The City That Never Was


December 11, 2011, Washington, DC: An exhibit now on display at the National Building Museum (above) reveals how this side of the city where we live could have been different. Instead of the U.S. Capitol anchoring national attractions at the easternmost end of the Mall, federal buildings and museums could have extended along an East Mall to the Anacostia River. The historic homes in our neighborhood along what's now East Capitol Street could have been cleared for formal landmarks; the Supreme Court could have been constructed several blocks east of its current location, closer to Lincoln Park. The lot where construction crews have just broken ground across from Eastern High School could have been accounted for with some stately building long ago.

This vision is among many maps of a city that never was, renderings of buildings that would turn out differently, and proposals that never got off the ground now on display at the National Building Museum. "Unbuilt Washington" opened just before Thanksgiving and runs through May 2012 at my favorite of Washington's many museums.

Some of the plans featured in "Unbuilt Washington" seem downright absurd -- like the National Sofa proposed in 1995 when officials closed off Pennsylvania Ave. to cars in front of the White House following the Oklahoma City bombing. Imagine if there really were a jumbotron out front where visitors would chat with the First Family while lounging on the "sofa". Imagine the influence of a new breed of lobbyists on K St. had plans been approved for Dolphin America's hotel and research center downtown.

But the beat goes on. The story of Washington's plans and buildings is without an ending. The future of RFK Stadium in its long-acknowledged prime location at the far end of East Capitol is yet to be determined. The development of a nature preserve and environmental research center on Kingman Island just beyond the stadium has begun after decades of unrealized proposals for the island that included everything from an airport to a fantastical theme park. Discussions about further solidifying a monumental core that better connects the Capitol south to the waterfront continue to evolve. We relentlessly carry on conversations about the fate of the Southeast and Southwest freeways that have bisected our neighborhoods since the 1960s, isolating our waterfronts. We imagine pedestrian bridges over places like the Washington Channel. And greenways. And bike lanes. There is a city that never was, but there is likewise a city that still could be.

The National Building Museum itself (pictured above and below) is one of many plans thankfully realized. Constructed in the 1880s as Pension Bureau headquarters and inspired by Roman palaces, the museum dedicated to architecture, engineering and design became what it is today following a 1980 Act of Congress. Today its ongoing exhibit, "Washington: Symbol and City" is worthy of any Washingtonian's time and "Investigating Where We Live" features photography and multimedia displays created by middle and high school students charged with documenting various neighborhoods throughout the city. The museum's space alone is a tremendous spot for both children and adults -- whether to fly model airplanes and run around the wide, carpeted space on a grey day, or to watch light bursting through the ceiling and casting shadows through these columns as we learn about the power of place.