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[Detail] Yosemite National Park, Mirror Lake and Mt. Watkin

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Redesigning the Nation's Capital

At the turn of the century, Senator Joseph McMillan called for a commission to redesign the nation's capital. Headed by the former Director of Construction of the World's Columbian Exposition, Daniel H. Burnham, the commission also included architect Charles McKim, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, landscape architect and urban planner Frederick L. Olmsted, and Congressional liaison Charles Moore. Search on Washington DC to locate sketches, plans, and models from the commission's 1901 plan. In addition to expressing the commission's intentions, these materials, along with others, provide a view of the city's past and tell the story of how it came to be as it is today.

The materials include the first plan of the capital, drawn by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791. The Frenchman based his design upon models of European city capitals and royal estates. In the style of these models' "grand avenues," L'Enfant gave the city what has come to be known as the Mall, marked by the letter "H", in his plan. Other aspects of his plan included designated monument sites throughout the city, as well as the axial grid that still characterizes the city's streets today.

Unwilling to finance such a large project, the government implemented only a fraction of L'Enfant's plan. The Mall was largely undeveloped throughout the nineteenth century.

What we take for granted today as a public park and cultural center was then the site of private gardens, public markets, fairs, farms, and livestock grazing. Three-dimensional models from the 1901 plan contrast a tree-filled Mall as it existed at the turn of the century with the controlled landscape planned by the commission, akin to L'Enfant's original plan and synonymous with the Mall today.

Caption Below

Alley Slums, Washington, DC.

Capitol Building, 1946

Capitol Building, 1946, Washington, DC.

More than bringing order to the Mall, the 1901 plan was meant to bring moral and social order to the city, which, like the Mall, had felt the neglect of the federal government throughout the nineteenth century. In the philosophy of the City Beautiful Movement, the 1901 plan sought to correct the social ills of the city through the inspiration of monuments and the restorative power of beauty. As the models show, the plan focused on the development of the Mall, with the addition of the Lincoln Memorial and of building groups designed in the Beaux Arts style of the Capitol, surrounding the Mall.

  • What do the columns, color, size, and shape of Beaux Arts buildings suggest about the government that occupies them? What is the significance of the style's European influence and Greek origin?
  • How did the 1901 plan change the uses of the Mall and the relationship between the Mall and the residents of the city? What kind of symbolic message does this send? Who is the Mall for?
  • How effective is beautification as a solution to moral and social ills? What does the photograph of slums with the dome of the Capitol in the background suggest?
  • Should the government have spent its resources on developing the Mall instead of improving the economic and social conditions of the city more directly?
  • What is the value of monuments, museums, fountains, statues, and landscaped boulevards?
  • What is the role of a nation's capital? How is this role expressed in its design, architecture, and in the lives of its residents?
  • Is it more important that a nation's capital be a center of civic and national pride, or an exemplary urban center of social order, community, and well-being?
  • What are the roles and challenges of the city of Washington today? If you were going to create a plan for the improvement of the nation's capital today, what would you do? What would you prioritize?