One of a quartet of accomplished, creative, well-connected men who had been asked to redesign central Washington, McKim was confident that the four had done their work thoroughly and well.
Nonetheless, McKim was fidgety on the morning of Jan. 15, 1902, as he hastened to apply the final touches to an exhibition of their plans at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. President Theodore Roosevelt and his Cabinet were due to arrive early in the afternoon, and everything had to be just right.
McKim and his colleagues had absorbed the lessons of the city's original 1791 plan by Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, and they were only too aware of the ways it had been disfigured during the 19th century. Through months of intensive research, they had slogged through soggy marshes alongside the Potomac, climbed the escarpments of Rock Creek Valley and tromped purposefully through the capital's extensive woodlands. They had traveled together to see what hints the finest European cities had to offer.
He could not have known how accurate his conjecture was to be.
The four had articulated their ideas in a 171-page volume with a misleadingly modest title the Report of the Senate Park Commission on the Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia. But the actual goal was nothing less than to change the face of the nation's capital for centuries to come.
McKim and company knew that L'Enfant had been incredibly bold. Adapting formal landscape themes developed initially to celebrate Europe's absolutist kings, the French architect-engineer had created a symbolic center for the young democracy. At the heart of his plan was the key triad of the Capitol on its hill, the presidential mansion on another rise more than a mile distant, and a monument to George Washington.
Yet when the Senate Park Commission began work in the spring of 1901, the relationship among these primary elements had been obliterated. The spacious east-west Mall that L'Enfant proposed had been planted at mid-century as an informal English garden, buildings were scattered on it here and there, and the city's chief passenger railroad station was firmly entrenched along its northern boundary.
To rectify this, and to further beautify the capital, was the task given to the commissioners. Perhaps the very audaciousness of their response contributed to McKim's ant siness on that winter morning. Or maybe it was just his near-legendary perfectionism. He knew that the Corcoran exhibit would be an important selling tool for the plan, and that Roosevelt's response would be key.
Thus, despite the shortage of funds that dogged the commission, McKim had insisted that only the country's best magazine illustrators be employed to prepare the display. He and the others had demanded that a top architectural model maker be engaged to construct an amazing pair of scale renditions of central Washington one showing the city as it existed, the other as the commission felt it should become.
At the Corcoran, McKim had sheets of unbleached muslin draped from the high ceiling of the Hemicycle Gallery. He designed a viewing platform so that visitors could look down on the great models. From his New York office he assigned a place to each of the more than 170 paintings and photographs in the show, and then, dissatisfied after he arrived in Washington, changed the arrangement all around.
McKim, 54, a soft-spoken but steel-willed Quaker of medium height and fastidious dress, worked himself and assorted deputies and friends through most of the night of Jan. 14, and then started in again the next morning. That afternoon, as the presidential party came through one door, wrote an architect who was pres ent, "McKim, several prominent architects and a noted physician . . . all lent a hand clearing the trash" through another door.
Not to worry. McMillan and the persuasive Moore escorted the president through the exhibit, explaining the rationale of the whole plan and how one part related to another. At the end of the day, the president was a convert.
"All of the distinguished visitors expressed themselves as pleased with the result of the labors of the commission," The Washington Post blandly summarized in its full-page coverage the next day. Roosevelt pronounced the work to be a "great undertaking."
In a sense Roosevelt's endorsement was to be expected. By treating the city "as a work of civic art," the plan conformed to the reformist ideals of the Progressive Era embodied by the young president. The intention was to counteract the rough-and-tumble market forces that had transformed American cities after the Civil War. In architecture and planning circles, the approach was known as the "City Beautiful" movement.
In this spirit, McKim and the others set out both to repair and extend the majestic symbolism of L'Enfant's vistas. The by-now mature trees of the rambling garden on the Mall were to be uprooted and the nonconforming buildings demolished (even the Smithsonian Castle). These were to be replaced by a central greensward framed by panels of elms planted with military precision in rows of four; on the perimeter were to be public buildings in classical architectural styles.
