A Local Life: Charles H. Atherton

He Quietly Beautified Washington

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

On his office wall, Charles H. Atherton kept a copy of Pierre L'Enfant's original 1791 design for Washington, with its street grid, central mall and radiating tree-lined avenues. On another wall, he had a copy of the McMillan Plan of 1901. Named for a Michigan senator, it sought to restore the integrity of L'Enfant's vision, after a canal had been dug along Constitution Avenue and railroad tracks crossed the Mall.

In 1960, Atherton joined the staff of a small federal agency called the Commission of Fine Arts. As the commission's secretary, or chief executive, from 1965 to 2004, he quietly helped make Washington a more beautiful and interesting place. He had a subtle hand in the design and placement of every major museum and memorial since the 1960s. In all the recommendations he made, Atherton was guided by the ideals he could see on the maps drawn centuries before.

"I think the city owes an enormous debt of gratitude to him," said Earl Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art and the commission's current chairman. "What we see around us and often take for granted -- the architecture, monuments and trees -- Charlie was enormously responsible for."

Atherton, 73, who died Dec. 3 from injuries after being struck by a car while crossing Connecticut Avenue, was the guiding force behind the Commission of Fine Arts, a relatively little-known federal agency that wields an influence beyond its size. Its role is nothing less than to monitor what official Washington should look like.

Founded in 1910 and consisting of seven unpaid members appointed by the president, the commission evaluates plans for all buildings, museums, statues, fountains, monuments and parks of the federal and D.C. governments.

It reviews private construction plans near the Mall, Capitol, White House, National Zoo, Georgetown and Rock Creek and Potomac parks. It advises the U.S. Mint on coins and medals and reviews proposals for U.S. battle monuments overseas. And the commission distributes millions of dollars in federal funds to Washington arts groups.

Atherton did not have a vote on the commission, but he and his small staff did the legwork to prepare the architectural, historical and planning materials that allowed the commission to do its work. His aim was always to keep the best interests of the city in mind and to steer the commission away from blustery political winds.

"He wasn't an ideologue. He wasn't dogmatic. He wasn't rigid at all," said Carolyn Brody, chairman of the National Building Museum and a commission member from 1994 to 2002. "He was deft. If he had strong positions, he certainly didn't state them publicly."

Atherton made historic preservation a central tenet of Washington urban planning and strictly enforced the city's size limit on buildings, which is based on street widths -- not, as is commonly believed, on the height of the Washington Monument.

Billboards are prohibited, trees and parks are paramount concerns, and the lighting of public buildings at night is a matter of great importance. Donald Beekman Myer, the commission's longtime assistant secretary, once went with Atherton to Virginia to look across the Potomac to ensure that the lighting of the Washington National Cathedral did not overwhelm the Washington Monument.

In the early 1980s, Atherton, who had two degrees in architecture from Princeton University, submitted a proposal in the design competition for the Vietnam Memorial. He did not win and, in the end, was delighted with the eloquent simplicity of Maya Lin's iconic slab of black granite.

Almost as important as the memorials and museums he helped oversee, though, were the projects that did not get built -- at least partly because of Atherton's watchful eye. The original design of the Air & Space Museum looked like a beached aircraft carrier until it was scrapped.

The redevelopment plan for Pennsylvania Avenue would have widened the street by 50 feet -- demolishing the Willard Hotel, National Theatre and other historic buildings -- until Atherton led the commission on a tour, pointing out what would be lost.

When Metro was being planned, the designer wanted every station to be different. As the commissioners raised objections, one member, architect Gordon Bunshaft, began to sketch a station made of plain concrete with oval tunnels and coffered ceilings -- essentially what exists today.

"Charlie picked up the drawing and said, 'This is historic,' " Myer recalled. "That drawing is still in the commission's office."

Atherton worked with leading figures in art and design, and he often testified before Congress. Yet at home in Cleveland Park, he liked to sit by a fire with his cats and a crossword puzzle; he often spent weekends at an old farmhouse in northeastern Pennsylvania, near where he grew up. When he walked his three children to school, he would point out architectural details and identify birds by their calls. (His wife, Mary, died of cancer in 1993.)

In 1998, Atherton and his twin sons, Charles and Thomas, visited a monument in Varennes, France, honoring an American regiment from World War I. The architect who designed it was Atherton's father. In 1924, before the elder Atherton could build his memorial, he had to get approval -- from the Commission of Fine Arts.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company