What Once Was
Sesqui-what? Truman Throws a Party for Washington
Published: February 2nd, 2017
To view images full size & high resolution, left click on each
By Matthew B. Gilmore*
In 1948 President Harry Truman announced the National Capital Sesquicentennial Celebration to be held throughout 1950 — a raft-load of events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the federal government relocating to Washington from Philadelphia. He was following tradition; the centennial had been celebrated in 1900 (but there’s no indication that the 50th anniversary had been recognized in 1850).
In 1900 the centennial celebration (officially the “Centennial Celebration of the Establishment of the Seat of Government in the District of Columbia”) had been limited to one day and quite formal — speeches and a presidential reception for all 37 governors at the White House. In contrast, Truman’s plans were much more populist, and ambitious. He drew on his political allies, those who’d helped organize his inaugural festivities to plan the events. Truman’s plan was national in scope, stating his vision in remarks at the planning commission’s initial meeting on March 8, 1948 as follows:
“The Capital of the United States belongs to all the citizens of the United States — as much to the men and women of Maine or California, Minnesota or Georgia, as to any of us here. The sesquicentennial of the city of Washington should be celebrated not just within the confines of the District of Columbia, but all over the Nation.
“In a larger sense, we hope that all friends of democracy everywhere will join with us in marking the birthday of a city which has grown great as the capital of our democratic Nation.” 
Of course, plans had been in motion to celebrate the 150th anniversary long before Truman’s announcement in 1948. The local planning and historical community had initiated plans to celebrate the national capital’s 150th as early as 1946. Major General Ulysses Grant III, executive officer of the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (NCPPC) solicited the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) for support.
Grant, grandson of the former President, was a ubiquitous figure in Washington, serving as director of the precursor to today’s National Capital Parks, overseeing the construction of Arlington Memorial Bridge in the 1930s and serving on the NCPPC; also later vice president of The George Washington University and president of the Columbia Historical Society (now known as the Historical Society of Washington, DC). Additionally, he had shared responsibility for the 1932 celebration of George Washington’s bicentennial, working with New York Congressman Sol Bloom (who died in 1949, thus unavailable to help with the sesquicentennial). Grant wanted to replicate the nationwide success of that effort.
The National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission (NCSC) was established by Congress in 1947, with President Truman as the ex-officio chairman. It had been a struggle to get it through the Democratic 79th Congress and in 1948 the newly-elected Republican 80th Congress was unenthusiastic and provided minimal funding. Carter Barron a local civic and political leader and close friend of Truman was appointed chair (succeeded on his death by Melvin Hildreth, who had been chairman of Truman’s inaugural committee). Congress finally did appropriate $3 million for the Sesquicentennial. The year-long celebration included an ambitious schedule of events and activities, some successful, others less so.
Sesquicentennial Amphitheater and Pageant
One major physical and permanent accomplishment of the NCSC was the construction inside Rock Creek Park in upper Northwest of the Sesquicentennial Amphitheater. Still standing, it is far better known today as Carter Barron Amphitheater. Time to build the amphitheater was very short. Planned since 1947, drawings were finally submitted to the fine arts commissions (CFA) on November 10, 1949 for completion by the following July. NCSC chairman Barron died in 1950 before the opening of the amphitheater — soon renamed in his honor.
With the rare exception, historic dramatic pageants are an art form pretty much extinct today. One such rare exception has been The Lost Colony, a “symphonic drama” on the “lost colony” of Roanoke which has been running continuously since its 1937 premiere in Manteo, North Carolina. The creator, Paul Green, was hired to repeat that success in the capital for the sesquicentennial.
But, while the unknown fate of Roanoke offered many dramatic possibilities for Green, the history of Washington was not so susceptible to the dramatic form. Local historians laid out a detailed chronology for dramatization, but their response to what was presented was predictably sour. The production had a huge cast of 125 and included characters such as George and Martha Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Lafayette, Patrick Henry, and James Madison. Romantic intrigue was supplied by Lucy Bridges, a fictional niece of George Washington and her beau Frederick Bell. Reaction was mixed; the Washington Post review was headlined “Whatever it is, it can be improved,” referencing Green’s arcane term “symphonic drama.”
The Trumans attended the opening night of Faith of our Fathers on August 4, 1950. It ran in 1950 and 1951 but was not revived in 1952, despite Hildreth’s lobbying — even a plea published in the Washington Star. The cancellation of events had left money in the NCSC account but it was considered bad form to re-allocate it to repair of the amphitheater or staging another season of the pageant.