Furthermore, Potomac mudlands and marshes to the west of this symbolic ensemble were to be reclaimed for a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, preceded by a long reflecting pool. The Potomac was to be traversed at this point by a low arched bridge pointed toward the Greek Revival mansion from which Gen. Robert E. Lee had dispatched his fateful resignation from the U.S. Army at the beginning of the Civil War. A statue of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was to be placed at the foot of Capitol Hill.
Sound familiar? The degree to which the Senate Park Commission plan prefigures today's monumental Washington is uncanny.
No other group was to have anything close to this quartet's effect on the look of Washington in the 20th century. Railroad magnate and politician McMillan deservedly received some of the credit the Senate report became widely known as the McMillan Plan. And in a variety of roles assistant to McMillan, biographer of McKim, longtime chairman of the federal Commission of Fine Arts the self-effacing Charles Moore kept the flame burning.
But it was the vision of McKim and company that truly reshaped the capital. In early 1901 McMillan concluded that a small group of experts "each of conspicuous ability in his profession" was needed to undo the mess that the 19th century had made of the capital. The four commissioners met McMillan's criteria and then some:
McKim, a partner in the redoubtable architecture firm of McKim, Mead & White, was a skilled designer both of buildings and large urban compositions. He was the commission's authority on matters pertaining to Washington's monumental core.
Daniel H. Burnham, the dynamic head of his own renowned architecture firm in Chicago, was an incomparable organizer. Today he remains almost as well known for one prophetic saying as for magnificent buildings like Washington's Union Station: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood, and probably themselves will not be realized."
Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was the son of the creative giant who had revolutionized the practice of landscape architecture in designs for hundreds of parks and campuses across the United States (including the grounds of the Capitol). A worthy heir to this legacy, Olmsted Jr. studied Washington's parks with unrivaled thoroughness and understanding.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was one of the most accomplished and sensitive artists in America, his bronze sculptures celebrated for combining realism with emotional insight. In Washington, he was known for his mysterious allegorical figure at the grave of Marian Adams (wife of Henry Adams) in Rock Creek Cemetery.
Although this formidable team focused much attention on the symbolic center, it ambitiously cast its net as widely as possible. The influence was felt even off the Mall. Most notable, perhaps, is Union Station to get it built Burnham had to persuade the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad to move that offending passenger station off the Mall, and to convince McMillan that Congress should pay for the necessary tunneling of the railroad tracks under the Capitol grounds.
The commission's vision was indeed far-reaching. Its report advocated a ring of parks on the then-outlying high points where Civil War forts had been placed "the views from these are impressive in proportion to their commanding military positions" and it proposed commercial quays and public drives along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. It envisioned hot, humid Washington as a city adorned with hundreds of cooling fountains and public bathing places. It prophesied a "modern market" where the Federal Triangle now stands.
Only bits and pieces of these wider-ranging recommendations were carried out McKim's musing about "half" turned out to just about right. Even in the Mall area, the plan was not fully implemented. Thankfully, the Smithsonian Castle was preserved. The "fussy" setting for the Washington Monument did not get built in retrospect, it seems that Roosevelt was right. Other refinements proposed for the Mall were ignored. Nor, fortunately, were the row houses surrounding Lafayette Square torn down to make way for public buildings in the commission's preferred classical modes.
Opposition was at times vitriolic. In the initial decade, House Speaker Joseph Cannon bitterly fought the location of the Lincoln Memorial in "that God damned swamp." In the '30s, when destruction of the 80-year-old trees began in earnest on the Mall, the plan was pilloried and briefly delayed for slaughtering "magnificent specimens of God's handiwork."
It took hundreds of skirmishes and the better part of a century to build the plan. After winning an early fight, an exhausted McKim asked, "Was it a victory? Another such and I am dead." Yet on the large issues concerning the symbolic center, the vision and strength of McKim, Burnham, Olmsted and Saint-Gaudens consistently triumphed.
In 1901, as the scope of the quartet's work gradually became known, Burnham was asked if the ideas were not too farfetched and costly for the pragmatic politicians on Capitol Hill. His reply was uncompromising. He and his colleagues, Burnham said, had a "duty . . . to make the very finest plans their minds could conceive."
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