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
The McMillan plan for the Mall has been detailed extensively in two associated websites. Briefly, what distinguished the plan from earlier treatments of The Mall was its emphasis on federal insularity and authority on a grand scale. The Commission advocated the removal of the intimate, naturalistic landscaping which had occupied the Mall for the previous half century; in its place the Commission proposed a vast, formal greensward bounded by inward-facing marble federal structures designed in the Beaux Arts style. With the construction of the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the Mall, the space was completely enclosed from the rest of the city. This removed not only the series of naturalistic parks but also the train station and Central Market which previously had integrated the federal area with the everyday life of the city. The 1901 plan also proposed the construction of a vast governmental office complex, which in its conception was as insular and imposing as The Mall itself. The government built the Federal Triangle office complex on land originally intended for D.C. municipal government offices. The 1901 plan made the decisive split between a monumental 'federal city' and a 'local city' which characterized the city for the rest of the century. The plan also began the process of offering symbolic solutions to real problems, a sort of 'improvement by association' ideal. Four of the principal architects of the 1901 plan had been associated with the 1983 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, whose architecture offered similar symbolic solutions. In With the Procession, Fuller commented thus on the Columbian Exposition: "the spirit of the White City was but just transferred to the body of the great Black City close at hand, over which it was to hover as an enlightenment--through which it might permeate as an informing force. 'Good!' he thought. 'There's no place where it's needed more or where it might do more good!'" The idea of the 'White City' transforming and enlightening the 'Black City' is particularly telling in relationship to Washington, which at the turn of the century had the highest black population of any urban center in America.

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"
The Chairman of the House Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds tried to present federal buildings as the physical embodiment of democratic values, but other critics looking at these buildings saw them as distinctly un-democratic. A 1932 Harpers editorial commented, "$100,000,000 of taxpayers' money is being used, not to provide the modern, efficient, stripped-for-action office buildings which every federal department has been needing so badly, but to provide a parade of monumental structures that are copies of French palaces when they are not reconstructions of pagan temples." (3) In 1934 Harpers further charged, "Under the present program and fashioning of building Washington has deliberately set out to transform itself from the executive seat of a democracy to the Rome of an empire."(4) Some critics questioned not only the match of form and function in the everyday workings of the federal government, but also the appropriateness of this architecture in memorials to national heroes. After viewing the Lincoln Memorial Lewis Mumford noted, "One feels not the living beauty of our American past, but the mortuary air of archaeology. The America that Lincoln was bred in, the homespun and humane and humorous America that he wished to preserve, has nothing in common with the seduously classic monument that was erected to his memory. Who lives in that shrine, I wonder--Lincoln, or the men who conceived it; the leader who beheld the mournful victory of the Civil War, or the generation that took pleasure in the mean triumph of the Spanish-American exploit, and placed the imperial standard in the Phillipines and the Carribean?"(5)

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
One of the most promising examples of federal-local integration in D.C. is the Anacostia Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian which is very un-McMillan in the values it espouses and in its physical break from the insular federal corridor. The museum was a 1960s experiment conceived by Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, who observed that a large segment of D.C.'s population rarely visited The Mall. He imagined a more approachable, 'storefront'-type of museum. Anacostia's Old Carver Theater served as the museum's first home; ten thousand visitors attended its opening. Shortly after its opening, museum staff members voiced concern that the exhibits had little to do with neighborhood or African-American concerns; later exhibits concentrated on neighborhood history, U.S. African American history and African American art. The museum's longtime director John Kinard declared, "This museum, if it is to survive, must [enmesh] itself more in this community inthe future than it has in the past...We cannot present a full diet of history and leave undone research on the urban problems that plague our community...This museum, unlike any museum anywhere on Earth, cannot be a place where we just show beautiful things and say pretty words about our hsitory. It must be an advocate for a better way of life."(10) As director Kinard strove for hiring equity, museum training for minorities, and inclusion of various community groups including the Nation of Islam, anti-methadone organizations, prison groups, and local musical groups needing rehearsal space. Presently the museum includes a research center, exhibit space, a museum training facility, and a community outreach organization. The museum attracted the attention of museum critic Kenneth Hudson, who placed it on his list of the world's most influential museums, a distinction not enjoyed by giants like the Louvre, the National Gallery, and the Getty. At present, however, the Smithsonian has plans to open an African American museum in its Arts and Industries Building on The Mall. It is still unclear what effect this will have on the Anacostia museum. Some might argue that it is symbolically appropriate for African Americans to have a place on the Mall alongside other groups. While this argument carries considerable weight, it should also be noted that an African American museum on The Mall diminishes one of the most successful federal-local collaborations in Washington and signals a return to a McMillan type of model.

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