The Magazine

Washington by Design

What the look of the nation's capital tells us.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By RICHARD STRINER
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Washington from the Ground Up

by James H.S. McGregor

Harvard, 352 pp., $29.95

AIA Guide to the Architecture of
Washington, D.C.

by G. Martin Moeller Jr.

Johns Hopkins, 400 pp., $19.95

The architecture of our nation's capital will never stop fascinating people, as two recent books about the city attest. The AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. is the latest in a series of highly selective guidebooks produced since the 1960s by the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Washington from the Ground Up is part of a series of books about cities of the world by a scholar who writes about urban history.

James McGregor's Washington from the Ground Up is a fine undertaking, a concise account of the city that integrates geography, history, and design. "From the ground up," the author discusses Washington's terrain and topography as they relate to its urban development.

McGregor is principally concerned with the evolution of the city (both planned and haphazard) and the growth of its federal component, its "monumental core." Two chapters on the U.S. Capitol building alone--admittedly a very interesting story--consume a quarter of the book. McGregor's strategy is to start with iconic federal buildings, then write about the precincts surrounding them. In this way the book expands its geographical coverage: from the U.S. Capitol to Capitol Hill, from the White House to Lafayette Square, then Federal Triangle, Foggy Bottom, the Mall. At last, the book reaches outlying precincts and neighborhoods.

The architectural history, as such, is often technical; readers at ease with architectural terminology will follow the descriptions of buildings more easily than others. But even casual readers will be captivated by McGregor's commentary on the European precedents that guided so many of the architects, artists, and planners who shaped the city. This commentary is interwoven with summaries of historical trends and events that illuminate the cultural landscape of Washington.

In covering architecture, McGregor handles the issues of aesthetic judgment and subjective taste fairly well. Writing of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, he cites the influence of modernist "brutalism," a style that, he notes, "has been widely praised and widely criticized." Taste polemics can be perilous business, and McGregor has a light touch when it comes to these matters.

The historical treatment throughout the book is good, but McGregor--a professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia--would have managed to avoid some mistakes if he had circulated his manuscript to a wider network of scholars, especially historians.

Some of the errors appear to be typos: He writes, for example, when discussing the colonial history of the mid-Atlantic region, that "Virginia colonists shipped some twenty pounds of tobacco to England" in 1620. (In fact, they sent in the neighborhood of 20 tons in 1620, according to historian Alden T. Vaughan.) Other errors appear to be Freudian slips: He refers to a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that "duplicates one that has hung in the White House since the beginning of the eighteenth century." (He means the 19th century, of course.)

A number of the errors seem to flow from unexamined premises. Referring to the British Proclamation of 1763, which halted colonial settlement at the Appalachian mountain line, McGregor writes that "everything west of this line would remain Indian land in perpetuity." No, the proclamation's language forbade any further settlement beyond the line "for the present," according to the British historian Ian R. Christie. A few of the errors appear to have been caused by simple haste: The first capital of the Confederacy was not "Mobile, Alabama" but Montgomery. Other errors are scattered through the volume, and it's a pity. Perhaps the mistakes can be corrected in a second (or the paperback) edition.

McGregor also lapses into unsustainable generalizations. Toward the end of the book, he states that "with the exception of a few days during the Civil War when the capital threatened to become a battleground, and a long weekend in the 1960s when riots tore through its central neighborhoods, the city has scarcely felt the exhilaration of great national movements or the cold breath of disaster." The mind reels: How hasty can analysis become? Surely the march of the Bonus Army in 1932, and Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933, brought the force of great historical events to the nation's capital. And many more examples could be given, including the examples from the War of 1812 that McGregor himself includes in the early chapters.