Monuments And Triumphal Arches
( Originally Published 1922 )
That this city is without even a single triumphal arch is astonishing! From the beginning of its existence it has put up structures to do honor to every class of important event or person, it is rich with "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome." And it seems impossible that it could omit expressing triumph in an arch. This capital has memorial bridge, obelisk, temples, squares, circles, museums, libraries, amphitheaters, houses, churches, woods, but no sense of national pride has found expression in the familiar classic form of an arch.
Washington is a capital city; and classic arches express the pride of national capitals. This is a classic city; in every direction one sees the gleam of white marble colonnades. In proportion to its population Washington is the most classically built of the cities of the world. Yet, though for thousands of years there has been the erection of triumphal arches, this city, that has made such beautiful use of Greek and Roman ideas in its century and a quarter of existence is still without that superlatively noble form.
Recently, however, the city has constructed what will splendidly pass as a filling of the omission—and that it is in connection with a utilitarian structure instead of commemorative of some battle or hero marks the changing of the character of the times.
Daniel Burnham designed the monumental Union Station that fills the arching need. Across its broad front spreads a row of nineteen arched entrances or windows. And the tall three central arches, the literal gateway of the capital through which many thousands enter and leave, make one huge triumphal arch.
This huge, triune, triumphal arch stands out gloriously, and so admirably has an open space in front of it been cleared, that it can be seen from long distances, especially from the Capitol, thus giving it an access of importance.
The building is of huge size. Its concourse is seven hundred and sixty feet in length. It is said to be the largest space in the world under one roof. And it is claimed that in the concourse, fifty thousand people could stand : one of those startling statements which for a moment seem incredible, but when it is remembered that those who love such statistics have estimated that the entire population of the world could stand in the area covered by the waters of Lake George, one is reconciled to the statement after all.
The great passenger space is of such grandeur and size that it calls for something dignified as a name, such as "passenger concourse." When some one, in a Presidential party who were leaving the station by the private Presidential entrance, glanced about for a final look and spoke of it as a great trainshed, President Wilson, who overheard him, and who in spite of his grim greatness dearly loves a simple jest, responded: "If the architect heard you say `trainshed' there would be blood shed!"
This is a Union Station in two senses. It was built by a Union of funds, Congress, the District of Columbia and the railroads uniting, for a union of the railroads, so there is no confusion of railway stations in the city.
One of the awesome memories that visitors bring from Rome, is that of standing under the great brick barred-vaulted roofs of the ruined Roman baths, and a strange sense of revival of such memories comes when those Americans, reaching Washington, look up and see above, over the waiting room, the great Roman barrel-roof.
Out in front are three superb, tall bronze-based Venetian masts, such as those which stand in the Piazza San Marco; and when you see them with their banners bravely spread, you realize there is no way of displaying a flag so well as on a fine Venetian mast.
In what was intended to be a great open plaza in front of the triumphal-arched station, at the confluence of seven thoroughfares of approach, has been placed in a view-breaking spot, a monster fountain meant to honor Columbus and set down as inopportunely as if it were a German "denkmal."
Immediately adjoining the Union Station is the new post-office, and with its long fronting serried row of great stone pillars it too is thoroughly classic. And both these buildings are distinctly super-classic in the number of inscriptions which are cut upon them in the apparent hope of being read: although there are so many, that if one really be-gins to read, he will likely enough miss a train in one building or miss a mail in the other !
The architectural character of the city is established by the public buildings and by the classic design of the majority of the beautiful and costly palaces put up by individuals or corporations for the use of public-spirited organizations, which have been established in Washington in important and growing number.
Well out in the Avenue of the Presidents at the corner of S Street, is a classic temple. It is where the Scottish Rite Masons their stately Masonic dome decreed. You are struck with the feeling that you are looking at a temple built for the ages; and you are not surprised to learn that it was modeled after what the ancients called one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the "Mausoleum of Halicarnassus," in Asia Minor. As you look, you see that its pillars and roof have a strange familiarity and you remember the old wood-cut in the geography of childish days of that great wonder of long ago.
But the building does not have fitting surroundings, fitting environment, fitting accessories in the way of setting. It is the kind of building which you instinctively think of as, say, at the end of some long avenue of cypresses or standing beside gloomy water. It is austere. It should have a setting of great spaciousness.
Here the setting is an ordinary city corner lot with this temple rising from the sidewalk edge and with modern apartment houses and residences close about. In spite of this, the majestic strangeness of the architecture gives it astonishing aloofness of effect.
