Parks, Politics, and the People
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Chapter 2:
Introduction to Washington: The National Capital Park and Planning Commission

When I joined the staff of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, it had four members from federal government agencies, two members from Congress, four members appointed by the president of the United States, and the District of Columbia engineer commissioner. The federal agencies were represented by the chief of the Corps of Engineers, the officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds, the director of the National Park Service, and the chief forester of the Forest Service. The members of Congress were the chairmen of the District of Columbia committees of the House and the Senate. The four then appointed by the president were Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the landscape architect from Massachusetts; Frederic A. Delano, of Washington, D.C., a businessman and uncle of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Jesse C. Nichols, of Kansas City, an advanced thinker in the development of land for residential purposes; and Milton B. Medary, Jr., of Philadelphia, a well-known architect. Delano was designated chairman by the president, and Grant was vice-chairman. Nichols' development of the country club area of Kansas City was one of the early projects that brought into consideration the terrain, curved roads, odd-shaped lots, and open spaces for parks and schools. I think these members constituted a very well-balanced commission. Most of them were in the business of managing the environment for human use and enjoyment. They worked long and hard, with excellent results, and commanded respect and admiration. They all served without compensation.

Frederick Law Olmstead
Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the nation's foremost landscape architects. Courtesy National Capital Planning Commission.

I want to include a word about some of my fellow commissioners. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., used to arrive several days in advance of commission meetings to study and review the staff plans and make whatever field investigations he thought necessary. I remember spending several days with him on the location plans for George Washington Memorial Parkway. He wanted to be sure the land to be included was adequate, that the parkway roads would take advantage of the vistas with the least possible damage to the rim of the Potomac River Gorge, and that it would provide necessary parking places with the least amount of damage to the scenic values. Olmsted would go into the field and walk the boundary lines. It was not enough for him to track them on the ground; he wanted to see from a height and would shinny up a tree to look in all directions. I would accompany him on these trips, carrying the plans. Climbing the trees, we had to carry the plans in our mouths, as a dog carries a bone. Olmsted was a very thorough and studious man, very perceptive, and a deep thinker. He often used long and involved sentences, which could become quite complicated; yet by attentive reading one would fully understand what was going through his mind (see, for example, his letter quoted at the end of Chapter 1).

Charles W. Eliot II, the commission's chief planner, had a tremendous capacity for work and was well versed in all planning matters. He had a fertile imagination fortified by sound facts. His writing was excellent, for he could combine fact and imagination in such a way that the completed composition was forceful and readily understood. To be a member of his staff was a pleasure and a very worthwhile experience. After several years on the planning commission and, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, on National Planning Commission assignments, he returned to Harvard to teach.

Frederic A. Delano, affectionately referred to by the staff as "Uncle Freddy" (although never to his face), was a patient, thorough, determined, kind, and understanding individual. I don't recall his ever speaking a critical or harsh word about anyone. Everyone highly respected him and knew what he meant and wanted.

When I joined the staff of the planning commission, the member serving by virtue of his position as director of the National Park Service was Stephen T. Mather. I saw him only once, in the fall of 1928 before he left for Chicago, where he took sick in early November. He had a stroke and never did recover. He resigned his office on January 11, 1929, and died in a Boston Hospital on January 22, 1930. Horace M. Albright replaced him as director.

"Dusty" Lewis, National Park Service assistant director in charge of land planning, retired in August, 1930, because of illness and died shortly thereafter. In November, Albright asked me whether I would be willing to transfer to the National Park Service to fill the vacancy, and I readily agreed. Arno B. Cammerer, who was associate director of the service at the time, also spoke to me, and I looked forward eagerly to the transfer. Time passed without further word, however, and after the first of the year I ventured to ask Cammerer when my reassignment might take place. More time went by. Finally I saw Albright again and asked whether there had been any change in plans. His reply was unexpected: "No, but I never hire a person until I have had an opportunity to meet his wife, because the Park Service people are very close, a sort of family affair, and the wife is a very important part of the Park Service family."

