Capitol Hill's Ugliness Club

The movement to assure architectural ugliness on Capitol Hill has the kind of support Washington lobbyists dream about, numbering among its adherents the Speaker of the House, the Senate Minority Leader, the House Minority Leader, the Vice President of the United States, and, of course the Architect of the Capitol. Curiosity inspired the author, a history major at Harvard College, to inquire into how the atrocities get committed.

by Hunter Lewis

ARGHITECTURE on the Hill has become something of a national scandal during the past ten years — enough of an aesthetic outrage to bring down the fulminations of the New York Times and the Washington Post on the philistine indifference of Congress. Since 1958 both newspapers have publicized the granite imbecilities of official Washington architecture with a determination which has so far failed to sway the congressional veterans who have authorized and financed the projects of the recent past. At the very mention of the name of the New York Times’s architectural critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, the long lines of Senator Dirksen’s mouth extend in a delightful caricature of sarcasm: “One of that aesthetic group,” he allows, with a telling emphasis on the penultimate word.

Despite Dirksen’s sometimes charming disclaimers, the damage is well documented. The New Senate Office Building, the extension of the east front of the Capitol, and the cavernous Rayburn Building share a uniform banality of design. The Rayburn Building has even been introduced into the classrooms of the Harvard School of Design as a notable example of contemporary architectural blundering. Its corrupt classic facade faithfully reproduces a variety of detailed ornamentation which fell out of favor among fashionable architectural circles a half century ago.

The story of the building’s construction has by now passed into Washington legend. Work on “that thing on the Hill” was first begun with the ostensible purpose of providing space for cramped congressional offices. Matthew H. McCloskey, a well-known Democratic fund raiser from Philadelphia, was chosen as contractor; the initial estimate varied from $40 million to $65 million. The final product, produced at a cost of $122 million after five years delay, provided only 15 percent of its total floor space for offices, and congressmen currently occupying the building are housed at a total construction cost of approximately $721,000 apiece.

Still, the Rayburn Building is not the true measure of the abilities of the aging Architect of the Capitol, J. George Stewart. The case of the extension of the east front of the Capitol has demonstrated what he is truly capable of doing. In 1960 at his behest, the historic sandstone east front, which the neoclassical genius Benjamin Latrobe had conceived and Charles Bulfinch completed, was extended thirty-six feet and embalmed in a garish marble reproduction. The New York Times with considerable justification labeled the result a “hard, grotesque, vulgar . . . imitation of a charming . . . simple period piece.”

The voices raised against the Capitol project in its initial phases were both numerous and persuasive. The Washington Fine Arts Commission deplored the “bulldozing” of American history; the American Institute of Architects proposed the renovation of the east front as an alternative to its extension; and a host of newspaper editorials excoriated the plans. Nevertheless, the views of Sam Rayburn and the congressional commission which he headed prevailed over the objections of the most qualified architectural opinion available.

In Washington, events move swiftly enough so that only the most ardent controversialists still belabor the fate of the east front. Sam Rayburn has passed from the scene secure in the affection and esteem of all who remember him, his lack of architectural judgment rightly forgotten within the perspective of a lifetime’s public service. Vice President Humphrey, who so bitterly opposed the extension while a senator, has in the space of these few years won himself a niche in the congressional establishment; he no longer sounds off with the shrill vehemence which was once his hallmark. The most powerful adversary of “Architect” Stewart’s plans, the late President Kennedy, is now sanctimoniously quoted out of context by George Stewart himself.

Even the American Institute of Architects has been content to nurse its wounds and brood over its rebuff — at least until the Office of the Architect of the Capitol announced plans last year to extend the west front of the Capitol. That decision struck the AIA as the crowning infamy.

UNTIL the Senate Appropriations Committee scheduled hearings on the project, the details of Stewart’s plans were a closely guarded secret. Only gradually were the facts disclosed. The central section of the west front was to be extended fully forty-four feet out toward the mall, the old Senate and House wings eighty-eight feet. The sweeping Olmsted terraces, built at the end of the last century, were to be almost entirely obliterated, and four and a half acres of interior space would be added to the sixteen and a half acres of the present Capitol (including the two and a half acres of the recent expansion on the east).

Of course, even the AIA could not question Stewart’s contention that the west wall of the Capitol was in need of immediate repair. By early summer of last year, building maintenance men counted twenty-one gashes running down the 105-foot facade. And only recently a forty-pound chunk of sandstone plummeted from high up the wall to a resting-place appropriately near the offices of the Architect of the Capitol. The AIA, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Fine Arts Commission were protesting against the decision to extend rather than merely restore the Capitol.

