Legend clung to the massive oak tree that once stood in the nine-acre triangle of forest that grew incongruously at the corner of Connecticut and Florida avenues NW. The tree was known as the Treaty Oak, supposedly because Native Americans and White settlers negotiated agreements under its branches. But by the 1940s, any tree in an expanding Washington was threatened with the ax.
It’s hard to say if the Treaty Oak would have survived the plan the District’s Freemasons had for the site, known as the Dean tract. As Answer Man wrote last week, in 1922 the Masons announced plans to turn the land into Temple Heights, the setting for an impressive complex of neoclassical Masonic buildings.
The stock market crash ended those dreams. The next dreamer would be “the world’s greatest living architect.”
That’s how D.C. developer Roy Sage Thurman described Frank Lloyd Wright in 1940. The 73-year-old Wright’s modernist style may have been celebrated around the world but it was unrepresented in the nation’s capital.
For Temple Heights, Thurman envisioned what today we would call a mixed-use development. And he hired Wright to design it.
Wright was not a fan of prototypical Washington architecture, proclaiming that the city had “a sufficiency of the deadly conventional.” Federal buildings were meant to “satisfy a kind of grandomania utterly obsolete.” Greek and Roman influences were everywhere, producing too many stolid buildings. John Russell Pope’s domed Jefferson Memorial, he felt, was “the greatest insult yet.”
With the commission from Thurman, Wright was going to shake things up — or try to.
The fascinating story of Wright’s unsuccessful attempt to enliven Washington’s skyline is told by Neil Levine in his 2016 book, “The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Thurman had turned to real estate development after co-founding the National Home Library Foundation, which published educational and patriotic books in flexible bindings. He was a bit of an unknown quantity, so much so that the architect, Levine writes, hired an investigator to compile a confidential report on Thurman. (The report was completed after Wright was well into the project. It found that Thurman had not enjoyed great success.)
Thurman asked Wright to place on the sloping Dean tract site a complex that would include a hotel, an apartment house, a parking garage, a movie theater, a shopping center and other commercial spaces. It would be an almost self-contained city within the city.
The design morphed over the months in 1939 and 1940 that Wright worked on it. What all the designs had in common was a crescent of tall, conjoined buildings — more than a dozen, most of them around 12 to 14 stories high — on the high ground at the back of the site. A large parking structure overlooked Florida Avenue. Between the buildings and the garage, Wright had preserved much of the existing forest, including the Treaty Oak.
There was also a bowling alley, an art gallery, a banquet hall, a cocktail lounge and other amenities.
The buildings, Wright wrote to Thurman, “should be worked out in white marble, verdigris bronze and crystal [glass], and show up the Capitol for a fallen dumpling and Washington hotels as insufferable. And this is to suggest that you change Temple Heights to CRYSTAL HEIGHTS because of the crystalline character of the whole edifice. It will be an iridescent fabric with every surface showing of the finest quality.”
Thurman preferred the name Crystal City for the $15 million project.
Levine suggests Thurman hoped Wright’s cachet would help smooth over some of the same problems that had bedeviled the Masons’ design, among them the District’s height restrictions. There was also the matter of the Dean tract’s zoning designation: residential, not commercial. Buildings in residential areas were limited to 90 feet tall. The tallest tower in Wright’s design was around 200 feet. And the residential designation meant the stores Thurman would depend on weren’t allowed.
And then there was the striking, modern design itself, which Newsweek likened to “a burlesque show in Sunday school.” Crystal City did not get zoning approval. Like the Masons’ temple, it’s a case of what might have been.
On March 13, 1953, a bulldozer felled the Treaty Oak. Government experts who examined the toppled tree estimated it was around 350 years old. In 1962, construction began on the building that stands there today: the Washington Hilton.
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