hundred Washington houses ranging in style from Queen Anne to Beaux-Arts; his greatest was for Joseph Beale (see SK18).
Although best known for his skyscraper, the Woolworth Building (1913) in New York, Gilbert's reputation was established with complex Beaux-Arts public buildings, including the impressive Beaux-Arts Minnesota State Capitol, begun in 1895, and the New York Custom House, constructed between 1901 and 1907. Gilbert's involvement in Washington's early twentieth century development was extensive. He served as a member of the Commission of Fine Arts from 1910 to 1916; his two buildings facing Lafayette Square, the Treasury Annex (see WH13) and Chamber of Commerce Building (see WH09), were part of a larger scheme that would have implemented one element of the Senate Park Commission Plan, enclosing the square with monumental public buildings. Gilbert's greatest contribution to Washington architecture, the Supreme Court (see CH08), came at the end of his career and during the last decade when monumental Beaux-Arts public buildings were deemed appropriate.
John Russell Pope's (1874–1937) influence on Washington's twentieth-century architectural development was profound. His highly visible public buildings include the National Archives (see FT08), National Gallery of Art (ML16), Jefferson Memorial (ML10), Scottish Rite Masonic Temple (MH12), American Pharmaceutical Association Building (FB10), and Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Memorial Hall (FB05). The response of many in the architectural profession to Pope's work can be judged by critic Aymar Embury's 1921 statement, “Roman architects of two thousand years ago would prefer the Temple of the Scottish Rite to any of their own work.”12 The rightness of classicism as an appropriate American style of architecture, espoused by Thomas Jefferson more than a century earlier on political grounds, was reaffirmed in the early twentieth century on aesthetic ones. The interiors of two of Pope's elegant Washington residences are open to the public, those for Henry White and Irwin B. Laughlin (see MH17 and MH18), neighbors on Meridian Hill, now owned by Meridian House International. This prodigious output of such high-quality buildings would be remarkable for an architect whose practice was located in Washington. Pope, however, designed major buildings for many parts of the country from his New York office, which he opened in 1903.
Pope's American and European education had been the finest obtainable. After earning a degree in architecture from Columbia University's School of Mines in New York, he won fellowships that paid for two years of study, in 1895–1896, in Rome at the American Academy. During these years Pope traveled extensively in Italy and Greece, concentrating on the study of ancient and Renaissance monuments. He then spent another two years in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. By 1929, when Royal Cortissoz's three-volume work, The Architecture of John Russell Pope, was published, Pope had received many honors, including appointment by President Woodrow Wilson to the Commission of Fine Arts in 1917, yet the major Washington buildings for which he is best remembered were not designed until the final decade of his life. One of Pope's first acts during his five-year tenure on the Commission of Fine Arts was to propose covering Alfred B. Mullett's exuberant State, War, and Navy Building with a sedate Neoclassical exterior to nearly replicate that of the Treasury Building, thus attempting to impose the harmonious and symmetrical principles of classicism on existing and much-despised Victorian buildings.
In addition to his seventeen Washington buildings, Pope had been a major contender for the design of the Lincoln Memorial in 1916 and in 1925 was the successful competitor for the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, planned to terminate the south axis of the White House where the Jefferson Memorial was ultimately located in 1939. With the Roosevelt Memorial's two massive Doric peristyles and four grandiloquent sculptural groups rising out of a long rectangular pool that traversed the Mall, Pope planned to frame the White House's southern vista, rather than terminate it, as had been done at the Lincoln Memorial.
Paul Philippe Cret's (1876–1945) architectural background and career were substantially different from other architects whose impact on Washington has been as substantial. He was born and educated in France and came to the United States in 1903 after six years of study in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to be the resident critic at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture. Throughout his long and productive career Cret was involved in educating American architects; Louis I. Kahn was his most famous pupil. Three great Washington buildings and his five-year tenure on the Commission of Fine Arts (1940–1945) spanned most of Cret's architectural practice, beginning with his winning design for the Pan American Union (see FB06) competition of 1907, continuing with the Folger Shakespeare Library (see CH15), erected between 1928 and 1932, and culminating with the Federal Reserve Board Building (see FB08), completed in 1937. The first is a canonically Beaux-Arts building while the last two, leading examples of Cret's modernized classicism (a fusion of ancient with modern architectural traditions), demonstrate the breadth of his creative ability as he led the way out of the conundrum of traditionalism versus modernism.
Washington's outstanding African-American architect, Hilyard R. Robinson (1899–1986), was a native Washingtonian. After study at Philadelphia's School of Industrial Design and service in France during World War I, Robinson traveled extensively in France before entering the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture; he earned his B.A. in architecture at Columbia University in 1924 and eventually his M.A. there while teaching in Washington at Howard University's School of Architecture, where he joined the faculty in 1924. While still in college Robinson worked during summer vacations for Vertner W. Tandy, a talented black architect with a practice in New York.
