A Capital City, Urban Planning and history.(BOOKS)(ARCHITECTURE)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 9, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Capital City, Urban Planning and history.(BOOKS)(ARCHITECTURE)


Byline: Ellen Sands, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"Let our aqueduct be worthy of the Nation; and, emulous as we are of the ancient Roman republic, let us show that the rulers chosen by the people are not less careful of the safety, health and beauty of their capital than the emperors who, after enslaving their nation, by their great works conferred benefits upon their city which, their treason almost forgotten, cause their names to be remembered with respect and affection by those who will drink the water supplied by their magnificent aqueducts."

Federal bureaucrats do not write requests for proposals like that anymore. Then again, there haven't been too many civil servants like the remarkable Montgomery C. Meigs, either. Proud, incorruptible, visionary, pious, stubborn and humorless, a designer of distinction and an engineer of genius, Meigs had as much to do with the built environment of Washington D.C. as anyone since Pierre Charles L'Enfant.

In a 40-year career as an Army engineer in Washington beginning in 1852, Meigs surveyed, designed and willed into being the capital's first reliable water supply system, supervised the erection of the Capitol's massive iron dome, and put his deep affection for classical Italian architecture to use in his career-capping design for the Pension Building, now the site of the National Building Museum at 9th and G Streets NW.

Montgomery C. Meigs and the Building of the Nation's Capital (Ohio University Press, $49.95, 212 pages, illus.) edited by William C. Dickinson, Dean A. Herrin and Donald R. Kennon, tries to capture in a series of 11 scholarly essays the many sides of this multifaceted man, from his engineering feats to his architectural influences to his epic battles with contractors, congressmen, critics and his own superiors.

Particularly strong are essays by Harry C. Ways, former chief of the Washington Aqueduct, on Meigs' crusade to provide potable water to city residents, and a survey by William C. Dickinson, a management consultant, focusing on Meigs' "unique skill for executing large and complex public works projects."

Well illustrated but relatively short, this book leaves a reader hungry for a full-scale biography of a man who knew virtually everyone who mattered at a critical time in the nation's development. (His first assignment for the Army Corps of Engineers was under fellow West Pointer Lt. Robert E. Lee; he once rejected a job application from 20-year-old James Abbott McNeill Whistler as a draftsman, leaving the young man free to pursue a rather more successful career in art.)

And despite his high reputation today, Meigs was embroiled in controversies throughout his career. Now recognized as one of Washington's great spaces, the vast central atrium of the Pension Building attracted harsh critical comment in its day. Told that Meigs had designed the building to be virtually fireproof, Union war hero Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman reportedly replied: "What a pity!"

* * *

Why Architecture Matters (University of Chicago Press, $37.50, 386 pages, illus.) is a collection of columns by Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin. While most of the selections concern buildings and issues affecting the Chicago area, anyone with an interest in the built environment will find this an accessible and enlightening collection. Subtitled "Lessons from Chicago," the collection offers far broader insights regarding architecture and urban planning than apply strictly to any one city. Mr. Kamin's topics are relevant across the country; the book includes forays into other cities and buildings of international renown.

The comments regarding skyscrapers, and the impact of architecture on the civic consciousness, are thought provoking and timely. Although the columns were all written pre- September 11, Mr. Kamin addresses the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center as well as the Oklahoma City bombing. …

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