by John Kelley
[I’ve been visiting the Washington, D.C., area for a while lately. As many ROTters know, I’m a native Washingtonian and my mother lives here. It’s hard to avoid the many monuments and important buildings of the Nation’s Capital; even if you don’t drive around and see them up close and personal, they show up on TV as backdrops for news reports, commercials, and local programming. Pictures of Washington’s historic and patriotic sites abound, of course. (One year when I was in high school abroad—something else regular readers of ROT will probably know—I decorated my dorm room with photos of the District’s important sights out of . . . oh, I don’t know—chauvinism, nostalgia, homesickness, hometown pride. Pick one: you’re bound to be right.) A couple of years ago, the Washington Post Magazine ran the following article on projects that never came to be, some of them exceedingly whimsical. (Who knew Washingtonians even had whimsy?) “What Were They Thinking/” ran in the 15 September 2013 issue of the magazine.]
The could-have-beens, not the should-have-beens.
Washington would sure look different if ideas that flourished in the fevered imaginations of architects, artists, developers and inventors had made the leap from drawing board to construction site. Would it look better? You be the judge.
1911: BIG STADIUM
In 1911 an architect named Ward Brown decided Washington was lacking something: a massive stadium that could accommodate 100,000 people.
By the time Brown was finished sketching, he had created a structure reminiscent of Rome’s famed Colosseum but bigger in nearly every dimension. His masterpiece would be 650 feet long, 550 feet wide, 120 feet high, with two triumphal, marble-clad entrance arches, seven stories high.
Gushed The Washington Post about Brown’s idea: “The proposition is so stupendous as almost to stagger the mind with the greatness of the possibilities of the plan and the importance of the undertaking, a proposition which would make Washington the hub of the world, as the Colosseum made Rome the center of all interest and the goal of the whole human race seeking diversion.”
What better place for such diversions as pageants, expositions, drills, aviation exhibitions and horse shows? The stadium could be used for the annual Army-Navy game, play host to the Olympics and even be flooded for water events.
The stadium idea was said to have the support of key members of Congress. Two possible sites were mentioned: on the Ellipse behind the White House or on the banks of the Potomac, where the stadium could serve as a gargantuan monument to Abraham Lincoln. (A somewhat more modest memorial is located there today.)
“That Washington should have the greatest stadium in the history of the world seems fitting,” The Post wrote.
Instead, Washington’s modern gladiators play in a place called Landover, and our minds remain unstaggered.
1923: RACIST STATUE
The Civil War may have been over for 58 years, but in 1923 something still rankled certain white Southerners: Americans just didn’t understand the affection that flowed between slave owners and their slaves.
Nowhere was that truer, they thought, than with the loyal black women who lovingly raised white children. And so in 1923 the Washington, D.C., chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy persuaded the U.S. Senate to approve a resolution in favor of erecting a monument in memory of “the faithful slave mammies” of the South.
Several artists vied for the commission. Their designs were similar: an Aunt Jemima-like black woman holding a white infant.
“No class of any race of people held in bondage could be found anywhere who lived more free from care and distress,” said the North Carolina congressman who introduced similar legislation in the House.
Critics begged to differ. One African American artist suggested a different design: a black servant holding a white baby by a shirttail while standing atop a washtub. The legend read: “In grateful memory to one we never paid a cent of wages during a lifetime of service.”
Black newspapers decried the proposed memorial, as did scholar W. E. B. DuBois. Said Hallie Q. Brown, president of an association of African American women’s clubs: “One generation held the black mammy in abject slavery; the next would erect a monument to her fidelity.” A letter in the Washington Evening Star from an NAACP official described the idea as a “symbol of our servitude to remind white and black alike that the menial callings are our place.”
Condemned by blacks and Northern whites alike, legislation for the “faithful slave mammies” memorial never made it out of House committee.
1967: FLIGHT LINE
The next time you’re stuck in a taxi trying to get from your downtown D.C. office to Reagan National, imagine how easy your life would be if Samuel J. Solomon had been able to sell his dream: an airport on K Street NW, between 11th and 13th streets.
“Essentially, his project would mean the creation of a 130-foot building, topped by a roof that would contain an 800-foot landing strip,” wrote The Post in 1967, after Solomon announced his idea to the National Aviation Club. It would be serviced, he explained, by aircraft capable of short takeoffs and landings.
Solomon was an aviation pioneer. In 1933 he formed National Airways. One of his co-founders: Amelia Earhart. Before that, the native Washingtonian had run Washington Airport, an airfield situated where the Pentagon is today.
Washington Airport had a memorable feature: A road bisected the runway, necessitating a traffic light to keep planes and cars from colliding. Perhaps this is what inspired Solomon to create an airport high above traffic. He was granted a patent for a two-story airfield that would perch on top of a building that was basically a vertical airport, with baggage-handling facilities, airline offices, hotels and restaurants.
Solomon thought that air travel would not appeal to the masses unless it was as convenient to catch an airplane as it was to catch a train. What could be easier for time-pressed Washingtonians than an airport across from Franklin Park?
But as The Post pointed out: “The area in which Solomon’s airport would rise is now off limits to aircraft. Planes are not allowed to fly over that section of Washington because of its proximity to the White House. Therefore, among other things, he would need a variance.”
That variance never came.
1986: MAGIC ISLAND
Magicians are good at making things disappear. Alas, it can be harder to make things appear. Such was the case with impish illusionist Doug Henning, who in 1986 was enlisted to help create a magical theme park in the middle of the Anacostia River, across from RFK Stadium.
This odd piece of real estate had been created in 1916, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the silted-over Anacostia and used the spoils to make two islands: Kingman and Heritage. Over the ensuing decades, all sorts of plans were floated for the islands, from a home for the District’s first airport to a place to stash the city’s trash to a playground honoring the Bicentennial.
Then in the 1980s, the Contessa Bina Sella di Monteluce got involved. The daughter of an Indian metals magnate and wife of an Italian count, the contessa was prepared to sink part of her sizable fortune into what was now being called National Children’s Island. She described the manmade landmasses as “mystical.”
There was certainly something mystical about the contessa’s plans for the place: She envisioned an Enchanted Crystal Forest and a hall of mirrors, where light would seemingly pass through visitors’ bodies. Henning, who had become a proponent of transcendental meditation, promised to create “Doug Henning’s Island of Wonder” and hinted that he would perform 150 days a year. The land was transferred from the feds to the District government, with a promise to let the contessa take over.
But environmentalists and neighborhood groups opposed any large-scale development on the islands. Today they remain D.C. property and serve as a place for schoolchildren to learn about a different kind of magic: nature.
[John Kelly is a Washington Post staff writer who writes “John Kelly’s Washington,” a daily look at Washington’s less-famous side. Born in Washington, Kelly started at the Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. Since then, he’s edited Weekend, founded “KidsPost” and been a general assignment reporter in “Metro.” Kelly is a graduate of Rockville (Maryland) High School and the University of Maryland and has done journalism fellowships at Harvard and Oxford.]