AIArchitectInstititute News
02/2006 1897-1906: The AIA Moves to and Changes Washington
Octagon acquired, publications begun, friends in the White House established

by Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA

The 1896 AIA Convention decided that it was finally time to answer the question of where the permanent headquarters of the Institute should be, and delegates chose Washington, D.C. The U.S. government was the largest single builder in America, and Washington was where legislators who controlled federal funding sat. It was also the headquarters city for many other national organizations with which architects shared common interests. Whether the AIA should partner with an organization, such as the Smithsonian, or establish independent headquarters was still to be decided.

At the 31st AIA Convention, in Detroit in 1897, AIA President George B. Post noted in his annual address:

The last Convention of the Institute wisely resolved that its head-quarters should be removed to Washington ... it is my opinion that it is important that the change should be made as soon as it can be conveniently accomplished ... Establishing the Home of the Institute in the National Capital will form an era in its existence. It has passed fairly through its formative stage—its period of organization. From struggling youth it has grown to vigorous manhood and has become a power in the community. The time has come when it is possible that it should undertake work better and more important that [sic] the perfection of its interior organization and establishing provisions for the regulation of professional practice.

Post suggested the election of a paid secretary, the reestablishment of Associate membership, to which all members would be elected, with Fellowship as a higher category to which members could be advanced. Licensing of architects by the states was supported along with an increased emphasis on architectural education and the establishment of scholarships. “It is the proud claim of the architect that his work forms the most positive and enduring evidence of civilization. In all countries and periods the government has been the great builder and appointment to government work has ever been the supreme reward of proved ability in our profession ... No movement for the advancement of art in our country has occurred in which the individual members of this body have not exerted a controlling influence” Post concluded, asserting an AIA future of even greater control and influence.

Licensing, which had been debated since the 1880s, was still a hot topic in 1897. The Board of Directors, in its Annual Report took no direct stand, but urged upon the Institute:

the importance of an educational test for membership ... and a full realization of the fact that the conduct of every member should be guided by the highest professional ethics rather than by commercial and hustling competition with the concomitants attending the scramble for business which marks the spirit of the age, and which unfortunately has found some foothold among architectural practitioners, some of whom may be able to write F.A.I.A. after their names.

Within the year, 1897, Illinois became the first state to adopt an architectural licensing law, a process that would not be completed until 1955 when Vermont adopted its licensing law.

On to Washington
When the Washington Chapter first presented a resolution urging a move to Washington, in 1889, it suggested the Octagon as AIA headquarters. A Federal Style mansion, designed by Dr. William Thornton, who had won the competition for design of the U. S. Capitol, it was again suggested to the Convention in 1897. Glenn Brown, of the Washington Chapter, had proven the integrity of the Capitol in his study of the building’s design, which led, in 1900 to the publication of Volume 1 and in 1903 to Volume 2 of his History of the United States Capitol, still a basic document on the building and an early publication on public history, which, in turn, established Brown as a prominent national historian.

Though the Institute frequently called the house “Octagon House,” it had always been referred to by its builders as “The Octagon.” It was known by that name locally, and that is its official name. Considered one of the most important buildings in Washington, it was second only to the White House as a Washington residence. Indeed, after the White House was burned during the War of 1812, The Octagon served as the residence of President James and First Lady Dolley Madison. It was there in 1815 that Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. The house had been built for Virginia planter John Tayloe and his family and served as a Tayloe residence in Washington until just before the Civil War. It later served as a school, as a Hydographic Office for the Navy, and, having fallen on hard times late in the 19th century, was in ill repair and housed a caretaker.

The Board of Directors voted late in 1897 to lease The Octagon, and undertook repairs with a view to receiving AIA members there at the 1899 Convention, which would be held in Washington in November. That reception, and indeed the convention, indicated just how much change, for the organization and its members, the move to Washington presaged. The White House indicated on November 1 that the president would receive members “this Tuesday afternoon at 2:30,” and “...promptly at 2 o’clock the members, with their wives and lady friends, went in a body to the White House and were received in the East room, each member being introduced by the Secretary of the Institute [Brown] to President McKinley, by whom they were cordially greeted,” according to the convention minutes.

From the White House the entire body went to the Treasury Department to pay their respects to Hon. Lyman J. Gage, the Secretary of the Treasury [in whose office architects under the Supervising Architect designed and oversaw construction of government buildings] ... Each person was introduced by the Secretary of the Institute to Secretary Gage and after a brief informal interview the members and friends went to the “Octagon House” at the junction of New York Avenue and 18th Street, the new Headquarters of the Institute.