Stewart has consistently claimed that simple restoration or repair of the existing wall is technically impossible because the brick interior arches would collapse if the temporary metal supports were removed. He and his assistant, Mr. Campioli, who, unlike Mr. Stewart, is a trained architect, also assert that a new exterior could not be constructed a few feet out from the present wall without seriously disturbing the proportions of the building as a whole.

The AIA by way of rebuttal flatly declares that the brick arches could be sufficiently bolstered and reconstructed to avoid any such calamity. The president of the AIA, Morris Ketchum, points to the successful renovation and reconstruction of a number of Wren churches, including St. Paul’s in London, which featured the same system of arches and unjointed walls used on the west front. He says with an almost wooden emphasis: “If you are going to extend the front, then Stewart’s plans are architecturally sound. But the decision to expand is wholly unjustified.”

Unfortunately the AIA, which is a private organization of nearly 22,000 members and the universally recognized voice for the architectural community of America, has no official role in Washington. Consequently, its opinion is not always highly regarded in Congress. The executive director, William Scheick, calls the AIA “just another citizens group, a fraternity of architects, by no means an organized lobby.”

In the past the AIA has taken considerable pride in its outspoken involvement in the architectural controversies of the day. The struggle over the west front has both strained and tested this tradition of public service and crusading zeal. As it happens, every one of Mr. Stewart’s advisory architects for the west front project is a member of the AIA, and several are even fellows of the organization. As a result, though the twenty-two-member board of directors has unanimously voted to “fight the extension “to the last ditch,” spokesmen for the AIA are perpetually engaged in a nervous redefinition and clarification of their position. And though Ketchum couches his arguments in the most careful and thoughtful language, he has been criticized for his candor and threatened with libel action.

“Architect” Stewart’s ultimate case for the west front extension rests on his assertion that there is a pressing need for more space in the Capitol. His assistant, Mr. Campioli, describes the need as “desperate and likely to grow worse.”

But according to present plans, such patently nonessential facilities as restaurants, tourist orientation centers, “hideaway” congressional offices, and archival storage areas will occupy virtually all of the four-and-a-half-acre proposed expansion. As the AIA has stated in its most recent position paper: “Functionally nothing could be gained by creating additional space inside the west front. Without a complete reorganization of the interior, which is not proposed, this additional space would only add to the confusion that was compounded by the recent extension of the east front. If additional space is needed, it can be provided nearby with less cost and greater efficiency.”

CONGRESSMAN SAMUEL STRATTON of New York claims that Mr. Stewart’s inability to document the need for further space first prompted him to inquire into the overall merits of the “Architect’s” plans. Since then, he has formed his National Committee of One Million to Save the United States Capitol. So far, the congressman sadly relates, money and letters have not been pouring in, but most of the mail has at least been favorable. Congressman Stratton carries a list of the honorary co-chairmen of his committee on his person at all times and believes that many an unfavorable critic has been converted by the parade of respectable congressional names: Eugene McCarthy, Joseph Clark, Robert Kennedy, Wayne Morse, Daniel Brewster, and a host of others.

Sam Stratton is a small handsome man with a somewhat waspish outlook on the traditional usages of Washington politics. He likes to point to the fact that Stewart has hired the same architects for seven recent construction projects on the Hill, including the extensions of the east and west fronts, and the still projected Madison Memorial Library. He says, “My mind misses the element of competitive bidding which is an integral part of all federal construction outside the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol.” Stratton also agrees with Senator Monroney’s opinion that the only architects who have determined that the restoration of the west front cannot be done other than by the four-anda-half-acre extension of the front are architects that are employed to do the four-and-a-half-acre extension.

The group of architects who so conspicuously command Mr. Stewart’s admiration were first brought together as consultants for the east front extension plan. They are John Harbeson of Philadelphia, Gilmore Clarke, Alfred Easton Poor, and Albert Homer Swanke of New York, Jesse Shelton of Atlanta, Roscoe de Witt of Dallas, and Paul Thiry of Seattle. Over the course of the past decade these individuals have found themselves so frequently employed together on the Hill that they have formed a firm in Washington to act as a clearinghouse for their various federal projects.

