Washington, D.C. occupies an important place within Burnham’s thinking about city planning, in his professional practice, and in the larger history of city planning in the United States. As the nation’s capital, the city serves as the symbolic center of the country and a magnet for tourists and distinguished leaders from around the world. Politicians, pundits, and the public generally agreed that Washington’s built environment should be a source of national pride. This conviction had prompted President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to commission French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to conceive a glorious new city from scratch. In this 1791 scheme, as the Plan of Chicago put it, “no element of civic convenience, beauty, or adornment was lacking. The entire city was regarded as a unit, and that unit was to be developed in a form not surpassed by any existing city.” Now as then, Washington, D.C. stands out as the only major American city designed from the outset in the manner of European capital.
L’Enfant was forward-looking, conceiving his plan for a city with a population a third larger than Paris at the time. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Washington, D.C. had outgrown the French planner’s estimations. The city had expanded into the surrounding countryside, adding spaces not considered by L’Enfant. More disturbingly, as the Plan of Chicago points out, “there had been perversions of the plan.” For example, a railroad station and Victorian landscaping dominated the National Mall.
At the turn of the century, the Senate District of Columbia Committee turned its attention to returning the grandeur of L’Enfant’s scheme to the city, as well as conceptualizing a comprehensive park scheme to complement the National Mall. The committee, chaired by Michigan senator James McMillan, appointed the Senate Park Improvement Commission to plan the work. Several of the appointees (including Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens) had shaped artistic plan of the World’s Columbian Exposition and took that experience as a guide for their work in Washington. The Commission suggested that the Mall’s glory be restored by relocating the railroad terminal to a location north of the Capitol, narrowing the dimensions of Mall, replacing the Victorian plantings with an open greensward, and framing the long rectangle of grass with public buildings designed in the classical style. The scheme broadly recalled the Court of Honor at the exposition, where classical buildings surrounded a rectilinear basin. The McMillan Plan, as it was often called, also intensified the commemorative aspect of the mall, calling for monumental memorials and reflecting pools at the western and southern edges.
The McMillan Plan exerted considerable influence on the course of Burnham’s career and on American city planning in general. The prestigious project burnished Burnham’s credentials as a planner. Through working with McKim, he learned how lavish architectural illustrations could help win support for a project. He also met Charles Moore in Washington, where he served as McMillan’s secretary; Burnham would subsequently hire Moore to help write and edit the Plan of Chicago. More broadly, the McMillan Plan gave momentum to the nascent national city planning movement.
Hines, Thomas S. “The Imperial Mall: The City Beautiful Movement and the Washington Plan of 1901-1902.” In Studies in the History of Art, Symposium Papers XIV, vol. 30 (1991). The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991, pp. 78-99.
Moore, Charles, ed. Report of the Senate Park Commission. The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia. United States Senate Committee on the District of Columbia. 57th Cong., 1st sess. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902.
Peterson, Jon A. “The Mall, the McMillan Plan, and the Origins of American City Planning.” Studies in the History of Art, Symposium Papers XIV: The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991. 30 (1991): 100-115.
Stephenson, Richard W. “From L’Enfant to the Senate Park Commission: Mapping the Nation’s Capital from 1791 to 1902.”. The Occasional Papers, Series no. 6. Washington: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, 2014.
Wilson, William H. The City Beautiful Movement. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
The McMillan Plan of 1901. Washington, D.C.: National Capital Planning Commission, 1901.