The building was thoroughly inspected from top to bottom with much interest and the work of the Committee having charge of the fitting up and restoring of the house was highly commended and fully appreciated by all present, especially by those who had seen it when it was used as a store house for old rags and junk. The house has...been restored as nearly as possible to its original condition even to the tints on the walls of several rooms which were in most of the rooms buried beneath coats of paper or whitewash. Many of the original drawings of the Capitol, which had been found at the Capitol after diligent research by Mr. Glenn Brown, were displayed in one of the rooms and studies of the Washington Architectural Sketch Club were hung in another room.

The brush with celebrities was not over. Before the 1898 Convention adjourned, “members and their wives and friends took the trolley cars for Cabin John Bridge where a bountiful lunch was served and the afternoon was spent in social intercourse and in the enjoyment of the beautiful natural scenery. Upon the return trip a stop was made at Glen Echo and some of the party were able to call upon and pay their respects to Miss Clara Barton, whose home and depot of supplies is at Glen Echo.”

Change is in the air
Far-reaching change resulted from adoption of a new Constitution and By-Laws at the 1898 convention. Associate and Fellow were reestablished as membership categories, delegates in proportion to membership in chapters would control future conventions, and the duties of Secretary and Treasurer were combined, and the office invested with broad powers, effectively making the Secretary the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, and the chief executive officer. Glenn Brown, of the Washington Chapter, was elected to the position. There could hardly have been a better choice.

Two months after the 1898 Convention, the AIA officially inaugurated The Octagon as its headquarters when the Board of Directors met there on January 1, 1899. In 1902, after some four years of leasing, the Institute purchased The Octagon.

Henry Van Brunt was elected president for 1899, when the convention met in Pittsburgh. It was the first convention to which delegates had been elected by the chapters, which, Brown later wrote, “proved the wisdom of the measure, as the Chapters had elected their most prominent men for this service.” There was another change too, for “at this Convention ... papers were read on topics relating to the Fine Arts, emphasizing this side of Architecture, as with few exceptions papers before this date had been on methods of practice or construction.” Though the business of architecture continued to be discussed at conventions and chapter meeting, architecture as an art would be a dominant concern of the AIA for the next decade and more.

Architecture as art
The Washington Chapter had, in 1895, been instrumental in organizing the Public Art League with a national membership and nationally known leaders—Richard Gilder, editor of Century Magazine was elected president; Charles McKim, first vice president; Augustus Saint-Gaudens, second vice-president; Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Daniel Burnham, directors; and Brown, corresponding secretary. Brown wrote in his autobiography Memories that “We found appeals to Congress by our small local body accomplished nothing. The way to the legislator’s brain was through marked interest from their home voters.”

The organization lobbied for a national fine arts commission and for acquisition of land along Rock Creek as a public park. The Corps of Engineers “decided that Rock Creek Valley should be filled, making a level plain of made ground between Washington and Georgetown, in some places thirty feet deep. It was their intention to carry Rock Creek to the Potomac through a huge culvert ... Rock Creek as it runs through the valley is an unusually picturesque stream, in many spots charmingly attractive. It is the natural outlet from the upper country to the Potomac River. Why replace it with a large area of unstable made ground? After a battle of several years...” Rock Creek was set aside in 1900 by Congress for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States,” the first in a long line of successes for the Washington Chapter, the Public Art League, and their AIA and public-art allies.

After 1899, the Public Art League joined The Washington Chapter of the AIA, Washington Architectural Club, Archaeological Society of America, American Federation of Arts, American Academy in Rome, Washington Society of Fine Arts, and the National Society of Fine Arts as tenants in The Octagon. Together, they provided a nationwide source of influential members and leaders who joined the AIA in campaigning for the return of Washington to the concepts laid down by Pierre Charles L’Enfant in his original plan for the city.

The word in print
One far-reaching act of the 1899 Convention was authorization of a “quarterly bulletin, giving an index to the periodicals and society literature that is received in the way of exchange; and in the same bulletin to give titles, size, and contents, with short review of current books on architecture and the allied arts ...” The first issue of The American Institute of Architects Quarterly Bulletin appeared in April 1900. For the next 12 years, it would appear four times yearly, and become one of the most important and respected serial publications on architecture and the City Beautiful movement. As the forerunner of the AIA Journal and publications of the AIA Press, it set high standards.

