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Aspiring to Beauty

Categories: Articles

Part 3 in a Series on Unbuilt Washington

Given the current political climate, it is hard to imagine an era in which elected officials and even private citizens from across the country were clamoring for the federal government to spend money on the beautification of Washington, but such was the case around the turn of the twentieth century. In 1900, Franklin Webster Smith, a Boston hardware merchant, developed at his own expense an array of astonishing proposals for the “aggrandizement of Washington, D.C.,” including the “National Galleries of History and Art,” comprising a veritable three-dimensional encyclopedia of architectural styles and spanning from the edge of the White House grounds at 17th Street all the way to the Potomac River. He also proposed relocating the President’s residence to Meridian Hill, where it would occupy a palatial mansion bridging 16th Street. A similar idea had been proposed in 1898 by Mary Foote Henderson, wife of a former Senator from Missouri, who commissioned architect Paul Pelz to design an equally grandiose executive mansion on the site of what is now Meridian Hill Park.

In 1901, Senator James McMillan of Michigan made the architectural improvement of Washington his personal cause and formed the Senate Park Commission, consisting of leaders from the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and sculpture, to develop a new plan for the city. Sometimes incorrectly described as a “revival” of L’Enfant’s plan of 1791, their recommendations, in fact, constituted a groundbreaking vision: the embodiment of the ideals of the “City Beautiful” movement, with roots in the famous World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The McMillan Plan, as it was informally known, laid the foundation for the creation of the expansive, open National Mall that exists today. Many aspects of the plan, however, were never realized, such as a vast plaza surrounding the Washington Monument, an enclave of matching, neoclassical buildings lining Lafayette Square (which would have obliterated the historic row houses there), and even a proposal to fill in Rock Creek Park, channel the creek into a large culvert, and run a surface-level boulevard along the route. Like so many aspects of Washington’s architectural history, the McMillan Plan was a mixed bag, with positive and negative attributes.

This article was adapted from one that originally appeared in the Washington Business Journal.