Shortly afterwards, in April of 1931, Helen and I were invited by Mr. and Mrs. Albright to their home for dinner. The next day Albright told me that my papers were being processed for appointment as assistant director in charge of the branch of land planning. Women's liberation has been much in the news lately. All I can say is that Helen Wirth liberated me from the planning commission into the National Park Service, for which I have always been very, very grateful. I enjoyed my work with the planning commission, but I had a yearning to get into the park business. I felt that this should really be my lifetime career, even though I never expected for a moment that I would eventually become director of the service.

Grace and Horace Albright
Grace and Horace Albright attending an annual meeting of the Forty-niners in Death Valley, California.

Though I left the planning commission in 1931, I was to be a member twice afterwards: when I became director of the National Park Service and, again, by presidential appointment after I retired.

One National Capital Planning Commission member who deserves special mention is the lady who presided when I was representing the Park Service on the commission, Mrs. James H. Rowe, Jr., better known as "Lib." She made an excellent chairwoman and moved the commission agenda along very efficiently. She was all business but in a very pleasant way. Her husband, Jim, is a lawyer who was one of the New Dealers in the Roosevelt era. A rather unpleasant incident happened shortly after she took over the chair. The new chief planner of the commission got up and proceeded to lecture her on some matter, going on for two or three minutes while she said nothing. I finally interrupted to say that I had heard enough, that this was no way for a man in his position to talk to the chair or any commissioner, and that if I talked that way to my boss, the secretary of the interior, I'd be fired in a minute. I added that I felt the chairwoman was too much a lady even to enter into an argument with him. With that he got red in the face and sat down, and the commission went on with its business. About two or three weeks later he resigned.

My appointment as a citizen member of the commission came about in an interesting manner. I received a call one day asking whether I would accept a presidential appointment to the commission if it were offered to me. I personally felt that my past experience well qualified me, and the fact that I was asked this question by a person closely associated with the White House suggested that they thought so too. So my answer was yes. But a week or ten days later I received another call telling me that Walter Pozen, from the office of the secretary of the interior, had informed the White House that my appointment to the planning commission would be embarrassing to Secretary Stewart L. Udall. I do not think the secretary was consulted on the matter. What caused Pozen to do what he did I do not know, but his interference aroused my determination to go all out after the appointment. The caller asked whether I could get any congressional endorsement. I said I felt certain I could get a letter from Mike Kirwan, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations and the second-ranking member on the powerful Committee on Appropriations of the House. I also named Representative Wayne Aspinall, chairman of the Public Lands Committee, which passes on all of the Interior Department's major legislation, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives McCormack. Before I could give some senators' names I was told that if I could get those already mentioned I had nothing to worry about.

I went up to Capitol Hill that afternoon and saw Mike Kirwan. When I told him my story he gave me some of his stationery and told me to write a letter to the president for his signature endorsing my selection. I then called on Wayne Aspinall, and he asked me when I needed a letter. I told him I needed it as soon as possible at his convenience, and he replied, "It will be on the president's desk in the morning." Speaker McCormack was not available. I went to the Interior Department and dictated the letter for Mike Kirwan to sign. The secretary who took it down told me that she could write a better one than I had dictated, and she did. The next morning I took the letter up to Mike, and he signed it and sent it off immediately to the president by messenger. I thanked him and told him I still needed to see the Speaker of the House, but he said that would not be necessary because he had already spoken to him, and the Speaker had promised he would send a recommendation to the president that day.

About ten days later in New York City I read in The New York Times that I had been appointed to the planning commission for the city of Washington by President Lyndon B. Johnson. When I returned to Washington I called the appointment clerk at the White House to confirm the newspaper story. He said an appointee was usually given advance notification of appointment, and he was surprised that I had not received it. He suggested that there must have been a slipup somewhere along the line but promised to send my appointment papers to me right away. I received them the next day. The appointment was for a regular six-year term. I was on the commission five years and nine months before I resigned. I had been vice-chairman for about four years.

During my final term on the planning commission I found that the apathy of the 1800s that resulted in the deterioration of the capital is recurring in our lifetime. One indication of the present decline is the near insanity of building highways of tremendous scale through the city itself and its great memorial areas, thus encroaching on our much needed open spaces. There is also a growing pressure to construct taller buildings and buildings out of character with established and accepted concepts and the master plans. Planes fly low over the city proper, polluting our memorials and ruining the use of our open spaces with their noise. I realize that these are rapidly changing times and that certain flexibility is necessary, but it must also be remembered that the nation's capital represents the culture and statesmanship of a great nation. Compare, for example, the architecture of the Federal Triangle between Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue, N.W., with the mixed-up styles of architecture of the federal buildings in southwest Washington, and the trend becomes clear.