1900 marked the centennial of the move of the U.S. capital from Philadelphia to Washington, and the AIA met in Washington that year intent on reinstating L’Enfant’s plan as a working document for development and seizing control of development of the White House from the Corps of Engineers. All the elements necessary to put both plans into effect were present. AIA Secretary Brown was well known to the McKinley White House. He had designed the reviewing stand for a McKinley inaugural and upgraded sanitation and plumbing at the White House. He had easy access to the White House and often, when showing important visitors or members around Washington, ended with a tour of the White House, entering “through the basement, then through the principal floor ... ending up by taking them out on the south portico and calling their attention to the beauty of the grounds and to the charming view of the Potomac.”

Brown had written about “The Selection of Sites for Federal Building” in Architectural Review in 1894, and the subject remained one he seems to have talked of constantly. In the 1894 article he wrote glowingly of L’Enfant’s siting of the White House and the Capitol. The Capitol Dome, he wrote, “is constantly peeping out through the trees down the valleys in the most unexpected places as one drives or wanders through the country.” Architects, artists, sculptors, and landscape architects could, he believed, revitalize the L’Enfant plan and “give the country a parked avenue in Washington unequaled by anything in the world—a triumph of the arts.”

Architects, not engineers
Planning for the 1900 Convention in Washington, which the AIA would tag on to the end of the Centennial move celebration, which was planned for December 12, took almost a year as Brown and convention planners meticulously crafted a session “On the General Subject of the Grouping of Government Buildings, Landscape, and Statuary in the City of Washington.” Nationally known leaders and speakers—C. Howard Walker, Edgar V. Seeler, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and H. K. Bush Brown—presented papers, and both the public and press were well represented, especially since the evening of papers followed the day after a White House reception where the Corps of Engineers presented its plans for enlarging the White House. Those plans envisioned massive structures on either side of the White House which were compatible in neither design nor scale, and the AIA, in prepared petitions from some 40 organizations and AIA chapters from around the nation and in interviews, critiqued the plan to the press and to Congressional committees, suggesting strongly that White House restoration be put in the hands of architects, not engineers, and noting the Convention session the following night on the subject.

In the discussion on the White House, the planning concepts that would be so important in developing Lafayette Square across from the White House 160 years later were clearly set forth:

... the present building [White House] is a pleasing example in architecture, dignified in its surroundings with trees that it would require a century to replace; that, inasmuch as the building typified the best architecture of the beginning of the nation, and embodies its traditions to the present time, and as its successor should so typify the best of to-day and would so be held in the future, for which the present architects would be considered responsible, we ask that before any alterations or additions are undertaken Congress will call to its aid an architect (trained in such problems) whose life work has been of such character that his advice, if heeded, will give assurance that such alterations or additions will neither mar the present beauties nor fail to obtain satisfactory results from the works undertaken.

To underscore the AIA position, the convention adopted a resolution stating “the White House is one of the best examples of early American architectural art; and, Inasmuch as it is especially endeared to the people as the residence of all the Presidents of the Republic since General Washington; and inasmuch as its accommodations are no longer adequate as the residence and office of the Chief Magistrate, That, therefore, a commission largely formed of architects of recognized ability should be appointed, without delay.”

After discussion and committee reports on the matter, the resolution voted in noted:

Whereas it is evident that the location and grouping of public buildings, the ordering of landscape and statuary, and the extension of the park system in the District of Columbia are matters of national concern, and should be made in accordance with a comprehensive artistic scheme; and Whereas the execution of each single structure or public improvement outside such a scheme would be an impediment to the artistic development of the District; Resolved, That the American Institute of Architects advocates and urges upon Congress the importance of procuring, through a commission created for this end, the best obtainable general design for the purpose aforesaid.

Such a commission would be a logical outgrowth of the AIA panel on “Grouping of Government Buildings.” All panelists had exchanged papers, all had toured, with Brown and others, the Mall and adjacent areas which they would discuss. All had been provided with maps and printed material. Brown and Washington Chapter member Joseph Hornblower traveled to Paris in September 1900 and collected lantern slides to be used by the panelists, all of whom had visited the major cities of Europe and collected their own graphics. The December 13 presentation seems to have been both graphically and oratorically riveting.

