by Richard Moe, Leonard A. Zax
On June 8, 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy penned a passionate, 12-page letter to a close family friend, the painter William Walton. The specific purpose was to urge him to take an active role in the Commission of Fine Arts, the Federal agency authorized to review architectural and design plans for buildings and landscapes at locations of special interest to the U.S. Government. Today, however, the letter testifies to something of enduring significance: Mrs. Kennedy's deep personal commitment to preserving the beauty and history of Washington, DC.
"I don't blame you for not wanting to be head--but if you aren't head--you are useless--as people only listen to the head--and it is all going to be involved with all the things we care about--when Jack is gone--so he won't be able to help you--and lovely buildings will be torn down--and cheesy skyscrapers go up. Perhaps saving old buildings and having the new ones be right isn't the most important thing in the world--if you are waiting for the bomb--but I think we are always going to be waiting for the bomb and it won't ever come and so to save the old--and to make the new beautiful is terribly important."
Saving the old and making the new beautiful: This legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has received little mention since her death. But the proof of it is to be seen here in Washington. Hers was among the strongest voices urging her husband to initiate the Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment, creating the magnificent thoroughfare from the Capitol to the White House that L'Enfant had intended it to be. And then there was the White House itself. "She did far more than redecorate the White House, she restored and preserved it," says J. Carter Brown, Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission. She was instrumental in having Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an Assistant to Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg, draft a Presidential declaration ordaining that Federal buildings, "particularly those located in the Nation's Capital" must "provide visual harmony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American government" and should "embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought." Perhaps most important, however, was Mrs. Kennedy's very first design project in this city: The preservation of the buildings surrounding Lafayette Square, the Old Executive Office Building, and the court building that is now the Renwick Gallery.
In a very real sense, Jackie Kennedy had a greater effect on the shape and spirit of the historic heart of the Nation's Capital than any architect or developer. A number of her handwritten notes show how fervently she led the cause.
Near the end of the Eisenhower administration, and over the objections of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose Decatur House had anchored the northwest corner of the square since 1819, the Congress authorized plans to demolish virtually all of the buildings on the east and west sides of Lafayette Square, including the building that is now the Renwick Gallery. Plans were already well underway to tear down the Old Executive Office Building. In their place, the Government planned several modern high-rise office towers. Millions of dollarsin architectural fees had already been invested in the plans; scrapping them would not be easy.
In the summer of 1961, President Kennedy formally approved some of the plans. His young wife, however, was deeply troubled by the implications. In the following months she energetically sought to revisit the designs.
Early in February 1962, Mrs. Kennedy asked David Finley, then Chairman of both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Commission of Fine Arts, to take a stroll with her around Lafayette Square. She told Finley that both she and the President were concerned about the proposed designs, worrying that they would be incongruous with other buildings on the square. In France, where she had studied at the Sorbonne, there was a law providing that certain buildings of historical or architectural importance could not be destroyed. It would be nice, she ventured to Finley, for Congress to have such a law.
Finley, noting that the Commission's recommendations were only advisory, said the final decision about the Lafayette Square designs would be made by the General Services Administrator. That official turned out to be an old friend, Bernard Boutin.
The following month, she wrote him a spirited letter. "All architects are innovators, and would rather do something totally new than in the spirit of old buildings," she observed critically of the architectural trend of the time. "I think they are totally wrong in this case, as the important thing is to preserve the 19th-century feeling of Lafayette Square." She asked Boutin "to write to the architects and tell them to submit a design which is more in keeping with the 19th-century bank on the corner. It should be the same color, same size, etc."