Robinson's house for fellow Howard University faculty member Ralph Bunche (see NE05) is one of his few single-family homes. His major interest was designing public housing following the social and aesthetic principles of modernism. During three European trips in 1925, 1931, and 1932, Robinson visited significant European housing developments in Holland, Austria, and Germany, and met and discussed their principles with Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe. Robinson's unrealized housing plan for “Howard City” on 12 acres adjacent to the university eventually led to his design for Langston Terrace (see NE02) under the auspices of the Public Works Administration. Robinson designed seven additional government-sponsored housing projects in Washington, Baltimore, and Ypsilanti, Michigan. His other major works were educational buildings, including several at Howard University (see NE12), and at Hampton Institute in Virginia and Jarvis College in Texas. Robinson's civic involvement was international as well as local; he was Technical Director for the Centennial Victory Exposition of the Republic of Liberia in 1947–1948 and a member of Washington's National Capitol Planning Commission from 1950 to 1955.
Hugh Newell Jacobsen (1929–), who located his architectural office in Washington in 1958, has had numerous national and international commissions. After graduating from Yale University's School of Architecture in 1955 he worked in the New York office of Philip Johnson for three years. Jacobsen's practice has been largely single-family houses (see NW30 and NW60), with many of his larger projects also residential in nature, such as the Half Moon Bay Hotel (1973) in Antigua and his dormitory for Georgetown University (see GT12.8). In 1984 he renovated both the American Embassy in Paris, the eighteenth-century Hotel Talleyrand, and the American Embassy in Moscow, the Spaso House. His interest in preservation of historic buildings dates from two Washington projects, the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building and the Renwick Gallery. In 1976 Jacobsen designed for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation an entire block of houses to have been located where Market Square (see DE14) was later built. It called for hotels and offices around the perimeter with staggered row houses set above them and in three concentric terraced rings organized around two half circles in the block's interior. Jacobsen's buildings have been widely published and repeatedly have won design awards from the American Institute of Architects as well as prestigious professional journals.
In 1924 the National Capital Park Commission was established by congressional act, to “provide for the comprehensive, systematic, and continuous development of park, parkway, and playground systems of the National Capital.” It was composed of the chief engineer as well as the engineer in charge of public buildings and grounds from the Army Corps of Engineers, the engineer commissioner of the District of Columbia, the head of the National Park Service, and the chairpersons of the Senate and House committees on the District of Columbia. In 1926 the body was renamed the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, with its responsibilities extended to “preparing, developing and maintaining a comprehensive, consistent and coordinated plan for the National Capital and its environs.” The federal agency functioned as a city planning office similar to those established in other major American cities around the beginning of the century; it was to oversee transportation, subdivisions, public building sites, sewerage, zoning, commerce, and industry.
In 1952 congressional legislation separated park management from city planning functions with the establishment of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), whose purview was to ensure the “appropriate and orderly development and redevelopment of the National Capital and the conservation of the important natural and historical features thereof.” Preparation of a comprehensive regional plan was a priority, with development agencies in Prince Georges and Montgomery counties in Maryland, and Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties in Virginia consulting the comprehensive plan before implementing any local planning initiatives. In addition, NCPC has been involved in individual project planning as it coordinates the planning needs of federal agencies. Early commission members were professional planners and landscape architects who were related to pioneers in these fields. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the designer of the Capitol grounds in 1876, and Charles Eliot, whose uncle of the same name had designed the Boston Metropolitan Park System in 1893, contributed to implementing NCPC's goals. Commission members Frederic A. Delano, uncle of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ulysses S. Grant III had wide influence that extended to the White House to promote and implement planning issues dealing with the city's parklands, transportation system, and land-use concerns.
The National Park Service, a federal agency under the Department of the Interior, has jurisdiction over the care and interpretation of numerous historic sites, as well as national parks, throughout the country. In Washington, the Mall grounds, Washington Monument, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Vietnam Veterans memorials, East and West Potomac Park, Rock Creek Park, and most of the city's public squares are the responsibility of the Park Service. Designs for all proposed buildings or statuary to be located on these public grounds must be approved by the Park Service in addition to the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.
