After chewing on last week’s news that President Rhymes-with-Dump verbally disparaged the home he temporarily occupies — that historic, beautiful and enduring symbol of America — it’s good that this weekend Minnesotans can celebrate the stunning renewal of America’s most beautiful state capitol, designed by architect Cass Gilbert and completed in 1905. A couple of years after his Minnesota triumph, Gilbert would become part of White House history, as well.
The American Institute of Architects moved its offices from New York City to Washington, D.C., in 1899 and purchased the Octagon, which had served as a temporary residence for James and Dolley Madison after the British torched the White House in 1812. After the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, the sudden and unexpected presidency of Theodore Roosevelt paralleled and energized the AIA’s first decade in Washington.
The AIA’s Washington chapter organized the Public Art League in 1895. Housed in the Octagon after 1899, that group lobbied for the land around Rock Creek to be preserved as a park, convincing Congress to set aside its valley “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” But the biggest impact that the AIA and its artsy allies had was campaigning for the implementation of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for development of the city during its 1900 convention.
That energetic advocacy resulted in the U.S. Senate’s appointment of the McMillan Commission, including Daniel (“Make no small plans”) Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. According to the AIA’s history, written by Tony Wrenn, the commission’s report would:
“… [I]n time, clear the Mall of all 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.”
AIA public advocacy paid more dividends when, in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt engaged institute president McKim, of McKim, Mead & White, to restore and enlarge the White House in a manner consistent with its historical style. (Roosevelt renamed the “White House” by executive order; it had been called the “Executive Mansion.”)
Fresh off his State Capitol success, Gilbert was elected national AIA president in 1907. By then, the institute’s relationship with Roosevelt had deepened. In 1908, Roosevelt wrote to Gilbert, saying:
“Now that I am about to leave office there is something I should like to say thru you to the American Institute of Architects. During my incumbency of the Presidency the White House, under Mr. McKim’s direction, was restored to the beauty, dignity and simplicity of its original plan. It is now, without and within, literally the ideal house for the head of a great democratic republic. It should be a matter of pride and honorable obligation to the whole Nation to prevent its being in any way marred. If I had it in my power as I leave office, I should like to leave a legacy to you, and to the American Institute of Architects, the duty of preserving a perpetual ‘eye of guardianship’ over the White House to see that it is kept unchanged and unmarred from this time on.”
What a difference a century makes.
Every Minnesotan should experience the power of architecture to elevate our lives by visiting the renewed State Capitol. Go during a legislative session. Celebrate Cass Gilbert and take the opportunity to thank your elected representatives for their hard work, and for their persistence in funding the restoration of the People’s House.
And simply enjoy the sheer beauty of the place.
William Beyer, FAIA, is a Minnesota architect who served on the national board of directors of the American Institute of Architects and is a past president of AIA Minnesota.