National Mall Essay
The National Mall, ringed by imposing museums and grand government office buildings, is the most prominent and well known part of Washington, D.C. Millions of visitors come to D.C. to explore the central core of our city and all of the sightseeing attractions that it offers. In doing so, however, they often miss the rest of the city. Indeed, the Mall is, for many, the only part of the nation’s capital that matters or exists. For the residents on the other hand, the Mall is not only not the defining aspect of D.C., but often viewed as a nuisance and a place we rarely go.
This assignment asks you to write about the historical evolution of the mall, the intentions of the Mall’s creators, and the way both visitors and residents view it. More specifically, you will need to discuss the plans to develop the Mall (the City Beautiful Movement and the McMillan Plan) and what the creators/planners hoped to achieve with their designs. You will then need to discuss what you think most visitors come away with when they visit the Mall, as well as what you think about it and how you view it as part of DC.
Your essay will need to be a minimum of 3 pages. DUE October 21, 2021 (60 points)
The 1890s and early years of the twentieth century were a turning point in American society. The economic system struggled to define itself and Americans through the language of consumption; social unrest and violence, results of economic depressions, disgust with corruption in government, and overcrowded urban centers erupted periodically throughout the era; and the agrarian way of life, so familiar and fundamental to American thought and self-image, was passing away into a nostalgic past. Historian Harold Faulkner observes that Americans witnessed the passing of the frontier and the rise of the United States to a position of world power and responsibility which was to make any return to her old isolation increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Old issues were dead or dying; sectional tension was no longer a force of much importance in politics, and efforts to revive it proved unavailing. Most important of all, the triumph of industry over agriculture was now assured. The Industrial Revolution, if not completed, had gone so far as to make turning back to the ways of a simpler agrarian society out of the question.
Life had come to be lived, for many, in the city. Not only had population increased during the period 1860 to 1910 from 31.4 million to 91.9 million, but the percentage of Americans living in cities increased as well–by 1910, 46% lived in cities with populations of over 2,500. (Hines, 81) With population centering on urban areas, the questions of the city–the “good life,” crime, poverty, urban blight, and civic idealism–all came to the fore near the turn of the century.
Many “believed in the classic definition of the city as the means to the ‘good life,’ a life in which man could aspire to more than mere physical survival…” (Blanton, 15) The attractions of the city were many–restaurants, theater, music and dancing, shopping. However, the real consumers of the city’s goods were not its residents; increasingly, with the advent of improved transportation and roadways, the middle and upper-middle class retreated from the cities into the suburbs, leaving the less well-to-do and the downright poverty-stricken to the quickly decaying urban center. The upper classes traveled into the city to attend to their business, consume the leisure activities contained therein, and the return to their comfortable and beautiful suburban homes. What they left behind in the cities is the subject of numerous Progressive reform movements throughout the period.
Jacob Riis, as early as 1890, observed (of New York City) that “three-fourths of its people live in the tenements, and the nineteenth-century drift of the population to the cities is sending ever-increasing multitudes to crowd them…We know now that there is no way out; that the ‘system’ that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre forever of our civilization.” (Riis) As an early social reformer, Riis’ concern with the city was echoed by future reformers. Yet while his activism seemed to stem from genuine concern– “The remedy that shall be an effective answer to the coming appeal for justice must proceed from the public conscience.” — the reformers who followed Riis were concerned less with the poor of the cities than with their own fear of these growing urban masses. Their concern can be understood in the context of the social upheaval centered on the city during the Gilded Age, beginning with Chicago’s Haymarket Riot of 1886 and followed by labor unrest just prior and just after the beginning of the 1893 depression–the Homestead strike of 1892 and the Pullman strike of 1894. The depression starting in 1893 lasted until 1897, its pain, division, and violence a memory fresh in the minds of Americans.
