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District of Columbia is The City Beautiful

By the late nineteenth century, the problem of overcrowded tenements of major American cities had reached crisis proportions.

Substandard “rookeries” of windowless compartments crammed with multiple families were prone to collapse and fire, and the lack of proper sanitation spread disease. Urban planning, government leaders thought, was the answer to this blight and would transform communities into safer, happier, and healthier places to live. In Chicago, Architect Daniel Burnham was designing the “White City,” what planners of the 1893 Columbian Exposition boasted to be a vision of the American city of the future.

Twenty seven million visitors would come to this world’s fair, including city leaders from across the country. Hopes were high for a bright century ahead, one that promised not only more fresh air and safer living conditions, but a just and honorable society. Grand architecture and sensible urban planning, the officials believed, could instill moral and civic virtue in the people.

Within ten years, United States Senator James McMillan saw the promise of this “City Beautiful” movement and sought to realize it in the national capital. The Senate Park Commission, chaired by McMillan, studied improving the monumental core of Washington and envisioned much of what was created in the early 20th century, including the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Union Station, Federal Triangle and the National Archives.

The Capitol building on the right and the Lincoln Memorial on left (both in red) form the National Mall and The White House and Jefferson Memorial crosses it as a north-south axis, intersecting at the Washington Monument.

The East half of the Mall was narrowed and lost its Victorian landscaping, along with the commercial and industrial sites such as railroads and markets, in favor of open green spaces and more monumental buildings, such as the headquarters of the Department of Agriculture. In time, other grand structures like the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonians for Natural History and American History would line “America’s back yard.”

Here we have the United States Capitol at bottom and the National Mall expands up (westward) past the Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. The cluster of red-roofed buildings on the right half of the picture represent Federal Triangle, bordered by Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and 15th Street NW.

Among the buildings erected in this era, we have Union Station

The Lincoln Memorial

And the USDA Headquarters

Other cities followed suit, including Denver

Canberra, Australia


and San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood

Other American cities improved by the movement include Baltimore, Cleveland, Columbus, Des Moines, Madison, Montreal, New York City, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Seattle, and Dallas.

Next time you’re downtown, pause and consider whether your surroundings make you want to be MORAL AND VIRTUOUS! The Washington Monument certainly puts me on the straight and narrow.