Assessment of the abilities of the seven architects varies somewhat in professional circles, but the view is widespread that they are talented individuals whose powers of imaginative design were exhausted some ten or fifteen years ago. The AIA naturally does not wish to defame its own members: its president merely calls Mr. Stewart’s coterie “competent.” Ada Louise Huxtable of the Times also finds the seven “capable,” but on the whole, “uninspired and mundane.” Certainly the seven have not monopolized construction on the Hill on the basis of talent alone, nor have they won so many contracts through the apathy or disinterest of other qualified architects. Mr. Stewart received scores of brochures from interested firms before the construction of the Rayburn Building, the New Senate Office Building, and the proposed Madison Memorial Library. Whether these brochures were seriously studied will never be known; the Office of the Architect has simply refused to divulge the names of the firms involved.

Mr. Stewart justifies his reliance on a limited number of familiar aging architects by petulantly insisting that “architectural schools no longer teach the kind of classic federal design which is called for on the Hill. There are very few men with the training and experience for our kind of work.” Spokesmen for the Harvard School of Design emphatically deny this claim; the AIA labels it “absolutely and completely fallacious.” Nevertheless, Mr. Stewart’s confidence in the seven architects appears unshakable; he has even appointed a member of the firm of Poor & Swanke as the Assistant Architect of the Capitol.

Over the course of the past few years, George Stewart and his consultants have been so frequently criticized for the depressing array of new construction on the Hill that many people overlook the role of the Commission for the Extension of the United States Capitol. The commission, composed of Speaker McCormack, Vice President Humphrey, Senator Dirksen, Congressman Gerald Ford, and George Stewart, supervises the work of the Architect of the Capitol and periodically presents recommendations for the necessary legislative appropriations. This body, both in its role as an official commission and as the collective bipartisan leadership of Congress, is ultimately responsible for Stewart’s work; the authority of the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission ceases altogether at the base of Capitol Hill. Not surprisingly, none of the powerful members of the commission are versed in matters of architectural design. What is worse, the members are so preoccupied with their pressing governmental duties that they tend to rubber-stamp Mr. Stewart’s suggestions. At the meeting which initially approved the extension of the west front, both Vice President Humphrey and Gerald Ford were absent. Both later voted without the benefit of a full briefing.

Nevertheless, these four men, and particularly Speaker McCormack, lie behind Mr. Stewart’s remarkable ability to prevail as well as survive in the United States Congress. All four wield an extraordinary amount of power in Washington, and all four for their individual reasons are determined to enforce Architect Stewart’s will on Capitol Hill.

OF THE four, by far the most determined and influential is John McCormack of Massachusetts. The Speaker has singled out the Architect of the Capitol as his personal protégé; he regards George Stewart’s success as an important barometer of his own standing in Washington. The roots of this attitude lie in the Speaker’s past. George Stewart was appointed Architect of the Capitol by President Eisenhower in October, 1954. At the time, Stewart seemed an acceptable political choice. A one-term Republican congressman from Delaware in the thirties, he had served in a variety of jobs, including Clerk of the Senate District of Columbia Committee and engineer consultant for the Justice Department. Stewart was a rarity: a Republican on the fringes of government who got along well with Democrats, understood the mechanics of Congress, and knew his way around Washington. Even more important, he was an acquaintance of Joe Martin’s, whose term as Speaker of the House was about to end after the fall elections, and a friend of Sam Rayburn’s, who would shortly reoccupy the Speaker’s chair. Weighed against these considerations, Stewart’s lack of training as an architect counted for little.

Almost from the first, Stewart acted entirely on the instructions of Sam Rayburn. As John Holton, Mr. Sam’s administrative assistant at the time, explains it: “In those days you didn’t move a peg unless the Speaker said so. And Sam had his own ideas about the Capitol.” As Stewart himself has said: “Rayburn was a man who was strong in his likes and dislikes. Sometimes he showed it. Other times not. He always showed it to me.”

Rayburn held his characteristically strong opinions in matters of architecture as well as politics; when he was dying in 1961, he reportedly told his closest friends that he viewed the extension of the east front of the Capitol as a kind of personal memorial. Understandably, in Rayburn’s time the Office of the Architect of the Capitol became an adjunct of the grander quarters of the Speaker. The magic protection of Mr. Sam even prevented President Kennedy from carrying out his threat to fire George Stewart “the day after” his inauguration.

