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In Defense of the Executive Order

Opinion On Executive Order for the Classical Style in Federal Buildings

A funny thing happened on my way about the National Mall several years ago. I was taking photographs of the Mall’s buildings to illustrate a film being made for the National Civic Art Society, which began with my spending several hours photographing the colonnaded and sculpted splendor of the Federal Triangle buildings from the 1930’s, by Delano & Aldrich, York & Sawyer, Arthur Brown Jr., John Russel Pope, and other such titans of the “American Renaissance.” The group of buildings unflatteringly and curtly described in the 1965 AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC, as “they finally melt into one gray strip. ”Apparently blinded by the sun in that high noon of Modernism, the book’s authors couldn’t even see that the buildings were certainly not even gray, but a warm buff color Indiana limestone, our nation’s premier building stone.

After photographing the Federal Triangle, I crossed over the Mall, and began shooting the Forrestal Building of 1970, home of the Department of Energy. No sooner had I snapped a couple of photos, than I was apprehended by a couple of guards demanding to know what I was doing (?!). Since the explanation that I was taking photos for a documentary movie failed to allay their suspicions, they demanded my film, which with the camera being digital, was an order with which I was unable to comply. So instead, they took my camera, and detained me, while I was checked out by their superiors. So by way of making conversation (and obliquely offering myself some defense), I mentioned that I had just come from photographing the Federal Triangle, without being stopped, or even noticed by its guards. And the Federal Triangle includes such agencies as the IRS and the Department of Justice, two agencies that it seemed to me would be more likely targets for some disgruntled citizen than the Department of Energy! However, I thought it best not to bring up this latter point. Although my thinly veiled defense argument failed to convince my captors, nevertheless, after about twenty minutes, my camera and I were released.

Despite this inconvenience on a hot July day, I held no resentment against the guards, who were in fact, “just doing their job.” And their job training is to spot abnormal behavior about the premises they guard. And here is the point of this account - the plain fact of the matter is, virtually NO ONE EVER PHOTOGRAPHS the oppressive concrete waffle slab hovering on stilts that is the Forrestal Building! (Although it was honored with the AIA’s 25 Year Award, it should be noted.) Whereas in contrast, so many tourists photograph the beautiful and richly sculpted Federal Triangle, that my doing so was not even noticed by the guards there. Indeed, how could tourists not photograph the splendor of the Federal Triangle. For as the 1st-century Roman poet Ovid rightly noted, “The one thing men cannot resist is elegance.”

I recount this little episode to make the case that all who care about beauty and meaning in architecture should applaud an executive order from the White House that proposes a return to the classical, irrespective of its occupant. Our Founding Fathers, Washington and Jefferson, who understood that our republic was modeled on the ancient Roman Republic, wished to make manifest this connection in the architecture of our nation’s capitol city. But more importantly, it was the beauty of the classical, that had received “the approbation of the ages” (Jefferson), that inspired the Founding Fathers, Washington and Jefferson, to select the classical style for the architecture of the new “Federal City.”

Classical architecture is what our Founders’ intended, and it’s what our fellow citizens love.

Need we any more reasons? Who are we to gainsay them?

Would you like to weigh in on this topic? Let us know at for the chance to be published online.

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President Trump set out an Executive Order that calls for a Commission to suggest guidelines for restoring the beauty of traditional classicism in new federal buildings. A nonpartisan issue, President Biden should execute it immediately.