Executive Order Takes Aim at Modernist Architecture in Washington, D.C.

president trump calls for "classical" makeover of modern federal buildings in nation's capital

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Newer federal buildings may soon be getting a traditional makeover, NPR reported. Introduced by President Trump, the order calls for “classical” redesigns on federal buildings in downtown Washington, D.C. The president’s order favors buildings like the U.S. Capitol.

US Capitol building in Washington D.C.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol building is a recognizable American symbol for the seat of the U.S. federal government in Washington, D.C. Photo By f11photo / Shutterstock

According to NPR, Washington, D.C. may look very different in a few years. “Back in February, President Trump set the architectural world reeling with a call for traditional designs for new federal buildings,” the article said. “He proposed an executive order, called ‘Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,’ which took an out-with-the-new, in-with-the-old approach to architecture, calling modern federal buildings constructed over the last five decades ‘undistinguished,’ ‘uninspiring,’ and ‘just plain ugly.'”

The order itself calls for “classical” architecture. “The order defines ‘classical’ as including Neoclassical, Georgian, Greek Revival, Gothic, and other traditional styles, and mostly trashes federal buildings constructed from the 1950s on.”

The dome of the U.S. Capitol was cited both by NPR’s reporters and a member of the National Civic Art Society as what the president hopes to see more of in Washington. Here’s what’s inside.

Under the Dome

The Capitol Rotunda sits underneath the Capitol building’s iconic dome. Completed in 1824, it’s as notable for its architecture as it is for its function.

“It is and has always been a ceremonial space—most notably, it is where distinguished Americans lie in state or lie in honor after their deaths,” said Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. “These have included 12 U.S. Presidents and such figures as Pierre L’Enfant, Generals Pershing and MacArthur, Rosa Parks, Senator Daniel Inouye, and Senator John McCain.”

Dr. Kurin said that the rotunda is filled with eight large oil paintings, each about 12 feet high and 18 feet wide, depicting important events in colonial and early American history. The first four were commissioned by Congress in 1817 and were created by artist John Trumbull, who was Washington’s aide-de-camp. The most famous piece in the rotunda is his The Declaration of Independence, which adorns the back of the $2 bill.

An Italian-born artist, Constantino Brumidi, is responsible for much of the Capitol building’s art, including relief sculptures above the large oil paintings; painted friezes at the base of the dome; and a fresco at the dome’s apex called The Apotheosis of Washington, which depicts George Washington’s ascension to Heaven.

Watch Your Step

Dr. Kurin said that the typical Capitol tour doesn’t include entry to the dome itself. Such tours must be arranged by your senator, representative, or their chief of staff, who must accompany you on the tour.

Currently, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center has been closed due to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. Check online for information about when tours will no longer be cancelled.

Dome tours are also not for the faint of heart,” he said. “Reaching the highest accessible area means climbing hundreds of steps on narrow, twisting, sometimes spiral staircases. First, you’ll be taken between the outer dome and the inner dome; you will see the base of the original dome and octagonal coffers from the inner dome where Brumidi’s fresco is painted. [And] you’ll see the elaborate cast iron support system that keeps the external dome aloft.”

Dr. Kurin said that next, the route continues back inside the gallery of windows and columns halfway up to the dome, which feature spectacular views of the rotunda paintings and the city outside. If you aren’t afraid of heights, there’s more to see even higher up.

“Keep going up and you’ll reach the oculus gallery, where you’ll get an extreme close-up view of the Apotheosis fresco as well as a pretty dizzying view of the rotunda floor down below,” he said. “Finally, weather permitting, you may be taken to the Tholos: the small circular balcony between the dome and the Statue of Freedom, where you’ll get an incomparable 360-degree view of the city.

“If you haven’t got the stomach for these heights, or you simply can’t get on one of these rare tours, the scale model of the dome found in the visitor center will give you the experience, albeit in miniature.”

Should the executive order on federal building makeovers come to fruition under the new administration, the view of the city from the Capitol dome will look very different in a few years.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture

Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. In this position, he oversees most of the Smithsonian’s national museums, libraries, and archives, as well as several of its research and outreach programs. Dr. Kurin holds a BA in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo–The State University of New York. He earned both his MA and his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.