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    Credit: Noah Kalina

    Stephen T. Ayers

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.

It’s hard to imagine a different Capitol sitting atop Jenkins Hill, an elevated site selected by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, who described it to President George Washington in June 1791 as “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” Washington had directed the three-man board of commissioners brought on to manage the development of the new capital city to hire L’Enfant to design the city and its public buildings. But settling on a design for the Capitol Building wasn’t the most difficult decision of the time. For not only could the Capitol have looked much different than it does today, it might not have been located in the new city named for the father of our country in the first place.

Despite Washington’s influence and stature, locating our nation’s capital in his proposed site near the Potomac River was not a forgone conclusion. Congress had its own ideas of where the capital should reside. Northern members were in favor of sites on the Hudson, Delaware, or Potomac rivers. Southern members liked the idea of two capitals—one on the Potomac and another farther north, such as New York City.

After much debate, arm-twisting, and compromise, the U.S. Senate passed the Residence Act by a vote of 14 to 12. The U.S. House of Representatives followed suit by passing the act by a vote of 31 to 29. Only two scant votes in both the House and the Senate set the course of history. If those two votes had gone the other way in either chamber, I would be reviewing “Unbuilt Philadelphia” or “Unbuilt New York.” But on July 16, 1790, the city of Washington in the District of Columbia was declared the permanent capital of the United States.

“Unbuilt Washington,” on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., features proposed designs for nearly every notable building on or near the National Mall in Washington today, from the U.S. Capitol Building to the Washington Monument. As Architect of the Capitol, I am responsible for the care and preservation of many of these buildings. Our agency’s portfolio might as well have included several buildings proposed by renowned architects, obscure amateurs, and even U.S. presidents—buildings that were ultimately never built.

The origin of the office of the Architect of the Capitol dates back to the setting of the Capitol’s cornerstone by President George Washington in 1793. Three years earlier, the Residence Act had stipulated that Philadelphia would serve as the temporary capital for 10 years while a new city was built on the northern bank of the Potomac River near Georgetown. While L’Enfant delivered a plan for Washington, despite pressure from the commissioners, by 1791, he had failed to present a plan for the new Capitol. So the leaders of the new democracy took a suitably democratic approach to finding the appropriate design, sponsoring a public competition in March 1792.

While it’s not known exactly how many designs were submitted, at least 13 men are known to have entered, and although some of those proposals are lost to time, 37 drawings still exist today. The evocative drawings exhibited in “Unbuilt Washington” demonstrate how each failed to capture President Washington’s support and imagination—and why they didn’t get built.

Would the Capitol Building still resonate in the world as the definitive symbol of representational democracy if it were built after James Diamond’s design—one that featured what “Unbuilt Washington” curator G. Martin Moeller Jr. has described as a “screaming chicken” atop its unambitious dome? Diamond, an amateur architect, also proposed the same poultry for the President’s House (today, the White House). It’s no surprise that his design wasn’t selected for that building, either.

Then, as is the case now, there were factors and influences beyond aesthetics that went into the decision making. Among them were politics, money (or lack thereof), personal preferences, and war—to name a few.

The exhibit points out that the competition’s winner, William Thornton, adapted his original design—known as the Tortola Scheme—based on the feedback provided by President Washington and others on the prior submissions. Thornton’s first attempt at designing the Capitol looked more like a mansion with wings. Learning of Washington’s predilection for a dome (Washington thought it would give the Capitol “beauty and grandeur”), Thornton scrapped the Tortola Scheme and instead presented a design that featured a low dome. The proposal also incorporated the Neoclassical design that then–Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson preferred. (Thornton, a medical doctor and amateur architect, is credited as the first Architect of the Capitol, because his design for the Capitol was selected.)

More changes were made to Thornton’s plan after a conference was held to discuss the design’s constructability and floor plan. Jefferson—who had submitted his own design for the Capitol, which is on view in “Unbuilt Washington”—lobbied for a three-story House Chamber. Thornton acquiesced, but the concept later proved difficult to build. (After the British burned the Capitol Building in 1814, the design-by-conference approach was scrapped. A new plan for the House Chamber proposed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was responsible for constructing the Capitol’s south wing, was approved in 1815.)

