The District of Columbia, in the century following its selection by President George Washington as the site for the permanent seat of government, had a difficult history. The streets were muddy and unpaved, animals roamed about, the canal along what is now Constitution Avenue was a fetid sewer, a slaughter house was near the White House, and there was little in the way of infrastructure. Destruction that occurred from the War of 1812 and the chaos of the Civil War overwhelmed the city’s scant resources and contributed to the Federal capital’s sorry state. There were calls to have the Capital moved elsewhere. Washington City began to become more established with the creation of the Territorial Government in 1871, led by Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, although that municipal organization soon collapsed under scandal and bankruptcy.
The “City Beautiful” movement, growing out of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, inspired, in part, the 1901 Senate Park Improvement Commission to draw up the McMillan Plan, an architectural reshaping of the National Mall and park system throughout the city. Never formally adopted due to political maneuverings, the 1902 document nonetheless has served as a guide over the decades towards realizing (if in piecemeal form) the grandeur envisioned in Peter (Pierre) Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan of District, with monumental buildings and memorials.
A key participant in the landscape and beautification of the nation’s capital was Ambassador James Bryce of Great Britain. Serving from 1907 to 1913, he was an articulate, energetic and persuasive proponent of what made and would make Washington unique in the world. He made his first of many travels to America in 1870, and arrived to his diplomatic posting in Washington with a wide circle of friends and well known from his popular three-volume The American Commonwealth (1888). Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40), Bryce’s classic work analyzed government, economic and social institutions across the United States. Having been a law professor at Oxford, well-traveled across the globe, and a politician (as a Liberal Member of Parliament), Bryce was said to have read everything and known everyone. Unlike some others with sophisticated backgrounds filling ambassadorships in Washington at this time, he embraced with confidence what was a decidedly backwater town.
|James Bryce, Viscount Bryce of Dechmont (1838-1922). Portrait frontispiece from his book, The Nation's Capital|
|Postcard of Boulder Bridge in Rock Creek Park (1911). Smithsonian Institution Archives, Negative Number SIA2011-2307.|
During the 19th century, there were serious proposals for building a railway and for filling in the valley of Rock Creek to the level of Massachusetts Avenue in the Northwest quadrant of the city. But thoughtful urban planning led to the creation of Rock Creek Park by an Act of Congress in 1890, one of the early federal parks in the country (the third in the system). It was the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park on the banks of Rock Creek, with legislation enacted in 1899, which brought greater public attention to the need for protecting wildlife in the region and land for recreational use. Bryce praised Rock Creek’s “inexhaustible variety of footpaths, where you can force your way through thickets and test your physical ability in climbing up and down steep slopes.”
|Visitors to the Zoo Relax by Rock Creek. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Negative Number 75-1702.|
I know of no great city in Europe that has anywhere near such beautiful scenery so close to it as has Washington in Rock Creek park, and in many of the woods that stretch along the Potomac on the north and also on the south side. The river in the center, beautiful hills, delightfully wooded, rise on each side and one may wander day after day in new walks. I never have to take the same walk twice. (Washington Post, 28 February 1913)
|William H. Taft and James Bryce's Washington, the Nation's Capital|
In a 1913 essay presented to the Committee of One Hundred on the Future Development of Washington, the Ambassador pleaded for preserving a certain vista:
May I mention another point of view that is now threatened and perhaps almost gone? You all know the spot at which Wisconsin avenue (up which the cars run to Tennallytown and the District line) intersects Massachusetts avenue, which has now been extended beyond that intersection into the country. At that point of intersection, just opposite where the Episcopal [now known as National] Cathedral is to stand, there is one spot commanding what is one of the most beautiful general views of Washington. You look down upon the city, you see its most striking buildings—the Capitol, the Library, State, War and Navy Department, and the Post Office and other high buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue—beyond them you see the great silvery flood of the Potomac and the soft lines fading away in dim outline in the far southeast. It is a delightful and inspiring view.Believing there was no better vantage point in Washington, Lord Bryce stated that this slope should be turned into a public park, and the houses stretching below limited in height to protect the sweeping view. This northwest corner of Washington was becoming fashionable, growing as older parts of the city became more built up. After an initial period of recovery following the Civil War, during a time of wild economic growth (1880-1920), the Federal Government quickly expanded and new official buildings pushed residential neighborhoods out of downtown. With its hilly terrain and seclusion provided by the ravine of Rock Creek, yet so close to the old Washington City, the area was a perfect location for newly wealthy Americans to build luxurious private estates and gardens. Land speculation was booming. The Ambassador’s cherished vista, since so many trees were cut down during the Civil War to defend the vulnerable city with forts and roads and clear lines of sight, would eventually be lost to subsequent tall tree growth. Nor did he anticipate that that acreage would soon become so very valuable. In a mere fifteen years from the time of Lord Bryce’s suggestion, his own country would ignite a trend of foreign missions in the area with the new British Embassy, designed by world-renown architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Notes and Captions
One of the more famous quotes of Ambassador Bryce is that "The national park is the best idea America ever had.”
|Washington, the Nation's Capital|
Taft, William H. with James Bryce and Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor. Washington, the Nation’s Capital. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1915.
“[You] have an admirable and constantly growing National Museum.”
|Completed in 1911, the building is now the National Museum of Natural History (Washington the Beautiful)|