The reformers of urban America were generally middle and upper-middle class, whose concern was with the potential violence of those left in the cities. Paul Boyer explains, The process of urbanization functioned as a potent catalyst for social speculation and social action…social thinkers, reformers, philanthropists, and others whose assumption and activities seemed otherwise very different were often linked by a shared preoccupation with the city and, more specifically, by a common interest in controlling the behavior of an increasingly urbanized populace. (vii)
The lower classes these activists were attempting to “help” (and control) were living in squalid and significantly unhealthy conditions. An excellent example of these conditions are the alleys and tenements of Washington D.C. The type of squalor found in these “homes” was understandably unacceptable in the nation’s capital–these alleys were hidden away. A square block of fine townhouses and mansions enclosed a courtyard of buildings accessible by a small alley from the street–where poverty, crime, illegitimacy, and TB swarmed over its inhabitants, unknown to the upper-class homeowners who resolved to live in the urban center. In 1897, 303 of these alleys housed 18,978 people. The conditions found in the city center of Washington D.C. was not unique; the squalor and hopelessness of city life for immigrants and the poor throughout the country has been recounted numerous times by writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Riis, and Frank Norris.
The middle and upper-class reformers who sought to remedy this situation did so, for the most part, out of their own fear. They knew that for their own safety and business viability something had to be done; but how to attack the problem? They had to make the assumption that the poverty-stricken were somehow morally, and by extension civically deficient, a point of view quite in vogue at the time, with the continuing popularity of Darwin’s theories of survival of the fittest and Spenser’s translation of these ideas into the social realm. “Common to almost all the reformers…was the conviction–explicit or implicit–that the city, although obviously different from the village…should nevertheless replicate the moral order of the village. City dwellers, they believed, must somehow be brought to perceive themselves as members of cohesive communities knit together by shared moral and social values.” (Boyer, vii)
The most visible expression of this belief in the creation of moral and civic virtue in the urban population was created by the reformers of the City Beautiful movement. The movement was conceived as explicitly reform-minded; Daniel Burnham, a leading proponent of the movement, linked their efforts with Progressivism. A reform “of the landscape, he suggested, [would] complement the burgeoning reforms in other areas of society.” (Hines, 95) While other reformers concentrated on improving sanitary conditions or opening missions like Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, the City Beautiful leaders (upper-middle class, white, male), believed the emphasis should be on creating a beautiful city, which would in turn inspire its inhabitants to moral and civic virtue. “The reform movement in America, which had largely been concerned with corruption in local government, exploitation of the laboring classes by big business, improvement in housing conditions in large cities, and other social causes, quickly embraced the concept of the city beautiful as an American goal.” (Reps, 195)
Generally stated, the City Beautiful advocates sought to improve their city through beautification, which would have a number of effects: 1) social ills would be swept away, as the beauty of the city would inspire civic loyalty and moral rectitude in the impoverished; 2) American cities would be brought to cultural parity with their European competitors through the use of the European Beaux-Arts idiom; and 3) a more inviting city center still would not bring the upper classes back to live, but certainly to work and spend money in the urban areas.
The premise of the movement was the idea that beauty could be an effective social control device. “When they trumpeted the meliorative power of beauty, they were stating their belief in its capacity to shape human thought and behavior.” (Wilson, 80) Based on their fear, and a sincere sense of responsibility to improve the lives of the inner city poor, the City Beautiful reformers believed that “‘civic loyalty’ itself–that elusive abstraction which rolled so easily from Progressive tongues–[could] provide the foundation stone” for a harmonious urban moral order. (Boyer, 252) Edward A. Ross’ contemporary work Social Control advocated that “emotions once channeled toward the supernatural be redirected to the civic ideal…” (Boyer, 253) but did not posit a method of inculcating the masses in this ideal. Boyer’s point that civic loyalty, if it is to be an effective instrument of social control, must become compellingly real, is the idea which the City Beautiful leaders themselves made real.