Passage of the Home Rule Act of 1973 gave Washington's residents more autonomy over local municipal affairs. One provision of the act stipulated that the elected mayor share “procedures for appropriate meaningful planning process for the National Capital” with the National Capital Planning Commission. The present District of Columbia Office of Planning prepares and sends to the mayor and city council long-range comprehensive plans, ward plans, and small area plans. Their most important activity is land-use planning; under the 1984–1985 comprehensive plan the Office of Planning identified where development should occur and which neighborhoods should be protected from development. It also attempted to correct unbalanced growth in the city. The revitalization of the old downtown area during the 1980s resulted from recommendations made by the Office of Planning to other city agencies charged with housing and community development and historic preservation issues.
Since 1986 site and design approval of all commemorative works of art and architecture proposed for federal sites has been shared by the Commission of Fine Arts, National Capital Planning Commission, secretary of the interior, and administrator of General Services (successor to the Supervising Architect and since 1945 in charge of the construction and maintenance of government buildings).
Washington's architects have always played key roles in its intellectual societies. The Columbian Institute, founded in 1816 and disbanded in 1838, had eleven members who were directly involved in Washington's physical development, including Hoban, Thornton, Hadfield, Latrobe, Bulfinch, and Mills. In addition to holding monthly meetings at which lectures were often delivered, the Columbian Institute sponsored and developed the Botanic Garden at the foot of Capitol Hill and undertook the general beautification of the Mall, both of which were private initiatives to care for the city's most important public space.
The National Institute (later Institution) was founded in 1840 as a combination museum and scientific organization in order to be available to accept the bequest of English scientist James Smithson to found in Washington a society for the promotion and diffusion of knowledge. Its membership, which included architect Robert Mills, was instrumental in formulating the program that eventually led to the Medieval Revival design for the Smithsonian Institution building. The National Institution's collections, which included artifacts of architectural interest, were displayed in their museum at the Patent Office before being transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. Throughout the 1840s lectures were given and papers read at meetings of the National Institution on historical and technical aspects of architecture. For example, Henry Wheaton sent drawings and lengthy descriptions of modern architecture in Germany, where he served as the American minister. The Smithsonian Institution continued this tradition, publishing in its annual reports studies on numerous aspects of building technology, including David Reid's “Ventilation in American Dwellings” in 1856, which later went through two editions in book form.
In Washington more than in any other major American city, the urban character that its originators planned has been realized. For two centuries architects and planners have recognized and respected L'Enfant's vision of an American city, where a strong sense of place would be tied to a unique interweaving of landscape and architecture, public and private spaces. Nearly every American architect of significance has contributed something to Washington, albeit sometimes unrealized dreams and occasionally disdainful comment. In 1939–1940 in Crystal Heights, a pioneering mixed-use project planned for Washington, Frank Lloyd Wright foresaw that limited urban land and rising populations would make working and living in or near cities ever more unpalatable. He proposed a triangular 10-acre site on the northeast corner of Connecticut and Florida avenues NW, a vast complex in which 2,362 apartment units and about 140 hotel rooms (each with its own fireplace and balcony) would be contained in a cluster of faceted skyscrapers (the tallest 135 feet) along the site's northern perimeter overlooking a garden and plaza-parking lot. A total of twenty-one separate functions were to be accommodated in Crystal Heights, including theaters, a ballroom to accommodate 2,000 people, and a shopping center. The projected cost was $15 million. Wright commented about his prophetic design: “As the land rises and falls, so will the 21 parts vary in height,” an affirmation of L'Enfant's original basic commitment to realizing the genius of the place.13 Washington remains a green city where the natural and the man-made are in balance.
Edward C. Carter II, John C. Van Horne, and Lee W. Formwalt, The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1799–1820: From Philadelphia to New Orleans, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 3:70.
Charles Dickens, American Notes (reprint, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), p. 106.
Carter, Van Horne, and Formwalt, The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 3:71–72.
Philadelphia General Advertiser, 23 August 1793.
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers.
Quoted in Susan L. Klaus, "‘Some of the Smartest Folks Here.’ The Van Nesses and Community Building in Early Washington," Washington History 3, no. 2 (1991–1992): 38.
Records of the U.S. Senate, Petitions, National Archives, RG 46, SEN 25A–G5.
Records of the U. S. Senate, Petitions, National Archives, RG 46, SEN 34A–H5–H6.
Quoted in Louise Mann Madden and Sheila Dressner Ruffine, Cleveland Park: Washington, D. C., Neighborhood (n.p., n.d.), p. 50, typescript on deposit in the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Quoted in Hugh Morrison, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture (New York: Norton Library, 1962), p. 184.
Quoted in Sue A. Kohler, The Commission of Fine Arts: A Brief History, 1910–1990 (Washington, D.C.: Commission of Fine Arts, 1991), p. 203.
Aymar Embury, "Are We On Our Way?" Arts and Decoration 21 (January 1921): 285.
Washington Post, 25 September 1940.
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