White House

Robert Owen proposed this elaborate extension to the White House between 1891 and 1901. It featured two approximate replicas of the original building and was one of several ideas at the time for expanding or relocating the Executive Mansion to provide more space for a growing government.

U.S. Capitol

James Diamond’s 1792 competition entry for the Capitol building featured a weathercock that was about as big as the dome supporting it. The contest attracted a lot of amateur architects. Needless to say, Diamond was one of them.

Lincoln Memorial

A 1912 concept by John Russell Pope.

Dolphin America Hotel

Architect Doug Michels loved dolphins and designed various projects that would bring them closer to people (why, we have no idea), such as this hotel, done in collaboration with Jim Allegro.

National Sofa

Michels and Allegro also wanted to build a giant "National Sofa" across the street from the White House in 1996. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, they feared that the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue would isolate the Oval Office from the masses, so they devised a 300-foot-long couch to address that gap. Yep, it’s got a giant TV screen, too.

Washington Monument

Construction of the Washington Monument got underway in 1848 but was halted in 1856, leaving an unfinished stump on the National Mall for more than two decades. In the 1870s, architects floated ideas for finishing the monument. Here’s one by Vinnie Ream Hoxie.

Library of Congress

An 1873 competition entry by Leon Beaver.

National Cultural Center

A much nicer, curvier concept for the Kennedy Center by Edward Durell Stone (1959).

National Galleries of History and Art

This 1900 project by Franklin Webster Smith would’ve stretched from 17th Street, near the White House, all the way to the Potomac River.

U.S. Capitol

Architect William Thornton won the design competition for the U.S. Capitol (the sketch shown here dates to 1797) but other architects later modified his concept.

Co.Design

No Joke: The White House Almost Looked Like This

Pyramids, giant weather vanes, Venice-style canals: If Washington D.C. had turned out as some architects imagined, it would have been colorful to say the least.

If amateur architect James Diamond had his way, the U.S. Capitol would’ve been a modest, two-story building topped by, not a statue of freedom, but a honking-huge weathercock. Had John Russell Pope realized his vision, the Lincoln Memorial would’ve loomed like a pyramid lifted from the sands of Egypt. And had D.C. greenlit a proposal from Jim Allegro and Doug Michels, the White House would’ve stood opposite a 300-foot-long public couch (complete with a flatscreen TV).

Alas, none of these plans ever materialized—to the District’s benefit, no doubt. But that hasn’t stopped the National Building Museum from pulling old models, blueprints, and drawings out of the trash can and mounting them on display in Unbuilt Washington, a captivating new exhibition about the Capitol city that might’ve been.

Every city has an anthology of architectural "what ifs." There’s Manhattan with its Robert Moses highway. There’s Chicago with its mile-high skyscraper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But not every city’s architecture endeavors to project the political ideology of a nation, as D.C.'s does. So when you see that a palatial mansion, which would’ve seemed fussy by Louis Quatorze’s standards, was tossed in favor of the neoclassical White House we have today, you can take that as an endorsement of democratic ideals over the silly hierarchies of old Europe. And you can look at the crisply proportioned U.S. Capitol as a high five for reason over absurdity (seriously, Diamond’s weathercock was ridiculous; curator G. Martin Moeller Jr. likens it to a "giant chicken in distress"). Even if you despise the arch-formality of the Mall, which I do, proposals like that make you realize: Things could’ve been a lot worse.

But they also could’ve been a lot better. Imagine if the Smithsonian art gallery had been a stylish asymmetrical building by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, to name one unrealized project. Or if Leon Krier had brought off his half-baffling, half-brilliant idea to flood the Mall, Venice-style, then fill nearby blocks with mixed-use buildings, effectively creating bustling neighborhoods where fortress-like federal enclaves stand today.

Perhaps the most innovative idea was a 1966 plan by Chloethiel Woodard Smith & Associate Architects for a walking bridge between East Potomac Park and the Southwest Waterfront. A former shantytown, Southwest Waterfront was demolished in the middle of the 20th century then redeveloped (rather unsuccessfully) and has long exemplified a vexing paradox of D.C.: The city is terribly segregated—part pristine museum, part slum.

Ingeniously, the bridge would’ve been packed with stores and other businesses, like a sort of latter-day Ponte Vecchio. "Although the project was relatively limited in scope—a single bridge spanning between the Southwest waterfront and East Potomac Park—I think it would have had a significant impact on the urban renewal area of Southwest D.C. and might have become a regional draw," Moeller tells Co.Design. "Lined with shops and restaurants, and free of private cars, the bridge might have provided a vibrant commercial center for Southwest, which the shopping mall that was built [there] never succeeded in doing." Such proposals could’ve helped make the District a lively urban mecca, instead of the strange, schizophrenic city it is. Put another way: The capitol of the democratic world could’ve looked a lot more democratic.

[Images courtesy of the National Building Museum]

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1 Comments

  • Bill .

    Surprisingly fascinating. I wish that architects could lucidly - by which I mean, comprehensible to me - describe their efforts more frequently.  I particularly liked the description of the 'ponte vecchio'.  It sounds as if it would have been a delightful addition to the city.