The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts: 100 Years of Guiding Design in the Federal City

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By Mary Konsoulis

“The development of Washington will go on so long as the Republic endures. The problems of the future will be multiplied and will be different from those of the past….The remedy lies not in words but in good design, faithfully carried out….”—Charles Moore, Former CFA chairman

Bird’s eye view of the Senate Park Commission central plan of 1901–1902, from a point 4,000 feet above Arlington, rendering by F. L. V. Hoppin. Courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Washington is unique among American cities. The presence of the federal government has influenced the city’s history and growth and its symbolism as the nation’s capital. In 1910, Congress acknowledged the importance of good design as a matter of public interest when it created the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) to advise the president and federal government on the design of public parks, monuments, fountains, and sculpture. The CFA’s mandate would be enlarged over the years to include  public buildings, and private buildings in certain areas of the city.

The impetus for establishing the CFA can be traced to the Senate Park Commission of 1901—often called the “McMillan Commission” after Senator James McMillan who sponsored the originating legislation. The members of the Commission—Chairman Daniel H. Burnham, the designer of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.; architect Charles F. McKim; and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens—were renowned designers of the day. The Commission produced a visionary plan in 1901 that built upon Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 design for Washington. This grand scheme focused on the Mall as the symbolic core of the capital—and the nation—and proposed that it be a formal, public space framed by classical-style architecture to express the ideals of American democracy.

The McMillan Plan emphasized visual order and civic infrastructure, reflecting the importance of civic place-making in the design philosophy of the City Beautiful movement. The CFA would guide the reinvention of the Mall as envisioned in the McMillan Plan, protect the spirit of the plan, and also carry the idea of civic place-making into the nation’s capital beyond the Mall. This concern for the details of the city’s appearance has helped create the perception that Washington itself is a national symbol.

Design philosophies and styles have changed over the century and the CFA’s design thinking has evolved with these changes. However, the CFA’s task has remained the same—to ask: “What is good design?” The CFA’s influence on the urban design of Washington, D.C., and its own changing design philosophy, can be seen in three projects that shaped Washington into the city we know today.

Federal Triangle

The Federal Triangle between Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, NW, looking west, c. 1940. Photo by Fairchild Aerial Survey, Courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

The McMillan Commission’s Plan of 1901 drastically changed the portion of Washington abutting the Mall south of Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 15th Streets, NW. The city’s Center Market and a rowdy mix of industrial, commercial, and residential uses were replaced in the plan by government buildings in the neoclassical style; these buildings framed the Mall’s northern edge, giving the ceremonial and symbolic public open space shape and dimension.By the end of the 1930s, the “Federal Triangle” became reality. The enclave of office buildings provided much-needed space for the expanding federal government, redefined the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, and served the symbolic function of representing “the dignity and power of the Nation.”2 Housed over the years in rented, scattered locations across the city, by 1916 the federal government had a desperate need for permanent, centralized office space, and Congress asked the CFA and the newly created Public Buildings Commission to study the issue.3 World War I intervened, delaying action until the mid-1920s, when President Coolidge asked the CFA to advise on a building program. The CFA contributed three key concepts for the planning of what would become the Federal Triangle: the building program should be comprehensive and permanent in plan rather than piecemeal; it should reflect the intent of the L’Enfant Plan and the Plan of 1901; and it should be long-term, with construction occurring over a decade.4

Classicism was still undisputed as the appropriate vocabulary for federal design when the CFA reviewed the initial Federal Triangle site plan in 1926. In keeping with this stylistic expression, the CFA suggested the new office complex more closely resemble the Louvre-Tuilleries complex in Paris; this concept closed several east-west streets and allowed larger, longer facades.5 The CFA also encouraged simpler, more coherent compositions, especially in relation to the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue. By the end of the 1930s, seven government buildings were built between 6th and 15th Streets—legible as a coherently designed ensemble, but each with its own character, such as the French Renaissance-style Post Office Building by Delano & Aldrich, the academic neoclassical National Archives by John Russell Pope, and the Art Deco-influenced Department of Justice Building by Zantzinger, Borie & Medary. The Commission’s guidance helped insure that this complex would provide a monumental yet varied architectural border for the northern edge of the Mall.

The Department of Justice Building by Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW at 10th Street, nears completion, 1934. Photo by Commercial Photo, Courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Southwest and the Forrestal Building

Urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s drastically remade American cities. The approach was all-encompassing and the design vocabulary modern, as planners, policy-makers, and architects joined forces to aggressively “cure” cities of the problems of slums and disinvestment. In Washington, the vibrant but down-at-the-heels Southwest neighborhood was almost completely torn down and rebuilt under this redevelopment policy.The CFA’s early involvement in the project was cautionary. CFA members found the plans in the mid-1950s to be poorly designed and not in keeping with the principles of the L’Enfant Plan and the Plan of 1901.6 The CFA came to support later specific schemes, such as L’Enfant Plaza and the 10th Street Mall, and became heavily involved in the creation of the complex of federal buildings that forms the edge of the southern half of the Mall.

