What Once Was
The Bridge a Traffic Jam Built: Arlington Memorial Bridge
Published: June 24th, 2016
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
It was Armistice Day 1921. The holiday celebrating the end of the World War that had ended just three years previous. This year’s celebration would be special — a new monument would be dedicated, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. President Harding would lead the ceremonies at Arlington Cemetery. The casket of the unknown soldier had lain in the Capitol Rotunda since Memorial Day and would be ceremoniously brought to the cemetery for interment. A new memorial had been built, not far from the monument to the unknown soldiers of the Civil War, dedicated 50 years earlier.
All the great and the good would be in attendance — everyone who was everyone. Former president Woodrow Wilson made his first public appearance since leaving office riding in the funeral cortege from the Capitol. The ceremony would receive front page coverage from all of Washington’s newspapers — the Herald, the Evening Star, the Washington Post, the Washington Times.
Attendance was so heavy that the august occasion was almost spoiled by the crush of traffic crossing the Aqueduct and Highway Bridges from Washington to Arlington. President Harding arrived mere minutes before he was due to speak.
The traffic tangle was inevitable. Washingtonians were early and nthusiastic adopters of the automobile. In 1921 the District of Columbia had over 40,000 automobiles registered for a population counted at not quite 450,000 in 1920. This was up from 8,000 registered automobiles just six years before, as reported in the December 1922 issue of the American Motorist, and continuing to grow rapidly, further doubling by the end of 1922. The city of Washington and its hinterland of Arlington County were connected by just those two bridges, Aqueduct Bridge from Georgetown to Rosslyn and Highway Bridge from southwest Washington to Addison Heights (now Aurora Highlands) in Arlington County. A third bridge, Chain Bridge, lay inaccessible far in the northernmost corner of the county.
The lack of capacity for traffic wasn’t due to poor planning or the lack of interest in connections between DC and Arlington. Long Bridge (predecessor of the Highway Bridge) dated back to 1809; the new Highway Bridge had opened in 1906. Aqueduct Bridge took a decade to construct between 1833 and 1843. Its replacement, Key Bridge was nearing completion in 1921 and would open in January 1923.
Rather, there had been no practical advantage or need for a bridge in the proposed location. In Alexandria County (renamed Arlington in 1920) to the south of the crossing subdivisions had been laid out in the 1890s (such as Addison Heights) but remained undeveloped. The main feature the bridge would encounter was the United States Experimental Farm, established in 1900, at the foot of the cemetery. Northwards was Fort Myer and Radnor Heights, then Rosslyn. Years previous an ambitious attempt was made to create a “Jackson City” on the Alexandria County side of the Potomac — the Jackson in question was either President Jackson or one of the developers. Hubris aside, the plan failed.
The vision of a memorial bridge across the Potomac uniting North and South might be said to have originated with Daniel Webster in 1851. Webster authored a convenient fiction, crediting President Andrew Jackson with the idea. Jackson did advocate building a bridge across the Potomac, but his was the reconstruction of the existing Long Bridge damaged by floods in 1831. Jackson did participate in the re-opening ceremonies in 1835, walking from Washington to Virginia (and riding back). Yet Long Bridge had always been strictly utilitarian and in no way symbolic, monumental, or memorial.
On August 5, 1885, just days after President Grant’s death, Major Richard H. Sylvester editorialized in the Washington Critic under the headline, “The Arch of the Union,” in favor of a grand bridge commemorating the President; clearly, this confirmed that the idea for the bridge was not Webster’s after all. He mentioned and dismissed proposals for a single triumphal arch to Grant, instead suggesting a different kind of “arch” — a bridge across the Potomac which could and would incorporate commemoration of Grant’s victories. Sylvester was an influential newspaperman and would come in later years to head the District of Columbia’s police department.
It was 1886 when the memorial idea took root. Plans moved ahead to drive Massachusetts Avenue northwesterly, deep into the hinterlands of what was then called Washington County, opening it up for real estate development. A neatly parallel suggestion came to extend New York Avenue across the Potomac to Arlington Cemetery, across a monumental bridge, dedicated to that memory of the recently deceased President Ulysses S. Grant. Two grand avenues — one to the northwest and one to the southwest would break the confines of Washington city.
One can imagine the dramatic transformation of New York Avenue, ceremonially linking Arlington Memorial Cemetery to the Alfred Mullet-designed, still-under construction State, War, and Navy Building at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Foggy Bottom would have been utterly transformed.
