In his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris mentions parenthetically that one of his first acts as president was asking Congress "to purge the Executive Mansion of Victorian bric-a-brac and restore it to its original 'stately simplicity.' "
This effort began in 1902, a few years after the classically monumental Columbian Exposition. Victorian was out and Roman and Renaissance historicism was back, as Washington again readied itself for another stylistic cycle.
Well before 1900, a variety of non-Gothic precursors had appeared. The Old Pension Building (1883) at 5th and G streets NW was among the most notable. Designed by Gen. Montgomery Meigs, it was an all-brick approximation of the Palazzo Farnese, a well-studied Italian Renaissance building. While lacking giant column orders and temple fronts, the palazzo model offered fairly pure classical details, mainly window pediments and friezes, plus very ordered and symmetrical facades.
Other Victorian-era architects already had returned tangentially to Rome via the transitional Romanesque, which must have appeared to be an appropriate stylistic bridge between romantic Gothic fashion and revivalist academic classicism. "Romanesque," descriptive of European architecture from the 10th through 12th centuries, used thick, massive brick or stone walls, plus circular vaults and arches to span space.
In the able hands of H. H. Richardson and other architects, the Romanesque revival of the 1880s and 1890s thrived briefly. Among Washington's best examples are the Columbia Historical Society's building at New Hampshire Avenue and 20th Street NW (1880, by J. G. Myers) and the Old Post Office, now the Pavilion, at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW (1899, by W. Edbrooke). However, because Romanesque revival buildings embodied many of the compositional mannerisms of Victorian-era architecture, they were destined to be eclipsed by the second American classic revival.
In 1893, Peabody and Stearns designed the Volta Bureau on 35th Street in Georgetown with a balustrated, unpedimented Roman temple front. On Massachusetts Avenue above DuPont Circle, the Townsend House (now the Cosmos Club) by Carriere and Hastings and the Society of the Cincinnati by Little and Brown rose in 1900. The Renaissance, not the Middle Ages, inspired their design.
American architects, having journeyed to Europe to study at the famed Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, imported principles of building composition that dismissed the romanticism of the 19th century. Architectural students again embraced the ancient models: Greek and Roman temples, Roman baths, villas, triumphal arches, arcades, colonnades and the column orders that comprised the classical languages of Vitruvius and Palladio.
The Ecole used that language, with its grammar of symmetry, centrality and hierarchy, to create free-standing, monumentally scaled, imposing buildings. Their systematic "formality" contrasted sharply with the picturesque, unbalanced, often casual "informality" of Victorian edifices.
Marble, granite, or limestone -- not brick -- were the preferred materials for making walls. Arches and vaults had to be circular, not pointed. Slender towers, turrets, cones and pyramids were taboo. A rational system of proportions and dimensioning was again required, along with disciplined application of Roman architectural orders.
In plan, a "beaux arts" design had a grand space or room in the middle with secondary and minor spaces filling in around the perimeter or in radiating wings. Local, subordinate asymmetries to accommodate functional necessities were acceptable, but the overall layout had to be clearly "balanced." Also, rooms or other spaces -- courts, hallways, vestibules -- had to be "figural," that is, in the shape of a regular, recognizable, usually symmetrical figure (square, rectangular, round, oval, octagonal).
The desirability of such space-making tactics justified thickening walls beyond any structural or fabrication necessity to achieve the requisite figure. Walls could fatten and inflect to the point where, in addition to separating major rooms, they could contain small intra-wall spaces for storage, niches, alcoves, or other service functions, as if the whole plan were carved out of an originally solid monolith of stone.
Equally fascinating was the willingness of beaux arts architects to insist on and apply this strategy to any kind of building, despite location, size, purpose or available building technology. They believed that architectural classicism embodied universal, timeless, irrevocable principles that nevertheless were flexible enough to be used anywhere, anytime. In fact, success in beaux arts design depended on how ingeniously an architect could manipulate the conventional elements of classical composition to arrive at an original, yet undeniable derivative, design, still following the accepted, immutable "rules."
During the first 40 years of the 20th century, a lineage of classically eclectic, monumental buildings, alluding directly to architectural antiques of the Roman Empire, appeared in Washington and superseded the legacy of the Victorian period.
The McMillan Commission began classicizing and aggrandizing the Mall after 1902. In 1908, Daniel Burnham designed Union Station, Carriere and Hastings designed the Old House Office Building, Cope and Stewardson designed the ornate District Building on E Street, and McKim, Mead and White designed the Army War College at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Architect John Russell Pope spent four decades leaving his indelible mark on Washington with buildings modeled unabashedly on ancient precedents: 1910, Temple of the Scottish Rite at 16th and S streets NW; 1930, DAR Constitution Hall and the National City Christian Church at Thomas Circle; 1935, National Archives; 1941, National Gallery; 1943, Jefferson Memorial.
Other noteworthy classics include: the 1910 Pan American Union (OAS) Building by Albert Kelsey and Paul Cret on the west side of the Ellipse; the Corcoran Gallery up the street, designed by Ernest Flagg and Charles Platt and completed in 1927; Henry Bacon's Lincoln Memorial, 1922; the Supreme Court, designed by Cass Gilbert in 1935; and, of course, the buildings of the Federal Triangle, built between 1928 and 1936 and designed by several different architects following consistent, mutually accepted guidelines as to height, mass, style and materials.
While we tend to remember these landmark public buildings, many other derivative buildings were developed privately for commercial and residential purposes. The Union Trust Building at 15th and H streets NW, along with its other banking neighbors, represents a favorite application of beaux arts classicism to financial institutions. This must have seemed especially appropriate in the neighborhood of the Ionic U.S. Treasury Building.
The exuberance of 19th century romanticism didn't lapse entirely. Some architects continued to create buildings whose stylistic flavor was more Victorian than classical. Developers built row houses in Northwest, Northeast and Capitol Hill similar to their predecessors, although Gothic decorative motifs yielded to classical ones. On upper 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue, Venetian Gothic remained popular despite the influence of Rome.
Meanwhile, in both Europe and America, some architects and their patrons were rejecting historicism, revivalism and the beaux arts tradition.
Washington's classical character had been too firmly established, and its zoning and height restrictions precluded skyscrapers and the demonstrative technological styles they were engendering. Cities such as Chicago and New York would become the foremost repositories of modern architecture. With a few notable exceptions in the 1930s, D.C. was to adhere to its comfortable tradition of the traditional in architecture until after World War II. Even then, there would be discomfort with things modern.
Next week: Modern idioms arrive.