WAMU 88.5 : Metro Connection

Filed Under:

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

Play associated audio
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

NPR

At 81, Disney's First African-American Animator Is Still In The Studio

First hired in the 1950s, Floyd Norman is still drawing. "Creative people don't hang it up," he says. "We don't walk away, we don't want to sit in a lawn chair. ... We want to continue to work. "
NPR

America's Real Mountain Of Cheese Is On Our Plates

To help dairy farmers hurt by a glut, the USDA said this week it'll buy $20 million worth of cheese and give it to food banks. But we eat so much of the stuff, that's hardly a drop in the bucket.
WAMU 88.5

Friday News Roundup - International

Italy searches for survivors after a devastating earthquake. Turkey escalates its role in the fight against ISIS. And Colombia and the FARC rebels sign a peace treaty ending a half-century-long guerrilla war. A panel of journalists joins guest host Derek McGinty for analysis of the week's top international news stories.

NPR

WhatsApp Will Start Sharing Data, Including Phone Numbers, With Facebook

It will also test new ways for businesses to communicate with users on the app. The privacy policy changes mark the long-expected move by Facebook to begin making money from the free app.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.