Important as beauty was for itself, its role in environmental conditioning was never far from the minds of civic center advocates. The civic center’s beauty would reflect the souls of the city’s inhabitants, inducing order, calm, and propriety therein. Second, the citizen’s presence in the center, together with other citizens, would strengthen pride in the city and awaken a sense of community with fellow urban dwellers. (Wilson, 92)
The idiom the City Beautiful leaders used in their ideal civic centers was the Beaux-Arts style, named for the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which instructed artists and architects in the necessity of order, dignity, and harmony in their work. The first expression of this monumental style in the United States was found at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The shimmering “White City,” as the fair came to be known during that summer in Chicago, was a tour de force of early city planning and architectural cohesion. In the grand Court of Honor, architects, brought in from the East by Director of Construction Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago, put their Beaux-Arts training to use in the monumental and vaguely classical buildings, all of uniform cornice height, all decorated roughly the same, and all painted bright white. The beauty of the main court, the well-planned balance of buildings, water, and open green spaces was a revelation for the 27 million visitors. Not only was the White City dignified and monumental, it was also well-run: there was no poverty and no crime (so the visitors were led to believe), there were state-of-the-art sanitation and transportation systems, and the Columbian Guard kept everyone happily in their place. In contrast to the grey urban sprawl and blight of Chicago and other American cities, this seemed a utopia.
The fair set American taste in architecture for at least the next 15 years, although some argue that its influence extends even farther into the twentieth century. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, who designed the Transportation Building at the fair (not included in the Court of Honor), complained that the reliance on European forms and the monumental idiom set native American architecture back decades. The Beaux-Arts style was nonetheless considered dignified and beautiful, and Americans embraced the order the style provided during a period of great disharmony and disorder in their country. The fair also introduced the concept of a monumental core or civic center, an arrangement of buildings intended to inspire in their beauty and harmony, as well as the beginnings of comprehensive city planning–although in many cases the city planning was directly only at the monumental core and public parks, rather than addressing zoning issues or affordable housing.
The first organized expression of the City Beautiful movement as a means of beautification and social control was, as we will see in the next section, the 1901 Plan for Washington D.C., designed by Daniel Burnham, former Director of Construction for the fair, and his Senate Parks Commission.
The first explicit attempt to utilize the vaguely classical Beaux-Arts architectural style, which emerged from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, for the explicit intent of beautification and social amelioration was the Senate Park Commission’s redesign of the monumental core of Washington D.C. to commemorate the city’s centennial. The McMillan Plan of 1901-02, named for Senator James McMillan, the commission’s liaison and principal backer in Congress, was the United States’ first attempt at city planning.
The original plans of Pierre L’Enfant had been largely unrealized in the growth of the city, and with the country’s growing prominence in the international arena, Congress decided that Washington D.C. should be brought to the magnificence decreed in L’Enfant’s plan. The members of the commission convened by the Congress included Daniel H. Burnham, former Director of Construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition; architect Charles McKim, of McKim, Mead, & White, New York City; sculptor and World’s Fair alumnus Augustus Saint-Gaudens; Frederick L. Olmsted, Jr.; and Congressional liaison Charles Moore. Together they sought to revitalize the capital city through the monumental forms of the Beaux-Arts style. Using their experience at the World’s Fair as a jumping-off point, the commissioners sought to accomplish a number of goals: to obtain a sense of cultural parity with Europe; to establish themselves as cultural and societal leaders in the rapidly growing professional class; to revitalize Washington D.C.’s “monumental core” as an expression of continuity with the “founding fathers” as well as an expression of governmental legitimacy in a changing and confusing era of expansion; and finally, to utilize the beauty of the monumental center as a means of social control and civic amelioration.
The means to these ends was the 1901 plan. The group began their research for the comprehensive city plan by visiting the “great cities” of Europe. Vienna, Paris, and the town planning of Germany were their destinations in an attempt to recover the spirit of L’Enfant. “Their pilgrimage in general, and their specific itinerary, reflected the reverence of the City Beautiful mentality for the culture of the Old World…” (Hines, 87) The commissioners were particularly impressed with Paris, seeing it as a “‘well-articulated city–a work of civic art.'” (Hines, 87) The broad Parisian avenues and gardens of Versailles were a great influence on the men, and with their predilection for the Beaux-Arts style, an understandable influence on the final plan.
