The Washington That Never Was

A new exhibit explores the history of failed building proposals in the nation's capital

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University of Arkansas Libraries

Every city faces similar architectural dilemmas: what to do with the waterfront, where to center the public spaces, how to blend new development with historic streetscapes. In a capital city, though, all of these decisions assume national proportions.

In Washington, D.C., the visions have always been outsized, in part because the buildings – and the ambition behind them – have always been that way, too. Within a few square miles across Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for the country’s civic center, numerous icons have grown up: monuments to Washington, Lincoln and FDR, a president’s house, the nation’s front lawn, its capitol, court house, library and museums.

Each project lured dozens of ideas that were never executed. The National Building Museum has collected them together in a new exhibit – Unbuilt Washington – that reveals an alternate history for the nation’s capital containing plans that would have been variously stunning, intriguing and downright daft. Martin Moeller, who curated the exhibit, looks through them and vacillates between relief (that 1946 plan to plow a Capital Hill Expressway down either side of the mall) and sadness (any building other than the Kennedy Center). He walked the Atlantic Cities through the unbuilt plans, and their lessons for communities anywhere.

“In Washington,” Moeller says, “it takes on a more powerful meaning because of the weight of the symbolism, because it is the capital of the country, and for many people it’s a veritable symbol of democracy worldwide. It’s also, because of that, a place where there’s been more experimentation and more polemical proposals than usual.”

Godfather of New Urbanism Léon Krier, for example, probably never would have drafted a proposal akin to his 1984 plan to flood the National Mall (we could have had gondolas in front of the White House!) in, say, Saint Louis.

“The purpose of this to some extent,” Moeller says, “was to help people understand that nothing is inevitable in the built environment, and that we always have options and we shouldn’t forget that. I think most people would look at the National Cathedral and say ‘Of course it’s gothic, that’s what cathedrals are.’ But why? And why couldn’t it have been the Renaissance revival design there instead?”

Below check out our slideshow of some of the most interesting proposals:

* We've updated the year that Robert Mills submitted his Washington Monument plans. They date from 1846, not 1946.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.