Washington, DC is a city built on ideals and tempered by reality. Even before setting out for my walk about the city, the evidence presents itself outside my apartment window, which overlooks Scott Circle. According to Pierre L’Enfant’s master plan for DC¹, Scott Circle – truly more of a rectangle – was originally designed as a neighborhood gathering space. It is now far too busy to serve its intended purpose. Massachusetts Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, and 16th Street snake around one another, creating a loud, menacing traffic knot. An eclectic medley of buildings sits around the outskirts: the pale stone Hungarian embassy; next to it, the mosaiced Tunisian embassy; across the square, the new Australian embassy, with its glimmering copper and glass façade; a few luxury apartment buildings; a number of modern hotels. Once, when I was a student at a nearby university, one of my favorite professors attempted to hold class outside in Scott Circle from an island of thinning grass. The onslaught of screaming ambulances and honking horns drowned out his carefully-planned lecture. My fellow classmate and I could not help but laugh as we watched a rat drag a full piece of pizza into the bushes. Such is the duality of life in the nation’s capital.
Heading out of my apartment building, turning left, and leaving Scott Circle behind, I cross Massachusetts Avenue and enter midtown. Like many cities, midtown DC is dominated by concrete office buildings. A few cafés and coffee shops are nestled into the ground-floor storefronts, catering to the on-the-go workers who pop in during their hour-long lunch breaks. The exception to this rule is the sleek Midtown Center – a mixed-use building of dark glass and copper which seemingly hovers over the sidewalk.
I turn into a glossy pedestrian tunnel built through the base of the building and emerge into an open courtyard, where a few women sit cross-legged and happily working on the public benches. Three blue-glass bridges arc over the courtyard, enhancing the sculptural feel of the space and providing shade. The high-end Japanese and Italian restaurants tucked into the building’s ground-level retail spaces have not yet started preparing for dinner service. It is a comfortable and open space, a respite amidst the comparatively dense surrounding office buildings.
Emerging on the other side of the complex, I turn onto broad 16th Street and head towards the White House. It is late afternoon and Lafayette Square – a large park on the north side of the White House – is filled with people. The tourists snap pictures and press themselves against the black fence surrounding the White House to get a better look; agitated staffers pace around the park on their cell phones; a few protestors chant into their megaphones.
The White House is a stately building, originally designed in the style of an Irish country house and gradually expanded over the years. Importantly, Pierre L’Enfant – the planner commissioned by George Washington to design the city 1791 – did not locate the White House at the center of Washington, DC, marking a break with the tradition of placing the leader’s palace in the city’s heart. Instead, the United States Capitol was the main focal point of L’Enfant’s city plan, a symbolic reinforcement of the fledgling nation’s commitment to democratic ideals. The White House sits diagonal from the Capitol, connected by Pennsylvania Avenue. Recent work by Nicholas Mann found that L’Enfant planned to situate the Supreme Court on Pennsylvania Avenue, too, equidistant between the White House and the Capitol, symbolizing the judiciary’s role in overlooking the executive and legislative branches of government; instead, it now sits directly behind the Capitol. Diagonal streets such as Pennsylvania Avenue were also a major feature of L’Enfant’s plan: they were designed to be the city’s grand boulevards, similar to those in Paris. Named after the country’s states, these avenues radiate from the White House and the Capitol, cutting across a gridded system of numbered and lettered streets. The result is a plethora of roundabouts and parks, which provide decent green space, but can be quite difficult to navigate for those unaccustomed to the system.
Negotiating the extraneous barricades around the White House, I come upon the Renwick Gallery. The Renwick is an offshoot of the Smithsonian American Art Museum – one of a circuit of over twenty free museums located around DC. The building itself is an ode to the arts; it is a miniature replica of the Louvre Museum in Paris, albeit with a red brick façade. Inside, the exhibitions rotate regularly, while retaining the museum’s focus on American craftsmanship. Among the most memorable installations I have seen at the Renwick are a delicate rainbow made entirely from stretched sewing thread, a room with dried insects glued to the walls in intricate patterns, and a complete temple made of intricately carved recycled wood. The Renwick is often forgotten in favor of the larger Smithsonian museums, but it is truly one of DC’s hidden gems. Across the street is another architectural wonder: the immense Executive Office building. Like the Renwick, it too is an homage to French architectural design, with its paired columns and ornate roof.
