By Sue Kohler Historian
Commission of Fine Arts

ANYONE who joins the staff of the Commission of Fine Arts is immediately made aware of the close connection that still exists between the Commission and its predecessor, the Senate Park Commission, popularly known as the McMillan Commission, of 1901. Surrounded by such reminders as the one hundred mounted 33 by 43-inch photographs of European scenes, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.'s scrapbook of snapshots taken during the commission's European trip, and the remaining large watercolor renderings used in the 1902 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, it is hard not to feel the kinship, and to ponder what was in the minds of these four men as they set out, in the heady atmosphere of the City Beautiful movement, to draft a plan that would make Washington one of the most beautiful capitals in the world.

Fortunately there are letters, primarily in the manuscript collections of the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the New-York Historical Society, as well as the books on Burnham and McKim by Charles Moore, Senator McMillan's aide who accompanied three of the commission members on their trip to Europe. Reading from these sources makes one realize what a tremendous amount of work was packed into ten months' time—and this included planning and producing the exhibition at the Corcoran in January 1902, a major effort in itself. The six-week European trip, which some referred to as a "junket", was extremely productive; the days at sea with no interruptions, and the first-hand experience of the best Europe had to offer in examples of urban planning and landscaping were invaluable.

It should be understood that the Park Commission's plan did not take shape "out of the blue" in 1901. For the past two decades, in concert with the City Beautiful movement, there had been articles in the press pointing out the capital's shortcomings in regard to public architecture and public spaces, as well as demands for some kind of entity to exercise control over the quality of these civic improvements once funds were appropriated for them. The members of the Park Commission were not unaware of this criticism, and it undoubtedly shaped their thinking. More influential was the series of talks on the subject given at the American Institute of Architects convention of 1900, which took place in Washington, and during which Olmsted himself spoke on landscape, particularly in regard to the Mall.

The plan has been criticized because it seems to ignore the city beyond the monumental core, but this was the case only because of time limitations. As it was, the commission's report devoted 100 pages to the "Outlying Parks and Their Connections" versus 71 pages to the Mall area and the grouping of public buildings in the monumental core. It was, after all, charged with developing a park system for the entire District of Columbia. Especially interesting, in light of the renewed interest today, was the extensive discussion of the Anacostia River, the deplorable condition of the flats, and the advisability of creating a water park to rehabilitate that part of the city. Providing adequate public bathing places and playgrounds for children also occupied the commission members; a reading of the report makes it clear that they were not solely concerned with developing a grand Beaux-Arts plan for the Mall.

After the Corcoran exhibition and the publication of the report, the Park Commission was officially disbanded, but its hardest work actually lay ahead. Almost immediately, and all too frequently, they were called in to advise on the implementation of some aspect of their plan. When specific buildings were proposed and designed for the Mall, the members fought doggedly to assure that the design would be Roman and not contemporary French, and of utmost importance, that the width of the Mall as they had specified it would be maintained, and that the buildings would be placed on the grade established to maintain the correct relationship to the Washington Monument. This continued until the Commission of Fine Arts was finally established in 1910 to take over these duties.

Considering its close association with the complexities of the plan, the Commission of Fine Arts decided to celebrate the Park Commission's 100th anniversary by publishing a series of essays. They have been written by experts in their fields, and we hope they will give the reader a deeper, more three-dimensional—if one can use that word—understanding of what the four members of the commission were planning for the nation's capital. It is fitting that, one hundred years afterward, we look back and see what they accomplished, what they failed to do, and determine what our task is for the next one hundred years.

These are the essays included in this publication:

The Senate Park Commission Plan for Washington: A New Vision for the Capital and Nation, by Jon Peterson, is an overview of the commission and its work, as well as the political setting in which it took place. Dr. Peterson is presently professor of history emeritus at Queens College of the City University of New York. His book, The Birth of City Planning in the United States, 1840-1917, was published in 2003 by the Johns Hopkins University Press, and received the Society of Architectural Historians' Spiro Kostoff Award in 2005.

The American Institute of Architects Convention of 1900: Its Influence on the Senate Park Commission Plan, by Tony P. Wrenn, documents the events leading up to the establishment of the Senate Park Commission under the leadership of Senator James McMillan of Michigan. Mr. Wrenn is an honorary member of the AIA and was for many years the archivist of that organization.

"A City Designed as a Work of Art": The Emergence of the Senate Park Commission's Monumental Core, by Pamela Scott, investigates preliminary site and design plans made between the beginning of March and the end of 1901, which have not previously been considered in studies of the Park Commission Plan. Ms. Scott is an independent architectural historian who teaches the history of Washington architecture for Cornell University in Washington, D.C. and has written and lectured extensively on this subject.

Beyond the Mall: The Senate Park Commission's Plans for Washington's Park System, by Timothy Davis, discusses proposals for Washington's parks, a largely untold aspect of the plan. Dr. Davis, a historian with the National Park Service's Park Historic Structures and Cultural Landscapes Division, has a special interest in American landscape history, with an emphasis on parkways and roads, and is a recognized authority in this field.

Agriculture, Architects, and the Mall, 1901-1905: The Plan Is Tested, by Dana Dalrymple, unravels the complicated history of the current Department of Agriculture building on the Mall, a pivotal case in the implementation of the Park Commission Plan. Dr. Dalrymple is a USDA agricultural economist by profession and an architectural historian by avocation; he has been researching the history of the Mall and the Agriculture building for over twenty-five years.

The Commission of Fine Arts: Implementing the Senate Park Commission's Vision, by Sue Kohler, documents the events leading to the establishment by Congress in 1910 of the Commission of Fine Arts, and the Commission's work during its early years to implement the Park Commission Plan. Ms. Kohler, the historian of the Commission of Fine Arts for many years, is the author of The Commission of Fine Arts: A Brief History, and the co-author of several other books on Washington architecture.

"Beloved Ancien": William T. Partridge's Recollection of the Senate Park Commission and the Subsequent Mall Development, by Kurt G.E. Helfrich, is an annotation of selected portions of a little-known manuscript by Partridge recalling his work for the Park Commission, and later on as an architectural consultant to the National Capital Park and Planning Commission on the Mall development. Dr. Helfrich is the curator of the architectural drawings collection of the University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Last Modified: March 20, 2009