Architecture

L'Enfant's Guide to Getting Fired

It takes a lot of talent to design a city, especially one with such sweeping vistas and wide, radial streets as our Nation’s Capital.  It’s hard not to admire the vision of Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the engineer behind Washington, D.C. But everybody makes mistakes—even visionaries— and L’Enfant was certainly no exception.

His biggest blunder was probably tearing down the house of his boss’s nephew. 

How I.M. Pei Brought Modern Architecture to the National Mall

Exterior view of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (Credit: Difference Engine on Wikipedia, licensed via Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license)

When I.M. Pei, the celebrated Chinese-American architect from New York, was selected to design a new addition for D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, the Washington Post’s architecture critic remarked it was “no doubt one of the toughest [assignments] since Michelangelo was asked to put a dome on St. Peter’s.” Pei knew it would be a difficult task to build the new gallery, but that did not deter him. This is the story of how one of Washington's most unique buildings came to be.   

A Roman-style Colosseum on the Potomac?

Perhaps D.C.'s recent bid to host the Olympics would've been more successful if this stadium had been built on the Potomac. Then again we would've lost out on the Lincoln Memorial.(Photo source: Washington Post)

If a local architect and a couple of U.S. Senators had been able to get their way, instead of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington might have honored the 16th President with a grandiose stadium patterned after the Roman Colosseum.

It was January 1911, and Congress was about to pass legislation to create the Lincoln Memorial Commission, to advise on the final plan for a monument to the slain president along the banks of the Potomac. But architect Ward Brown, secretary of the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects, dreamed up an exotic alternative to the shrine and statue that most others had envisioned. The Washington Post, in a lengthy article entitled "Planning a Gigantic Stadium in Washington to Dim the Glory of Rome's Noble Colosseum" described Brown's plan for a marble and concrete elliptical stadium 650 feet long and 550 feet wide, and standing 10 to 12 stories in height--roughly the size of Roman Colosseum, except that the latter was slightly taller. The proposed structure featured other classical affectations as well, including two great triumphal arches, 40 feet wide and 85 feet high, which would serve as the main entrances. Six smaller portals would have surrounded them. The stadium would have seated 87,000, with room for another 15,000 standing spectators.

When the Washington Monument Suffered from "Geological Tuberculosis"

The Washington Monument reopened in spring of 2014, after being closed for repairs needed to repair damage suffered during an earthquake three years ago. The latter included cracks that developed in the monument's marble panels and damage to the mortar that holds the approminately 555-foot-tall structure together.

But those problems aren't the first woes that have plagued the monument, which will mark the 130th anniverary of its completion in December. Back in 1911, for example, some believed that monument was afflicted with an even more peculiar problem, trumpeted in a December 1911 article in Popular Mechanics magazine by John S. Mosby, Jr., which bore the provocative title: Washington Monument Attacked by 'Geological Tuberculosis.'" Mosley wrote that the monument "is suffering from a disintegration that, while not immediately fatal, will materially shorten its life."

The Octagon House. (Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO)

The Octagon House's Tales from the Grave

When John Tayloe III was looking to build a winter home, his personal friend George Washington suggested the District. Tayloe commissioned William Thornton, who designed the Capitol building. Thornton designed a structure, costing $13,000, which fit neatly into the triangle lot it was situated on at 18th St. and New York Ave.

The layout of the building is quite imaginative, but today the house is not just known for its architecture. It's also known for the spirits that are said to linger on in the residence.

How "Schneider's Folly" Became D.C.'s Most Exotic Landmark

One of the things that helps make Washington's vistas so grand--but continually frustrates developers and architects--is the district's Congressionally-imposed115-year-long ban on skyscrapers. Congress passed the 1899 Height of Buildings Act, and then modified the law in 1910, creating a  complex set of restrictions based on location and street width.

It might seem intuitive that the skyscraper ban was imposed to protect views of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. But oddly, Congress was prompted to restrict construction heights because of Dupont Circle residents' griping about being overshadowed by what today is regarded as one of the District's architectural treasures--The Cairo apartments at 1615 Q Street NW.

Friedrich Ratzel

Impressions of Washington: A German Visitor to the Smithsonian in 1874

It's always interesting to read what visitors and residents of Washington have had to say about our fair city over the years.

In 1873, the Kölnische Zeitung (Cologne Daily News) asked German anthropologist Friedrich Ratzel to take a trip to the United States and write a series of articles about life in America. He reached Washington in the winter of 1874 and, as a scientist, was particularly interested in the Smithsonian building. See what he had to say.