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'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)

Today, Cluss's key concepts are familiar, but at the time they were revolutionary improvements -- multi-story and multi-classroom buildings, with high ceilings, clear circulation routes, abundant natural light, built-in heating and ventilation systems (which did not always work that well) and sturdy fireproof construction.

Cluss's red brick urban schoolhouses continued to influence public school construction in Washington and elsewhere well into the 20th century. It was a very good model, as we can plainly see in the Sumner School, at 17th and M streets NW -- the large rooms, high windows and warm, well-crafted woodwork bespeak a belief in the power of architecture to create an atmosphere conducive to learning.

Like many of the better Victorian-era architects in the United States and Europe, Cluss was distinctly modern in the sense that he tended to design his buildings from the inside out -- utility was more important than style. Structure is clearly expressed and, in most cases, there is a certain no-nonsense directness to the architecture. Cluss did not go in for the kind of excessive decoration that characterized so many buildings of the time. Consider, for instance, the strength and simplicity of the exterior walls of his Eastern Market, built in 1873 and still standing at Seventh and C streets SE on Capitol Hill.

On the other hand, Cluss also believed in the power of buildings as architectural sculptures in the cityscape. With its domed prow and majestic bays, the Portland Flats building on Thomas Circle, Washington's first apartment house, completed in 1880 and demolished in 1962, was an emphatic presence at one of the city's many odd-shaped intersections.

Nor did Cluss abjure color or decoration, as we can plainly see in the polychromatic facades and roofs of the Sumner School and the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building. Architectural historian Cynthia Field properly calls Arts and Industries, completed in 1881, Cluss's "masterwork," for it brings all of the architect's strengths together in a single building.

Cluss lived until 1905, long enough to see his architecture fall dramatically out of style in favor of the classic revivalism of the Senate Park Commission plan of 1901-02. But change of fashion wasn't the only, or perhaps not even the main, reason for the loss of so many Cluss buildings. Most of them by necessity were located in downtown Washington and vanished in the gradual densification that took place there after World War II.

We're fortunate, I suppose, to have what we have: the Sumner and Franklin schools, the Arts and Industries Building, Eastern Market, Calvary Baptist Church at Eighth and H streets NW, the Masonic Temple at Ninth and F streets NW, and, in Alexandria, City Hall at 301 King St.

We're fortunate, too, in having this exhibition, organized by a group of five collaborating institutions in Washington and one in Heilbronn.

What's left to say is this: The Smithsonian and the city government really ought to live up to their responsibilities by finding suitable uses for the boarded-up Cluss buildings they own -- respectively, Arts and Industries and the Franklin School.

Adolf Cluss: From Germany to America, Shaping a City Worthy of a Republic continues through Feb. 28 at the Charles Sumner School Museum, 1201 17th St. NW. Hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Free. For more information, see

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