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"Unbuilt Washington": The City That Never Was (But Might Have Been)

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The National Building Museum’s Martin Moeller says the Lincoln Memorial could have been a ziggurat, or stepped pyramid, had John Russell Pope’s design proposal been accepted.
Rebecca Sheir
The National Building Museum’s Martin Moeller says the Lincoln Memorial could have been a ziggurat, or stepped pyramid, had John Russell Pope’s design proposal been accepted.

What if the Washington Monument looked like a pagoda? And what if the National Mall was flooded with water, along the lines of a canal in Venice? These alternate plans for D.C.'s landmarks actually existed, and a new exhibit called "Unbuilt Washington" reveals the details.

One of the landmarks the exhibit highlights is the Lincoln Memorial, which of course resembles an ancient Greek temple, with grand columns and shining marble. But as the museum's senior vice president and curator Martin Moeller says, Henry Bacon's design proposal wasn't the only one put forth back in the early 1900s.

"As I've talked to people throughout the past year or so about this exhibition and have shown them many, many images," he says, "the one that probably has attracted consistently the most attention is a proposal by John Russell Pope for a version of Lincoln Memorial as a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid."

Moeller says people often call the pyramid "strange" and "arbitrary," but "it's probably no less arbitrary than a Greek temple for a man who was after all born in a log cabin in Kentucky. So it's a reminder that we often appropriate historical forms in architecture for reasons related to style or symbolism, but reasons that change over time."

Plans that never happened

Moeller says he finds himself wishing several projects in the exhibit actually had happened. Like the "Washington Channel Bridge" that would have connected the Southwest Waterfront with East Potomac Park: a 1966 proposal by local architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith.

"It was meant to be a modern interpretation of Florence's Ponte Vecchio, lined with shops and restaurants," Moeller says. "And it was very much of its era: a lot of concrete, a lot of steel and glass."

But he says it also "looks very attractive to people, probably not just from the neighborhood, but potentially from the entire region. I think it really could have changed our attitudes about Southwest and that part of the city while also creating an entirely new kind of attraction."

Another D.C. landmark that turned out quite differently from some things that were proposed is the National Mall.

"Even in L'Enfant's original plan, it wasn't a green space down the middle," Moeller explains. "It was a boulevard lined with grand houses and gardens, which he thought would be appropriate for foreign diplomats."

Then in the 20th century, Leon Krier, a Luxembourg-based architect, proposed flooding the National Mall, a-la modern-day Venice. Moeller says while "it's easy to sort of make fun of that proposal, in fact it was part of a more serious critique of American urbanism. He was talking about his concerns about this federal enclave, this isolated enclave around the monumental core, and proposing a more 24-hour city with a mix of uses."

Previous plans may have brought different meanings for today's structures

Moeller says it isn't just the structures themselves that would have been different had some of these proposals come to pass. With the Lincoln Memorial, for instance, "imagine the events that we now associate with the Lincoln Memorial: Marian Anderson singing here... Martin Luther King giving his speech here... Bill Clinton emerging in front of Lincoln's statue, because he was here for his first inauguration in 1993."

Those events all take on a different meaning if the building is a pyramid, he says. "So architecture really does convey meaning and we don't necessarily think of that consciously. But there are certainly aspects of it that we absorb as we're experiencing an event that is somehow connected to an architectural site."

[Music: "We Built This City" by Tom Le Mont feat. Starship from We Built This City

Photos: Unbuilt Washington

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