Missing Link: Beaux-Arts to Skyscraper City

An edited version of a short essay originally published in CLOG: UNPUBLISHED from May 2013. The long form will be following soon.

The George Washington National Masonic Memorial is situated in Alexandria, Virginia atop Shooter's Hill, six miles south of the White House. Completed in 1932, the Memorial towers 333 feet over George Washington's hometown and offers views of both his home at Mount Vernon and the city named in his honor across the river. Despite also serving as a national (and international) meeting place for Freemasons worldwide, the building has remained relatively little known. Yet, the Washington Masonic Memorial is situated at the center of two crucial national narratives that are sometimes complementary and sometimes in conflict: the quest by American Masons to mark their prestige and power by projecting it into the public sphere, and the evolution of American public architecture away from Neoclassical precedent into the era of the skyscraper.

The ambition of the American Masons is the more obvious of the narratives; the building is certainly not discreet. The role that the building played in the evolution of American architecture, however, takes a bit more prodding to uncover. The Memorial's architect, Harvey Wiley Corbett, was one of the original proponents of the skyscraper. Moreover, he was one of the first to commission Hugh Ferriss to draw his dynamic chiaroscuro illustrations of zoning. The forms of the Memorial are the forms of Gotham, stuck on a hill overlooking the wide and bucolic Potomac.

The Memorial was cutting edge when Corbett's design was first proposed in 1922; it balanced a Beaux-Arts ornamental vocabulary with experimental skyscraper massing, conveniently in agreement with a subtle representational aim—to recall the lighthouse in the original Alexandria. But by the time it was completed in 1932, far more iconic, tall, and daring skyscrapers had been completed and the awkwardness of the typology's adolescence were figured out. Meanwhile, the Memorial was left frozen in an indeterminate zone somewhere between monument and modern masterpiece. After all, memorials are not for the living.

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