Designing a Nation: Civic Art in the Nation’s Capital

April 17, 2014

The U.S. Capitol and National Mall are a beautiful representation of the dignity and public spirit of the United States of America. This area is steeped in history, and you can learn more about the past and continued efforts to design, build, and preserve the U.S. Capitol and National Mall through many government publications.

Brumidi-To-Make-Beautiful-the-CapitolWith its famous dome celebrating its 150th anniversary in December 2013, the United States Capitol is a treasure-trove of civic art. Just released, To Make Beautiful the Capitol: Rediscovering the Art of Constantino Brumidi gives a detailed history of renowned Italian-born artist Constantino Brumidi’s masterful work in “making beautiful” the walls and ceilings of the United States Capitol in a span of 25 years starting in 1854. Every page delights with gorgeous, full-color photographs and images of Brumidi’s art, from photographs of the frescoes and decoration, to sketches, paintings and images of the artist, particularly the Brumidi Corridors and his “monumental fresco” in the Capitol Rotunda, called The Apotheosis of Washington. Fascinating anecdotes are included throughout of the artist and the inspirations he received for various elements, his relationship with engineer Montgomery C. Meigs, and the conservation efforts to preserve his work accurately for posterity. Read more about this publication and others about art in the Capitol in our prior blog post, National Treasure: The art and architecture of the US Capitol.

The primary oversight board for projects in the National Mall area is the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which was established by an act of Congress on May 17, 1910 in Public Law 61-181. This commission was created as an independent review agency for the work of designing the national capitol and to guide the architectural development of Washington. The commission’s role was expanded with later passage of the Shipstead-Luce Act of 1930 (Public Law 71-231 and Public Law 76-248), and the Old Georgetown Act of 1950 (Public Law 81-808). The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has a long history of guiding the development of the nation’s capital. Several resources are available in print and online to learn more about the commission’s history.

The National Park Service maintains a detailed guide linking to documents and reports that detail the area history. The Mall Cultural Landscape Inventory, part 2 contains several pages describing the history of the Senate Park Commission and its formation into the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Designing-the-nations-capitalThe U.S. Commission of Fine Arts published a monograph in 2006; Designing the nation’s capital: the 1901 plan for Washington D.C. This 359 page monograph contains illustrations in color and black and white, as well as maps. The National Park Service provides full text access to this title online.

In addition to this title, several editions of this history of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from 1910 to date were published in 1964, 1977, 1981, 1985, 1991, and 1996.

Civic Art : a centennial history of the U.S. Commission of Fine ArtsThe most recent addition to the volumes available about the history of the commission is celebrates 100 years of the work of the commission. Civic Art : a centennial history of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts is a beautiful, 626 page monograph with illustrations, maps and plans. It is a comprehensive history of the agency and includes original essays by prominent architects and landscape architects including Arleyn Levee, Carroll William Westfall, and Richard Guy Wilson.

A Botanic Garden for the Nation: The United States Botanic GardenAnother beautiful book that features some of the history of the national mall area is A Botanic Garden for the Nation: The United States Botanic Garden. You can read more about this publication in a previous post on Government Book Talk.

For more information about the U.S. Capital building, you can also check out the publications highlighted in the previous Government Book Talk post on the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Capital Dome.

America’s Castle: the evolution of the Smithsonian Building and its institution, 1840-1878To read more about the history of the Smithsonian, you could visit a depository library and check out the publication, America’s Castle: the evolution of the Smithsonian Building and its institution, 1840-1878.

If you are interested in the official records of the commission, you can locate them at the National Archives. The record collection includes administrative history, annual reports, and a selection of still photographs. The records are divided between College Park, MD and Washington DC. Many of the records pertaining to the building and continued development of the National Mall are available at the National Archives, such as the National Park Service Records for the National Capital Region, and the Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital.

How Can I get this book and other publications about history of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts?

About the author: Our guest blogger is Cathy Wagner, a GPO Outreach Librarian for the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Library Services & Content Management (LSCM) Division. Additional content, images and editing provided by Trudy Hawkins, a writer and marketing specialist in GPO’s Publication & Information Sales Division supporting the U.S. Government Online Bookstore (http://bookstore.gpo.gov).


The Untold Story Behind the Engineering of Washington DC

January 24, 2013

Watching the many tourists visiting my hometown of Washington, DC this week for the Presidential Inauguration and enjoying the wonders of our beautiful neo-classical architecture in our monuments, buildings and museums, I was inspired to write this post on this intriguing new book by Washington, D.C. and architectural historian Pamela Scott entitled Capital Engineers: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Development of Washington, D.C. 1790-2004.

Capital Engineers: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Development of Washington, D.C. 1790-2004. ISBN-9780160795572Although best known for its “water resources and environmental work and its construction of facilities on military bases,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers played a pivotal role in the design and construction of our Nation’s capital: Washington, D.C.  Not only did Army Engineers fill the role of one of three commissioners who ran the city, they were instrumental in constructing a new and rapidly growing city on donated land, including literally creating land out of swampy terrain on the banks of the Potomac River where today National Airport, majestic monuments and sprawling public spaces can be found.

The purpose of this large, beautifully presented book is to bring to the public’s awareness the depth of involvement of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the design, development, construction, and maintenance of our Nation’s capital by effectively chronicling its history and showcasing rare images, maps, and drawings of the Corps’ work.  In the preface we learn that many of these images were in poor condition and not accessible to the public before, but the advent of digital photography and scanning has made these available to stunning impact in this high-quality publication.

