It is difficult to say whether the Treaty Oak would have survived the plan the District Freemasons had for the site known as the Dean’s Tract. As Answer Man wrote last week, in 1922 the Masons announced plans to convert the land into Temple Heights, the setting for an impressive complex of neoclassical Masonic buildings.
The stock market crash put an end to those dreams. The next dreamer would be “the greatest living architect in the world”.
That’s how DC developers work Roy Sage Thurman described Frank Lloyd Wright in 1940. The 73-year-old Wright’s modernist style might have been celebrated around the world, but it was not represented in the nation’s capital.
For Temple Heights, Thurman envisioned what we would today call mixed-use development. And he commissioned Wright to design it.
Not a fan of the prototypical Washington architecture, Wright proclaimed that the city had “a sufficient level of deadly conventionality.” Federal buildings were designed to “satisfy a sort of grandomania that is utterly outdated.” Greek and Roman influences were everywhere, producing too many lumbering buildings. John Russell Pope The domed Jefferson Memorial was, in his opinion, “the greatest insult yet.”
By hiring Thurman, Wright wanted to shake things up — or at least try to.
The fascinating story of Wright’s unsuccessful attempt to revitalize Washington’s skyline is told by Neil Levin in his 2016 book The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Thurman had turned to real estate development after co-founding the National Home Library Foundation, which published educational and patriotic books in flexible covers. He was somewhat unknown, so much so that the architect, Levine writes, hired an investigator to compile a confidential report on Thurman. (The report was completed after Wright did a good job with the project. He found that Thurman did not have much success.)
Thurman asked Wright to build a complex on the Dean Trakt’s sloping site that would include a hotel, apartment building, parking garage, movie theater, shopping mall, and other commercial space. It would be an almost self-contained city within a city.
The design changed in the months of 1939 and 1940 while Wright was working on it. What all of the designs had in common was a crescent of tall, interconnected buildings—more than a dozen, most of them about 12 to 14 stories tall—on the high ground at the back of the site. A large parking garage overlooked Florida Avenue. Between the buildings and the garage, Wright had preserved much of the existing forest, including the treaty oak.
There was also a bowling alley, an art gallery, a banquet hall, a cocktail lounge, and other amenities.
The buildings, Wright wrote to Thurman, “were to be finished in white marble, verdigris bronze, and crystal [glass], and show the Capitol for a dropped dumpling and hotels in Washington as unbearable. And this is to suggest that you change Temple Heights to CRYSTAL HEIGHTS because of the crystalline character of the entire building. It will be a dazzling fabric with every surface of the finest quality.”
Thurman preferred the Crystal City name for the $15 million project.
Levine suggests that Thurman hoped that Wright’s seal of approval would help eliminate some of the same problems that had hampered Masonic design, including the county’s height restrictions. It was also about the zoning of the deanery: residential, not commercial. Residential buildings were limited to a height of 90 feet. The tallest tower in Wright’s design was about 200 feet tall. And the residency designation meant the deals Thurman depended on weren’t allowed.
And then there was the bold, modern design itself, which Newsweek likened to “a burlesque show at Sunday school.” Crystal City did not receive planning permission. Like the Masonic Temple, it is what could have been.
On March 13, 1953, a bulldozer felled the Treaty Oak. Government experts examining the fallen tree estimated its age at around 350 years. In 1962, construction began on the building that stands there today: the Washington Hilton.
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