Rendering of Federal Office Building 5/James Forrestal Building, with L’Enfant Plaza in background, c. 1969. Courtesy U. S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Like the Federal Triangle, this building ensemble remade a vast portion of the city and was unitary in design, although modern rather than classical in vocabulary. Nonetheless, the CFA still sought a design that was in “harmony with the character of Washington as the Nation’s Capital.”7

The CFA found that harmony in the plan’s preservation of visual connections to the existing city, but there were contradictions in this approach. Among these was the design of the Forrestal Building on Independence Avenue, between 9th and 11th Streets, SW by the architecture firm of Curtis and Davis, completed in 1969. Rather than question the building’s spanning of 10th Street and the consequent interruption of the view, the CFA encouraged the design as a way to define and frame the Mall and preserve what it found was the more important vista along Independence Avenue. The CFA guided the architects toward a reduced building scale, and toward replacing glass and aluminum façade elements—considered incompatible with other buildings in the area—with masonry. “Uniqueness of individual design” was still to be subordinate to the context of the Mall.8 While L’Enfant Plaza has never achieved the urban vitality that its planners envisioned, the area does reflect a higher degree of visual continuity than most similar projects built during an era that produced numerous, profoundly anti-urban developments across the country.

The Redevelopment Land Agency’s plan for redeveloping Southwest, 1964. Courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Freedom Plaza and Pershing Park

At the time of President Kennedy’s inaugural parade in January 1961, Pennsylvania Avenue was more seedy than grand. In contrast to the classical unity of the Federal Triangle on the south side of the street, the north side was a hodge-podge of structures, mostly low-scale 19th century commercial buildings, much of it in disrepair. The president’s dismay at the condition of the avenue is credited with igniting efforts to reclaim it as the city’s premier ceremonial route.

A 1964 redevelopment plan envisioned Pennsylvania Avenue lined with new buildings on the north side and terminating at 15th Street, NW in a massive plaza similar to the Place de La Concorde in Paris. Historic buildings such as the Willard Hotel and the Hotel Washington were to be demolished. Later schemes produced by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), a federal redevelopment authority established in 1972, modified the plan, reducing the plaza’s size and adding a memorial to General John J. Pershing, but closing Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic.

By 1975, the CFA was so concerned with the direction of these plans that its staff architects developed an alternative treatment for the area. Charles Atherton, CFA secretary, noted “…maybe the problem of Pennsylvania Avenue is that a lot of the attention was being focused on the wrong block….”9 Based on precedents in the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans and the Federal Triangle design, the CFA proposed a plaza located in front of the District Building, shifting the focus one block east. This created a space framed by the nearby buildings and resolved issues of traffic flow as it drew attention away from Pennsylvania Avenue’s abrupt 15th Street terminus. It also created a dignified setting for the District’s city hall and other historic buildings, which would serve as important visual anchors for the rejuvenated avenue.

The PADC eventually reopened its study of the area and the CFA’s suggestions became the basis for design guidelines governing redevelopment along this section of Pennsylvania Avenue. The CFA later reviewed the designs for Western Plaza, now called Freedom Plaza, and Pershing Park; both opened in the early 1980s. Thanks to the efforts of the CFA and the PADC, today Pennsylvania Avenue is a thoroughfare worthy of its role as “America’s Main Street.”

The U. S. Commission of Fine Arts and Design Today

PADC Pennsylvania Avenue design guidelines for a plaza between 13th and 14th Streets, NW, based on a sketch by CFA architects, 1977. Courtesy U. S. Commission of Fine Arts.

In 1944, in a speech before the Joint Committee on the National Capital, then-CFA chairman Gilmore Clarke commented on the CFA’s movement away from the rigid adherence to classical forms toward what he called a “fresh approach.” He noted, however, that “beauty of form, excellence of proportions, and permanence of materials” would remain the CFA’s guiding principles.10 More than 60 years later, even as design philosophy has evolved away from the unitary visions evident in neoclassicism and modernism, these principles still guide the CFA.

Mary Konsoulis is a historian and editor with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Ms. Konsoulis is also curator of A Century of Design:  The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 1910-2010.


1 Letter from Charles Moore, former Commission of Fine Arts chairman, to William Adams Delano, former Commission of Fine Arts member, undated, March 1939, Minutes of the Commission of Fine Arts, March 9, 1939, Exhibit C.
2 Letter from Charles Moore, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, to Andrew Mellon, secretary of the U.S. Treasury, dated April 5, 1927, Minutes of Meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts, April 14 and 15, 1927, Exhibit H.
3 Kohler, Sue A., The Commission of Fine Arts A Brief History 1919-1995, p. 53.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid, p. 54.
6 Minutes of the Meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts, 8 September 1955, Review of Southwest Area B. Redevelopment Plans, p. 1.
7 Letter from David Finley, chairman of the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts, to Robert McLaughlin, president of the D.C. Board of Commissioners, dated October 26, 1960, Minutes of Meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts, September 20, 1960, attached to Exhibit H.
8 Letter from David Finley, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, to Bernard Boutin, administrator General Services Administration, Minutes, Meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts, 17 April 1963, Exhibit A2
9 Transcript of Proceedings, The Commission of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., September 17, 1975, p. 32.
10 Address by Gilmore D. Clarke to the Joint Committee on the National Capital, Washington, D.C., February 18, 1944.