Building heights and public places: finding a modern approach for Washington, D.C.

L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C. Courtesy Library of Congress.

L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C. Courtesy Library of Congress.

French artist and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, in his original 1791 plan for the nation’s capital Washington, D.C., designed a grid system intersected by a series of avenues radiating from the young country’s two prominent governmental buildings, houses for both Congress and the President. His plan envisioned a “grand avenue” at the heart of this grid—an idea which has evolved in subsequent years.

While L’Enfant’s work remains visible today across Washington, the goals and details of his plan have been hotly contested in subsequent planning efforts, during the city’s centennial and more recently—spawning controversy over how best to sculpt the city into a more complete version of L’Enfant’s original work, or to forego history in favor of forward-thinking ideas.

Below are a number of past efforts to meld the historic—the emotionally-charged inception of what some regard as the United States’ most important city—with modern realities, and often with influential pressures for contemporary urban design approaches.

While drafting his plans, L’Enfant himself admitted he could not account for all the needs a nation’s capital would develop in later years. Glen Worthington, of Georgetown University Law Center, writes that in a letter to President George Washington L’Enfant expressed an understanding that Washington, D.C. would need to grow as the upstart United States developed.

In his letter, writes Worthington, L’Enfant recognized that the country did not yet have the financial means to pursue a fully designed capital—a problem that would plague his plan for the next century as Washington developed slowly, with little attention paid to many of the public reservations. L’Enfant recognized the need for ‘aggrandizement and embellishment,’ but failed to recognize that building massing, skyscrapers, arenas, convention centers, and the like would break apart the vistas and boundaries of his plan.

As Washington, D.C. approached its centennial, city residents and leaders envisioned a new plan for Washington, one which would, supporters believed, help fully realize L’Enfant’s vision. Instead, these proposals were firmly rooted within the context of fashionable planning processes—namely, the then-vogue City Beautiful concepts.

A new vision for Washington, D.C., centered around the National Mall. Courtesy Library of Congress.

A new vision for Washington, D.C., centered around the National Mall. Courtesy Library of Congress.

A joint committee tasked with considering the “development and improvement of the entire park system of the District of Columbia,” created by Congress and chaired by Senator James McMillan of Michigan, held its first meeting in February of 1900. Committee members included future stars Daniel Burnham (co-author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago), landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (son of Central Park co-creator Frederick Law Olmsted), architect Charles F. McKim (of McKim, Mead & White) and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens (creator of numerous highly-praised monuments). In the wake of the powerful 1891 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago, and under the influence of the City Beautiful movement, and the American Institute of Architects, the McMillan Plan, as the committee’s work became known, envisioned a wholesale reshaping of the district.

The small group drew on L’Enfant’s work to sculpt a vision of his proposed “grand avenue” as a symbolic, public green space, one which would ceremoniously provide for “communication” between the executive and legislative branches. The result of their efforts would come to define the second century of the U.S. capital. Professor John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, offers an edited excerpt of the committee’s findings–which include plans for the creation of the vast park space now known as the National Mall, situated on 146 acres in the core of the capital.

From Reps’ excerpt:

The axis of the Capitol and Monument is clearly defined by an expanse of undulating green a mile and a half long and three hundred feet broad, walled on either side by elms, planted in formal procession four abreast. Bordering this green carpet, roads, park-like in character, stretch between Capitol and Monument, while beneath the elms one may walk or drive, protected from the sun. Examples of this treatment abound in England and on the Continent of Europe, and also may be found in our own country in those towns, both North and South, which were laid out during the colonial era. Moreover, these two plantations of elms traversed by paths are similar in character to the Mall in Central Park, New York, which is justly regarded as one of the most beautiful features of that park.

Today, more than a century after the plan was first put together, policymakers differ over how best to approach a modern National Mall (and Washington, D.C. at large), invoking the confines (or guidance) of the McMillan Plan. Responding to deteriorating lawns, memorials and the needs of a now-densely populated urban area (home to a metro population of more than 600,000 people), agencies responsible for the mall have engaged in a new master planning process, soliciting input from Americans and district residents alike (for a thorough study of Washington’s monuments, see Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars). Both the National Capital Planning Commission, established in 1924 as the agency responsible for implementation of the original McMillan Plan, and the National Mall and Memorial Parks unit of the National Park Service represent institutional responsibility for the National Mall. Citizen groups like the vocal National Coalition to Save Our Mall also contribute to the conversation–for years, this organization has urged congress to create a new commission, not unlike McMillan, to define the next generation of the mall.

The National Mall today, with its well-worn City Beautiful lawns. Courtesy Flickr, NCinDC

The National Mall today, with its well-worn City Beautiful lawns. Courtesy Flickr, NCinDC

Some advocates stress the ‘unbuild It’ approach to the post-McMillan National Mall, emphasizing returning vast green lawns to more public purposes. Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post advocates for an approach which acknowledges the different ways groups make use of public space.

Keep what’s best of the McMillan Plan, but pay homage to the 19th-century Mall as well. Rather than bicker over what new structures can be added to the space, focus on removing existing monuments and memorials as they reach the end of their useful life span. Plant trees in the open space that fronts the Smithsonian Castle, and allow a more forested greening of the Mall to gradually fill in the areas where generations of tourists and protesters have trampled the poor grass into submission.

As Kennicott and other influential capital stakeholders note, as Federal and local agencies undertake the process to plan for the future of Washington, D.C., they’re forced to consider not just the history of a place, but the history of an entire country, and the diverse desires of both residents and citizens at large.