'Red Architect' Adolf Cluss: A Study in Sturdy

The Arts &  Industries Building, above, is Adolf Cluss's masterpiece; the architect leans against his handiwork at right.
The Arts & Industries Building, above, is Adolf Cluss's masterpiece; the architect leans against his handiwork at right. (Above: Stadtarchiv Heilbrone; Right: Smithsonian Institution Office Of Architectural History And Historic Preservation)

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By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 17, 2005

Adolf Cluss is without question the least known of Washington's most important architects.

Scarcely 10 percent of the distinctive buildings Cluss designed here from the 1860s to the 1890s still stand -- and two of the remaining seven structures face uncertain futures. These two, the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall and the Franklin School downtown, are among his best, but such a sorry record of preservation hardly constitutes a vote of confidence.

Does sober, long-gone Cluss stand a chance in our age of excessive hype, when all sorts of traditional standards -- including those for judging architecture -- seem to be breaking down?

A small group of fans and scholars here and in his native Germany are betting on rock-solid Cluss. They assembled an informative exhibition that opened Thursday, fittingly in one of the architect's surviving Washington buildings, the Sumner School downtown. And what's equally important, they cobbled together a book of essays that will do much to keep the memory alive.

The show's long title attempts to tell the whole story -- "Adolf Cluss: From Germany to America, Shaping a Capital City Worthy of a Republic."

Cluss was, indeed, a German immigrant who became a preeminent shaper of Washington in the decades after the Civil War. As the city grew from an ill-equipped town to something resembling a proper metropolis, he built museums, churches, schools, markets, federal office buildings, apartment houses, rowhouses and even a couple of luxurious private homes. He also had a hand in the vast and necessary (and wasteful) overhaul of the city's infrastructure during the notorious 1870s regime of Alexander "Boss" Shepherd.

The exhibition title does leave out, however, the most fascinating biographical fact about Cluss. When he left Germany in 1848 at age 23, Cluss was a member of the tiny Communist League and a fast friend of the league's founder, Karl Marx.

Cluss kept up an active correspondence with Marx during the early 1850s -- at the time, Marx's close colleague Friedrich Engels referred to Cluss as "an invaluable agent." (In a parallel Cluss exhibition in Heilbronn, the architect's birth city in southwestern Germany, he's referred to as the "Red Architect," a punning reference to both his politics and red brick, his favorite building material.)

In retrospect, the transformation of Cluss from ardent, utopian German revolutionary to successful, middle-class American Republican seems almost inevitable. For one thing, there cannot have been much to do for a Communist "agent" in the Washington of the 1850s. For another, as Cluss could clearly anticipate from his vantage point in Washington, the United States was headed toward its own, very different kind of upheaval -- a devastating civil war.

Then, too, a talented young man would have recognized opportunity when it knocked. Washington was going to need buildings as it grew, and the supply of resident architects and engineers was limited. Cluss gained his U.S. citizenship in 1855, developed abolitionist sympathies sometime after that, and helped design cannons for the Navy until 1863. That was about the time he opened his architectural practice (in partnership with fellow immigrant Joseph von Kammerhueber).

One of the gratifying aspects of the Cluss story is that, as a professional, he did not jettison his idealism. His belief in the responsibility of architects to build for the public good is implicit in the great preponderance of public projects among his works. And he remained dedicated to the cause of education of the many, shown in the number and quality of his public schools.

Cluss was an innovator in public school design, and was recognized as such at various national and international convocations of the time. Models of the Franklin School (completed in 1869 and still standing on the southeast corner of 13th and K streets NW) and others drew praise and scrutiny from Philadelphia to Vienna.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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