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In FDR Years, 'Sleepy Southern Town' Woke Up

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 1997; Page A01

Outside, the Jefferson Memorial was nearing completion. A second dome rose over the new National Gallery of Art. New headquarters were going up for the departments of State, War and Interior while, just down Pennsylvania Avenue, the bureaucracy he so nurtured took up grand new quarters in the massive Federal Triangle development.

And in the Oval Office, Franklin D. Roosevelt hunched over blueprints that weren't even blue.

An FDR sketch became the National Naval Medical Center.
(Harry Goodwin/The Washington Post)
"He fancied himself an architect, which he wasn't," said David Brinkley, the ABC News eminence and author. "He sat at his desk with legal-sized typewriter paper and a ruler and drew some designs for those temporary buildings on the Mall. They were perfectly awful, and they were never built. Someone else's design was used."

Roosevelt, by virtue of his dozen years in office, did leave an obvious imprint on Washington. And the new 7 1/2-acre FDR Memorial at the Tidal Basin will join other impressive attractions on or near the Mall when it opens to the public May 2. Yet for all his enthusiastic dabbling -- intervening to keep red tiles off the roof of the National Archives, sketching the tower for the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda -- the federal city that came into its own around him reflected not so much FDR's sense of aesthetics as his relentless vigor.

"Every now and then, somebody runs a story saying Washington was a sleepy southern town 'until' . . . until Jack Kennedy got here or until Ronald Reagan got here. You name it," journalist Chalmers Roberts said.

"But it really was a sleepy southern town until Franklin Delano Roosevelt got here."

Sculpture of a man wrestling a horse, outside FTC headquarters, is one of art works commissioned on FDR's watch.
(Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
He didn't come alone. Roosevelt brought in people by the hundreds of thousands even before the war effort turned Washington into one big sleep-away camp. The metropolitan area population ballooned during the 1930s, many of the 300,000 newcomers lured by one of the few urban economies that were expanding during the Depression.

But most came to help run the new idea of government that accounted for that expansion -- brainy, self-confident men and women who carried with them the belief in the capital as the nerve center of the nation.

Activist Government

"He really took control and established the apparatus here to do it," said Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "He changed Washington's role as a player, as a partner in the economy forever -- and as a consequence put the city on the map."

Elected after promising action against a Depression that had paralyzed so many, the patrician Democrat invigorated more than the economy. In creating the alphabet soup of relief and regulatory agencies -- the WPA, NRA, SEC, CCC -- Roosevelt also spawned the sprawling, activist government that attracted more than bureaucrats to its multiple layers. It also brought to town the people who were being regulated.

"Washington becomes a city like Balzac's Paris," said Michael Barone, a writer for Reader's Digest and author of "Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan."

The newcomers "have ties to the provinces, but they come to the capital in order to influence decision-makers. . . . Before Roosevelt, Washington really wasn't such a place. After Roosevelt, it has been."

The fabric of what would come to be known as "permanent Washington" began to weave itself during Roosevelt's time. Among the species whose creation Barone lays at the feet of FDR is the Washington lawyer-lobbyist. The hybrid was exemplified by such aides as Tommy Corcoran, who had been the president's lobbyist, left the administration and found new clients by trading on the old.

Not far behind was the Washington press corps, once meager and underfed, believe it or not. By the mid-1930s, 500 reporters were working the city, and more and more arrived to chronicle Roosevelt's shaping of the government.

The president's control over the country could have taken root only in times of crisis. And from the Depression to World War II, Roosevelt presided over nothing else. But the news was not necessarily bad for Washington, which in its (relative) prosperity began doing double duty as thriving capital and unlikely laboratory for modern living.

The park-and-shop in Cleveland Park, for instance, was "the first of its kind of any importance anywhere in the country," said Richard Longstreth, an architectural historian at George Washington University. "Washington was without question the major proving ground for these little drive-in centers in the 1930s. No other city came close."

Roosevelt, by most accounts, wasn't interested in local Washington as a proving ground for self-government. The District was essentially run by Congress, behind the facade of a commissioner system that FDR scorned so openly that he once broke out laughing while announcing the appointment of one of the commissioners, Brinkley notes in his book "Washington Goes to War."

Eleanor Roosevelt, however, demonstrated a sustained interest in her adopted home. She was the administration's primary liaison to the District's black community and championed a campaign to improve the appalling conditions in which many blacks lived.

Meanwhile, housing for bureaucrats was an abiding preoccupation. When the war came, bringing 70,000 newcomers in 1942 alone, the federal government requisitioned mansions and erected dormitories on parkland. But severe shortages also greeted the New Dealers, and they began the migration away from the District core that continues today.

Some commenced the gentrification of Georgetown, half of which was occupied by poor African American families. Others headed for the suburbs, where mission-driven public servants were plotting new habitation schemes.

New Look in Housing

The Federal Housing Administration was created to guarantee the mortgages that banks shaken by the Depression had grown wary of underwriting. But its administrators had their own ideas about how new houses should look. The agency supported then-innovative strategies for multi-unit construction that encouraged pedestrian circulation and celebrated green space in what came to be called garden apartments.

