The Built Image of Democracy—Part III
Posted on October 5, 2018
In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago, Illinois. The product of a two-year whirlwind of design and construction, a series of enormous classical buildings rendered in white plaster lined a broad pool commemorating Columbus’ exploration of the Americas and housed countless exhibits with the world’s newest and most inventive technologies.
To the delight of 27 million visitors that summer, the entire complex was electrically lit every night and exhibitors presented the Ferris wheel, moving walkway, Juicy Fruit gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and other inventions for the very first time.
Integral to the execution of this ideal city were some of America’s greatest architects and designers–Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Though their masterpiece of classical architecture was meant to be temporary and stood for less than two years, it would have a far more lasting legacy. The White City captured the imagination of the entire country, and it charted the course of the City Beautiful Movement which shaped architecture and city planning in America for decades.
Just eight years after the Fair, McKim, Burnham, and Olmsted–joined by sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens–were presented with another challenge. Since the American founding and L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C., the development of its monumental core had been piecemeal and unorganized.
A meeting of the American Institute of Architects in 1900 highlighted the mediocrity of D.C.’s fragmented public spaces and buildings, and numerous solutions were proposed. In 1901, the Senate ordered a commission of architects and designers be formed to outline a single unified vision for planning in Washington. The Senate Parks Commission was born.
From the outset, they intended to follow the principles and intent of L’Enfant’s original plan. They began with a five-week voyage across Europe, planned by Olmsted, to see both their predecessor’s influences first-hand and the way European cities had dealt with the same challenges faced in Washington.
There they outlined their plan for the city’s core and agreed upon developing L’Enfant’s Grand Avenue at the center of the city into a National Mall, a wide tree-lined lawn articulated by periodic fountains and formal gardens, based on French examples in Paris and at Versailles.
When they returned, the Commission developed their plan and its details and presented dramatic and comprehensive models, drawings, and plans at a formal exhibit. Though never officially adopted by Congress, the bold plan and powerful images–the talented Jules Guerin rendered much of the presentation–guided the Mall’s development throughout the twentieth century.
First among their proposed additions were monumental Beaux-Artes museums built of limestone to line the grassy, open Mall and contrast with the whimsical brickwork of the existing Smithsonian buildings. Over the course of the next fifty years, some of America’s best architects would contribute buildings to house the Smithsonian’s collections.
A monument to Lincoln, with post-and-lintel construction intended as a foil to the vertical proportions of the Capitol dome, was built in 1912 to anchor the west side of the Mall and connect Arlington National Cemetery and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s former home to the federal city. The competition between Henry Bacon, who eventually won the commission, and John Russell Pope would produce incredible drawings–by the aforementioned Guerin and Pope’s partner Otto Eggers–that were a testament to the ambition and boldness of the architects and of the time.
Parts of the McMillan plan, however, were ruled too ambitious–or too expensive–particularly during and after the Great Depression began in 1928.
Terracing and gardens at the existing Washington Monument were proposed to complete the original plan and to formalize the axes between the Capitol, White House, and monuments. This garden would then connect to a series of public recreation buildings, parks, and pools to the south (now the site of the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial).
However, the plan was quickly ruled impossible due to the unstable and swampy ground on which the obelisk was originally built. Any significant new building would compromise its foundations. The recreation area and lagoons to the south at the Tidal Basin were also discarded because of expense. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would eventually propose a monument to Jefferson on the site, and he would be instrumental in the eventual construction of John Russell Pope’s design for the rotunda.
Finally, a critical area northwest of the Capitol Building was developed into the Federal Triangle, a group of monumental office buildings, an ornate auditorium, and the Archives Building that would enshrine exhibits on the “Charters of Freedom”–the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
That building, designed by John Russell Pope, was the development’s centerpiece and built on the site of Center Market, the city’s former transportation and commercial center. Pope wrapped a massive and impenetrable structure reminiscent of a bank vault in classical colonnades and pediments.
The plan of the Senate Parks Commission was one of America’s largest planning initiatives, and it made the city, once characterized by a few iconic buildings–the White House, the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian Castle, and others–linked together by lackluster parks and disjointed public spaces into a cohesive and monumental whole to rival the great capitals of Europe.
That document still guides the development of the city today. It is remarkable to think that, although they look as if they’ve stood for centuries, many of its most iconic buildings–the memorials to Lincoln and Jefferson, the National Archives, and the vast facades of Federal Triangle–and the National Mall itself are, in fact, modern–just over 100 years old.