It sweeps upward from the sidewalk in broad granite steps reaching the basement story with all the effect of its being on top of a knoll. At either side of the entranceway, is a granite sphynx of monster size, hewn out of the greatest stones ever quarried in America, one weighing one hundred and nine thousand pounds and the other one hundred and ten. To ascend the steps between these huge, solemn, couchant, guarding sphynxes is to feel put back ages ago into the enigmatic, the mysterious, the inscrutable and into the heart of ancient age. You feel a sense as if you might enter here, with Dunsany's "Queen's Enemies."
Above this plain basement rises a block-like center surrounded by an open square arcade of thirty-three great Ionic columns, each thirty-three feet in height. Naturally there is much of the symbolic in the building; as, that the main floor contains thirty-three rooms.
The floor above contains what is called the cathedral and is seventy-five feet by seventy-five, surmounted by a pyramidal dome, rising four-sided to a blunt top.
The Masons feel pride in the fact that the corner-stone of this temple was laid with the trowel and square used by George Washington in laying the corner-stone of the Capitol.
Always when one thinks of the classic of Washington the mind goes promptly to the Patent Office. For it is one of the perfect buildings of the city. It is now somewhat dull in hue: it shows the smack of age and the relish of the saltness of time, as its hue has dulled with the passage of the decades since it was built.
It is crowded within the space bounded by Seventh and Ninth and F and G Streets. These streets are even narrowed to hold the great building. On each side of these streets is a beautiful portico of Doric columns, that on F Street, with its portico with double row of columns, having been copied in pattern and size after a portico of the Parthenon.
The huge columns of this main facade are in a double row and the approaching steps sprawl out upon the sidewalk. From this portico southward one looks through a vista bordered by ordinary business buildings on each side, to the insignificant red brick of the Center Market. This space occupied by the Patent Office was always planned for something important, though one does not precisely see why. It is always a pleasure to be reminded that this is where L 'Enfant planned to put a sort of American Notre Dame.
Over and over one is amazed that in the early days of the capital and the nation, such buildings as the Patent Office should have been built. It is highly worth while to walk entirely around this building, and you notice among other features the great stones set across the columns ; you may look at the modest simple triglyphs, the modillions and eaves of white stone; the plain Quaker-like pediments. What a tremendous undertaking to haul such loads as this stone represents, over the mud roads of the 1830's. Washington will never need what many cities possess, a museum crowded with cold white casts of classic forms, for the city itself is classically crowded for all to see as they walk on the streets. After all, much of the ancient heart of Rome is thick to crowdedness with antique forms; temples, and the Arches of Titus and Severus and fragments of beauty are within close touch of each other and the familiar line "Why is the Forum crowded?" may be taken in two senses. The ancients did not give spacious approaches to all their great buildings but lived close with many of them as the modern city does.
One may well say, as to classic Washington, not only that it is a city of white palaces for public uses wherever you look, but that it has been a mistake when any other form was used. The greatest blunder of all was the huge building of the State, War and Navy Departments at the left of the White House, which is almost classic, but in reality incongruously nothing but a weak following of Mansart.
It is planned that the Department of State will soon have a great and beautifully proportioned building on the Jackson Place side of Lafayette Square. Until the change, it is in the southern section of the great pile that has thus far housed it. And in the beginning of the Great War no one thought of architecture when the State Department was flooded with appealing telegrams regarding the many tens of thousands of tourists abroad. It is said that seventy-seven thousand cablegrams of inquiry or urgency were sent through this Department.
The first Secretary of State was Robert Living-stone and Congress gave him two assistants and in those quill-pen days they drove their own quills ! And the affairs of the whole nation were handled by these three men. For a time thirteen books and nine boxes contained the national correspondence and archives.
The original of the Constitution of the United States is kept in the State Department, as are also the Declaration of Independence and many other official documents. Although the building is supposedly fire-proof, no one has ever taken that idea literally, but it was left for a Secretary of State far from the top in public estimation, Robert Lansing, to have constructed steel containers to hold in absolute safety the two. most priceless documents referred to. Also kept in this department is the quaint wing-armed chair in which Thomas Jefferson, in his little room looking out over Market Street in Philadelphia, wrote the Declaration.
The perfectly proportioned Treasury Building, which has held its location at the right of the White House ever since President Jackson firmly struck his cane upon the ground to fix its site, still promises to remain there forever. Bulfinch, on a long ago visit to Washington, found that there was consider-able agitation for tearing the then partly finished structure down and building it elsewhere, but the forcefulness of Andrew Jackson still dominated, and the building remained on its site.
The building of the Treasury Department gives a fit impression of serenity, spaciousness, safety, size. It has been a way in Washington, not only to follow classic styles but to model after this or that definite classic building; and one finds on this Treasury copies of the superb pillars of the Temple of Minerva.
Except in war time, the public are permitted what amounts to liberal access to the building, although only within a very few mid-day hours, and they are permitted to see much of interest and vastly important sights.
