Launch Slideshow

Unbuilt Washington

Unbuilt Washington

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    Revised Design for the Capitol by William Thornton, ca. 1797
    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19858
    William Thornton’s designs for the central section of the Capitol featured a large rotunda capped with a broad, low dome, coupled with a conference room with a narrower dome raised on tall columns. The balustrade ringing the top of the central bay was lined with large statues, which curator Martin Moellner calls “an odd departure from the restraint Thornton had shown in previous designs.” During the rush to complete the north wing before Congress’s move to Washington in 1800, the plan was abandoned.

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    Proposed Executive Mansion on Meridian Hill by Paul J. Pelz, 1898
    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-31528
    Among the many unbuilt schemes planned for the site that is now Meridian Hill Park, the most lavish was envisioned by Mary Foote Henderson, the wife of a former senator from Missouri who lived across 16th St. Having already developed a number of lavish houses that transformed 16th St. into Washington’s first embassy row, Henderson commissioned architect Paul Peltz to design a new Executive Mansion. Though his plans were stunning, featuring wide terraces and steep staircases sloping toward Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue), they remained on the boards, as Henderson was unable to convince Congress of the need for a new residence for the First Family.

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    Maryland Historical Society

    Competition entry for the President’s House by “A.Z.” (attributed to Thomas Jefferson), 1792
    Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, 1976.88.6
    When Pierre L’Enfant was dismissed before he could produce a design for the President’s House, city commissioners conducted a design competition. At least nine designs were submitted, including this one by “A.Z.” The influence of Andrea Palladio’s Villa Rotonda (1571) suggests the pseudonym was Thomas Jefferson’s.

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    Preliminary proposal for the National Cultural Center by Edward Durell Stone, 1961
    Edward Durell Stone Collection (MC 340), Box 104. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.
    When President Eisenhower signed a bill establishing the National Culture Center for the performing arts in 1958, Senator William Fulbright recommended fellow Arkansan Edward Durell Stone as architect for the project. His initial curvilinear scheme—featuring three large performance halls arranged around a domed rotunda, with a stepped terrace extending into the Potomac—won him the commission, but was ultimately rejected by the project’s board of trustees as too expensive. Stone’s final, rectilinear scheme incorporated elements of the original design, such as the series of spindly columns, yet Martin Moellner writes that “the sculptural qualities of the original version would have yielded a far less formal, more dynamic work of architecture.”

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    Proposal for the Lincoln Memorial by John Russell Pope, 1912
    National Archives, Washington, D.C.
    As part of its plan for the Monumental Core of the National Mall, the MacMillan Commission of 1901-02 envisioned the mall extending west of the Washington Monument and culminating in a grand memorial to Abraham Lincoln. When a bill to establish the monument finally passed Congress, Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon rejected its location on the west end of the mall. At his request, the Lincoln Memorial Commission asked John Russell Pope to prepare designs for two locations: the Soldiers’ Home (now the Armed Forces Retirement Home) and Meridian Hill. In 1912, the commission ultimately decided to support the mall site and asked Pope to draft a design. His plan for a quirky ziggurat topped by a standing statue of Lincoln was ultimately rejected in favor of designs by his rival, Henry Bacon.

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    Proposed Memorial Bridge by Smithmeyer and Pelz, 1887
    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-31532
    Plans to build a bridge across the Potomac River date to before the Civil War. They came close to realization in the 1880s, when, working with the Army Corps of Engineers, Captain Thomas W. Symons collaborated with Smithmeyer and Pelz Architects to design a bridge honoring former president Ulysses S. Grant. One of their two plans for the memorial bridge was a neo-Romanesque pair of towers with smaller, round turrets interspersed between them. The medieval design, which conjured London’s Tower Bridge, clashed strongly with Washington’s predominantly neoclassical and Renaissance-inspired architecture.

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    Proposed National Galleries of History and Art by Franklin Webster Smith, 1900
    Designs, Plans, and Changes for the Aggrandizement of Washington
    In 1890, concerned that the United States lagged behind the rest of the “civilized” world in terms of cultural development, Boston hardware magnate Franklin Webster Smith proposed a National Gallery of History and Art in Washington. Architect James Renwick, Jr., produced a design, but the project was put on hold by the financial crisis of 1893.

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    Proposed reuse of the Arts & Industries Building by Morphosis, 2011
    Courtesy of Morphosis Architects
    Though the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries (A&I) Building (1881) once hosted exhibitions on art, history, and anthropology, over the years, as more specialized museums have opened along the mall, it has lost its identity. The building had been vacant for six years when, in 2010, the Smithsonian Institute commissioned Morphosis Architects to reimagine the structure. Their designs preserved the structure’s historic integrity, while simultaneously transforming it into a modern space filled with interactive exhibitions and a “virtual index” of the entire Smithsonian collection.

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    Washington Monument grounds, Senate Park Commission Plan, 1902
    Courtesy of U.S. Commission of Fine Arts
    Created in 1901 by Michigan Senator James McMillan to create “a plan for the improvement of the entire park system of the District of Columbia,” the McMillan Commission, officially known as the Senate Park Commission, was, according to Martin Moellner, “the most influential force in the design of Washington since L’Enfant.” The commission, which comprised architects Daniel H. Burnham and Charles Follen McKim, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., took its neoclassical cues from the “White City” aesthetic advocated by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Due to soil problems, the Monument was built east-southeast of its original intended location. Shown here is the McMillan Commission’s plan for the site, featuring a wide staircase leading down to a circular pool—which also remained unbuilt due to poor soil conditions.

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    Library of Congress

    Proposed extensions to the White House by Frederick W. Owen, ca. 1890
    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-7736
    When President Benjamin Harrison moved his family into the White House in 1889, his wife, Caroline, insisted they needed more space, and contracted engineer Frederick D. Owen to design a thorough expansion. The plan called for two wings, each nearly the size of the original house, placed perpendicularly to the main building. The executive residence would remain in the main building, offices would move to the west wing, and a public art gallery would occupy the east wing. Congressional funding for the project was blocked by Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed, who clashed with President Harrison over patronage appointments and presidential pardons.

A design for the White House attributed to Thomas Jefferson, a replica of London’s Tower Bridge spanning the Potomac, a ziggurat-shaped Lincoln Memorial—these are among the stillborn designs included in Unbuilt Washington, an exhibition on display at the National Building Museum.The show presents drawings, models, and renderings of structures that either never made it off the boards, or did so in dramatically different fashion—all by architects that run the gamut from Pierre Charles L’Enfant to the New York–based firm Morphosis. In this slide show, see 10 of those plans, plus commentary drawn from writings by and conversations with the show’s curator, Martin Moellner. Through May 28. • nbm.org