The plan itself was a reworking of L’Enfant’s plan, creating a monumental core, a great public Mall, and a series of public gardens. The focus of the plan, however, was on the Mall itself.
Briefly, the Commission proposed to surround the Capitol square with a series of monumental buildings for Congressional use and for the Supreme Court. These, together with the existing Library of Congress, would form a frame for the Capitol and its towering dome. Extending westwards on a rectified axis, a broad Mall with four carriage drives would lead to the Washington Monument. Lining the Mall on both sides would be major cultural and educational buildings. (Reps, 109)
The buildings surrounding the Capitol eventually included Burnham’s immense Union Station and Columbus Plaza. The placement of this railroad station is important in the 1901 plan. Not only does it demonstrate the Commission’s mania for symmetry, harmony, and building groups rather than individual buildings, it also demonstrates its power. For the preceding decades the Pennsylvania railroad had its station at the base of Capitol Hill, its tracks cutting across the Mall. Daniel Burnham, used his influence with the railroad’s president, Alexander Cassatt, and convinced him to move his station, as a matter of civic beauty and national loyalty.
At the opposite end of the monumental core stood the Washington Monument, anchoring the two axes of power–the Capitol and the White House. However, the Monument had been built a few hundred yards off the White House’s sight lines. “Elaborate sunken gardens proposed for the western side of the monument attempted to correct the off-center north-south axis from the White House. South of the monument were projected sites both for a principal memorial honoring the founding fathers [now the Jefferson Memorial] and for facilities for indoor and outdoor sports.” (Gutheim, 90) In addition, a monument to Lincoln was planned for the reclaimed swampland west of the Washington Monument, as well as Memorial Bridge leading to Arlington Cemetery. The placement of the Lincoln Monument (a hotly debated site, which the Speaker of the House, a representative from Illinois, called a “damn swamp”) served to enclose the Mall, creating a monumental core, a national civic center. L’Enfant’s vision of a processional avenue similar to Paris’ Champs Elysees became, in the hands of the Senate Park Commission, “a tapis vert that was similar to elements at Versailles and to the Schoenbrunn Palace gardens in Vienna.” (Hines, 94) The Mall was “unified and stripped of the…undulating walks as well as the intrusive railroad station and tracks, long a civic disfigurement. Elms were to be planted along the Mall’s longitudinal edges, defining this space and its central panel of sward.” (Gutheim, 34) This visual reference to great European cities was not an accident. Not only were the designers influenced by the French Beaux-Arts style, they took Europe as an explicit model for their plan. America had been struggling with defining its identity since its inception, and on the centennial of the national capital, was still not quite sure of itself. To visually equate the American capital with European capitals was to create instant social and cultural cache for the nation.
It was not only the nation for which the Senate Park Commission was attempting to attain social and cultural cache. As members of a growing professional class, which included professors, writers (such as Henry Adams, William and Henry James), architects, and civil servants, they were attempting to define their roles in this new category in a modern society. As social roles changed, government grew, and America underwent the last death pangs of an agricultural society, this new class of professionals sought recognition and power. The Senate Park Commission, whether consciously or not, identified themselves with the power of planning the national capital, using the Beaux-Arts style to indicate that they (and America) had as much class as the Europeans, and just as much right to be a part of the upper echelons of American society.