Senator McMillan gets on board
The suggested committees were appointed, one to communicate the AIA resolution on the White House to the president, and the other to communicate the desire for a Federal Commission on Grouping to the Congress. Charles Moore, friend and fellow Cosmos Club member of Glenn Brown and aide to Senator James McMillan of Michigan, who headed the Senate District Committee, had often talked with Brown and others about the L’Enfant Plan and the desirability of revitalizing it. The AIA committees talked with Moore and on December 19, less than a week after the panel presented its papers at the convention, Sen. McMillan introduced a resolution in the Senate to print the AIA papers as a Senate Document. The Journal of Proceedings reported “These papers, together with the discussion of the subject, prepared by Cass Gilbert, Paul J. Pelz, and George O. Totten Jr., will be published as a Senate Document for the use of Congress, and known as Senate Document No. 94, 56th Congress, 2d Session.” Moore in an introduction wrote “The report of the Centennial Celebration [of the move of the capital from Philadelphia to Washington] now at press, will show the ideas of the laity; this publication contains the tentative plans of the experts.”

The Senate document was sent to all AIA members, some 40 American societies associated with the Public Art League, 43 foreign societies, and 59 architecture and allied arts periodicals. Of even greater importance, the papers and their ideas were in print and available to politicians at all levels, in an official government document.

Brown, AIA President Robert S. Peabody, Moore, Sen. McMillan, and members of the Senate District Committee met immediately and developed Senate Resolution 139 introduced in the Senate December 17, 1900, authorizing the appointment of a “commission, to consist of two architects and one landscape architect eminent in their profession, who shall consider the subject of the location and grouping of public buildings and monuments to be erected in the District of Columbia and the development and improvement of the entire park system of said District, and shall report to Congress thereon.”

From an AIA list, McKim, Burnham, and Olmsted were appointed to the McMillan or Park Commission; August Saint Gaudens was later added. All were members or honorary members of the AIA, and well known nationally and internationally. Their report would, in time, clear the Mall of intrusions, relate the Capitol to a Union Station to be built to its northeast, establish a monument to Grant at the Capitol end of the Mall, one to Lincoln at the Potomac River end, and group government buildings in the Federal Triangle area to the north of the Mall and along Independence Avenue to the south of the Mall. The models, plans, maps, and delineations that accompanied the published report in 1901 established a master plan for development in the nation’s capital that would channel development almost to the present.

Professional cooperation and public service
Members assembled in Buffalo, in October 1901, on the grounds of the Pan-American Exposition. Earlier, President McKinley had been assassinated there, and the AIA mourned the loss of a friend. AIA President Peabody also mourned the loss of the small office and the individual architect solely responsible for his designs:

As in business, trade has massed itself into great consolidation and combinations, so commercialism has brought new problems to our art. It is a surprising fact that in democratic America, of all places, a country where individual exertion and independent action is the mainspring of public life, the spirit of co-operation and combination has so largely supplanted in our art the production of the individual. It is, perhaps, a thing to deplore that an architect’s office should resemble a department store or should be open to the derisive charge of being a plan factory.

Brown noted the 1902 Convention as being a notable one in which “the members of the Park Commission explained the report on the Park improvement of Washington, and the Octagon House became the property of the American Institute of Architects through the initiation of Mr. Chas. F. McKim, the President.” The Journal of Proceedings reproduced both text and graphics from the Park Commission Plan and McKim told members, “I can give the Institute no better wish than that as time shall fill the building [The Octagon] with memories and associations of our own work and achievement, it may become indeed a home to the architects of this land, and that it may typify to those who assemble in it, and to the citizens of Washington as well, the spirit of public service.”

That spirit of public service was notable in the friendship developing between architects and President Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw the restoration and enlargement of the White House in 1902. Architect for the work was AIA President McKim, while the supervising architect was AIA Secretary Glenn Brown. The success of that work and the developing friendship between Roosevelt and the AIA would have far-reaching results in the next few years, results that may never again be matched.

No little plans continue
The 1901 Park Commission Plan continued to be discussed at the Cleveland Convention in 1903 when Sir Aston Webb, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, cabled AIA President McKim: “Washington Commission Park improvement plans as fine as anything could be.” The Government Printing Office printed Park Improvement Papers in 1903, “A series of twenty papers relating to the improvement of the park system of the District of Columbia, printed for the use of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia; edited and compiled by Charles Moore, the Clerk of that Committee.” Among the papers were Glenn Brown’s “The Making of a Plan for Washington City,” a paper he had read before the Columbia Historical Society on January 6, 1902. The AIA had produced lantern slide shows, which were sent around the country and provided speakers on request in support of the implementation of the Park Commission Plan, efforts which continued for the next several years.

