Millions of visitors to Washington, DC, will marvel at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and other major attractions in the U.S. capital without having a clue about a key person behind these structures. Today, the birthday of the memorial’s architect, John Russell Pope, is a good time to assess this legacy.
Pope, born in New York City on this day in 1874, converted the New York mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick into a public art gallery and designed highly acclaimed additions to Tate Gallery and the British Museum in London. But his supreme triumphs may have been in Washington, where he influenced public construction both through his own designs and as a member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and of the Board of Architectural Consultants. His own work in the capital included the Temple of the Scottish Rite of Freemasons, the National Archives Building, the National Gallery of Art, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
Pope died in 1937, six years before the Jefferson Memorial opened. It would be interesting to see how he would have worked with Franklin Roosevelt, whose pet project this was (and who, it is said, monitored daily its construction from the White House).
The erection of a memorial to Jefferson was approved by Congress in July 1934. But, in the last three years of his life, Pope became embroiled in some controversy over his design. Modern art was already rearing its head, and the neoclassical style that Pope advocated—the same kind that Jefferson himself favored—was out of fashion with such parties as The League for Progress in Architecture (which denounced the memorial as “serving no purpose whatsoever”), the faculty of the Columbia University School of Architecture (which termed the design a “lamentable misfit in time and place”) and Frank Lloyd Wright (who wrote President Roosevelt that the work was an “arrogant insult to the memory of Thomas Jefferson”).
To his credit, FDR backed the design, which was modeled on Rome’s Pantheon. Now it dominates the Tidal Basin, a powerful tribute to lasting ideals of freedom, an embodiment of the perfect ideals of the imperfect creator of an imperfect republic.
(I took this snapshot last November, while I was visiting DC.)