Reading over the history of the Commission of Fine Arts, established by Congress in 1910, is to relive the building of the federal core of 20th century Washington, D.C.

Starting with 41 projects submitted in 1911 and now reviewing hundreds annually, the commission has screened tens of thousands of proposals during its 77 years of existence.

Among the more significant reviews: most of the museums facing the Mall and nearby federal office buildings; the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Memorial Bridge; the Federal Triangle; the National Gallery of Art, both West and East buildings; the Kennedy Center and the Watergate complex; Metro; the revitalized Pennsylvania Avenue and its buildings; the Georgetown waterfront, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The commission's role is defined by statute to be reactive. But the commission sometimes participates in aesthetic decision making to a degree that entitles it to share some of the design credit as well as some of the blame.

Although the commission strives to take the long view, it has been no less susceptible to the ebb and flow of stylistic taste than the architects whose designs it reviews. Think of the Hirshhorn Museum and FBI and HUD buildings on the one hand, and the National Gallery, Lincoln Memorial and Federal Triangle on the other.

The Old Executive Office Building, built in the 1880s to house the State, War and Navy departments, was a stylistic thorn in the commission's side for several decades. Only a few years after completion, its eclectic, Victorian exuberance fell into disfavor. Soon proposals for remodeling began appearing, supported enthusiastically by commission members.

The prevailing sentiment was to match the more purely classical Treasury Building on the east side of the White House. In 1917 architect John Russell Pope convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, that the Navy's building should be "fixed." The commission concurred, and only lack of funding prevented the facelift.

In 1930, architect Waddy Wood generated another remodeling scheme, not unlike Pope's, which also earned the endorsement of the commission. It too was delayed because Congress didn't want to spend the money, an estimated $3 million. Wood's plan was resubmitted in 1944 with a price tag of $8 million, and again Congress chose to defer.

Although postponements because of lack of funds continued to be the dominant force for preservation through the 1950s, there were signs of shifting architectural attitudes even in 1944, when the fine arts commission was reconsidering the building's fate.

Gilmore Clarke, then commission chairman, proclaimed that "strict and rigid compliance with the tenets of the classical school in architecture, which have obtained altogether too long in Washington, must be abandoned in favor of a more fresh approach to the problems which will confront the designers of new buildings in the future."

By the 1960s, sentiment had changed completely; the commission and much of the public no longer condemned Victorian "mistakes." The notion of remodeling the Old Executive Office Building to stylistically echo the Treasury Building now seemed perverse. Yet such perversity had represented commission policy for nearly half a century.

National memorials likewise have led the commission into controversy. Did you know that the commission never approved John Russell Pope's design for the Jefferson Memorial? The Jefferson Memorial Commission, created in 1934 by President Roosevelt, debated and disagreed with the fine arts commission for several years about the memorial's precise location, size and style.

The memorial commission proposed an honorific pantheon, grand in scale, to be sited on a radically reshaped Tidal Basin with several regularly configured, separate pools lined by newly planted, formal rows of trees. Most of the existing cherry trees and 80 "fine elm trees" would be lost. And the structure, aligned on the south axis of the White House, would have been 600 feet closer to the Mall than the present memorial.

The fine arts commission's reaction was cool, with the chairman characterizing the design as "frozen." He and his colleagues were looking for something less formal. Commission member William Lamb, designer of the Empire State Building, noted that "reproduction of Imperial Rome in the shape of the Pantheon" would not represent "in the slightest degree that simplicity and honesty of character that he {Jefferson} stood for."

In 1937, responding mostly to site planning concerns, the memorial commission presented a revised design by Eggers and Higgins -- Pope's successors -- that maintained the existing informality of the Tidal Basin, moved the memorial 600 feet south, and reduced the size of the Pantheon. But fine arts commission members still didn't like the Pantheon form and asked the memorial architects to develop alternative ideas.

The two commissions finally agreed on a different scheme, an open peristyle (a court surrounded by a colonnade) based on Pope's proposed design for a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt. But Pope's widow refused to allow adaptation of the Roosevelt design for Jefferson. Faced with this impasse, the memorial commission decided to embrace again the Pantheon design and, disregarding the stylistic objections of the fine arts commission , immediately obtained Franklin Roosevelt's approval.

Relations between the two commissions deteriorated as construction of the memorial proceeded. Although the fine arts commission reviewed and approved landscaping plans in 1940 and 1941, it never approved the Pantheon or the statue of Jefferson inside.

By contrast, the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial resulted from an open, national competition sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and won in 1981 by Maya Lin. When the winning design -- a landscape rather than a building solution -- was submitted for preliminary review, the Commission of Fine Arts approved it.

However, the commission soon found itself not just reviewing, but defending the integrity of Lin's design, the subject of substantial public controversy. Many, including members of the VVMF, criticized the competition jury's choice; it seemed too abstract and minimalist, too negatively symbolic, too "lacking in nobility." For some, it was antithetical to Washington's other more monumental monuments.

As a compromise, proposals were made to add a flagpole and a literally representational statue depicting servicemen. Again the commission, advising both the Department of the Interior and the VVMF, persisted in defending and maintaining the artistic integrity of the original design concept as debates continued over where to locate the flagpole and statue.

Ultimately, through tenacious participation, the commission's wisdom and viewpoint prevailed. The flagpole was placed at the southwest entry to the memorial site with the statue, sculpted by Frederick Hart, in a nearby glade. The judicious, physical separation of these elements from the memorial wall avoided compromising the aesthetic integrity of Lin's concept, yet the visual and symbolic engagement between wall, statue and flagpole are compelling.

Given the stridency of objections in 1981 and 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial might have turned out quite differently, and less satisfactorily, had there not been a committed and conscientious Commission of Fine Arts. Indeed, whatever the commission's history of judgments -- time will prove some better than others -- there is little question that many more design mistakes would be made without such design vigilance.

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Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.