BUILDING A NATIONAL IMAGE: Architectural Drawings for the American Democracy, 1789-1912 by Bates Lowry

BUILDING A NATIONAL IMAGE: Architectural Drawings for the American Democracy, 1789-1912

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A survey of American federal architecture from the beginning of the Republic to WW I. Published to coincide with the inaugural exhibition of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the lucidly organized, lavishly illustrated volume (211 drawings in color, most never before seen by the public) traces the efforts of architects from Pierre L'Enfant to McKim, Mead and White to establish an ""American"" architectural style that would express the democratic ideals of the nation's founders. The search for ""a national image"" encompassed such divergent approaches as Greek, Gothic and Romanesque Revival, ""Picturesque"" and Beaux-Arts. Proponents of each style saw in their varied architectural creations the embodiment of the American genius. The section dealing with L'Enfant's plans for the national capital and the ensuing conflicts and compromises is especially revealing. L'Enfant, an autocratic Frenchman despite his republican leanings, became embroiled in political maneuverings and was eventually dismissed, his plans for the President's House and the Capitol Building unrealized. Equally intriguing is the material dealing with the impact of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 on federal architectural policies. The US Government Building at the Exposition (designed by the US Office of the Supervising Architect) was so inferior to the shimmering white Beaux-Arts pavilions surrounding it in the Court of Honor that a national scandal erupted that led to the passage of the Tarsney Act, which opened the design of public buildings to private architects. ""Beaux-Arts' became the preferred federal architectural style for the next 40 years. As might be expected, the search for a national image produced its share of the gimcrack (an 1859 chandelier for the US Treasury Extension incorporated a tepee, buffaloes and several Indian braves into its design) and the grandiose (John Russell Pope's overwrought, if beautifully rendered, proposals for a Lincoln Monument in 1912). Lowry has been well-advised to include both the kitsch and the classic to produce this well-rounded and constantly absorbing overview of America's architectural past.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1986
Publisher: Walker