News & Politics

DC Would Have Looked Very Different If These Designs Had Been Used

A new exhibit shows early plans for various monuments that ended up getting scrapped.

What if the Washington Monument didn’t have its instantly recognizable tip? That’s one of the intriguing alternate-reality scenarios depicted in a new exhibit at the George Washington University Museum. Called Best Laid Plans: Designs for a Capital City, it consists of historical prints and paintings that highlight abandoned designs for some of the District’s big public works, including the Arlington Memorial Bridge and the National Mall. 

Washington’s built environment was never set in stone,” says the museum’s Jackie Streker, who curated the exhibit. “The icons and monuments that we think fit so perfectly into the National Mall or the city in general were the result of hundreds of discussions and plans and designs and funding issues. The city could have really looked completely different had one minor thing gone a different way.”

Here are a few images from the exhibit:

A Pointless Monument

In the mid 19th century, the Washington Monument was imagined with both a wider base and a much flatter tip. The design was received poorly by critics, one of whom called it “an abomination.” “It combines Egyptian, Roman, and Babylonian architecture all together without thinking about how the architectural styles would have interacted,” Streker says. Ultimately, the society in charge of building the monument didn’t have the funding for the round base and appeased critics with its removal. 

A Suspended Plan

This 1891 proposal called for a suspension bridge over the Potomac at the southern end of New York avenue. The suspension design allowed for a higher bridge base so ships could ease under. Another bridge at the time, which ran over 14th street, was a drawbridge, which meant backups for travelers on land. “The draws were being opened multiple times a day—too many times a day, according to records—and it was causing traffic,” Streker says. “Apparently traffic has been part of DC’s lifestyle since the very beginning.”

A Moved Zoo

This 1888 plan for a National Mall-type space was DC’s proposal for the Columbian Exposition in 1892, an event that was ultimately held in Chicago. Streker points out that the National Zoological Park, now in Woodley Park, would have instead been built along the Potomac if this plan had gone forward.

A Massive White House

This 2018 painting by Peter Waddell depicts Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for the city. If Washington had been fully built according to his plan, Streker notes, the White House would be six times larger than its present size.



Lilah Burke
Editorial Fellow

Lilah is an summer editorial fellow at Washingtonian. She is originally from New York City and graduated from Georgetown University in 2018.