DC History Modules

The Classical Tradition in Washington, D.C.:
An Introduction to the Greco-Roman World

Randolph H. Lytton
Associate Professor of History
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia

“Reading the stones of Washington is scarcely as complicated
as reading those of Greece or Egypt,
but for all the newness of the American capital,
it has accumulated, in a century and three-quarters,
a vigor and complexity of its own.”

- William Walton
The Evidence of Washington, p. 28.
“Though the Romans of Architecture were late in stamping their Imperial mark
on Washington, their influence is by far the most pervasive in the city,
surpassing in scale of construction and quantity of stone
the work of both the Greek Revivalists and the later Romantics.”

- William Walton
The Evidence of Washington, pp. 37-38.
“American history and spirit cling to each Roman arch—
to each Grecian column, entablature, and pediment.”

- George C. Hazelton, Jr.
The National Capitol, p. 86.
“No other city in America (or Europe) has so many public buildings
adorned with sculptured pediments
and concentrated within such a small area as Washington…
These lavish architectural decorations truly give the capital city
a classical appearance”

-John E. Ziolkowsk,
Classical Washington: A Guided Tour, p. 9.

For those interested in the Greco-Roman tradition, Washington D.C. provides a unique challenge, and opportunity. Unlike in many other world capitals, there is no major museum that offers a generous cross section of offerings from the civilization of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Origins of Western Culture section of the Museum of Natural History provides a brief look at the Greco-Roman world. However, the closest museums that have a focus on the ancient Mediterranean area are the Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, and the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond, VA.

At one time there was a plan to have a “National Galleries of History and Art,” which would have presented displays on eight ancient civilizations. Ultimately, due to the financial collapse in 1905 of its primary sponsor, Franklin Webster Smith of Boston, who made his money in the hardware trade, this forty-acre vision, which was to have been located in the Foggy Bottom area, and the prototype, “Halls of the Ancients” on New York Avenue, disappeared from the Washington D.C.’s landscape (James M. Goode, Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings, pp. 280-282).

Yet all is not lost for those who live in or visit Washington, D.C., actually or virtually. From its 18th century beginnings as the nation’s new capital, Washington, D.C. has served as an outdoor, and indoor, textbook for Greco-Roman culture. You just have to know where, and how, to look. Classical culture surrounds us on and in the many neoclassical public and private buildings of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. You can see and study The Capitol, the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building), the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, the National Archives Building, Union Station, the Scottish Rite Temple, and the Zero Milestone, among the many ‘classical’ offerings on display. In the National Gallery of Art there are many fine works of art that have Greco-Roman culture as their inspiration.

This study is not meant to be a complete investigation of all the neoclassical buildings and monuments in Washington D.C. that have classical references. I have searched for ‘classical’ material that can serve as an introduction to the classical tradition in Washington, D.C., as well as a springboard to the classical world, its people, places and culture. What are the various aspects of the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans that can be found on and in various modern buildings and monuments that we pass by everyday without thinking about their classical origins? Welcome to “The Classical Tradition in Washington, D.C.”!

I also want to encourage others who teach about the Greco-Roman tradition to become a curator of their own neoclassical/classical website exhibit, drawing from their local or regional classically influenced resources. Greco-Roman texts of classical culture are readily available on the streets of towns and cities and within the halls of public buildings and museums of many urban centers, such as Philadelphia, PA, Chicago, IL, San Francisco, CA, and your town. American cities and towns to varying degrees provide excellent neoclassical material for a classical education in the classroom, on the computer, or on a guided classical walk around your ‘neighborhood.’

The Classical Tradition in Washington, D.C.: An Introduction to the Greco-Roman World has been organized alphabetically for easy reference. There is also a chronological index of the buildings and monuments, etc. as they became part of the capital city’s landscape. Within each primary teaching module are an introductory text, additional graphic-documents, some discussion questions to help students learn more about Washington D.C. and the ancient Mediterranean world, and a bibliographic essay with selected references. I have also provided an alphabetical index of secondary classically-influenced buildings and monuments not included as primary teaching modules, and a general bibliography.

The inspiration for this project began with Classical Washington: A Guided Tour (1987) by John E. Ziolkowski, who provides an enjoyable and informative classical walk around downtown Washington, D.C. Also important to the preparation of this project are James B. Goode, The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C (1979), Candyce H. Stapen, Washington, D.C.: Blue Guide (2000), H.M. Hoover, The Whole Truth…and Other Myths: Retelling Ancient Tales (1996), among other sources. I have used G. Martin Moeller Jr., AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C., 4th edition (2006), and Pamela Scott & Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993) as the primary sources for basic architectural information.

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable support and assistance of Jim Safley, Programmer & Digital Archivist in the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University, and Pim P. Van Den Assum, a student who taught me about the world of websites. I take full responsibility for the veracity of the text, and welcome any corrections, comments, or additions. Since this is an e-publication nothing is carved in stone. Future changes in the website will be made as appropriate. Please email me at rlytton@gmu.edu.

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