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Portfolio> Unbuilt Washington
The National Building Museum presents the nation's capital as it might have been.
Marcel Breuer and Herbert Beckhard's 1966 proposal for a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts

More and more, the National Mall is living up to its moniker “America’s front yard”: patchy turf, puddles, and cracked sidewalks give it an air of foreclosure. The National Mall Design Competition, now under way, will surely produce ambitious proposals to mend the Mall, but getting them approved and funded could take years and is far from guaranteed.

Now on display through May at the National Building Museum, “Unbuilt Washington,” reminds us that the Washington Monument was a half-finished stump for decades, until money could be found to complete it. And even then it was not done according to the original design. And that Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s daring 1939 scheme for a Smithsonian art gallery—selected out of 400 entries—fell victim to politics, like so much else in our capital.

Clockwise from top: proposal for the "Congress House" by James Diamond, 1792; Proposal for “Housing on the Avenue” inspired by Italian hill towns by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, 1974; Proposal for the Lincoln Memorial by John Russell Pope, 1912; Proposed Washington Channel Bridge lines with shops and restaurants by Chloethiel Woodard Smith, 1966.
Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Jacobsen Architecture, National Archives, National Building Museum

The might-have-been monuments and cityscapes on display are beguiling, often strange, and surprisingly varied (for a city that seems married to neoclassicism). If history had tracked just a degree or two from its eventual course, our postcards of the Lincoln Memorial would depict a gleaming ziggurat; Dupont Circle would be known for a huge tower complex by Frank Lloyd Wright; and the White House would sport two additional southern wings flanking a large conservatory (this last proposal was championed by First Lady Caroline Harrison in the 1890s).

2011 proposal by Morphosis Architects for the revitalization of the Arts & Industry Building.
Courtesy Morphosis Architects

Of all the lost opportunities included in the show, the one that curator Martin Moeller most wishes had been built is the Washington Channel Bridge, designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith in 1966. Linking Southwest D.C. to the East Potomac Park spur of the Mall, this modernist answer to the Ponte Vecchio would have been lined with shops and restaurants that beckoned strolling pedestrians. Washington, finally, would have turned toward and not away from the water all around it.

Still, lucky escapes probably outnumber missed chances. Leon Beaver’s Second-Empire-on-steroids competition entry for the Library of Congress, and an amateur’s entry for the Capitol featuring an oversized, crudely drawn eagle are proof that the competition process does sort the wheat from the obvious chaff. And that, at least, should cheer National Mall Design Competition finalists and jurors.

Amanda Kolson Hurley

Amanda Kolson Hurley is a design writer based in Washington D.C.


Projected improvements to the Washington Monument and National Mall by B.F. Smith, 1852 showing a variation on the circular colonnade that was part of the original design for the Washington Monument, but never executed (left). Proposed changes to the Washington Monument grounds by the Senate Park Commission, 1901-02, attempts to reconcile the awkward geometry resulting from the monument's placement off the axis from the White House (center). Proposal for the completion of the Washington Monument by Vinnie Ream Hoxie, c. 1876-78 after Construction was halted in 1856, leaving an unfinished stump on the National Mall.
Courtesy Library of Congress, U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Library of Congress

Proposed Memorial Bridge in Honor of General U.S. Grant by Smithmeyer & Pelz, 1887.
Courtesy Library of Congress
left to right: Rendering of the proposed National Sofa, to be located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, by Jim Allegro and Doug Michels, 1996; Proposed design for the US Capitol with high dome by William Thornton, c. 1797; Proposed Dolphin America Hotel by Doug Michels and Jim Allegro, 1989; Competition entry for the Library of Congress by Alexander R. Esty, c. 1880.
Courtesy James Allegro & Doug Michels, Library of Congress

Proposal for the National Cultural Center (later Kennedy Center), Edward Durell Stone, 1959.
Courtesy Edward Durell Stone Collection
Proposed Executive Mansion on Meridian Hill by Paul J. Pelz, 1898 (left). Proposed Extensions to the White House by Robert Owen, 1891-1901 (Center). Proposed Masonic Temple Complex by Waddy B. Wood, 1922-24 (right).
Courtesy Library of Congress