Why haven't more presidents taken an interest in architecture?

What we build.
June 20 2007 6:49 AM

Builder in Chief

FDR shaped the Pentagon. Why haven't more presidents taken an interest in architecture?

The Pentagon. Click image to expand.
The Pentagon

Steve Vogel's interesting new book, The Pentagon: A History, tells the story of the design and construction of what is still the largest office building in the world—4 million square feet. One of the surprising facts to emerge from this thoroughly researched narrative is the degree to which the then-president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, involved himself in the project. For example, he played a major role in the selection of the site. The Army and the Department of War had opted for a prominent spot, at the foot of the Arlington Memorial Bridge and directly across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial. The Commission of Fine Arts, charged with overseeing design in the capital, objected on the grounds that the immense building would block the main axis of L'Enfant's plan, and the matter landed on Roosevelt's desk. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, who was in charge of the project, insisted on the original location. "My dear general," FDR hotly responded, "I'm still commander-in-chief of the Army!" The building was moved to its present, less obtrusive site.

Roosevelt's participation did not end there. When the unusual design was unveiled, the commission once more objected, arguing that a rectangular form would be more appropriate to the city than a pentagon. (The five-side plan was the result of the shape of the original site but was retained even after the location was changed.) The president once more was called upon to mediate. This time he swung the other way. He favored the pentagon-shaped building, he told the commissioners. "I like it because nothing like it has ever been done before."

FDR Presidential Library.
FDR's presidential library 

Like Thomas Jefferson, whom he greatly admired, Roosevelt was an architect by avocation. He designed buildings for Warm Springs, a health spa in Georgia that he bought in 1926; houses and two post offices in Dutchess County, N.Y., where he lived; as well as his own presidential library (the first of such memorials). Surprisingly—for a New Dealer—he was an architectural revivalist. The library was Dutch Colonial; the spa was Greek Revival; and he remodeled Springwood, his own home, in the Georgian style. Many of Washington, D.C.'s buildings of that era, including the Jefferson Memorial, owe their Neoclassical style directly to Roosevelt's taste.

Presidents who have shown an interest in architecture have been few and far between. This has nothing to do with political persuasion: Neither Kennedy nor Johnson nor Nixon demonstrated any particular feeling for the built environment. It's true that the improvement of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., owed something to each of these men, but the guiding spirit was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who officially represented New York state but was also the (sole) advocate for architecture in official Washington. As Nathan Glazer writes in his new book, From a Cause to a Style, Moynihan personally contributed the "Guiding Principles" that governed the architectural improvements along the avenue.

The absence of architectural sensibility among presidents is all the more remarkable considering two of the founding fathers, Washington and Jefferson, were amateur architects who built their own residences—and advised their neighbors. Jefferson also designed the University of Virginia and the Virginia statehouse. Given architecture's overarching national symbolic role (think Mount Vernon, Monticello, the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial), one might have expected at least some later presidents to pick up the architectural baton. Yet only Roosevelt did. Perhaps sketching buildings was perceived as not manly enough to qualify as a presidential hobby, unlike playing golf or touch football, clearing brush, racing speedboats, or riding mountain bikes. Or perhaps the time when presidents had less personal and more civic-minded hobbies is past.

Roosevelt's influence on architecture was, on the whole, positive. The Pentagon was originally in the wrong place, and the five-sided plan was a good solution for a building that large. And no presidential library to date has bettered FDR's modest but moving design. Of course, having a president who is interested in buildings may have a downside. Vogel writes that in 1941, as the new Department of War headquarters was being designed, Roosevelt proposed a radical change to the pentagonal plan. Since the newfangled building was to be air-conditioned, he argued, there was really no need for light wells or courtyards, so why not make it a huge solid square windowless block? Think of all the savings of space and money. By the end of the day, Somervell and the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who found the proposal "bizarre," had managed to persuade Roosevelt to drop the idea. But it was a close thing. Instead of the Pentagon, it might have been the Black Box.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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