- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

Imagine the White House flanked by huge additions or a vast museum complex extending westward from the Ellipse. Picture a towering monument to motherhood looming over Observatory Circle.

These ill-fated proposals are only a few of the grandiose and goofy designs in a new book of essays, “Capital Drawings” (Johns Hopkins University Press, $55). Reading this fascinating history of the worst- and best-laid plans makes you realize that Washington has long been a laboratory for experiments in architecture and urban design, starting with the baroque framework of streets and avenues laid out by Pierre L’Enfant.

Had they been built, some of the visionary schemes would have made the city a far more exciting place. Among the more daring are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Crystal Heights, a cluster of apartments, shops, restaurants and a movie theater at Connecticut and Florida avenues NW; an ecology-minded aquarium on Hains Point designed by Kevin Roche and Charles Eames; and a fairy-tale, turreted Memorial Bridge.

That these projects never got off the ground reminds us just how risk-averse Washington has always been when it comes to architecture. Centuries of scuttled dreams fill the pages of this book, putting the recently dumped designs for the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center into perspective.

Written by respected historians, the book’s essays trace the evolution of the city’s most iconic public structures, the Capitol, the White House and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as well as its commercial and residential buildings. They are based on material from a huge but little-known archive at the Library of Congress, the architecture, design and engineering collection.

More than 40,000 of the drawings, prints and photos in these holdings relate to the development of Washington. They range from the earliest watercolor renderings for the U.S. Capitol to blueprints for Little Tavern hamburger stands. The book includes only the choicest selection of the many images and related documents available online (https://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/pphome.html).

The liveliest chapter in “Capital Drawings” taps the archive to present the Washington that never was. C. Ford Peatross, curator of the architecture, design and engineering collection, and the book’s editor, uses the unrealized projects to suggest how much more impressive or, in some cases, more vulgar, the city could have become.

Some of these visions might have altered the nation’s most cherished institutions for the better. Early designs for the Capitol offered panoramic views from a cupola and a conference room under a dome, which was intended for important addresses and joint sessions of the House and Senate. Had such spaces been built, Congress might have become more bipartisan and appreciative of the city.

The Washington Monument, unsurprisingly, also drew ambitious designs over the 19th century. Pyramids were proposed before the selection of Robert Mills’ obelisk, which incorporated a museum at the base that eventually was scrapped.

When building of the monument was halted in 1855, more ideas were put forth for how to complete it. One showed the unfinished obelisk topped with a gigantic statue of the first president.

The design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, explained in a separate chapter, also generated its share of wacky ideas. They include a scheme for a gargantuan Army helmet and dog tags that makes Maya Lin’s controversial black wall of names look reticent in comparison.

The White House was another favorite target for ambitious plans, some of which would have dwarfed its compact structure. Wings on both sides of the residence were proposed a couple of times, along with a large conservatory on the South Lawn. In 1898, a Missouri senator’s wife suggested a much larger executive mansion be built atop Meridian Hill with grand staircases and ramparts — a prescient idea, given today’s security concerns.

It’s surprising that the president’s house still stands at all, given the history of hasty transformations related in the book. “Architectural changes in the White House always take place in a hurry,” historian William Seale writes. “At times they have not been accompanied by detailed drawings or even sketches.”

As Mr. Seale explains, just three of the sketches by architect James Hoban, who designed the original building, still exist in collections outside the Library of Congress. Other early documents show how Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison remodeled the main floor and how Franklin Pierce added better heating systems and rococo revival decorations.

Systematic documentation of the mansion only began in the 1960s. “When President Harry S. Truman undertook to rebuild the house within its old walls between 1948 and 1952,” Mr. Seale writes, “no coherent body of historical material was available and the result was a virtually new interior.”

Today, he explains, all drawings of the White House, even for minor renovations, are carefully preserved. Most are stored at the National Park Service and not publicly accessible for security reasons.

Shaped by changing politics as much as by changing architectural tastes, the White House and Capitol are still works in progress. Though not a complete historical record of these landmarks, the documents at the Library of Congress serve as an important record of the changes within their walls and a guide for future restorations.

As for the many discarded designs for Washington, Mr. Peatross suggests the best ones aren’t really dead but could be retrieved from the library’s archive and constructed. As he writes, “There should be no expiration date on many of these ideas, and in time a number of these visions may … become realities.”

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