The GSA administrator adopted her position, and an April 18, 1962, letter to Finley shows Mrs. Kennedy barely able to contain her excitement: Hold your breath because this is what is going to happen--all our wildest dreams come true. . . . (1) The new court building will be 19th century in feeling--similar to bank. (2) The Dolley Madison and Taylor houses will be saved!!! (3) The Court of Claims will be saved--it will be I think turned into a Museum of Modern Art which people are trying to get started here and which I said I would sponsor--as I think it is wrong to identify oneself solely with art of the past--and never encourage what is happening now. So it will be used as it used to be. (4) The whole Decatur House side facades will be saved except for the 2 tall modern buildings!!! . . . Some will be used as extension of guest facilities at Blair House--the rest as offices--so Theodore Roosevelt's old house--and place where National Gallery was born will be preserved. This is what delights me the most--everyone wants to raze things and build efficient new buildings--Bernard Boutin is a preservationist and also he says it will be cheaper! Who else would ever have said that! None of those naughty show-off architects! The gaps that are left will be filled with some 19th century D.C. houses that he will have moved there. So if you know any special ones you want saved--tell him. (5) On 17th Street a big building will go up to provide space for Bureau of Budget or whoever it is who wants all this space.
Not everyone in Washington was as pleased as Mrs. Kennedy with the preservation plan. Ralph Walker, a Fine Arts Commission member who was a former president of the American Institute of Architects and a pillar of the architectural establishment at the time, was one who objected strenuously. "To keep on using bad architecture and trying to preserve it because there is practically nothing except Decatur House on that side of the Square that is worth preserving--the rest is junk, architecturally--it is junk. . . . I hope Jacqueline wakes up to the fact that she lives in the 20th century."
Of course, the First Lady did recognize her own century, and also understood the special problems of historic preservation in downtown Washington, problems that continue. The need to accommodate new construction in a way that is compatible with older structures isn't easy; this city has failures and successes of design. But as Dorn McGrath, George Washington University's influential professor of urban planning, says, Mrs. Kennedy's Lafayette Square concepts became an important model for future development in Washington. "It began the process of making a creative use of space in critical Washington locations, increasing the density in parts while maintaining the historical context. Her basic ideas, implemented by architects, demonstrated that one need not throw away 19th- and 18th-century architecture in order to live in the 20th century."
The First Lady was not content to reshape the urban landscape around the White House. She played an active role in beginning the revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue. Although she had concerns about the location of the National Cultural Center, which ultimately was named the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, it was too late for her to move the new building to locations she preferred downtown.
She was keenly interested in the renovation of older buildings for theater and arts uses along and near Pennsylvania Avenue. William Walton (who later did become Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission) said Mrs. Kennedy wanted to use one Pennsylvania Avenue building as "an opera house like she had seen in a trip to Panama City." She worked to make certain that theater and arts uses were a part of the first plans for Pennsylvania Avenue--goals that eventually were realized with the restoration of the National Theater and the Warner, and the creative blend of preservation and new construction of the Lansburgh.
Her letters and notes recognize that older buildings embody precious features of our heritage and that they serve as examples of quality for architecture today. Members of Congress, in urging the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, called Mrs. Kennedy's preservation efforts a model, not only for preservation in this city, but for large and small communities throughout America.
Of course, many, many others played a role in saving old buildings and providing for the beautiful Lafayette Square that L'Enfant referred to in his plan as the "President's Park." But the record is clear that Jackie Kennedy played the crucial role when many others said it was too late. As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recalls her telling her husband, "The wreckers haven't started yet, and until they do, it can be saved."
It was a credo she took with her after her husband's death, when she moved to New York. There she protested against the demolition of New York's Penn Station and worked tirelessly in the successful effort to preserve Grand Central Terminal. But Lafayette Square, her first effort, may be her greatest triumph. John Kennedy once remarked that the sensitive combination of old and new buildings on the square "may be the only monument we'll leave."
Assuming anyone remembers. One evening last year, historian David McCullough, seated next to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at dinner, thanked the former First Lady for her important role in saving Lafayette Square, adding that he was sure she had been thanked many times before. "Mr. McCullough," she responded, "I have never been thanked." Self-effacing as always and satisfied with the result of her efforts, she simply did not seek public recognition. But all of us who care about the preservation of the Capital's--and the Nation's--heritage should be sorry that she did not receive that recognition during her life. For more than any resident of the White House since Thomas Jefferson, she had a vision of what architecture and the arts can mean. In the end, she may be one of the more important preservationists in Washington's history.
(Richard Moe is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Leonard Zax is a trustee of the D.C. reservation League and a partner in the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.)
John Carl Warnecke and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy discuss plans for Lafayette Square and the New Executive Office Building in September 1962.