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Thursday, March 23, 2017

A British Ambassador in the Natural and Cultural Landscapes of Washington

The Castle (Smithsonian Institution Building) with grounds as landscaped by Andrew Jackson Downing. This illustration is from a publication of 1920, Washington the Beautiful. The National Mall was later created to be a long, open expanse of lawn, replacing the curvilinear paths and plantings of the mid-19th century. 

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.

Plan for redesigning Washington in 1915. A row of official government buildings line the Mall (note the absence of the Castle). This plate is from William H. Taft and James Bryce's Washington, the Nation's Capital.

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
As a younger man, Bryce was an avid mountain climber, having summited Mount Ararat in Turkey in 1876; he served as president of the Alpine Club (UK) from 1899 to 1902. Although no longer young, he brought this rigorous appreciation of the outdoors to Washington and explored its natural setting and surrounding rural countryside with great enthusiasm. As with many a foreign visitor today, Bryce was in awe of the surging rapids fourteen miles upstream: “No European city has so noble a cataract in its vicinity as the Great Falls of the Potomac—a magnificent piece of scenery which you will, of course, always preserve.” Indeed, the country has: the waterfalls, with their southern banks in Virginia and northern parts in Maryland, including the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, are maintained by the National Park Service.

Postcard of Boulder Bridge in Rock Creek Park (1911). Smithsonian Institution Archives, Negative Number SIA2011-2307. 
It was Rock Creek, now one of the largest forested urban parks in America—twice the size of Central Park in New York City—that Ambassador Bryce was particularly taken with and not shy about expressing his opinions and offering advice. The meandering woodlands start at the Georgetown Canal and now extend into Montgomery County in Maryland, with many tributary park extensions, including Dumbarton Oaks Park.

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.
At a Board of Trade meeting in 1912, he warned that the beautiful spots of Washington could be ruined if acts of preservation were not soon taken. He scolded members of Congress for concentrating on appropriations for their home districts while ignoring their capital city. In support of constructing a touring road from the Zoo to the Potomac River, he was quoted saying to the group that “It seems to me that one of the principal endeavors of all people who want Washington made the greatest capital in the world should be to maintain the beauty of Rock Creek Park” (Washington Post, 1 March 1912). The following year, he proclaimed:
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)
Bryce’s “touring road” was extended into Maryland and has become a major commuting route for cars, with the creation of Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway which was authorized by Congress in 1913. This lengthen the road from the National Zoo down toward the Potomac River, effectively linking it with the National Mall and the growing campus of museums and monuments. 

Bryce strongly advocated the extension of Rock Creek above Washington into Maryland where “There are leafy glades where a man can go and lie down on a bed of leaves and listen for hours to the birds singing and forget there is such a place as Washington and such a thing as politics within eight miles of him.” He foresaw, in the great growth of the United States, that Washington would become a large and world-class city despite its lack of industries.
William H. Taft and James Bryce's Washington, the Nation's Capital
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.

Lord Bryce (who, after his retirement as ambassador, became Viscount Bryce) is often quoted in the literature of Rock Creek Park, remembered for his eloquent advocacy of the city that was only one of his many diplomatic postings. His legacy rather sadly lives on in the neglected terraced Bryce Park, dedicated by Princess Margaret in 1965. It is located at what once was his favorite spot, now the busy intersection of Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues but without the sweeping views. It is less than a mile from the British Embassy.

The Smithsonian’s collections provide testament to James Bryce’s legacy and lessons: there are several bronze sculptures (as well as a bust in the Capitol Building), an indication of his prominence at the time, and a dozen of his authored works in the Libraries. It is those titles, as well as his quotes accessible in historical newspaper databases and in journals, that record his thoughtful and forward-looking advocacy of the natural environment of Washington. They all preserve the history that informs the metropolitan landscape of today, the extensive park system first envisioned by L’Enfant.

Julia Blakely
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
Bryce Warns Capital: Says It May Suffer Through Neglect of Congress.” The Washington Post, March 1, 1912, page 3.
Bryce, James. The nation’s capital. Washington, D.C.: B.S. Adams, 1913.

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)
Bryce: “I know of no city in which the trees seem to be so much a part of the city as Washington.”

Washington’s Chamber of Commerce’s Committee of Hundred on the Future Development of Washington was to promoted the plan of the capital as approved by George Washington and as expanded by the Park Commission. The speech by Bryce delivered to the Committee was printed and edited for publication (newspaper accounts provided variations of the text) by Washington architect Glenn Brown. Photographs illustrating the book were by A. G. Robinson. A later reprint appears in The Capital of Our Country (National Geographic Society, 1923).

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