However, it was not only European forms that the Commission used in its 1901 plan. The Beaux-Arts style gave the impression of being vaguely classical, connoting not only the democracy of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, but also the early American Republic of L’Enfant’s plan. “Classic architecture symbolized the historical heritage of the United States in a way that the Gothic, Romanesque, or commercial styles never could.” (Wilson, 89) The classical reference in architecture was well-known in America, flowering through the late 1840s before the advent of Victorian eclecticism and the more austere and functional forms of the Chicago school. (Wilson, 89, Craig, 214) The very fact that the initial intent of the plan was to revisit L’Enfant demonstrates the Commission’s attempt to link the growing power of their class and of the government itself with the ideals and forms of the early Republic. “It was the first large effort to retrieve and restore the historic capital of the Founders, one of the earliest major attempts in the history of the republic to reestablish for any city a sense of continuity with its origins and with the national heritage, as expressed in architectural forms.” (Hines, 95)
This explicit reference to the Founders allowed the government at the turn of the century, and subsequent governments, to align themselves with the powerful symbolism the Founders invoked. Drawing on this well of myth, the Mall was to present “the public a symbol of the power of the national government.” (Gutheim, 43) In the past, the Mall was simply an open space for residents of Washington D.C.; with the new plan it “was reconceived as a new kind of governmental complex, a combined civic and cultural center that is at once a national front lawn and an imperial forum. This long, wide swath of open space–something between a park and a boulevard–and the buildings along its edges have long served, in effect, as a sacred enclosure, a tenemos for a democracy.” (Stern, 263) The growing power of the government and its bureaucracy needed the kind of legitimacy that classic forms and Republican allusions provided.
Yet the monumental core was not the only part of the city the 1901 Plan addressed. The 1901 Plan was the first real expression of the City Beautiful movement in America, believing in the power of beauty in the urban center to not only increase business and property prices, but to induce civic pride and its attendant moral and economic reforms. The Plan did not explicitly address the problems of the overcrowded and impoverished tenements and alleys surrounding the monumental core; instead government buildings were to replace “notorious slum communities” with names like Swamppoodle and Murder Bay. (Gutheim, 43) The intent of the plan on its social level was not to address economic issues head-on; instead Burnham suggested the way to deal with the impoverished neighborhoods would be to cut “‘broad thoroughfares through the unwholesome district.'” (qtd. in Boyer, 271-72) These City Beautiful proponents believed in the power of fountains, statues, and tree-lined boulevards as an “antidote to moral decay and social disorder.” (Boyer, 265-66) but did not include the displaced poor in their city plans. Earlier planners, including Frederick Olmsted, Sr., believed in the restorative effects of beauty, as expressed in natural and park settings. His famous plan for New York’s Central Park was conceived as a place where all economic classes could relax and mingle, “the locale of class reconciliation.” (Wilson, 31) rather than a place where city dwellers (who were mostly working class or poor) would be imbued with the spirit of civic/national idealism, and be inspired to pick themselves up out of moral decay and into economic success. Olmsted, Sr. was never reconciled to the civic idealism or neoclassicism of the City Beautiful movement, although his son Olmsted, Jr., was a force for beauty’s restorative effect within the Commission. The plan “might have emphasized primarily ceremonial aspects had the experience and sympathies of the younger Olmsted not been present.” (Gutheim, 35) Olmsted’s legacy in the plan is felt in the open green spaces of the Mall, and the park systems he included in the D.C. area. Yet in the end, the Commission “believed less in the Olmstedian view of beauty’s restorative power and more in the shaping influences of beauty.” (Wilson, 80)
The potential for monumentality, beauty, and community building was immense in the redesign of Washington D.C. But as Norma Evenson observes in her article “Monumental Spaces,” : “As a planned city, Washington provided opportunities for the creation of large scale urban unity: the axial government complex could be harmoniously embodied within, and related to, a comprehensively ordered street fabric.” (21) Yet this was not the case with the 1901 plan; in fact many, even at the time, saw the focus on the Mall as exclusive rather than inclusive, a lost opportunity to address not only city beautification as well as social and economic reforms, but also thoughts for the future as the growing national government expanded the borders of Washington D.C.
The 1901 Plan for Washington D.C. was not at its core a plan for the growing metropolitan city, but for a monumental center which would invoke European and classical forms in order to legitimize the power of the planners, the growing government, and America in the international arena. It would also provide a focus for civic and national pride, which would in turn somehow magically ameliorate the city’s and nation’s economic and social problems. When the Commission presented the Plan to President Roosevelt and the public in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery, the estimated $200-600 million required to put the plan into place was only one of many concerns voiced. The legacy of the City Beautiful movement in Washington D.C., and throughout the country, is being felt even today in debates over city beautification versus economic redevelopment.