Major exhibitions on Washington’s history went on display around the city. The Corcoran Gallery of Art featured an exhibition of 311 images titled “American Processional (1492-1900)”; at the DC Public Library was “Washingtoniana,” an exhibit of historical materials from the its collections and an exhibit of portraits of early Washingtonians; an architectural exhibit, “The Plan of Washington”; the National Gallery displayed “Makers of History in Washington”; and the Library of Congress (also celebrating its 150th) hosted several exhibits on Washington’s history, including “Milestones in American Achievement” and an exhibit of maps, “Old World Cities and their influence Upon L’Enfant’s Plan of Washington, 1791.”
Just as had been done for the centennial, the NCSC commissioned a medal from the United States Mint. The CFA reviewed and approved it on November 10, 1949. The obverse was a slight reworking of the NCSC logo; the reverse depicted President John Adams speaking to Congress in 1800 in Washington. Truman was presented his gold copy of the medal on July 13, 1950 by Mint director Nellie Tayloe Ross and NCSC officials.
The medal was designed by acclaimed sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones who had also designed numerous military service medals, the Air Force Academy seal, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
The most ambitious part of the sesquicentennial celebration was to be the Freedom Fair exposition — named by President Truman himself. The fair was to be a national and international exposition akin to previous world fairs and akin to the then 1951 Festival of Britain in the United Kingdom. However, there was little time to organize the fair and a perceived lack of enthusiasm.
Unbeknownst to Truman, he actually had a great local historical precedent, the National Fair held in Washington a century before, in 1846, one of the earliest expositions in American history.
The plan for the fair, however, encountered legal difficulties and was initially postponed until 1951. The problem was that use of federal funds for organizing and running this was not allowed and eventually the Attorney General ruled against the creation of a non-profit corporation to run it.
The chronicler in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society was merciless: “This ill-fated fair was doomed to failure from the start.” Some business groups had tried to prevent cancellation, arguing that not holding the fair would give the Russians a propaganda victory. Local real estate developer Morris Cafritz offered a site adjoining the Pentagon to host the fair in 1951. Ultimately, the fair was cancelled, leading to General Manger Paul Massman’s departure. Cancellation also required returning over $1 million to the Treasury.
Historic Markers; “deterrent against the ruthless destruction”
The District’s historical community had always planned to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the Sesquicentennial to present their gloss, their interpretation on the history of Washington by placing a goodly number of commemorative historical markers around the city. A subcommittee of the main NCSC committee was formed to this end. Five thousand dollars was allocated, potentially enough for 100 tablets — an ambitious goal.
A large committee of nearly 30 members from the historical community was formed and all were encouraged to nominate the most significant sites to mark. Hans Paul Caemmerer, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, was appointed chair of the committee. Each aspect of the effort presented a tremendous challenge — —choosing the sites, getting the funds, obtaining the bronze, and even NCSC approval.
At the first meeting of the committee on September 19, 1950, one of the grand old men of Washington history, John Clagett Proctor, spoke, reviewing the (often obscure) history of marking historic sites and placing memorial tablets in Washington. [Ed. Note: The history of which was the subject of an essay by this author.]
Despite the resources and background Proctor offered (including the previously published Points of Historic Interest) the committee seems to have started from scratch, soliciting suggestions from all members. The committee met again in October and November. Many suggestions were made and lists compiled and discussed, debated, and winnowed down. [Ed. Note: Among those considered was the Easby-Godey lime kilns site, also the subject of an essay by this author; it failed to make the cut.]
Concerns were expressed about marking churches (if you start you’ll never be able to stop) and some buildings likely to be soon razed for redevelopment. Private residences posed the problem of obtaining owner permission. Initial discussion about marking public buildings was driven by the view that the federal government should pay for markers for those sites; an additional $5,000 was requested for federal buildings.
Strong opinions were expressed. Georgetowner Grace Dunlop Ecker Peter’s judgment, “I never thought of that as historic” for a number of sites radiates from the minutes, as do Eleanor Lee Templeman’s opinions. Out of the 162 sites that were debated, 60 were chosen. Research was done and site visits made to many of the proposed locations. Separate subcommittees led by Leon Chatelain and General Grant designed the plaques and decided on the text.