Congress in 1886 directed a study to report on the expedience of construction a bridge from New York Avenue (or New Hampshire) to Arlington. John Newton, the chief of engineers, dutifully submitted plans done by Major Peter Hains, whose comments were prescient: “Arlington Cemetery . . . is a place of resort of the majority of visitors to the national capital and would be to many people of the District if there were better facilities for reaching it. The route by way of Long Bridge is so long that it is almost impracticable for pedestrians . . . the route by way of the Aqueduct is little better. . . .”
He also submitted an alternative by Captain Thomas W. Symons (who considered it “a monument to Lincoln and Grant . . . symbolical of the renewed Union brought about so largely by their genius, wisdom, and strength. . . .”). The Civil War had ended just 21 years earlier and Reconstruction 10 years — ill-feelings towards former rebels still existed. Newton suggested a committee comprised of engineers) should be charged with a more thorough study.
Two designs were proposed, one done by Paul Pelz. Pelz’s career in DC included designing memorials and institutional and residential buildings such as the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Healy Hall and Riggs Memorial Library at Georgetown University; the George Henry Thomas Monument; the McGill Building at 908-14 G Street NW, a home at 1626 K Street NW, the Church of the Holy City at 16th and Corcoran Streets NW, a home at 3440 34th Place, the General Winfield Scott Hancock Memorial; also homes at 1500 16th Street NW, 2201 Massachusetts Avenue NW, 2238 Q Street NW, and the Grace Reformed Church.
After no further progress in 1886, some movement seemed imminent in 1890. Col. Hains’ proposal was for a 4,500-foot bridge costing $3.5 million extending New York Avenue across the Potomac to Arlington. But plans for the bridge languished until 1895 when suggestions were made to sell off a portion of the Arlington reservation
In the November 26, 1896 edition of the Alexandria Gazette, Secretary of War Daniel Lamont opined, “The bridge is an undisputed commercial and military necessity as a means of communication between the banks of the Potomac . . . but its memorial character ought not to be overlooked.”
Another study was funded in 1899 and L.L. Buck, William H. Burr, William R. Hutton, and George S. Morrison all submitted plans. A distinguished panel comprised of Col. Charles Allen, Capt. D.D. Gaillard, and (the ubiquitous) Maj. T.W Symonds of the Corps of Engineers, and architects Stanford White and James G. Hill reviewed them all and approved a design by Burr. The design was still grand, still triumphal.
In 1902 the Secretary of War accepted a cornerstone for the bridge carved by the Stonecutter’s Union of the District of Columbia. The Senate Park (or as it was better know, McMillan) Commission offered a different vision in their 1902 report. They proposed a location further south at the future site of the Lincoln Memorial and crossing to Arlington House.
The Arlington Memorial Bridge Commission was established March 4, 1913 (37 Stat. 885). The commission consisted of the President, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, Chairman of the House Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, along with the director of Public Buildings and Grounds who was to serve as the Commission’s executive officer. On March 15, 1913 the Evening Star headline announced, “Bridge seems sure — Friends of Memorial structure over Potomac encouraged.” No funds, however, were appropriated and so the Commission was unable to function.
The area along the Potomac was undergoing a vast transformation. In 1885 when the bridge was first proposed the Washington Monument had just been completed, the capstone having been set in December of 1884. The city ended there; the Potomac had nearly lapped at the foot of the Monument but now the surrounding area was being reclaimed from the river. The reclamation project would take years and no use for the land had yet been decided. There was no Lincoln Memorial, nor even the concept of any memorials in the area.
As the redevelopment of the western end of Washington proceeded with the dredging of the Potomac, which had been authorized in 1881, resulting in the subsequent creation of Potomac Park, and then the looming completion of the Lincoln Memorial, concerns were raised. On June 13, 1921, Lt. Col. C.O. Sherrill wrote to President Harding, who served as the Commission’s chair, urging the activation of the commission. Harding replied the next day endorsing the idea, encouraging him to submit estimates to Congress. Sherrill had just become director of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds and oversaw a variety of other projects in the District of Columbia.
S.M. Johnson, a leader of the national “Good Roads” movement, lobbied for the new bridge to be aligned from the Lincoln Memorial to the Custis-Lee Mansion as a fitting linkage for the transcontinental “Lee Highway” which today spans the United States from Washington to San Diego. Johnson was also responsible for Washington’s zero milestone that was dedicated in 1923.
