A few dozen people gathered Wednesday evening in the chapel of Gawler's funeral home on Wisconsin Avenue to say farewell to John Nolen Jr., who died of cancer a few days ago at the age of 88. In a larger sense -- although a few of Nolen's professional associates remain -- the gathering also was saying farewell to a significant era of Washington's past.
For 27 years, until he was shunted aside in 1957, Jack Nolen was the director (his modern title would be executive director) of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission and its successor, the National Capital Planning Commission. As such, before home rule, this presidentially appointed body combined planning functions for both the federal and D.C. governments.
In Washington, uniquely, planners must deal not only with the federal/local dichotomy but also the fact that development is guided in large part by plans drawn many years ago -- by Pierre L'Enfant at the beginning, and by the McMillan commission, named for Sen. James McMillan (R-Mich.), at the turn of this century. The latter gave us, among other achievements, Union Station, our riverside parks, the George Washington Parkway system and the inspiration for the Federal Triangle.
It was into this milieu that Jack Nolen, son of an esteemed planner from the turn-of-the- century City Beautiful era, came to Washington. At the time, the planning commission was in the Interior building and, to many, seemed chiefly a handmaiden of Interior's National Park Service.
Nolen, a man of personal reserve who engendered more respect than affection and who became a skilled bureaucratic infighter, found this role congenial. He viewed his chief mission as one of preserving the federal interest -- the interest of the people of the nation -- in a way that often clashed with commercial and development interests of the city and its surrounding region. In this context, Nolen lost out.
As a reporter, I covered his final year at the commission, and it is safe to say that he was bitter at the parting. But never, even wracked with cancer, did he give up his fight for the city of his classical vision.
And Jack is due abundant credit for what he did help achieve: With his commission's backing, he kept the old War Department from plopping the Pentagon right at the front gate of Arlington Cemetery. He fought hard for preserving the Potomac shoreline and for the proper siting of federal buildings.
And, sadly, he lost one fight that is being refought today: to maintain a suburban skyline that does not upstage the capital's monumental core. In 1942, he proposed that suburban buildings within what he called "the vista of Washington line" -- the rim of hills around the city -- be kept generally to six stories.
The Arlington County Board, in response, suggested that higher buildings "scattered here and there would tend to break up the monotony of the skyline." Okay, here's Rosslyn and there's Crystal City, and who is to say they aren't monotonous and ugly, to boot?
Jack Nolen put an imprint on the capital, and he deserves to be remembered.