The book is broken into 6 sections covering periods from 1790 to 2004:

  1. The Grand Design, 1790-1800. During this period our first President George Washington hires French engineer Peter Charles L’Enfant (who had served with him in the Continental Army) to create a grand vision to lay out the city on the land donated for the purpose from Maryland and Virginia. In addition to creating the original plan for the capital city of this new nation that was reminiscent of Paris, L’Enfant also proposed the founding of the permanent Corps of Engineers to “play a key role in the development of the country’s public as well as military infrastructure.”
  2. The Antebellum City, 1800-1865, is a period where The Smithsonian Institution is built along with the start of the Capitol, and infrastructure begins to be laid.
  3. The Victorian City, 1865-1890, marks the building of the Washington Monument and the Library of Congress.
  4. The Progressive City, 1890-1915 delivers the Government Printing Office, The Lincoln Memorial, Rock Creek Park, and Potomac River bridges.
  5. The Expanding City, 1915-1950, is the period during two world wars, and noted is the building of the Pentagon among other Federal buildings and growing infrastructure.
  6. Metropolis, 1950-2004 is the final stage covered, when the city turns into a metropolis, and requires expanded infrastructure to support this.

However, the most fascinating part of the book is the many anecdotes sprinkled throughout, giving the reader a feel for the many strong personalities involved in building the beautiful city we have today and the many controversies that surfaced throughout the over two centuries since its founding.

For example, this year’s Inaugural Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) organized the 2013 Inauguration ceremony around a theme commemorating the completion of the Capitol Dome 150 years prior on December 2, 1863, two years ahead of President Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4, 1865.  Said Senator Schumer on Monday as he kicked off the second inauguration of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden:

When Abraham Lincoln took office [in 1861], two years earlier the dome above us was a half-built eyesore… Conventional wisdom was that it should be left unfinished until the war ended, given the travails and financial needs of the times. But to President Lincoln the half finished dome symbolized the half divided nation. Lincoln said, ‘If people see the Capitol going on it is a sign we intend the union shall go on.’ And so, despite the conflict which engulfed the nation, and surrounded the city, the dome continued to rise.”

Unfinished Capitol dome at Lincoln;s first inaugural

Image: First Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861, beneath the unfinished Capitol dome. Source: Library of Congress

To continue Lincoln’s vision to complete the construction in spite of the Civil War, the Corps continued work on the ambitious and tricky Capitol Dome, with the book showing rare photos and drawings of the work being done, including the planned design and engineering behind this magnificent structure.

Capitol-dome-cross-section

Image: Cross-section drawing by Thomas Ustick Walter for the dome of the United States Capitol building, circa, 1859. Source: Library of Congress.

Another story from the book is that General Thomas Lincoln Casey, Chief of Engineers at the time, decided to avoid both extensive congressional debate and public criticism in the building the Library of Congress and “embarked on the Library’s decorative scheme without prior approval of Congress.”  Using the time-honored Washington tradition of masking expenditures in generalities, Casey hid the hiring of sculptors under a generic heading of “marble work” and that of fine artists under “painting” in his annual reports.  Such was the faith in his work that Congress was not fazed by this deception when it was revealed.

An interesting chapter about the Washington Monument showed the Corps identified a need to shore up the foundation in order to build the obelisk to the necessary height in accordance with ancient Egyptian proportions. Such was the respect for their findings that Congress authorized additional funds for the Corps to build a new cement foundation to provide the long-lasting support desired.

Washington-monument-base

Image:  Cement foundation under the Washington Monument in May 1880. Source:  Library of Congress

Eventually, the foundation was covered with a beautiful lawn and the entire grounds landscaped by the Corps, to the delight– and relief– of all D.C. residents, expressed by local newspaper columnist George Alfred Townsend:

“The old grounds around the Washington Monument, which the very goats disdained to frequent and truant school-boys passed through with awe… were now brought into civilization… and a sense of gratitude toward the Engineer was felt by every thoughtful visitor.”

Skeptics throughout the history of the city from Washington’s cabinet to Abraham Lincoln’s own administration, did not see the vision of the completed city that the Corps of Engineers could. In fact, shortly before President Lincoln’s First Inaugural on March 4, 1861, aide John Hay ascended to the base of the Capitol’s yet-unconstructed dome and was quoted giving a bleak portrait of the unfinished city, saying:

Why did they attempt to build a city where no city was ever intended to be reared? It will never be a capital, except only in name; never a metropolis like Rome, or London, or Paris.

Fortunately, the book shows that Corps of Engineers had a broader vision and optimism, creating a major city with stunning vistas that rival those of major capitals throughout the world. All Americans owe, as Townsend said above, “a sense of gratitude” to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for our beautiful capital city!

Capitol-at-2013-inauguration

Image: United States Capitol bedecked in red, white and blue for the Presidential Inauguration this past Monday, January 21, 2013. Note the magnificent dome with the statue of Freedom atop it, and compare it to President Lincoln’s inauguration above. Photo courtesy of MarthaStreet.com

How can I obtain a copy of Capital Engineers: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Development of Washington, D.C. 1790-2004?

  • Buy it online 24/7 at GPO’s Online Bookstore.
  • Buy it at GPO’s retail bookstore at 710 North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC 20401, open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Federal holidays, (202) 512-0132.
  • Find it in a federal depository library.

About the Author:  Michele Bartram is Promotions Manager for GPO’s Publication and Information Sales Division in Washington, DC, and is responsible for online and offline marketing of the US Government Online Bookstore (http://bookstore.gpo.gov) and promoting Federal government content to the public.


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