When the National Capital Planning Commission titled its 1996 comprehensive plan for Washington, D.C. "Extending the Legacy," one of the legacies it had in mind was the 1901 McMillan Plan for the District, a plan which equals (and some would argue surpasses) the original L'Enfant Plan in its influence on the development of the city. The 1996 plan may be different in its particulars, but it shares with the McMillan plan a devotion to the symbolic potential of the federal government and a common set of values embedded in its symbolic language.
1908 Washington Evening Star cartoon lampooning the McMillan Plan's proposal to replace naturalistic parks with a formal, geometric greensward
Certainly the interest in the symbolic potential of federal space did not begin with the McMillan Commission, although it did consolidate the symbolic force and provide the dominant metaphors for the rest of the century. Thirty years earlier, an editorial proposed that the government redesign the Capitol so its front and its Statue of Freedom faced west rather than east; the author reasoned that the U.S. no longer needed to look to Europe, but could look proudly to its own development west to the Pacific. The concept of the westward glance is also noteworthy in relationship to Anacostia and its citizens east of the river as Anacostia became first a 'dumping ground' for the city's more unpleasant facilities and second a major problem area in the city.
Nor was the debate about symbolic federal architecture confined to the Nation's Capital. Since the early 1800s the federal government was in the business of constructing post offices, customhouses, and other structures in cities nationwide. Treasury Secretary William McAdoo criticized the nationwide federal building plan in 1916: "In the past two decades the Congress has authorized and appropriated approximately $180,000,000 for public buildings, and the major part of thisgreat sum has been expended on costly structures in small localities where neither the Government business nor the convenience of the people justified their construction."(1) Although the construction of costly federal buildings across the country probably reflected pork barrel politics more than anything else, its proponents chose to defend it on the basis of its symbolic potential. "Is it worth nothing to inspire patriotism and love of country in the hearts and minds of the youth of the country? No youth or citizen ever looked upon a federal building in which the business of his country was being conducted but that he became a better American."(2)
1931 Vanity Fair cartoon captioned "If Members of the House Dressed to Fit Their Surroundings"
Even when federal planners attempted to deal with matters closer to the lives of local residents, the symbolic nature of the city as Nation's Capital permeated their efforts. The height restriction for all buildings within the District legislated by Congress during this period had significant effects on the development of the city. The NCPPC and Congres justified the restriction by asserting the symbolic importance of the Capitol and their belief that views of the Capitol needed to be unobstructed from all points of entry into the city. The height restriction handicapped the federal government tremendously as it found itself in need of new office space in the coming decades, and it forced the government to 'sprawl' through the rest of the central city, rather than by building taller buildings in the federal district. This under the label of 'urban renewal,' meant the displacement of thousands of local residents. Often planners, the NCPPC among them, adopted a kind of "city on a hill" discourse when talking about Washington. In 1929 the National Capital Park and Planning Commission noted that they had been working with the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American City Planning Institute, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the American Civic Association on the Commission's comprehensive plan for the District. According to the NCPC, the involvement of these organizations demonstrated "the widespread determination of thoughtful and highly educated Americans not to permit their National Capital to grow and random and to insist upon the importance of its development along proper lines."(6) By virtue of its status as the Nation's Capital, Washington had to surpass other American cities. Although Washington's housing was generally considered better than dwellings in other cities, the NCPC didn't agree. In 1950 the NCPC asserted, "Washington is a beautiful city because of its Mall, its parks, and the river. Yet in spite of these, the bulk of the inner residential areas are quite ordinary and certainly not beautiful. One redeeming feature of these sections is that street trees hide the ugliness."(7)
In the '60s, planners still expressed their desire that the Nation's Capital should be especially beautiful, but they deemphasized most other symbolic discourses. In 1961 the NCPC declared that "the leading image of the past--the monumental city--is no longer adequate by itself. The monumental city is today surrounded by a growing expanse of new urban development. Today, a more complex goal must be sought--that of a careful and happy marriage of the symbolic and aesthetic values of the monumental city with the diversified functions of the nation's capital city and a great metropolitan region." (8) During this period the NCPC endorsed separate architectural treatments for federal office buildings and monuments, the former being considerably more utilitarian.
This mode of thought didn't last long, as the 1996 NCPC plan makes clear. The plan revives the McMillan model with its associated symbolic values by emphasizing the monumental, memorial function of the government and by extending the Mall along three axes (North, South, and East Capitol Street) rather than adopting a more even, diffuse pattern of redevelopment. The plan also commands symbolic association through its language. By the Commission's lights, Washington isn't just any city facing urban decay. In its opening salvo, the Commission describes D.C. as the "symbolic heart of the nation" whose "broad avenues are reminders of America's democratic values," symbols of "government that is accessible to its people and a nation with room to grow." In defense of its singleminded devotion to memorial/monumental Washington, the NCPC declares, "this is the Washington of postcards and movies and the evening news, the Washington everyone comes to see." (9)
The Anacostia Museum, 1997
Crossing the River: Home Page
1 Craig, _The Federal Presence_ 242 2 Ibid 3 Ibid 312 4 Ibid 319 5 Ibid 262 6 National Capital Park and Planning Commission, _Annual Report_ 1929: 7 7 National Capital Park and Planning Commission, _Washington: Present and Future_ 1950: 41 8 National Capital Planning Commission, _Policies for the Year 2000_ 1961: 1 9 National Capital Planning Commission, _Extending the Legacy: Planning America's Capital for the 21st Century_, 4 10 Michael Kernan, "Around the Mall and Beyond," _Smithsonian_ Jan 1996: 26