I continue down 17th Street, past the Ellipse – an open green space immediately south of the White House – and towards the National Mall. L’Enfant envisaged the Mall as DC’s “great public walk” which would allow people from all over the city to share in the common space. L’Enfant’s was a grand design, but it went largely unrealized until over one hundred years later, when the McMillan Plan of 1902 saw to the partial execution of his vision. Upon commission in 1901, a group of well-known architects – including Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, Frederick Olmsted Jr., and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, all early pioneers of the City Beautiful movement – set to work beautifying the Mall. Their design resulted in the addition of the picturesque Lincoln Memorial, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, Union Station, and the open Mall lawns. Now, the Mall is lined with a plethora of museums, memorials, and monuments, attracting admirers from all over the world. As I walk through, I see a class of art students sitting, sketching the grounds as their instructor walks around to inspect their work; a group of middle-schoolers, glad in green, are herded across the grass by their chaperone; tourists clamber up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The Lincoln Memorial is gleaming white temple made from marble, limestone, and granite. In the center, a pensive Abraham Lincoln – the great president heralded as the ‘Savior of the Union’ – sits in a large, authoritative chair, donning a draping suit. It is one of the most well-known and popular monuments in Washington. Years ago, a cousin of mine came to visit DC for the first time, and, understandably, the Lincoln Memorial was the attraction he was most excited to see. After climbing the numerous stairs, we finally entered the towering temple to find that President Lincoln’s marble head was completed encased in scaffolding for restoration. Incredulous, he snapped his pictures anyway.
Directly across from the Lincoln Memorial – and, on days clearer than today, mirrored in the long Reflecting Pool which stretches between them – stands the Washington Monument. Dedicated to President George Washington, the Washington Monument is a dignified obelisk of marble, granite, and gneiss which sits atop a grassy knoll in the middle of the Mall. Upon its completion in 1884, it was the tallest structure in the world. It held this title for a mere five years before being de-throned by the Eiffel Tower. Nonetheless, as a cheeky park guard pointed out when I was recently playing tour guide for another group of visiting family members, the Monument has to be “the world’s tallest something.” He was right: it remains the world’s tallest free-standing stone structure and the world’s tallest obelisk. It is also the tallest building in Washington, DC. Urban myth holds that developers are explicitly barred from constructing buildings taller than the Monument, but this is not true. In fact, the 1899 Height of Buildings Act restricted the height of buildings to below 130 feet – 160 feet on Pennsylvania Avenue – to prevent collapse and limit fire hazards. In subsequent years, Washington’s low buildings have become a notable characteristic of the city skyline; however, such restrictions have contributed to soaring housing prices, which have pushed many residents to the suburbs. The debate over whether to change the height limit still rages.
Looping around to the other side of the Monument, I catch sight of the Capitol Building standing proudly at the opposite end of the Mall. The gold dome of the National Museum of Natural History peaks from the trees to my left and the red, church-like Smithsonian Castle juts up to my right. Groups of children – likely just released from school – run about the wintered Mall lawns, playing various games and shouting with abandon. Like the White House, the Capitol is also a building that has become larger and more ornate over the years. As the country expanded to the West, so too did the Capitol expand. In the 1850s, the addition of the southern wing for the House of Representatives and the northern wing for the Senate allowed the growing number of legislators to fit more comfortably into the chambers. The tiered Capitol dome was subsequently replaced in 1866 to keep it in proportion with the size of the building.
Looking out across the National Mall from the vantage point of the Washington Monument – the Lincoln Memorial on one hand, the Capitol Building on the other, the White House straight ahead, and museums lining the flanks – it is easy to be awe-struck by the grandeur and sheer presence of the massive structures. It is not a far leap to imagine that the heavy stone monuments and buildings which occupy the Mall, and the even more “massive, weighty, and untouchable” ideals they represent, wield a supernatural gravity that pull on the whole city, the whole nation – indeed, the whole world. Such is the beauty, strength, and potential danger of American idealism.
The city itself acts as the natural foil. It is guided by these ideals, but allows for the contingencies introduced by reality. L’Enfant’s master plan for Washington, DC was never fully realized; he was too stubborn and the funds were insufficient. McMillan’s plan was never completely carried through either. The Washington Monument sat half-completed for over twenty years, its two phases of construction clearly demarcated by the two stone hues on its façade. Every now and then, President Lincoln requires a facelift and the Mall’s lawns need to heal. Sometimes, public squares are misnamed as circles. These are not flaws; they are evidence of the city’s humanity. Its shortcomings are evident, but so too are its aspirations. Above all else, Washington, DC is a city that strives, as any great city should.
¹For extensive data on master-planned cities built between 1945 – 2021 see CCI’s New Cities Database, which will be launching in May 2023.