The wrecking crew worked furiously. Another noble work of architecture -- Victorian Gothic, copiously iced with all manner of ornament -- was reduced to dust.
It was one of the great moments in Washington's history.
The Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station had been only some 30 years old. It was a handsome building with its red brick and limestone facade, towers, turrets and gables topped with multicolored slate. But there were also the messy tracks, train sheds and piles of coal that extended halfway across the Mall at 6th Street.
The demolition of all this, in 1907, had at last cleared the way for the realization of Pierre L'Enfant's vision of a planned and beautiful national capital.
The Baltimore & Potomac, along with the Baltimore & Ohio railroad (which had its station at New Jersey Avenue and C Street) was moved into Daniel Burnham's then just-completed and now vandalized Union Station. The railroad station on the Mall eventually was replaced by the National Gallery of Art. The train sheds and coal piles were replaced by trees and grass and Washington's cherished picture-postcard image.
Hundreds of other living buildings had to be sacrificed to the U.S. Senate's McMillan Commission Plan, which Daniel Burnham and his friends designed. Some of them are remembered in the words and photographs of a new book, "Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings" by James Goode (Smithsonian Institution Press, $37.50).
Goode, an eloquent and diligent architecture historian, is curator of the Old Smithsonian Castle and author of the helpful "The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C.," published some years ago.
In this book, he presents about 250 buildings and sundry street furnishings, such as water troughs, gas lights and streetcar switch towers, that have vanished from our cityscape. Goode examined more than a million photographs and thousands of newspaper clippings and interviewed hundreds of people for this memento. The book, he says, includes only a third of all the destroyed buildings in Washington.
Perhaps the most charming building in Goode's collection, and certainly the most romantic is the library of the Soldiers' Home, which was torn down in 1910 for something bigger and better. By today's tastes, nothing could come close to the old library's jubilant display of structural acrobatics in wood. This architecture is unique to America. Historian Vincent Scully named it the "stick style."
The library was designed by Smithmeyer & Pelz, who also designed the Library of Congress building. It recalls a maiden's fanciful bonnet, with all its gables, pinnacles, crestings and frills. It must have given those old soldiers a chuckle.
Goode's architectural remembrance of things past shows clearly that, despite its Renaissance plan, Beaux Arts heart and Schlock-Modern aberations, Washington was and still is a Victorian city.
Only in size, not in architectural buoyancy, is it behind London, Paris, Budapest and other cities that reached their apogee in the days of Queen Victoria.
The best evidence of this is our residential buildings -- the rows upon rows of townhouses for plain folk and the luxurious mansions for the rich. Some of the most luxurious of these are now preserved only in Goode's book. The pictures of the house of William Wilson Corcoran, Boss Alexander Shepherd and Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs show a domestic splendor of which the Queen Herself, or even Emperor Louis Napoleon, would not have been ashamed.
We also had apartment-house palaces -- such as the Portland Flats on Thomas Circle and the Portner Flats on 15th Street -- as elegant as any along Hyde Park or the Bois de Bologne. If the speculative developers who tore them down had had the foresight to preserve and restore them they would now make far more money than they do on office buildings they put up in their place.
Some of the destruction of this delightful Victoriana was due not only to greed, but also to taste. The tastemakers told us that ornament was crime and Victorian art and architecture were decadent. Half of us believed them.The other half was obsessed with the notion that only the Colonial-Georgian style is Truly American, worthy of preservation and universally suitable for all building types, including gas stations.
The most prophetic of the vanished treasures in Goode's book are a milk-processing plant and an electric bus.
The plant was the Alderney Dairies at 929 D Street, downtown. It featured an energy-saving windmill atop a six-story, wildly eclectic structure that from 1884 until 1955, pumped water from an artesian well to a storage tank on the roof.
The battery-powered minibus was called "autocarette" and was part of Washington's first bus company, established in 1904 by the enterprising architect Thomas Franklin Schneider, who also designed the recently restored Cairo Hotel. The "autocarette" never made it because it never made the steep hill at 16th Street and Florida Avenue.
Some of the "losses" in Goode's collection are actually gains. I am glad, for instance, that we traded the old railway station on the Mall for the most majestic urban open space in the country and perhaps the world. I am glad we finally got rid of the so-called temporary buildings that were dumped on the Mall during World Wars I and II. Goode diligently lists and describes them as part of our cultural history, although their disappearance is cause for jubilation.
Americans tend to extremes. Our mad binge of destruction in the name of automobility and urban renewal was based on the fallacy that only the new is good. It still persists. Just a few days ago, California bankers refused a friend of mine the mortgage loan to buy a most exquisite house designed by the great Modernist Richard Neutra. It was not modern enough, they said.
Now we know that old architecture is usually more pleasing, human and livable than the current fashion of building; that "Don't Tear It Down" often means "Don't Build It Up." It is a little sad that most of us have so little faith in the architecture of our time.
And then there are fanatics who want to save everything old, indiscriminately. That is more than sad. It is idiotic.
Indiscriminate preservation just for rebellious preservation's sake denies the imperative that ours must be a living culture, not a dead one. We cannot, to be sure, live without our past. But neither can we creatively live without faith in our future.
The very word "culture" denotes not only intellectual and artistic behavior, but also the cultivation, the constant tilling and seeding, pruning and replanting of the urban garden in which we live. We must cultivate the environment that determines human behavior.
The human environment is a living organism. To keep living, it must keep changing. The challenge is to avoid happenings, like suburban sprawl, and to guide change -- to design.
That is what Daniel Burnham did when he demolished the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station to create Washington's Mall.
Today, in light of drastically new needs, tastes and conditions, Washington needs a new plan to guide this change. We need another McMillan Commission.