Papers from Fiske Kimball: Creator of an American Architecture
A Symposium held at the School of Architecture,
University of Virginia, 19 November 1995
Fiske Kimball was the person most responsible for getting a memorial to Thomas Jefferson built as a classical pantheon on the Washington Mall. Kimball guided the memorial commission debates on site and form. He tirelessly defended the pantheon against the objections of the Commission of Fine Arts and the fervent protests of architects, artists, congressmen, and garden clubs. In winning a place for Jefferson among the core group of American heroes on the Mall, occupying a position equivalent to that of Washington and Lincoln, Kimball helped secure his reputation as the Father of American Democracy. Kimball used his connections to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to promote his monument, and Roosevelt used it as symbol of American values to encourage public support for participation in World War II.
The Jefferson Memorial stood at the center of the angriest and most prolonged debate ever in American architecture, between the old guard of historicist architects, and modernists, who believed historical design lacked any relevance for the twentieth century. It was the last of a series of great memorials built during the American Renaissance, the period from the 1880s to the 1930s when architects and other leaders in business and the arts looked to the heritage of Western Europe as providing a foundation for American culture. The Jefferson Memorial was, in fact, the final building of the American Renaissance.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission, authorized by Congress in 1934, was chaired by congressman John Boylan, a Tammany Hall Democrat from Manhattan who had advocated such a monument for years. The 12-man commission included senators, congressmen, members of the Jefferson Memorial Foundation, and descendants of Jefferson; Kimball was the only member who was an architect and architectural historian, and the only member to possess a firm conception of what the memorial should be.
The Jefferson Memorial occupied the last of the five key sites on the Mall. The main axis of the Mall runs between the Capitol on the east and the Lincoln Memorial, completed in 1922, to the west; in its center stands the Washington Monument, completed in 1885. The Tidal Basin forms the southern terminus of the major cross axis to the Mall with the White House to the north.
In the original 1791 L'Enfant Plan for Washington, the Mall ended just west of the Washington Monument grounds. The Tidal Basin was created by a land reclamation project in the late 19th century, that nearly doubled the size of the Mall. In 1901, the Senate Park, or McMillan, Commission proposed for the basin a symmetrical arrangement of structures grouped around a central domed pantheon-like building, which they suggested be used as a memorial to the Founding Fathers or to one great individual. The complex was surrounded by a formal landscape of lawns, pools, and tree-lined avenues, linking the basin to the redesigned Washington Monument grounds to the north. But nothing was done with the site until the 1930s, except for the planting of several thousand Japanese cherry trees in 1912, a gift from Tokyo to Washington as a Memorial to International Peace.
The commission spent its first year considering alternative sites, for which architect John Russell Pope developed a range of designs based on specific classical prototypes. In addition to the Tidal Basin, the sites included a location on the Mall, across from Pope's own National Archives; Lincoln Square, the midpoint of East Capitol Street; the Tidal Basin; and the terminus of East Capitol Street on the Anacostia River. Many members actively supported the Anacostia River site, feeling it would spur development of this street into an axis comparable to the Mall itself, and encourage growth in a neglected part of the city.
But from the beginning Kimball fought for the Tidal Basin site. He emphasized the importance of following the aim of Jefferson as a founder of D.C. and the aim of the two master plans, which he believed envisioned Washington with 'a very definite front yard' in the Mall area, and a definite center in the 'site occupied by the Washington Monument.' If the Commission did not take the opportunity to place Jefferson's Memorial in this center, Kimball said: 'we would be regarded as having failed by someone we cannot help feeling less worthy....I do not think any place is too great for him...'
Kimball was responsible for the commission's decision to directly hire John Russell Pope, architect of the Archives and West Building of the national Gallery of Art, rather than holding a national competition. This inspired enraged protests from architects who felt excluded from a project of national importance. Though Kimball had never met him, he believed Pope was the preeminent classical architect then practicing in the U.S., and the last of a dying breed. Pope had been the protégé of Charles McKim, of McKim, Mead and White, the architect member of the McMillan Commission; Pope was thus a link to the historic Commission itself. Keenly aware of the radical shift towards modernism overtaking the architectural world, Kimball was determined to have one last building by Pope in Washington.
By early 1936, Pope had designed a huge domed marble building based on the Roman Pantheon and Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia. But commission members feared that another, even larger memorial on the west end of the Mall would overshadow the Lincoln Memorial. Some were concerned about the projected costs, which threatened to exceed the $3 million budget. Many came to seriously question the necessity of using Pope at all.
