The 1901 Plan for Washington D.C. was the first expression of the City Beautiful movement in the United States, influencing the emerging profession of city planning and the subsequent beautification projects in Chicago, Cleveland, and San Francisco, among other cities. Building on the core of government and monumental buildings, supervised by the Commission of Fine Arts headed by Burnham and Olmsted, was interrupted during WWI, and resumed in the 1920s. The initial plan was completed in May1922 with the erection of the Lincoln Monument.
Reaction to the plan, from the beginning, was mixed. Middle class residents of Washington D.C. were glad to be rid of the railroad tracks on the Mall, considered a park for city residents before the 1901 plan, but were concerned with the price tag and "fears of its excessive formalism were still being voiced as late as 1910." (Gutheim, 36) On a purely cultural and aesthetic level, critics were quick both to praise and criticize the use of the European Beaux-Arts idiom. Montgomery Schuyler, a noted architectural critic, enthused in May 1902, "We can have nothing but praise for the magnificent scheme of Messrs. Burnham, McKim, Olmsted, and St. Gaudens. Their part in the making of a beautiful city has been so well done that they already deserve to be ranked with L'Enfant in the gratitude of Washingtonians and of all Americans who wish to be justified of their pride in the capital." (qtd. in Craig, 254). Yet the WashingtonEvening Star held quite a different opinion two years later: "It was a sad day for the city of Washington and all the people of the country interested in the welfare of the National Capital when Charles F. McKim was sent to be educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts." (qtd. in Craig, 254)
In general, the goals of the Commissioners were met in the implementation of the 1901 Plan. They succeeded in providing a national sacred space, an area on which the nation could focus its pride and point to as its cultural authority and heritage, drawing on the classical forms which gesture to Athenian democracy and the founding fathers. They succeeded in legitimizing their own place in the social structure, demonstrating the power they possessed and their usefulness to society. They succeeded in legitimizing a growing governmental structure through the symbolic relationships (the North-South and East-West axes of which the Capitol, the White House, and the Washington Monument are the foci) and the sacralization of their placement in the monumental core. And they succeeded in setting a standard for urban beautification.
Yet in many ways the plan did not live up to the expectations of the Commissioners or the public. The opportunity to rectify an omission in L'Enfant's plan--providing an appropriate space for the Supreme Court in the Mall's axis of power--was missed. Instead, the Commission planned a Supreme Court building in the Capitol grounds complex, to balance the group with a monumental structure paralleling Burnham's Union Station. Further, the emphasis on the core of monumental and government buildings was an exclusive, rather than inclusive, construction. "Government buildings designed to complement the neoclassicism of Jefferson's and L'Enfant's era were to line the Mall and encircle Capitol Hill and the White House...tending to seal off official Washington from the neighboring commercial and residential districts." (Hines, 92)
However, the most important element that did not seem to succeed in the plan was the amorphous goal of civic idealism leading to moral and economic improvement. The center of the city had been beautified and became a focus for national pride. Yet the impoverished living in the shadow of the Capitol's dome were not necessarily inspired with civic loyalty, and were certainly no better off economically for the expensive monumental plan. Boyer points out that effective "socialization through the civic ideal was an unproveable proposition at best, tenuous or nebulous at worst." (90) How could the urban poor, the largest population in Washington's city center, be "made to realize their abstract obligation to promote the 'ethical well-being of the whole community' when their individual preoccupations were so much more tangible and compelling?" (254) The idea that the poor would be somehow morally rejuvenated, and therefore more apt to succeed economically, through proximity to a beautiful city center was unproven and unproveable. Ultimately, in the 1901 plan for Washington D.C., the City Beautiful movement was unsuccessful only in the one thing it expressly allied itself with--Progressive moral and economic reform in the urban center.
The legacy of the 1901 Plan is still felt throughout the United States. The profession of city planners is well established, the prominence of the Mall in national pride is unquestioned, and the legitimacy of government as expressed in Beaux-Arts style can be found in every state. The debate over the role of city beautification versus economic redevelopment still rages, and in Washington D.C., the aims and uses of the Plan of 1901 are being renegotiated. Architect Kent Cooper recently wrote, "Our foremost problem is not the placement of new monuments and museums. They can wait. Rather, the issue for today is how best to restore the balance of fiscal resources, economic opportunity, and social and racial diversity across the spectrum of the metropolitan area so that all may prosper and the monumental core will not strangle." As Washington D.C. nears its bicentennial, the problems the 1901 Plan set out to solve are still with us.