<< The Body Politic

Washington: The Classical City

Monday, February 25th, 2013

National mall Site NCPC.govLast June, the Program on American Citizenship teamed with the National Civic Art Society to present a panel discussion on the important role that memorials play in civic life, using the recent controversies over the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the proposed Eisenhower Memorial to guide the conversation. You can watch the full discussion between panelists Michael J. Lewis (Williams College), Roger Scruton (AEI), Bruce Cole (Hudson Institute) and Diana Schaub (Loyola University Maryland) here.

In the January 17th issue of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, the National Civic Art Society continued the conversation. Justin Shubow, the group’s chairman, provided a history of the National Mall and the surrounding Monumental Core in Washington D.C., which he labels as “the greatest work of civic art in the modern era.” He continues:

To envision the future of the Mall, we must first understand its past. The Mall as we know it is just slightly over 100 years old. Yet it appears to have been there forever. It is hard to imagine, but at the turn of the twentieth century there was no breathtaking vista from the Capitol building to the Potomac, no graceful boulevard of trees and paths lined with noble edifices, but instead a shabby rambling park, anchored at one end by a soot-spewing train station and at the other by a malarial swamp. Abutting its grounds were flophouses and squalor.

This was hardly the vision for the city that President George Washington had in mind when he directed Pierre L’Enfant to create a master plan for a new capital worthy of a new republic: a grand scheme of radiating streets and avenues whose geometrical arrangement symbolically focuses on the Capitol, the White House, and the Washington Monument.

To this day, these are the landmarks by which we orient ourselves spatially and spiritually. Harmonious, luminous, and orderly, the urbanism of the L’Enfant plan and the architecture of its most important structures were to be classical in design, the physical manifestation of our form of government and political aspirations. This conscious decision linked the city to the ideals of republican Rome and democratic Athens, as well as to the Age of Reason later called the Enlightenment. . . .

Alas, by 1900 the L’Enfant plan for our national capital was largely forgotten. It had been compromised by commercial pressure and aesthetic confusion. Thankfully, in 1901 Congress created the famous Senate Park Commission led by Senator James McMillan of Michigan. Serving on the McMillan Commission were some of the greatest architects, landscape designers, and sculptors of their time, all of whom worked within the classical tradition.

Influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, they not only revived the L’Enfant Plan; they perfected it. Among their achievements, they extended the main axis of the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial site. They also cleared trees and leveled the ground to create one of the greatest man-made vistas in the world. It is transfixing. Empty space in and of itself is made electric, with the Washington Monument as the lightning rod. There is no official rule that the American people must congregate there for our most historic events and communal gatherings, but they do so nonetheless. They are drawn in by the Mall’s power, which is welcoming and uplifting, not oppressive or inhumane. It is a vista of optimism and promise.

Continue reading Shubow’s account at the Public Discourse.

Related: To further explain the history of the civic architecture of our nation’s capital city, the Society has produced a short 22-minute film: “Washington: The Classical City,” available at the Society’s website.