After the traffic jam debacle of Decoration Day 1921 Congress funded the construction in 1922. Just a month later, in July, the bridge commission requested the advice of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). The CFA, established in 1910, was an outgrowth of the Senate Park (McMillan) Commission’s work and was charged with advising on federal architectural development in Washington. Inevitably the design submitted, the one that had been approved in 1900, was rejected, and well-nigh demolished in about eight pages of detail. Among other conclusions stated in its report, the CFA stated, “This adverse report was based on the firm conviction that changes from the plan of 1901 as proposed would dismember the park system therein planned, would dwarf and belittle the Lincoln Memorial, and would degrade a contemplated memorial into a mere convenience for traffic that was already provided for.”
The bridge commission was understandably taken aback. The CFA reviewed the plans in September. President Harding, chair of the bridge commission, hosted a joint meeting of the commissions at the White House on December 18, 1923, which included a visit to the proposed site. The bridge commission acceded to the CFA recommended site.
Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, submitted the Commission’s plans to Congress in 1924. Its report laid out the program and idea behind the bridge design as “. . . the greatest memorial project undertaken by any Nation in recent times. Following immediately after the Lincoln Memorial in time of construction, it fortunately supplements and completes that great Memorial . . . and carries the Mall treatment of Washington and L’Enfant across the Potomac to Arlington, and up to the last resting place of the original designer of the original plan of the Capital. . . . [T]here is the compelling patriotic motive in the project of a direct broad boulevard from the Capital through B Street extended and widened, by way of the Lincoln Memorial . . . [there is] the provision of a magnificent entrance to Washington from Virginia for the Lee Highway coming across the entire country . . . the symbol of the binding together of the North and the South in one indivisible Union. . . .”
The plans were grandly ambitious, not only in words, but in scope. Included was not only the bridge but a plaza and roads at the Lincoln Memorial (including the Watergate), the redesign of Columbia Island and the junction with Lee Highway, the parkway extending to Arlington Cemetery, the “boulevardization” of B Street (now Constitution Avenue) west of 18th Street and of 23rd Street north to Washington Circle. Columbia Island would be transformed with a boulevard perpendicular to the bridge alignment and two columns (one for the North, one South), each 166 feet high (nearly one third the height of the Washington Monument), would terminate the road and would frame the view of the cemetery and Custis Mansion. Funds were appropriated in 1925.
There would be no design competition; a design by William M. Kendall of the firm of McKim, Mead, and White was approved. The exuberance of all the previous designs was abandoned and the simple neoclassical design, shorn of extraneous architectural embellishment, which we see today was approved and construction soon began.
Minutes of the Commission of Fine Arts chronicle the ongoing review process, ping-ponging with the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, including the intriguing suggestion of including a puma in the design. Knotty issues of the relationship of the bridge, tunnel, parkway, and steps with the Lincoln Memorial consumed months of debate. As construction progressed plans simplified, including, in 1930, holding off on incorporating the proposed sculptures lining the bridge. Despite that decision, some postcards nevertheless showed them.
Other elements were ultimately dropped, in part due to cost considerations, including the columns on Columbia Island. The equestrian statues were not installed until the 1950s.
President Grant’s grandson, Ulysses S. Grant III, succeeded Sherrill in 1926, seeing the construction of the bridge to completion. President Grant did eventually get his memorial after a mere 20-year struggle — at the foot of the Capitol.
The traffic jam of November 1921 broke the legislative logjam which had prevented construction for nearly f40 years and the resultant bridge is far different than that which might have been.
Thanks are due to several people: to Kay Fanning, Commission Fine Arts historian, for her gracious assistance providing access to CFA minutes and to John DeFerrari for invaluable postcard images. Special thanks to Lucas Bojarowski for the current image of the bridge.
Recommended for further reading:
Arlington Memorial Bridge Commission. Report (1924).
Norman B. Belt, “The history and construction of Highway Bridge across the Potomac River at Washington, D.C.” Records of Phi Mu (Jan.13, 1933), Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.
Christian, William Edmund. “The Arlington Memorial Bridge.” Washington Post (Nov. 1, 1925).
Robert Cohen, “History of the Long Railroad Bridge crossing across the Potomac River” (2003). Republished by National railway historical Society, Washington DC Chapter.
Fletcher Webster (ed.), The writings and speeches of Daniel Webster. Little, Brown & Co. (1903).
Gilmore, Matthew B. and Joshua A. Olsen. Foggy Bottom and the West End.The History Press (2010).
Gilmore, Matthew B. Historic photos of Arlington County. Turner Publishing Co. (2007).
Donald B. Myer, Bridges and the City of Washington. U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (1974).
Richard F. Weingroff, “Dr. S. M. Johnson – A Dreamer of Dreams,” Federal Highway Administration (updated Nov. 18, 2015).
Larry Van Dyne, “Washington DC: A City of Bridges,” The Washingtonian (Mar. 1, 2006).
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