Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/June 1903/The Improvement of the City of Washington


THE city of Washington differs from all other American cities in the fact that in its original plan parks were laid out as settings for public buildings. Even its broad avenues were arranged so as to enhance the effect of the great edifices of the nation; and the squares at the intersection of the wide thoroughfares were set apart as sites for memorials to be erected by the various states. Park, in the modern sense of a large public recreation ground, there was none; but small areas designed to beautify the connections between the various departments of government were numerous.

During the nineteenth century, however, the development of urban life and the expansion of cities has brought into prominence the need, not recognized a hundred years ago, for large parks to preserve artificially in our cities passages of rural or sylvan scenery and for spaces adapted to various special forms of recreation. Moreover, during the century that has elapsed since the foundation of the city the great space known as the Mall, which was intended to form a unified connection between the Capitol and the White House, and to furnish sites for a certain class of public buildings, has been diverted from its original purpose and cut into fragments, each portion receiving a separate and individual informal treatment, thus invading what was a single composition. Again, many reservations have passed from public into private ownership, with the result that public buildings have lost their appropriate surroundings, and new structures have been built without that landscape setting which the founders of the city relied on to give them beauty and dignity.

Happily, however, little has been lost that can not be regained at reasonable cost. Fortunately, also, during the years that have passed the Capitol has been enlarged and ennobled, and the Washington Monument, wonderful alike as an engineering feat and a work of art, has been constructed on a site that may be brought into relations with the Capitol and the White House. Doubly fortunate, moreover, is the fact that the vast and successful work of the engineers in redeeming the Potomac banks from unhealthy conditions gives opportunity for enlarging the scope of the earlier plans in a manner corresponding to
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Bird's-eye view of General Plan, from point taken 4,000 feet above Arlington.

the growth of the country. At the same time the development of Potomac Park both provides for a connection between the parks on the west and those on the east, and also it may readily furnish sites for those memorials which history has shown to be worthy a place in vital relation to the great buildings and monuments erected under the personal supervision of the founders of the republic.

Now that the demand for new public buildings and memorials has reached an acute stage, there has been hesitation and embarrassment in locating them because of the uncertainty in securing appropriate sites. The commission was thus brought face to face with the problem of

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Model of the Mall, showing Present Conditions. Looking west.

devising such a plan as shall tend to restore that unity of design which was the fundamental conception of those who first laid out the city as a national capital, and of formulating definite principles for the placing of those future structures which, in order to become effective, demand both a landscape setting and a visible orderly relation one to another for their mutual support and enhancement.

To the unique problem of devising a way of return to the original plan of the city of Washington, was added the task of suggesting lines for the development of those large parks which have been obtained in recent years either by purchase or by reclamation; of advising the
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General Plan of the Mall System.

acquisition of such additional spaces as are deemed necessary to create a modern park system; and of selecting for purchase and improvement suitable connections between the various park areas.

If Washington were not a nation's capital, in which the location of public buildings is of the first importance, and if the city itself were not by its very plan tied to a historic past, the problem would be less complicated. The very fact that Washington and Jefferson, L'Enfant and Ellicott, and their immediate successors, drew inspiration from the world's greatest works of landscape architecture and of civic adornment made it imperative PSM V63 D157 Part of l'enfant map of washington dc 1791.pngPart of L'Enfant Map of Washington (1791). to go back to the sources of their knowledge and taste in order to restore unity and harmony to their creations and to guide future development along appropriate lines. Indeed the more the commission studied the first plans of the Federal City, the more they became convinced that the greatest service they could perform would be done by carrying to a legitimate conclusion the comprehensive, intelligent, and yet simple and straightforward scheme devised by L'Enfant under the direction of Washington and Jefferson.

L 'Enfant's plan shows that he was familiar with the work of Lenôtre, whose examples of landscape architecture, not only in France but also in Italy and England, are still the admiration of the world. We know, also, that L'Enfant had the advantage of those maps of foreign cities, 'drawn on a large and accurate scale,' which Jefferson gathered during his public service abroad, and we learn from Jefferson's letters how he adjured L'Enfant not to depart from classical models, but to follow those examples which the world had agreed to admire. In order to re-study the same models and to take note of the great civic works of Europe, the commission spent five weeks of the summer of 1901 in foreign travel, visiting London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Frankfort and Berlin. Among the many problems with which the commission is called upon to deal, there is not one which has not been dealt with in some one of the cities mentioned, and by way either of example or of warning the lessons of the past have been brought to bear upon the present work.

On beginning work the commission was confronted by the fact that while from the first of October till about the middle of May the climatic conditions of Washington are most salubrious, during the remaining four and a half months the city is subject to extended periods of intense heat, during which all public business is conducted at an undue expenditure of physical force. Every second year congress is in session usually until about the middle of July; and not infrequently it happens that, by reason of prolonged or special sessions, during the hottest portion of the summer the city is filled with the persons whose business makes necessary a more or less prolonged stay

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View showing the Proposed Treatment of Union Square, at the head of the Mall.

in Washington. Of course nothing can be done to change weather conditions, but very much can be accomplished to mitigate the physical strain caused by summer heat. Singularly enough, up to the present time the abundant facilities which nature affords for healthful and pleasant recreation during heated terms have been neglected, and in this respect Washington is far behind other cities whose climatic conditions demand much less, and whose opportunities also are less favorable.