Today John McCormack by his own admission does not overly concern himself with the architectural details of Mr. Stewart’s various projects. But he is determined to wield no less power than his almost legendary predecessor. Just as the east front extension remains a tribute in stone to Mr. Rayburn’s influence, McCormack regards the successful completion of the west front project as his monument , and hence, a matter of personal prestige.

McCormack’s attitude, which may be puzzling at first glance, reflects his firm conviction that construction on the Hill is the special responsibility of the Speaker. As Rayburn’s successor, he means to do no less than control the Office of the Architect. And consequently, he views opposition to the present west front plans in intensely personal terms.

The Speaker is more than willing to provide his views on the subject of the west front extension. He launches into a good-natured barrage of statistics, snatches of editorials, engineers’ reports, and other, mostly unrelated items. The treatment, which is as winning as it is confused, ends on a note of quiet conviction: “These plans will not only preserve the beauty of the Capitol; they will enhance it. In any case, construction on the Hill is the business of the Congress. Of course there are a few in the House who haven’t learned this lesson. But they will.”

Gerald Ford merely repeats and softens the asperities of Speaker McCormack’s arguments. Characteristically, Congressman Ford believes that Mr. Stewart’s difficulty is one of image. He feels that the commission might consider meeting more frequently to underline congressional supervision of the “Architect’s” work. But for the moment Ford is unwilling to arouse the displeasure of the Speaker by raising an independent voice over what he regards as a less than crucial issue.

“Anyway,” he says, “I don’t think much damage has been done architecturally in Washington in the past. And the plan for extension has its good points: a passageway for congressmen to the floor which will bypass the tourists in the halls, a couple of theaters for the tourists modeled after the one at Williamsburg. . . . You can’t argue against that, can you?”

Everett Dirksen, for all his inimitable dramatic flair, is as practical and philistine as Gerald Ford. The senator is appalled at the thought of evicting a score of congressional potentates, including himself, from the fine old offices on the west simply to make room for the restoration of the present facade. “This is a working shop,” he emphasizes as his enormous hands chop through the air. “This is a legislative shop. We think we need room and facilities; so we build them here. And one more government commission, even if it happens to arrogate to itselt the title of Fine Arts Commission, will not tell the Congress what is to be done.”

Vice President Humphrey, by contrast, just wants to be left alone and allowed to forget that the Capitol extension controversy ever existed. He has long since ceased speaking to reporters on the subject. His staff has been instructed to explain with discretion and a shrug of the shoulders that his hands simply are tied. “You know the Vice President opposed the extension of the east front six years ago. But a lot has changed since then,” Humphrey’s executive assistant explained. “You must understand. One does, of course, all too well understand the several factors involved. First, the Vice President jealously clings to his warm relations with the Speaker. And second, the word has filtered from on high that the President regards the extension of the west front as part of the original conception of his dear friend and political mentor, the late Mr. Rayburn.

STEWART’S invulnerability to criticism essentially stems from the powerful protection of the fivemember commission. Nevertheless, the Architect of the Capitol is such a Consummate master of the political art that he manages to enhance his own personal influence by a number of tricks and stratagems.

His methods of dredging money from Congress are as notable for their obliqueness as for their success. Usually the “Architect” requests a small sum for preliminary studies of one project or another. A little later he demands several hundred thousand dollars for preliminary drawings, while carefully nurturing the impression that nothing final has even been considered. A few months after the preliminary drawings are completed, there follows a request for funds for working drawings. In the end Congress discovers that a sizable amount of the taxpayers’ money will be wasted if Mr. Stewart is not permitted to proceed with the actual work of construction. “He tries to sneak up on you,” explained a freshman Democratic congressman who preferred to remain nameless to escape the Speaker’s wrath.

Stewart manages to increase his personal esteem in Congress through a number of minor but essential services. As Architect of the Capitol, Stewart oversees renovation, repairs, and office upkeep on the Hill. This means that a congressman who expresses faith in the competence of the “Architect” may receive a variety of lesser favors — from the best office furniture at hand to a new coat of paint on the wall. He may also discover that a significant amount of construction materials, from wood planking to marble, has been ordered from his district or state. For the uninitiated it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the cumulative impact of ten years of attention to the smallest detail of patronage. But the large numbers of congressmen are in Mr. Stewart’s debt in some small particular.

Mr. Stewart’s manner of operation is perhaps best illustrated by the events surrounding the impending construction of the Madison Memorial Library, adjacent to the Capitol.