It becomes obvious to any thoughful person that the Washington plan is steadily being undermined. We are heading toward a mess such as Washington suffered in the nineteenth century or one even worse. We can't fully see it yet, but it is already here. The signs are particularly clear in the encroachments on the dignity of the great memorial areas. Even government agencies have misused these areas as bartering places or as places in which to carry on sideshows. These memorial areas contain monuments commemorating our greatest national heroes, the home of our presidents, and the Capitol itself, housing the nation's legislative body. On the long stem of the Mall, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, are buildings containing our national artifacts that tell the history of our social, economic, and cultural development.

Hirshorn Museum of Modern Art
The Hirshorn Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy National Capital Planning Commission.

The most recent depredation was to bow to the egoism of a man who insisted that his name be placed on a building the taxpayers paid for in return for the donation of his private collection of art—possibly as a tax credit procedure. True, the original idea of building a modern sculpture garden clear across the Mall, an even greater desecration, was scotched; but the Hirshorn Museum of Modern Art does nevertheless encroach on the tree panel of the Mall. Further, many architects agree with former Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission Gilmore Clarke that, from an architectural point of view, the building is a misfit and should not be on the nation's Mall. The Fine Arts Commission did approve the building (the architect was a member of that commission at the time). But the National Capital Planning Commission disapproved of the plans, even though construction had already begun before the plans were submitted for consideration. This verdict was overturned, however, when the professional people representing government agencies on the planning commission were instructed by their superiors to arrange for reconsideration and to change their vote to approval. Such divergent practice makes me feel that it would have been far better to let cattle graze on the Mall, as reported by Ripley in "Believe It or Not," than to permit profaning it by such an anomaly as the Hirshorn memorial. I resigned from the planning commission when, after disapproving the Hirshorn project at a morning meeting, the commission by afternoon decided to approve the museum by a one-vote margin. I did not want to be associated with this brand of planning for our nation's capital.

Model of the Mall as it looks today. Note intrusion of the Hirshorn Museum of Modern Art (upper left corner). Courtesy National Capital Planning Commission.

Such are the occurrences that I have witnessed personally. There are others, such as building highways and highway bridges, some of poor design and incompatible materials, across the Potomac River, where they destroy the purpose for which the land was purchased and given: to provide parks and scenic settings for our great national memorials. If all the plans of the Highway Department were carried out, the center of Washington would become a conglomerate of interstate highways, destructive to the economy, the quality of life, the business of government, and the cultural and scenic beauty of our nation's capital. If the department's plan to construct the inner loop of an interstate highway through the Mall and West Potomac Park is carried out, people gathered at the Jefferson Memorial and looking north to the Washington Monument and the White House will find the view blocked by an elevated interstate highway interchange on the north side of the Tidal Basin. This project certainly would not add to the beauty of the Japanese cherry blossoms, either.

Under the National Capital Park and Planning Commission of the late twenties and early thirties, planning moved forward on a sound basis and had great popular support as the wise and proper thing to do. The present National Capital Planning Commission is sound, but it is being bypassed by special-interest groups and one-purpose agencies whose high-powered political pressure is gradually depleting the commission's authority. The deplorable condition of Washington at the beginning of this century has been forgotten, and the commission is being deprived of its responsibility for planning the capital city of the United States.

I don't want to be critical of the planning commission, because I am well aware of the difficulties under which it worked while attempting to satisfy many different demands and expectations. I enjoyed working with the commission for more than forty years in various capacities including my membership as director of the National Park Service. In all that time we had never confronted anything comparable to the issue of the Hirshorn Museum.

I have gone into considerable detail about my background and how I got started on my career as a preamble to what follows. My experience with the planning commission seasoned me and gave me the training that I now realize was so important.


Parks, Politics, and the People
©1980, University of Oklahama Press
wirth2/chap2a.htm — 21-Sep-2004

Copyright © 1980 University of Oklahoma Press, returned to the author in 1984. Offset rights University of Oklahoma Press. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the heir(s) of the Conrad L. Wirth estate and the University of Oklahoma Press.