This threat inspired Kimball to a ringing defense of Pope. 'The situation in American architecture,' he said, 'is this':
The classical style that was founded by Jefferson and which has been practiced in Washington is under tremendous attack. The old form of classical architecture is dying out and I have not the slightest doubt that it will be very difficult henceforth to carry on that sort of thing that is wanted for Washington and to find the right men to do it.
On Kimball's recommendation, Pope prepared two smaller schemes--a reduced version of the pantheon and a similar structure with four porticoes. They were based on two types of classical architecture which Pope believed Jefferson had advocated, represented by the original Pantheon and Palladio's Villa Rotunda. After consulting with Roosevelt, the commission settled on the pantheon in early 1937. Pope died in August of that year, but his work was continued by his office in the same spirit.
The Commission of Fine Arts was aware of the Jefferson Commission's interest in the Tidal Basin site throughout 1935 and of the pantheon design throughout 1936. The memorial became the first real challenge to their authority as advisors over designs built on federal lands in the District. Many of the commission's own members were artists and architects, such as Paul Cret, who were seeking in their own work an accommodation between historic and modern design. The CFA condemned Pope's memorial as reactionary, inappropriate for the site, for Jefferson, and for their own goals as interpreters of the McMillan Plan. The Jefferson Commission insisted that Pope's pantheon was a type Jefferson 'admired' and 'advocated,' and its 'circular colonnade' would provide a contrast with the Lincoln Memorial. But landscape architect Gilmore Clarke claimed that 'the Pantheon design stands for Jefferson's achievements in architecture,' and not the principles he represented, which called for something fresh. The CFA approved the site in early 1937, but rejected Pope's design and demanded new studies based on Pope's 1926 project for a Theodore Roosevelt memorial on the Tidal Basin. The CFA's chair, Charles Moore, who had been secretary of the McMillan Commission, and was vaguely amenable to the pope pantheon, retired in Sept., 1937. He was replaced by Clarke, who devoted his energies to defeating the project.
The Roosevelt project had been instigated immediately following the president's death in 1919. Concerns about Roosevelt's rightful place to this location led to its failure, but inspired the successful efforts to finally create a Jefferson monument commission. Pope's Roosevelt project showed two enormous colonnades bounding a vast plaza. In the center was a large pool of water with a granite island. Front the island spouted a 200' jet of water, symbolizing Roosevelt's vital spirit. Four ships carrying winged victories projected from the island, bearing the spirit of American democracy towards the four corners of the earth. The CFA maintained that the Roosevelt project was more sympathetic to the parklike setting, and that it would not block the view south from the White House to Mt. Vernon.
New designs prepared by Pope's office included the familiar pantheon and an open circular colonnade, both of which were immediately rejected by the CFA. A third project, a circular plaza flanked by twin colonnades, was approved with reservations. A later version showed the peristyles moved to the rear. The Jefferson Commission members objected to using a reworking of the older project; Pope's widow let it be known that she would never approve any change to that design, and she wrote her distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt stating that she would make her opposition public; and then the CFA itself demanded further changes to the open colonnade.
This was the final straw, and the Jefferson Memorial Commission obtained Roosevelt's approval to proceed with the pantheon, in spite of furious protests from architects and the public, organized by Clarke, which continued throughout 1937 and 1938. Congressmen clamored for a more useful structure, an auditorium, a hospital, or a planetarium; the design was condemned as 'indefensibly pedantic', by Clarke, and 'a gangrene of sentimentality,' by Frank Lloyd Wright.
But Kimball proved to be an equally canny publicist, even using the obituaries he wrote for Pope to rally support. In one he eulogized Pope through praising Wright and modern architecture, saying that generative creative power should be valued, wherever it is found. In another he wrote:
Styles in themselves have not magic either to confer or preclude merit. That is solely a property of the personal gifts of the individual artist--to impress on the body of his work, and on his individual works, an inner coherence which fuses and crystallizes their elements into new entities having henceforth an independent life.
In the end, Kimball had won the president's backing, and the memorial was built largely as originally conceived. The cornerstone was laid in Dec., 1939, and Roosevelt dedicated it on Jefferson's birthday in 1943.
Kimball, appropriately, had the final word:
I am very sympathetic with the effort to end the "petrified forest" in Washington, but I feel, in view of Jefferson's own strong feelings about the classic, that the Jefferson Memorial is not the place to begin. Let us carry out the proposal for the Memorial which has the full approval of the President, in a spirit of pious respect for Jefferson traditions, and then let us turn to the task of infusing the architecture of Washington henceforth with modern character.