- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Shame on the Smithsonian for neglecting one of its oldest architectural gems, the Arts and Industries Building. For years, this fantastic museum, sculpted with turrets, octagonal rotunda and colorful brick patterns, was treated as little more than a warehouse for temporary exhibits and children’s theater.

In 2004, the Smithsonian closed it to the public after leaky roofs caused serious structural damage and posed a safety threat. The endangered 1881 structure, the nation’s first national museum building, sits vacant, awaiting renovations, its future uncertain.

The possible shutting down of the Arts and Industries Building becomes sadder still after visiting a new exhibition about the remarkable man who designed it.

“Adolf Cluss, From Germany to America: Shaping a Capital City Worthy of a Republic” is a small, cluttered show that highlights the impressive accomplishments and diminished legacy of this forgotten architect.

Its venue is wholly appropriate: the Charles Sumner School at 17th and M streets NW, one of just seven Cluss-designed buildings that survive. A group of five institutions in Washington and Heilbronn, Germany, where Cluss was born in 1825, spent four years assembling the show and excellent companion book of essays.

The exhibit does a good job of explaining that this immigrant architect was responsible for more than a few quirky Victorian structures, such as the Arts and Industries Building.

Cluss virtually transformed the entire character of the city in the decades after the Civil War by designing nearly every building type imaginable: federal and military buildings, museums, churches, schools, hospitals, markets, meeting halls, apartment buildings and houses. He also worked for the city government in helping improve Washington’s infrastructure of sewers and streets.

When Cluss arrived in the city in 1849, Pierre L’Enfant’s grand urban plan was largely empty, with just a few government structures and a smattering of houses and shops built on muddy streets. The young architect seized the opportunity to develop modern buildings in this struggling place and build a national reputation for school and museum design. His Victorian red brick architecture stood out among Washington’s creamy, classical stone edifices, adding to the city’s beauty and vitality.

A map introduces Cluss’ architectural achievements, detailing the locations of his 67 known designs, including buildings in Bethesda and Alexandria. Drawings, paintings, photos, architectural models, building fragments and computer and acoustical “tours” of his extant structures round out the picture of this prolific architect.

More important, the show serves as a wake-up call to preserve what remains of the Cluss legacy. Sadly, about 90 percent of his buildings have been lost, and of the seven still standing, two are in poor condition.

Along with the Arts and Industries Building, the Franklin School at 13th and K streets NW suffers from deferred maintenance and deterioration. This Renaissance revival building, completed in 1869, was one of several innovative public schools initiated by Washington Mayor Richard Wallach and designed by Cluss.

Cluss’ interest in educational and social reform stemmed from his early political activism. He joined the Communist League while working in Germany and wrote pro-communist articles for various German-American newspapers.

After moving to Washington, the architect regularly corresponded with Karl Marx from 1851 until 1855, the year he became an American citizen. Displayed in the exhibit is one of Marx’s handwritten letters to Cluss.

The architect also was a pragmatist and eventually channeled his socialist ideals into support for the anti-slavery Republican Party. He became part of Washington’s establishment, serving on inaugural ball committees and working for the Treasury Department, Smithsonian and Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1872, President Grant appointed Cluss to the District’s Board of Public Works, where he supervised street grading and tree planting. He also encouraged property owners to plant gardens on the leftover rights-of-way in front of their houses. A whistleblower, Cluss eventually was dismissed from the job following his congressional testimony against the board’s notorious director, Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, for mismanaging funds.

In addition to his public service, Cluss was one of just a few local architects engaged in private practice. He took advantage of the growing demand for new types of buildings after the Civil War with up-to-date designs for markets, apartment buildings and schools.

Most were constructed in brick, a material considered economical, durable, fireproof and inherently more democratic than expensive marble.

Brick allowed Cluss to create eclectic designs according to the German rounded arch style called Rundbogenstil, which combined elements of Renaissance and Romanesque architecture. In aesthetic terms, his sturdy, utilitarian buildings weren’t groundbreaking, especially compared to the work of other late-19th-century American architects such as Henry Hobson Richardson and Frank Furness. They did, however, incorporate the latest ideas about building technology, including central heating and iron roof trusses.

Eventually, Cluss’ brick buildings fell victim to the very forces of development that the architect had embraced. In the decades following his death in 1905, they were wiped away by the white monuments of the expanded Mall and Federal Triangle and, in more recent years, by the rebuilding of downtown.

What has been lost is part of the record of a turning point in the city’s history.

Cluss’ distinctive buildings helped transform Washington from provincial town into modern metropolis. That is why the Smithsonian should make every effort to revive the Arts and Industries Building, Cluss’ masterpiece and an important relic of our once red city.

WHAT: “Adolf Cluss, From Germany to America: Shaping a Capital City Worthy of a Republic”

WHERE: Charles Sumner School, 1201 17th St. NW

WHEN: Through Feb. 28; Mondays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

TICKETS: Free admission

PHONE: 202/442-6060

WEB SITE: www.adolf-cluss.org

Cluss in the capital

Adolf Cluss (1825-1905) designed nearly 70 buildings, but few of his eclectic Victorian structures remain standing. They include the following:

• Calvary Baptist Church (1866), 777 Eighth St. NW — Soon after being completed, this church caught fire, and the newfangled heating system was blamed for fanning the flames. In 1913, a storm weakened the steeple, and it was removed. Earlier this year, an aluminum-and-fiberglass replica replaced the spire.

• Franklin School (1869), 13th and K streets NW — This Renaissance revival building is one of 10 innovative public schools by Cluss. Its octagonal towers originally served as air shafts to ventilate the classrooms. Currently used as a shelter for the homeless, the deteriorated school is slated to become a 30-room hotel. “We hope to take possession in spring of 2006,” says developer Bill Jarvis, who has teamed up with the Western Development Corp. to renovate the landmark.

• Masonic Temple (1870), 910 F St. NW — President Andrew Johnson, a Freemason, laid the cornerstone for this Renaissance-style palazzo designed by Cluss with first partner Joseph von Kammerhueber. In the 1990s, the building was remodeled into offices for the Gallup organization.

• Sumner School (1872), 17th and M streets NW — Named for Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist, this building was the flagship school for black children in the city’s segregated public school system. The first high school graduation of black students was held here in 1877. After decades of disrepair, the building was restored in the 1980s and turned into the museum and archives of the DC public schools.

• Eastern Market (1873), Seventh and C streets and North Carolina Avenue SE — One of three markets designed by Cluss, the Capitol Hill landmark is still a popular shopping destination. Its sturdy architecture of alternating round and arched windows, multiple entrances and iron roof trusses exemplifies the architect’s practical style.

• U.S. Patent Office Building renovations (1879, 1885), F and G streets between Seventh and Ninth streets NW — After the top floor of this Greek revival building caught fire in 1877, Cluss, in collaboration with partners Frederick Daniel and Paul Schulze, renovated the west and south wings in a Victorian style. The spaces are being refurbished as part of the Smithsonian’s $298 million restoration of the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. They are scheduled to reopen next summer.

• Arts and Industries Building (1881), 900 Jefferson Drive SW — This polychromatic brick structure was designed to display the growing collections of the Smithsonian Castle next door. Cluss took a modern approach to the galleries, separating them with open arches instead of walls. Closed and in need of repairs, the building is being considered as one of four possible locations for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The decision will be announced in January.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide