'Red Architect' Adolf Cluss: A Study in Sturdy

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.

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, seehttp://www.adolf-cluss.org.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company