For several years, numbering for the conventions is confusing. The 1904 Convention, for example was “held in the Octagon, December 15, 1904, and at the Arlington Hotel, Washington, D.C. on January 11, 12 and 13th 1905.” The Board met at The Octagon, called the Convention, and, no quorum being present, recessed until 1905. Brown wrote “At the 1904 Convention [actually in January 1905] held in Washington, the Institute gave its first formal annual dinner. This dinner was attended by the most distinguished men in the United States. The President of the United States, and members of his Cabinet, Senators and Representatives, the Cardinal, the Bishop of Washington, Presidents of Universities, Art Museums and Societies, men eminent in Art, Science and Literature, were present at this dinner. On this occasion was inaugurated the effort to secure a permanent endowment of one million dollars for the American Academy in Rome.” Within a year, some $800,000 had been raised.

Charles Moore described the room: “Under the direction of Mr. Frank D. Millet, the dining-room was effectively decorated in white, with branches of palms held together by fastenings bearing the names of the Chapters. Festoons of green emphasized the architectural lines of the room. Behind the President’s chair was the great seal of the Institute; while at the western end of the room the cipher of the Institute was flanked by the colors of the States of the Union, arranged as trophies. The high table extended along three sides of the room. Near the entrance a box was arranged for Mrs. Roosevelt and her guests.”

The President, in his address said,

There are things in a nation’s life more important than beauty; but beauty is very important. And in this nation of ours, while there is very much in which we have succeeded marvelously, I do not think that if we look dispassionately at what we have done, we will say that beauty has been exactly the strong point of the nation! It rests largely with gatherings such as this, and with the note that is set by men such as those I am addressing tonight, to determine whether or not this shall be true of the future.

He discussed government building, continuing,

I would say that the best thing that any elective legislative body can do in these matters is to surrender itself within reasonable limits to the guidance of those who really do know what they are talking about ...

The only way in which we can hope to have worthy artistic work done for the Nation, State or municipality is by having such a growth of popular sentiment as will render it incumbent upon successive administrations, or successive legislative bodies, to carry out steadily a plan chosen for them, worked out for them by such a body of men as that gathered here this evening ...

... beginning has been made and now I most earnestly hope that in the national capital a better beginning will be made than anywhere else; and that can be made only by utilizing to the fullest degree the thought and the disinterested efforts of the architects, the artists, the men of art, who stand foremost in their professions here in the United States, and who ask no other reward save the reward of feeling that they have done their full part to make as beautiful as it should be the capital city of the Great Republic.

The banquet papers, published under the title The Promise of American Architecture, are worth reading still.

On December 29, 1906, the 40th annual convention of The American Institute of Architects was called to order in The Octagon. There being no quorum “the Convention took a recess until January 7, 1907,” with “Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of its Foundation” planned for that day.

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AIA150 Rolling History
 A Beginning, 1857-1866
 The Second Decade, 1867-1876
 1877-1886: Westward and Upward
 1887-1896: A Decade of Outreach, Inclusiveness, and Internationalism
 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
 1897-1906: The AIA Moves to and Changes Washington
 The Institute's Influence on Legislative Policy
 At 50, the AIA Conceives the Gold Medal, Receives Roosevelt's Gratitude
 Spinning a Golden Webb
 1909-1917: The Institute Comes of Age in the Nation's Capital
 1917-1926: A New Power Structure: World War I, Pageantry, and the Power of the Press
 1927-1936: A Decade of Depression and Perseverance
 The AIA in Its Ninth Decade: 1937-1946
 1947-1956: Wright Recognition, White House Renovation, AIA Closes on 100
 The Tenth Decade: 1957-1966
 1967-1976: New HQ and a New Age Take Center Stage
 A New Home for the AIA in 1973; A Greener Home in 2007
 Diversity and the Profession: Take II
 'The Vietnam Situation Is Hell': The AIA's Internal Struggle over the War in Southeast Asia
 1977-1986: Activism and Capital-A Architecture Are Alive at the AIA
 1987-1996 Technology, Diversity, and Expansion

Image 1: The Washington Monument surrounded by swampland at the turn of the century.
Image 2: Henry Van Brunt, FAIA
Image 3: Turn-of-the-century plan of New Orleans.
Image 4: The 1905 convention dinner program.
Image 5: The 1905 convention dinner setting.
Image 6: The 1901 AIA-generated McMillan Plan for improving Washington was backed by the Senate and printed and distributed by the Government Printing Office.
Image 7: The north side of the White House looking through Lafayette Park in 1905.
Image 8: View of the Capitol and Library of Congress from what would become the Capital Mall (note the locomotive in the foreground).
Image 9: The National Zoo was originally woodland along Rock Creek Park in Northwest D.C.

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