Washington, D.C. – symbol of democracy, a magnet to people and causes, a place of power and prestige – is inspiring and interesting. Take the time to take it all in. Washington is part history, part history in the making. The seats of power - the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court - are testaments to the democratic process. In massive, often ornate, government buildings, the work of America is conducted. Extraordinary museums hold the tangible evidence of American achievement.
Visually, Washington, D.C. is lovely. Its horizontal scale is humanizing and appealing. Open space, manicured parks, and grand avenues converging at landscaped circles serve as an elegant canvas for a range of exceptional architecture spanning over 200 years.
As architectural specimens, Washington’s museums, memorials, federal buildings and historic homes chronicle the nation’s history. Through them the story of a fledgling nation unfolds as it gained stature, prominence and identity to become a global power. As repositories of the American experience for all to see, they are fascinating and moving.
Washington did not always look as it does today. Created out of farmland, swamp and forest, it began as an artificial city – as an idea of the founding fathers to build a “federal city” amid the independent-minded states. The location was chosen in 1790 by political compromise and, upon first seeing the site on which he was to plan a magnificent city under the guidance of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the architect Pierre L’Enfant described his task as “turning a savage wilderness into a Garden of Eden.”
Although influenced by the Europe’s grand cities, the sheer vastness of the new country determined L’Enfant’s vision: “We must show the breadth of our nation with the width of our avenues and the lengths of our parks.” However, this grand vision did not materialize all at once. Growth spurts in the fledgling city were tied to key historic events, and with each crisis the city transformed itself, taking root and gaining importance and prestige.
As the plans took shape, streets were laid out and in 1792, construction began on the Georgian neoclassical “President’s House,” and the Classical Revival “house of the people,” the United States Capitol. However, the nascent capital had yet to develop an inherent identity – it was small, had dirt streets and was without sewer or water systems.
In the early city, private residences reflected the balanced simplicity of the reserved Federal architecture of the period. Wonderful examples of this distinctively American architecture can be seen in the elegant homes and in a parade of row houses, the signature residential dwellings of Washington, along the narrow, tree-lined streets in the Georgetown Historic District. Others are in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, where the first structure built was the small, simple St John’s Episcopal Church, where pew 54 has been reserved for all sitting presidents since Madison. In the 1830s, a time fraught with partisan politics, the government grew. Austere federal buildings were constructed, notably the columned Greek Revival U.S. Department of the Treasury, at the time one of the largest office buildings in the world.
By a stroke of good fortune, the Smithsonian Institute was established in 1848. James Smithson, a British scientist who had never set foot in the country, bequeathed his considerable wealth to America with the proviso that it be used to found an “establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” The first of its 16 spectacular national museums, the picturesque, medieval looking Smithsonian Institution Building, “The Castle,” was completed on the National Mall in 1855.
Civil War transformed Washington into a city teeming with people. It still had minimal infrastructure, was overrun by the military whose encampments were everywhere, by war wounded brought to rudimentary hospitals set up anywhere there was space, by runaway slaves who came by the thousands seeking refuge. It was chaotic, dirty and violent.
When America reunited there was a realization that her capital did not reflect stature. Massive efforts were undertaken to modernize the city whose population had doubled its pre-war size. Streets and sidewalks were paved; water and sewer system installed.
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, America was making great industrial strides, fast becoming a world economic player. Personal fortunes and increasing world prestige led to wholesale efforts to beautify America’s capital to become the cultural equal to Europe.
Power and wealth moved in and the Gilded Age of architecture in Washington began. Palatial homes were built on individual wealth accumulated through America’s success in the Industrial Revolution, and today entire neighborhoods showcase the grandeur of the time. The Dupont Circle Historic District is an immersion into a virtual museum of mansions in the decorative Beaux Arts, Victorian Queen Anne, massive Richardsonian Romanesque, baroque Spanish Colonial, and gracious Georgian Revival architecture. The Massachusetts Avenue Historic District, today’s “Embassy Row,” is a showcase of the elaborately ornamented Beaux Arts style, in vogue at the time.
Public buildings also heeded this elaborate trend. Mansard roofs and ornate granite distinguish the grand Second Empire Old Executive Office Building (1871-1888). Within its walls, Presidents had offices, dignitaries visited, and historic events took place. It now holds the Office of the Vice President and the National Security Council. The opulent gold-domed Italian Renaissance Library of Congress opened in 1897 with the intention of surpassing its European counterparts in style and substance.
Washington was the place to be, worldly and cultured. Visitors flocked in through the magnificent gateway to America’s capital, Union Station (1907), gloriously gilded, arched and columned. Concert halls and elaborate museums housing the personal collections of America’s wealthy were built and are still in place today. The Beaux Arts Corcoran Gallery of Art (1897), opened as a public gallery to exhibit William Wilson Corcoran’s personal collection of American art, one of the most comprehensives in the world. The Duncan Phillips family opened their Georgian Revival home in 1921 to exhibit their remarkable collection to the public as the Phillips Collection, thus becoming the first museum of modern art in America. The Freer Gallery of Art (1923), a low-rise neo-Italian Renaissance palazzo, opened to exhibit its benefactor’s extensive collection of American and ancient Asian art. The Japanese Cherry trees, a gift from the people of Japan, were planted around Tidal Basin in 1912.
The size of government also increased, initiating the country’s largest public construction program. The Federal Triangle, between the Capitol and the White House, was set aside to provide buildings for new agencies, each one uniformly dressed in limestone facades, red tiled hip roofs and classic colonnades. The first congressional buildings, the Cannon & Russell Buildings were completed in 1907 and 1909 in elaborate Beaux Arts style; notables stayed at the Willard Hotel, renovated on a grand scale 1904.
Having achieved prominence and confidence, America gained historic perspective and sought to honor the contributions of those key to the American experience by building classical monuments to memorialized leaders and heroes in contemplative silence. The serenely moving Lincoln Memorial was completed in1922; the cornerstone of the Jefferson Memorial, in the neo-classical design first introduced to the country by Jefferson himself, was set in 1939. The highest court in the land finally found a permanent home in 1932 in the dignified Supreme Court Building and the monumental National Archives, repository of the foundations of the nation: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence was completed.
By 1941, Washington’s population was over 1 million, and the federal government kept growing. This expansion of government is chronicled in the authoritative neoclassical federal offices built at that time. The nation’s cultural wealth continued to grow as the blocks-long neoclassic West Building of the National Gallery of Art, exhibiting Western art spanning centuries, opened that year.
Bond drives in World War II brought glamour and publicity to the capital, energizing patriotism. A huge civilian work force supported the enlarging government; the massive, sprawling Pentagon punctuated America’s position as a super power. Victory in World War II firmly established Washington as the nation’s capital and the center of the world.
Washington was forever changed. In ensuing years, and with energy and purpose, more federal offices were built and additional exciting cultural venues with sleek lines emerged, offering awe-inspiring exhibits. Existing venues were enhanced or expanded, and moving memorials were erected to honor America’s 20th century heroes.
At the core of this remarkable city is The National Mall, an open 2-mile swath of green, stretching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Bordered by America’s cultural icons honoring America’s sacrifice, highlighting her diversity and representing the ingenuity of her people, this national public space – open, accessible and unpretentious - symbolizes all that is America.