In Rome throughout the centuries it has been the pride of emperor and of pope to build fountains to promote health and give pleasure. Mile after mile of aqueduct has been constructed to gather the water even from remote hills, and bring great living streams into every quarter of the city; so that from the moment of entering the Eternal City until the time of departure the visitor is scarcely out of sight of beautiful jets of water, now flung upward in great columns to add life and dignity even to St. Peter's, or again gushing in the form of cascades from some great work of architect or sculptor, or still again dripping refreshingly over the brim of a beautiful basin that was old when the Christian era began. The Forum is in ruins, basilicas and baths have been transformed into churches, palaces have been turned into museums; but the fountains of Rome are eternal.

If all the fountains of Washington, instead of being left lifeless and inert as they are during a greater portion of the time, should be set playing at their full capacity, they would not use the amount of water that bursts from the world-famous fountain of Trevi or splashes on the stones of the piazza of St. Peter's. At the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte,

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View in Monument Garden, Main Axis, showing Proposed Treatment of Approaches and Terraces, forming a setting for the Washington Monument.

near Paris, the great landscape architect Lenôtre built cascades, canals, and fountains, using one twelfth of the daily water supply of the District of Columbia. The fountains at Versailles are one of the most attractive spectacles enjoyed by the people of France.

The original plans of Washington show the high appreciation L'Enfant had for all forms of water decoration; and when the heats of a Washington summer are taken into consideration, further argument is unnecessary to prove that the first and greatest step in the matter of beautifying the District of Columbia is such an increase in the water supply as will make possible the copious and even lavish use of water in fountains.

The location of public buildings has received the very careful consideration of the commission. In general terms their conclusions are:

1. That only public buildings should face the grounds of the Capitol.

2. That new department buildings may well be located so as to face Lafayette square.

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View showing the Proposed Development of the Lincoln Memorial Site, seen from the Canal.
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Proposed Development of Lincoln Memorial Site, seen from Riverside Drive.

3. Buildings of a semi-public character may be located south of the present Corcoran Art Gallery, fronting on the White Lot and extending to the park limits.

4. That the northern side of the Mall may properly be used by museum and other buildings containing collections in which the public generally is interested, but not by department buildings.

5. That the space between Pennsylvania avenue and the Mall should be occupied by the District building, the Hall of Records, a modern market, an armory for the District militia, and structures of like character.

The city of Washington, during the century since its foundation, has been developed in the main according to the plan made in 1791 by Major Peter Charles L'Enfant and approved by President Washington. That plan the commission has aimed to restore, develop and supplement.

The 'Congress house' and the 'President's palace,' as he termed them, were the cardinal features of L 'Enfant's plan; and these edifices he connected 'by a grand avenue four hundred feet in breadth, and

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Anacostia Marshes from Benning Bridge, showing Malarial Flats to be excavated

about a mile in length, bordered by gardens, ending in a slope from the houses on each side.' At the point of intersection of two lines, one drawn through the center of the Capitol, the other drawn through the center of the White House, L'Enfant fixed the site of an equestrian statue of General Washington, one of the numerous statues voted by the Continental Congress but never erected.

When, in 1848, the people began to build the Washington Monument, the engineers despaired of securing on the proper site a foundation sufficient for so great a structure; and consequently the Monument was located out of all relations with the buildings which it was intended to tie together in a single composition. To create these relations as originally planned was one of the chief problems of the commission.

Again, the reclamation of the Potomac flats, prosecuted since 1882, has added to the monument grounds an area about one mile in length from east to west; so that where L'Enfant dealt with a composition one and a half miles in length, the commission is called upon to deal with an area two and a half miles long, with a maximum breadth of about one mile.

By the inclusion of the space between Pennsylvania and New York avenues on the north, and Maryland avenue and the Potomac River on the south, the new composition becomes a symmetrical, polygonal or

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Rock Creek, showing Possibility of Seclusion from Disagreeable Surroundings.

kite-shaped figure bisected from east to west by the axis of the Capitol and from north to south by the White House axis. Regarding the Monument as the center, the Capitol as the base, and the White House as the extremity of one arm of a Latin cross, we have at the head of the composition on the banks of the Potomac a memorial site of the greatest possible dignity, with a second and only less commanding site at the extremity of the second arm.

So extensive a composition, and one containing such important elements, does not exist elsewhere; and it is essential that the plan for its treatment shall combine simplicity with dignity.

  1. From the report to the Senate committee on the District of Columbia of the Park Commission, consisting of Daniel H. Burnham, Chicago; Augustus St. Gaudens, New York; Charles F. McKim, New York, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Brookline.