The establishment of the Library of Congress flowed from decisions regarding the Capitol. In 1800, as Congress was preparing to move from Philadelphia to Washington, $5,000 was appropriated to buy books for the use of Congress in its new home. The Library of Congress was thereby created, and it was housed in the new Capitol Building. The Library’s collections continued to grow over the years, even after several fires destroyed portions of it over the ensuing decades. Following much debate and discussion, Congress authorized a design competition in March 1873 for a new library building and appointed a commission to select a plan.

Some of these designs were grandiose, such as Leon Beaver’s palacelike proposal. There were some members of Congress who opposed the construction of a separate library building entirely, and instead advocated for an expansion of the Capitol Building to accommodate the growing collections. A strong proponent of a separate facility, the Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford asked Architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter to estimate the cost of enlarging the Capitol for the library. Walter estimated the price tag at about $4 million. Spofford used that estimate to justify funding a separate library, and, in 1886, Smithmeyer & Pelz’s modified design—which was modeled in part on the Paris Opera House—was finally approved.

John L. Smithmeyer and Paul Pelz redesigned their entry many times, submitting Italian Renaissance schemes, Victorian Gothic schemes, and German Renaissance schemes. Their process reminds me of the early American quest to define ourselves. Our newly found freedom and independence was still fresh on our minds; we had yet to determine what style of architecture best defined us as a country. Regarding many of those design decisions, politics, money, and personal preference came into play once again.

The Library of Congress, housed in the Thomas Jefferson Building, was opened to the public on Nov. 1, 1897. On Nov. 25, more than 4,700 visitors toured the new Library during a special Thanksgiving Day open house. The guests were astonished by what they saw. Joseph E. Robinson was so moved, he was compelled to write Spofford: “Not until I stand before the judgment seat of God do I ever expect to see this building transcended.”

Would he have been so moved to write those words by Alexander Esty’s design? “Unbuilt Washington” shows plainly how the course of history might have been altered, had, for example, the Washington Monument been designed as a pyramid, or had our tribute to President Abraham Lincoln been a statue of the man standing atop a ziggurat. Life in Washington would be quite different if the National Mall were bookmarked by elevated highways. But the exhibit also demonstrates how the design history of the capital city affected Americans such as Mr. Robinson.

The early development of our federal city specifically fascinates me. “Unbuilt Washington” goes further: It includes more recent unbuilt work in the Southeast quadrant, Foggy Bottom, and downtown.

Two of these are especially intriguing. The first is the Dolphin America Hotel, designed by architect Doug Michels in 1989. He was rather captivated by dolphins and proposed various projects that would bring humans into closer contact with the aquatic mammals. While we continue to be intrigued by how intelligent dolphins are, we’ll never know if Michels’s idea was a smart one.

The second is the Washington Channel Bridge, proposed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith and Associated Architects in 1966 to connect the Southwest Waterfront to East Potomac Park. Imagined as Washington’s version of Florence, Italy’s Ponte Vecchio, this pedestrian bridge would have featured shops and restaurants, potentially altering the look and feel of these neighborhoods so dramatically that they might be unrecognizable today. I find myself a little disappointed that this bold idea was never built.

Woven throughout the exhibit are the “Nationals.” (No, not the baseball team that led the National League East in April.) The exhibit captures our country’s efforts to define itself through so-called “national” monuments, memorials, and buildings. The exhibit surveys designs for the National Mall, the National Cathedral, a National Museum, a National University, a National Aquarium—even a National Parthenon.

Despite the fact that the United States never built a National Parthenon or a dolphin center, I can’t help but think that somehow we got it right. Yes, we occasionally veered off course, and the history of Washington, D.C., is punctuated with corrections, such as the McMillan Plan (1901) and the National Capital Planning Commission’s Extending the Legacy Plan (1997). But even through the ebb and flow of public support, and notwithstanding the influence of politicians, politics, war, and money (or lack thereof), the nation has generally arrived at the right answers and the best design solutions for its capital.

I get a lump of pride in my throat whenever I fly back to Washington after some time away. Is there anything more majestic than seeing the Washington Monument appear outside your airplane window and having your eye wander up the great, green expanse of the National Mall to the gleaming dome of our Capitol Building? One of the best features of “Unbuilt Washington” is that it is set in Washington—the iconic, monumental, and inspirational Capital City.