In late 1965, Congress authorized the development of plans for a new branch of the Library of Congress, “To be named the James Madison Memorial”; $500,000 was initially appropriated to cover the expense of preliminary drawings and cost estimates. Early in 1966, a special commission of twenty-two members of Congress was formed to approve Mr. Stewart’s choice of architects and generally oversee the progress of the project.

As a direct result of the scandal of the Rayburn House Oflice Building and the New Senate Office Building, raised under Mr. Stewart’s aegis, an important clause was inserted in the initial authorization for the Madison Library which stated that plans were to be drawn up “after consultation with the committees designated by the American Institute of Architects.” This provision was intended to prevent more architectural blunderingin the Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

To the surprise of almost everyone, Mr. Stewart simply chose to disregard the wording of the authorization. Initial drawings were completed at Mr. Stewart’s bidding by the same group of architects responsible for the New Senate Office Building, the extension of the east front, and the plans for the extension of the west front. The designated committee of the American Institute of Architects was never even notified.

Subsequently Mr. Stewart called a meeting of the congressional supervisory commission and persuaded the few members who appeared to approve the selection of the same coterie of Stewart’s friends as the official architects for the Madison Memorial Library. The applications of twenty-two interested firms were never even considered. Only after the choice of plans and architects was firmly established did the AIA receive any word from Mr. Stewart.

At a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee in June of 1966, these events were finally aired in a revealing fashion.

SENATOR monroney: How many members of the Congressional Commission were at the meeting in which the architects were selected?

MR. ROOF [assistant to Mr. Stewart]: There were twenty-two in the Commission. One group approved unanimously —

SENATOR PROXMIRE: That is not the question. How many were actually present?

MR. CAMPIOLI: Senator Mundt was there. Senator Jordan was there. A representative for Senator Scott was there.

SENATOR PROXMIRE: There were then two senators and one representative.

After the hearing Senator Monroney submitted a report to Congress which criticized Mr. Stewart for failing to consult with the American Institute of Architects. The report concluded that “the Architect of the Capitol is instructed by the committee to follow the authorization law precisely in the future.”

No further action has been taken. The Madison Memorial Library is now well along in its initial stages. And spokesmen for the AIA who have carefully perused the plans predict that one more “Rayburn Building” is about to rise on the Hill.

Fortunately, the publicity surrounding the Madison Memorial Library has strengthened the determination of a few key senators to resist Mr. Stewart’s political art. In early summer of 1966 the “Architect” announced that he would include his financial requests for the west front extension in the fall supplemental appropriations bill. This move was primarily designed to bypass the committees hostile to the extension plan; in addition, it assured that the few congressmen still in Washington only a month before the elections would vote for the necessary funds without the benefit of a full debate. Senator Monroney finally defeated this legislative sleight of hand with the only means at his disposal: he threatened to cut off the everyday operating funds of the Office of the Architect. Now Mr. Stewart will be compelled to present his demands under the full glare of congressional scrutiny in the first months of 1967.

George Stewart, despite his smooth command of the workaday world of Washington politics, is a strangely brooding figure. The central paradox of His character is his agonized vulnerability to personal criticism. “I have been called devious,” he told me, “but I’ve always done what I thought good and right. I’m just here to take the snowballs. But let me tell you one thing: my critics are peevish, jealous men, I had to become an old man before I began to understand how much peevishness there is in the world.”

The seventy-six-year-old Stewart appears very tired, very fatalistic; yet a current of self-protection runs through most of his comments. “So I’m not an architect,”he once said. “Neither was Michelangelo. Sam [Rayburn] told me when I took this job to do my work and keep my mouth shut. And that’s what I’m doing. They’re out for themselves” — Stewart grimaced at the mention of the AIA “and I have done everything possible to be fair to them.”“I just do my job,” Stewart repeated over and over.

In the long run, there will have to be important institutional changes. Some critics propose the division of Mr. Stewart’s office into two sections: one for everyday maintenance, another for construction around Lhe Capitol. Additionally the office of the Architect might be brought within the jurisdiction ol the Fine Arts Commission or the National Planning Commission. Or possibly a standing advisory panel charged with the supervision of the “Architect’s" work could be chosen with the advice of the American Institute of Architects.

In any case, for the present there is little prospect of reform. The chiefs of Congress, for their varying reasons, are unwilling to discard the system which, in the hands of the architect who is not an architect, has contributed so signally to the defacing of the Capitol. And in the absence of congressional outrage, the recent errors of official Washington architecture seem not only destined to be repeated, but repeated again and again with an oppressive predictability.