"Unbuilt Washington" Shows What Might Have Been

08 Dec
December 8, 2011

Washington, D.C. is a city known for unfulfilled promise. From tax reform to budget cuts to entitlement spending, this town often seems like a place where nothing ever gets done.

Who would have ever thought that’s a good thing?

Because of its national prominence, considered the epicenter of power in the world, Washington, D.C. is prime real estate for developers wanting to build government buildings, science centers, monuments and tourist attractions. But this city has some of the most strident design regulations in the country. Everyone knows that buildings can’t be over a certain height, and at the same time, must match Washington’s already in place aesthetic. Which is why an exhibit that just hit Washington, D.C. is utterly entralling.

At the National Building Museum, on 4th and F Street NW, the exhibit “Unbuilt Washington” is one of the most fascinating and unique trips one can take to a museum this year, documenting hundreds of rejected designs and scrapped plans for buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C. in the past 200 years.

Although you might not have made a trip to the the Building Museum yet, you’ve probably noticed it. The long, red brick building, which encompasses an entire city block, was built in 1887 using an astounding 15 million bricks. At over 100 years old, it’s one of the oldest structures in this city. The interior is awe-inspiring, with a large, open space that contains, at 75 feet, some of the tallest Corinthian columns in the world.

In the 1980s, the building, which housed the former government Pension Bureau, was converted to a museum that showcases the world we’ve built, through bricks, mortar, concrete and steel.

And Unbuilt Washington is one of the building museums most ambitious exhibits yet, encompassing plans from when this city was first founded right up until present day.

It’s just $8 to attend, and the exhibit provides an unbiased look of what this city may have become, be it good or bad, grandiose or timid, awesome or awful. And it’s unbelievable to to see just how radically different Washington may have looked like if certain people got their way.

For starters, the Memorial Bridge wouldn’t be nearly as subdued as it now. Originally designed as a tribute to Ulysses S. Grant, the bridge would have looked like something more akin to the Tower of London, with tall, looming Gothic spires presiding over the main entrance to the city.

And just past it, the Lincoln Memorial wouldn’t be the tribute to classic Greek architecture that we are all familiar with. No, it was originally designed to be similar to the ziggurats of ancient Babylonian culture, a staircase-style pyramid leading up to the sky.

Continuing east, the National Mall could have taken a radically different form as well. For starters, the most familiar monument in Washington wasn’t always going to be an obelisk. It could have been a temple, or a pyramid, or left unfinished after production was halted during the Civil War, with a statue of George Washington places on top. And the mall itself might not even exist if proposed plans for a highway to ease traffic came to fruition. It’s also possible the White House wouldn’t be where it is now, if plans passed to move it to the top of Meridian Hill Park up near U Street. Imagine that.

But Unbuilt Washington is not just limited to monuments around the mall. No, visitors can see plans for a Renaissance-style church that was originally favored over the Gothic design of the current National Cathedral. The exhibit also covers the modern, including Frank Gehry’s rejected, sweeping titanium façade for the Corcoran Museum of Art, and a glass-encased environmental center out on Benning Road at the eastern edge of the city.

The exhibit is a fascinating way to see what might have been, only improved because it’s hosted at one of the prettiest building’s that this city did break ground on and see all the way to the finish.

- David

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