The Built Image of Democracy – Part II
Posted on September 28, 2018
During the Civil War, Washington became “an armed camp; later, a vast hospital.” As a symbol of national unity as much as a functioning city, Washington was an important stronghold, and new armories, barracks, and stables were created quickly and in unlikely places. Troops were quartered in the Capitol, the Treasury Building, at historic Georgetown, and on the open green where the Mall would be built.
Despite this time of trial in the nation’s history, work on a new dome for the Capitol Building proceeded. The original copper-clad dome was completed in 1822, but expansions to the north and south wings of the building to accommodate the growing Congress had thrown off the proportions of the building. A new dome was called for in the 1850s.
The replacement dome was double-layered, designed by Thomas Walter, and modeled after those at St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London, and the Pantheon in Paris. Cast iron was the chosen material for the vertical proportions, height, and fire resistance it would allow. Construction would take 11 years.
Just after the Civil War ended, the new dome was completed and crowned with the Statue of Freedom, a 19-½’ tall bronze statue of a classical female figure with sword, shield, and laurel wreath by Thomas Crawford.
The Capitol dome project was meant as a symbol of the strength and unity of the federal government during the war, and its completion ushered in an era of growth for the city itself. The newly united nation considered moving its capital to a wealthier or more central city like Philadelphia or St. Louis. Washington, still the center of diplomacy for the country, had to prove itself a modern city through infrastructural, civic, and commercial upgrades.
The old canal system, once full of potential, had effectively become a sewer during the war years, and it was almost completely filled in in the decades after.
The National Mall laid out to the Capitol’s west in the nineteenth century was remarkably different than the Mall we know today. Pennsylvania Avenue, lined by Robert Mills’ stone federal buildings, served as the ceremonial symbolic federal center. L’Enfant’s Grand Avenue was much more humble.
Capped by the Washington Monument to the west, it was a lush green area of swamps and hills that was used as pasture and farmland through the Civil War. New proposals—including a proposal from Frederick Law Olmsted who had redesigned the grounds of the Capitol complex–for the large public green were typical of the late 1800s in their design with winding paths, forested areas, picturesque views. However, this reorganization would not be fully achieved until the early 1900s.
As the city worked to establish a more formal and symbolic core at its center, the area became the city’s cultural center. L’Enfant had intended for it to be lined with grand residences for foreign ambassadors, but it instead became the home of the city’s national museums.
The first major, non-governmental building built was the newly-founded Smithsonian Institution, now called the Smithsonian Castle. The design also included provisions for a vast picturesque series of parks to replace the unorganized and swampy existing green area.
Designed by James Renwick and finished in 1842, its Norman-style turrets, towers, and decorative brickwork set on the south side of the Mall established the precedent for maintaining the open axis between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
Much of the architecture built in the late 1800s was also brick and contrasted dramatically with Mills’ limestone facades on Pennsylvania Avenue in design and scale. These buildings spoke to D.C.’s local–rather than federal–character.
First among these were a series of market buildings. Originally conceived by L’Enfant, they were critical to the city’s economic and commercial growth. Center Market, at the time the largest market hall in the country, was designed by German-born architect Adolf Cluss and made the area northwest of the Capitol Building the city’s retail center. Though it functioned in that building from 1872 until 1931 when it was demolished, Cluss’ design was predated by a market begun under Washington and visited by Jefferson.
Nearby, Northern Liberty Market, designed by James H. McGill, provided an additional market and a convention hall until its destruction in 1985. Eastern Market, located southeast of the Capitol, was Cluss’ second market in the city. Built in 1873, it is still open today and has been continuously functioning since 1805.
Working in the same brick as the Smithsonian Castle and the market buildings, Cluss also provided the design for the city’s first major National Museum and new modern public schools.
The National Museum, now the Arts and Industries Museum, is rendered in polychromatic brick, and speaks to the whimsical and exuberant Castle just to the west.
The public schools, placed in burgeoning neighborhoods throughout the city, symbolized the city’s focus on education and public works. The Wallach School (since demolished), Sumner School (now housing the museum and records for the DC public school system), and Franklin School (soon to become a new museum of linguistics) were a major modernization effort, and Cluss used the latest technology in construction, safety, and climate control to great public approval.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw DC evolve into a national capital economically and symbolically at the center of a unified and vast nation. With improved infrastructure and new public buildings, it was no longer a small town dotted with monumental federal buildings, but a bustling and modern city with a distinct architectural character of its own. But that city and that character which had developed after the Civil War would be transformed again by the influence of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and the City Beautiful Movement.
To be continued…in Part III.