"Colonial Village in Arlington was one of the first of these," Longstreth said. "Falkland Apartments at the top of 16th Street in Silver Spring was another."

Perhaps the ultimate experiment was Greenbelt. What looks on today's maps like just one more inner suburb was a controversial New Deal venture in social engineering.

Greenbelt was the dream of U.S. Resettlement Administration chief Rexford G. Tugwell, who on the pretext of getting the boss some fresh air drove Roosevelt to a hillside in Prince George's County and sold him on his vision of a new community on the acres below. Modeled after an English village, its core of retail shops, schools and a city hall was meant to be surrounded by modest homes and, beyond them, only open space -- a green belt of 11,200 acres.

The homes were reserved for people who made about $2,000 a year -- clerks and workers who might otherwise spend their lives renting. Quotas were set for religions, including, remarkably for the time, Jews. "But of course there was not one black family: Integrated meant something different in those days," said Daniel Ray Young, who wrote a play commissioned to celebrate Greenbelt's 60th anniversary this year. The title is taken from the town's plans: "Maryland Special Project #1."

Choosing Residents

"They'd interview all the applicants and make sure that they fit a certain criteria," Young said. "They'd even come into your home and see if you were clean. They would look under your sink."

One of the early residents of Greenbelt was Hilda Orleans, who moved there in 1942 as a young bride and never left. Now in her eighties and living in a small retirement cottage, she said she well remembers the area's early days and credits Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt for helping to create her beloved town.

"I'm sure Roosevelt, if he were alive, would be proud. You know, Eleanor had a big role in it, too. There is a legend in Greenbelt, that I've heard for years and years and years, that Eleanor put the fish in the Greenbelt lake. She put them there herself. We have a tree dedicated to Eleanor, which is quite near the lake."

The Greenbelt experiment seemed akin to communism to some members of Congress, and although two other "green cities" were built (Greenhills, Ohio, and Greendale, Wis.), the Maryland project generated the most controversy. Young said what doomed Greenbelt as a prototype were cost overruns. To keep more workers employed, almost everything was done by hand, he said, and in the end "the government wanted out of the development business."

After the war, the homeowners association bought out the federal government, though the utopian vision remains visible today in a cooperatively owned coffee house called the New Deal Cafe, a high school named for Eleanor Roosevelt and homes that to Young's eye resemble bunkers.

Other Roosevelt projects drove suburban development in more conventional ways. In 1936, the same year ground was broken in Greenbelt, the Agriculture Department established its research headquarters in nearby Beltsville. Two years later, Roosevelt motored over the District line into Montgomery County and saw in a cabbage patch the site for the National Naval Medical Center.

Presidential Design

It was the one building he actually got to design. While campaigning for his first term, Roosevelt was smitten with the state capitol in Lincoln, Neb. On White House stationery, he sketched a similar tower flanked by wings rising no more than two stories. The drawing was passed along to French architect Paul Phillipe Cret, who designed what is now known as Building #1.

Roosevelt "put it outside the city so he could escape the Washington height limitations," Brinkley noted. "He wanted it to be tall, which it is."

Cret, a favorite of Roosevelt, also saw the president's plans for a naval museum at 23rd and C streets NW and a plaza on Constitution Avenue between 18th and 19th streets NW. Neither was built, and despite his long tenure, FDR "had less impact than one would expect," even on the face of downtown, said Howard Gillette, a professor of American civilization at George Washington University.

The Federal Triangle complex, after all, had been commissioned during Herbert Hoover's presidency. The National Gallery was the brainchild of former Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon. And although FDR shepherded construction of the Jefferson Memorial, the temporary buildings he planned at his desk were designed to use shoddy materials -- so that they would not remain on the Mall as the eyesores built for World War I had.

Still, the sensibilities that suffused the New Deal are on view in art and murals commissioned on FDR's watch: George Biddle's "The Sweatshop" in the Department of Justice, and reliefs showing the workings of Social Security at 300 Independence Ave. SW. Outside Federal Trade Commission headquarters, a sculpture of a man wrestling a horse represents the regulator and the untamed market.

"He was not a fan of modern architecture, and yet at the same time, a lot of the architects being brought in to do government buildings were modern architects," said Linda B. Lyons, an architectural historian formerly with the National Building Museum.

When he could, Roosevelt reached out to temper the modern impulse. He was the moving force behind National Airport, which replaced a bizarrely inadequate field on the current Pentagon site that included a highway crossing the runway (for a time, a stoplight halted traffic when a plane approached). And although a local newspaper called National "a spick-and-span aviation futurama" when it opened in 1941, FDR made sure there was a classical element as well. The porticos were his idea, meant to evoke the porch at Mount Vernon.

As architectural landmarks go, the airport is even less impressive than the Pentagon, which proved a gargantuan prototype for the suburban office park, but which Roosevelt thought might be a good place to store papers after the war.

"It was the institutions that he built, as opposed to the buildings, that have proven to be much more significant," Fuller said. "They've affected how we function as a society."

By that measure, the new presidential memorial is a rather deft reflection of FDR's vast influence on the capital. They could have put up a building; they settled on an environment.

Staff writer Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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