There has recently been constructed directly across the street from the Treasury at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Square, a Treasury Annex; a large and important classic building, planned by the architect Cass Gilbert in complete accord with the original Treasury Building and yet with a different treatment of facades, giving a huge colonnade effect up the side of Lafayette Square. It is not as isolated from the main Treasury as it looks, for the two buildings are connected, under the street, by large subterranean passages which will be the principal channels of communication. It was safe to trust Gilbert with the task of making a design for a building to accord fittingly with the old Treasury and to stand fittingly on an old Square, immediately cornerwise from the White House, because he has a feeling for the old, having chosen his home, as he has, in the charming old gambrel-roofed, "Cannon-Ball" house in the beautiful village of Ridgefield, Connecticut.
Washington shows masterpieces of "annexing." The annex wings of the White House, which seem as if they had always been part of the structure, forming terraces on the main floor level, were designed by Stanford White and give great entrance halls and cloak rooms on the East Room side, and great offices and conference rooms on the west.
The two great annexes of the Senate and House, constructed for offices for the members, are great white classic buildings, one at the right and one at the left from the great East front of the Capitol, fittingly filling what was trivially occupied land. Both these buildings are corner set, with spreading steps nosing toward the Capitol. The House building has four hundred and ten rooms, the Senate ninety-nine. And they have under-ground connection with the Capitol through tunnels in which are operated little electric trainways. These two large buildings are not only useful and not only beautiful, but in their similar, balanced architecture, add materially to the beauty of the Capitol.
So successful are the white buildings of Washington, facing each other in every direction in which one looks, with everywhere Greek meeting Greek, so to speak, that one feels sure that there must be some subtle influence from it all. And at least, it may be said that there is scarcely an example of putting up a building that is not classic, that is not a mistake : such as the Post Office Department on Pennsylvania Avenue, which was thought at the time of its erection—it was then the city postofficeto represent a distinct advance in taste, with its Norman tower and turrets, on the conventional classic.
Among the important new buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue is the Municipal Building which, in the heart of the city as it is, has been of great influence in altering for the better the general neighborhood in its vicinity. It is the filling in, one by one, of these great white, stately structures that has changed Washington from a shabby city to a capital worthy of its name.
That great height is not an advantage in buildings, but that length and breadth are, is one of the things learned in Washington architecture. There is a dignity about the long colonnaded facades which do not rise in many storied aggressiveness. Washington has had few great public buildings that are out of keeping put upon her streets, but a recent one is the lofty-rising War Risk Building, which looks like a giant filing cabinet unadjusted to its surroundings.
The city has its old temple-like public buildings and its new, masterpieces in both periods. There is a square, often passed on the way to the Congressional Library and the Capitol, Judiciary Square, which holds the quiet group of law courts of the District of Columbia, well-set, well-built, pillared and porticoed in great distinction even in this city of great temple-inspired buildings.
One need not feel critical of the Bureau of En-graving near the railroad bridge over the Potomac because it is essentially a workshop with a need for powerful light; and too, the building is isolated and mars no beauty spot even if it fails to make one. Its uncanny green and lavender lights weirdly draw attention to it.
The big red Pension Building, belted with its yellow frieze of thousands of marching soldiers on foot and on horseback, represents a fine idea in-spired by Italian friezes. There are times when, looking at it, you are ready to realize that it is a great idea; that the frieze with its soldier-figures and horses and cannon, forever pushing on, is a thorough success; but the ugly deep-red brick and the unfortunate high-gabled roof over-ride all in the appearance of the building. The building itself as a whole, is unattractive and even barn-like. One is is not surprised to learn that General Sheridan spoke impatiently, when he first saw it, and said that his only criticism would be that the building was fireproof! But Sheridan always did have a rather sharp tongue; one remembers that when he was on military duty along the Rio Grande he declared impatiently that we ought to go to war with Mexico again to compel her to take the region back.
The system at the Pension Bureau is said to be so perfect that huge though the building is and immense its records, the pension papers of any soldier may be located within five minutes. Which marks a very different condition from the time when President Lincoln went one night to his Secretary of War and said: "Stanton, how can I get a pension matter straightened up? I've promised an old mother to fix it for her son and I've spent all day waiting and watching." "Did you tell them you were the President?" said Stanton. "No," said Lincoln; "that didn't seem just the thing to do; I ought to have got it as a citizen." When Stanton sent word that the President had wasted a day at the Pension office there was a frightened five-minute search with immediate results; the first five-minute pension service in the history of the bureau, but not the last!
The ancient classic has become good republican form. "It was Greek to me," is one of the surprising phrases of Shakespeare; and it surprisingly fits this beautiful city of Washington—for here truly the splendor falls on classic walls.