By Charles H. Atherton, FAIA, Secretary (1965-2004)
Commission of Fine Arts

FROM the inception of the Commission of Fine Arts in 1910 to the present day, there has been a splendid written record of its activities, especially regarding the implementation of the Senate Park (McMillan) Commission's recommendations for the development of Washington. Having itself been an outgrowth of this commission, it was only natural that out of respect for its origin, the major decisions on the realization of the designs for the monumental core were carefully chronicled.

The Commission's Secretary from 1922 to 1954, H.P. Caemmerer, wrote a brief description of each new public building as it was completed, and in 1932 the Commission published his 715-page book, Washington, the National Capital, which outlined the history of the development of the capital from L'Enfant's plan to the Federal Triangle project, including public architecture of all kinds, governmental and private, as well as memorials, statues, and parks.

There was, however, nothing written on the architectural history of Washington outside the monumental core. The impetus to do this came as a result of the passage in 1950 of legislation creating the Old Georgetown Historic District, which the Commission was to administer. Authorization was given to do a survey of the area's architecture, but as is often the case, no appropriation was attached. After more than fifteen years of trying to obtain funds, the Commission decided it had to employ a different approach, utilizing volunteers, student interns, and loans of personnel and services from other agencies, in particular the Historic American Buildings Survey. Thus a new publication program was born, first focusing on Historic Georgetown and later, with congressional funding, branching out to include books covering the early development of Washington architecture (1791-1861), the bridges of Washington, and the industrial and mercantile structures of the Georgetown waterfront. These were followed by major works on the architecture of Massachusetts Avenue and Sixteenth Street. There were some sixteen publications in all. And so, when the 100th anniversary of the Senate Park Commission's report occurred in 2002, it seemed appropriate that it be celebrated with a publication of its own. Happily, Congress agreed.

As with any successful program, there is always one person involved who deserves the lion's share of the credit. Sue Kohler joined the Commission's staff in 1974 and was first associated with the Massachusetts Avenue books and the volumes on Sixteenth Street. It should be noted that her work on these publications was in addition to her regular duties which included the recording of the minutes of Commission meetings, a most arduous and demanding task, as well as the writing of the Commission's Brief History series, updated every five years or so. She was a rare find when she joined our small staff, seven persons for most of these years. Her remarkable role in these publications, including this one, represents a unique contribution to the scholarship of the architecture of our national capital.

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Last Modified: March 20, 2009