The museum exhibit takes visitors through plans for the city, from the waterfront and Foggy Bottom to downtown, as well as designs for the National Mall.
All of these plans were thrown out because George Washington and Thomas Jefferson didn’t approve of any of them, Moeller said. Eventually, a design by William Thornton was chosen. A 1797 rendering on display formed the basis for the Capitol’s construction. The north wing was completed three years later, allowing the Senate to meet there for the first time in 1800.
The exhibit also covers the variety of plans for the National Mall, including the work of the late Sen. James McMillan (R-Mich.). In 1901, McMillan created the Senate Park Improvement Commission. Inspired by the City Beautiful movement that came out of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, McMillan had a team of designers and architects set out to make a new plan for the Mall. The commission is credited with the beginning of how the Mall looks today, but Moeller points out that there are some noticeable differences between what was proposed and what was actually acted on.
Among the ideas that didn’t make the cut: a plaza at the foot of the Washington Monument, similarly structured buildings around the Mall that would result in the tearing down of Smithsonian Castle and enclaves of formal, white buildings near the White House and the Capitol.
Almost half a century later, the next big idea for the Mall was the Capitol Hill Expressway. The plan included two elevated highways that ran down both sides of the Mall. The idea was to get traffic to Capitol Hill faster. Had the highways been built, they would have closed off much of the Mall to pedestrians. According to the curator, it never got past the discussion phase.
“It’s fascinating to read the minutes of the meetings where these things were being discussed because it all sounds so rational,” Moeller said. “These things that we consider inconceivable, they were treating as very logical sorts of solutions to the problems of the day.”
“Unbuilt Washington” will be on display at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW, through May 28.