The formulation and follow-through of the McMillan Commission plan for Washington is one of the great success stories in the history of urban design, comparable to and in some ways exceeding such feats of city building as those of Baron Hausmann in Paris or Pope Sixtus V in Rome.
It is an oft-told tale, but I find retelling it now and again to be good for the soul, especially when one can add a few new twists. After all, we live with the results every day. The stupendous clarity of Washington's monumental core, the efficacious siting of public buildings in parklike surroundings, the elevating experience of the open spaces in the heart of the city -- these qualities and others make Washington one of the world's more unusual and beautiful cities.
For this we are forever in debt to Sen. James McMillan of Michigan, a former railroad tycoon and a strong parks man, and to the brilliant achievers he appointed to the Senate Park Commission in the spring of 1901: architect Daniel Burnham of Chicago, architect Charles Follen McKim of New York, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
John W. Reps' 1967 book "Monumental Washington: The Planning and Development of the Capital Center," remains the basic text on the commissioners' amazingly fruitful labors. However, in last week's mail I received a thin volume containing essays by scholars Jon A. Peterson, Cynthia R. Field, Frederick Gutheim and Richard Longstreth that shed new light on the process. (Reps' book, published by the Princeton University Press, is still in print. It costs $38.50. The pamphlet, Occasional Paper No.1, which reproduces papers presented at an urban design conference last fall, can be purchased for $4 from the Center for Washington Area Studies, George Washington University.)
Ideas for civic betterment were plentiful in Washington at the turn of the century. Some of these represented nothing more than the desire of prominent local citizens for a fitting memorial to mark the centennial of the move of the nation's capital from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia.
But others, stimulated in no small measure by the great popular success of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, were more ambititious. One, commissioned by McMillan himself, called for a new, three-mile-long boulevard -- Centennial Avenue -- running west from the base of the Capitol grounds (and slicing off a corner of the Mall in the process) to a proposed new bridge across the Potomac.
Another, prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers, foresaw construction of a tree-lined avenue along the center of the Mall, as proposed in L'Enfant's original plan, but otherwise left alone the romantic gardens that from the mid-1800s had obscured the clean lines of L'Enfant's Baroque vista.
Another, advocated by the powerful Washington Board of Trade, concentrated less upon the Mall and the monumental core than upon connecting the city's growing system of parks, including Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo, the Civil War forts and Potomac Park, then simply a huge barren lot constructed by the Corps of Engineers in the malarial flats along the Potomac south and west of the Washington Monument.
Each of the plans (and there were quite a few others) had its merits, but none came close in breadth of purpose, strength of form and clarity of conception to the plan that finally emerged from the deliberations of the McMillan Commission.
In his essay "The Hidden Origins of the McMillan Plan," Peterson points out that this "battle of plans," though it yielded much confusion, helped to establish the conditions under which the brilliant commissioners could thrive. Just about everybody who was anybody in Washington at the time -- "senators, congressmen, army engineers, centennial promoters, local boosters, the Washington press and numerous civic leaders" -- got involved in the far-ranging debate. But the positions were far apart and, as Peterson points out, adroit political maneuvering on McMillan's part was required to clear a path. What emerged was a coalition among McMillan, the powerful American Institute of Architects lobby and the Board of Trade. Each had somewhat different interests, but as a united front they represented a force to reckon with.
A key obstacle to the complete success of any plan was the existence of a railroad terminal on the Mall at Sixth Street. Ironically, for a variety of reasons, McMillan felt tied to the notion of keeping, and even enlarging, this significant obstruction. His allies had no choice but to go along, while opponents, including the Corps of Engineers, rightfully objected.
It was in this contentious atmosphere, and with the powerful (and lasting) opposition of House Speaker Joseph Cannon, that McMillan managed to obtain passage of a resolution authorizing his committee to "report to the Senate plans for the development and improvement of the entire park system of the District of Columbia." How far the commissioners he appointed were to stretch this limited mandate -- their "sheer presumptuousness," in Peterson's words -- is a remarkable part of the story.
Their success was due not only to luck and skill, though they had plenty of both, but also to the audacity of Daniel Burnham. Longstreth, in his essay, points out that Burnham himself did not write the sentence for which he is most famous -- "Make no little plans, they have no power to stir men's souls" -- but it was this spirit that clearly guided the intense deliberations of the commissioners during their trip through Europe in the summer of 1901 and through the fall and winter months during which they perfected their plan.
Burnham, for instance, was the key force in solving the seemingly intractable problem of the railroad station on the Mall. He put himself in a position of authority in the most direct way possible by getting the commission to design the new station. Then he successfully argued in favor of its relocation with both McMillan and Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad (and, incidentally, brother of Mary Cassatt, the expatriate impressionist painter).
The resulting compromise, whereby Cassatt agreed to move the station if the government would pay for tunneling the tracks under the Capitol grounds, produced Burnham's very beautiful Union Station building. It also cleared the way for a thoroughgoing redesign of the city's monumental core.
In this task Burnham, McKim and Olmsted (Saint-Gaudens was not a major factor) simply refused to look back. They carried L'Enfant's great plan with them on their European tour and referred constantly to it in deciding what, among the many sites they visited (Versailles, of course, and Paris, Rome, Venice, Vienna and Budapest), would help to strengthen it and, equally important, what would not.
Their brilliance and enthusiasm were contagious. They vastly overspent the limited congressional budget with which they had started. All by itself, the cost of the fabulous models they had built (still on view in the Smithsonian Castle) was more than Congress had allowed for the entire enterprise. McMillan had set a $20,000 limit. The models alone cost $24,500, and the total cost of the commission's work came to more than $53,000. When funds ran low, McMillan himself advanced personal funds (later reimbursed) to keep the work going; Charles Moore, McMillan's secretary (and later chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts) did the same; so, too, did McKim.
Obviously this is an outstanding overrun, but consider the results. If the McMillan Commission plan was far from perfect -- it foresaw the destruction of the Smithsonian Castle and all of the old buildings around Lafayette Square, among other defects -- it embodied, nonetheless, an extraordinary vision that continues today to exert a strong, beneficent pull. If ever you are standing on the Capitol steps, or on the Mall, or near the Lincoln Memorial, and want to thank someone for all that beauty, thank L'Enfant first, and then McMillan, Burnham, McKim and Olmsted.