Difficult relationships and strained communication with the parent NCSC committee and executives confused and delayed the process of marking sites for the next two years. In February of 1951 the committee received a letter from the NCSC executive committee chairman Joseph McGarraghy, in which they expressed thanks for the work the committee had done. However, rather than just considering and approving the submitted list of proposed sites they wanted details justifying the marking of the sites so as to allow them to review and approve each one.
On March 2, 1951 the fair’s manager, Paul Massman, wrote approving the marker design. But approval of the list of 20 proposed sites was deferred. Also in March of 1951 the Lamb Seal and Stencil Company warned that the project faced a potential freeze on use of bronze for this type of project due to the Korean War national emergency.
Each group seems to have then let it inexplicably drop, but finally on October 21, 1951 Massman sent the commission’s approval of some 22 sites.
Communication between the committees seems to have broken down. On November 16, 1951 H.P. Caemmerer wrote on behalf of the committee expressing their outrage (and a threat of mass resignation) that a plaque was proposed for the original post office at 8th and E Streets NW entirely without their involvement. The same day Caemmerer recorded that he sent the list (rather different than the 22 already approved) of 16 plaques — with one exception all to be in northwest — now proposed:
1333-35 F St., President John Quincy Adams’ house; 1525 H St., Lord Ashburton’s residence; 468 N St., Barney Neighborhood House; H St. at Connecticut Ave., W.W. Corcoran’s house; 3101 R St., Dumbarton Oaks; 21st & I Sts., site of the Franklin House hotel; 2300 S St., President Herbert Hoover’s residence; 1252 6th St. SW, Thomas Law’s house; 3014 N St., the Laird/Dunlop/Lincoln house; 1500 Rhode Island Ave., Vice President Morton’s house; 3400 Prospect St., the Stoddert house; 1634 31st St., Tudor Place; 3508 Prospect St., the Templeman/Forrestal house; 2340 S St. President Woodrow Wilson house; 3000 Cathedral Ave., the Woodley/Philip Barton Key house.
Nothing happened further, evidently. In May 1952 Caemmerer corresponded with Joseph McGarraghy about progress (or lack thereof) on the marker project. He had been pressing Massman for an additional $5,000 for marking government-owned buildings.
Massman finally sent approval for the site May 27 and a follow-up for supplementary sites June 6.
It turned into a scramble to produce any markers. The NCSC was winding down and was due to return unspent funds to the U.S. Treasury — the money and the window to spend it would soon be gone. The committee received only $3,300 in June of 1952 rather than $5,000 originally slated for the markers. On September 11, 1952 the departing Massman wrote to Caemmerer for a progress report on the production and placement of the plaques. In November NCSC vice chairman Melvin Hildreth reiterated the request. In December Caemmerer sent his progress report to Hildreth. He noted the aims and rationale of the historic marker project:
“As tribute to great Americans who had resided in Washington and had been prominent in National and local history;
“As pointers to places of interest to visitors to the capital (current and future);
“[To] ‘serve as a deterrent against the ruthless destruction undertaken by those who are more interested in selfish gains that to contribute to the History of the Nation.'”
Further, Caemmerer indicated that another six months would be required to complete the project. A revised list of 15 sites to be marked was compiled. It is unclear if all of these 15 were placed and how many other placed on government-owned buildings. Caemmerer’s papers don’t record when the project was finally completed, but it is presumable that it extended into 1953.
A number of markers have disappeared, or were affixed to buildings which have since been razed. The marker on the Winder Building disappeared as recently as sometime after 2008; the marker for the John Quincy Adams house is gone as is that for Halcyon House.
Buildings still in place include Thomas Law’s house in southwest, the Old Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery), New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the Bulfinch gate house (originally located near the Capitol and subsequently relocated to the northeast corner at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue); in Georgetown, Holy Trinity Church, the Laird/Dunlop house, and Stoddert House.
An unpopular president, a reluctant fiscally conservative Congress, apathetic and alienated local opinion, and a nation rattled by strikes and labor unrest, again at war (albeit undeclared) under national emergency due to the conflict in Korea all presented nearly insurmountable challenges to Truman’s celebration of the nation represented by its capital — then, as now, a place generating very mixed emotions.
The Sesquicentennial was seen by its harshest critics as a flop.
The plans had been ambitious: The amphitheater and pageant, exhibits, lectures, a medal, commemorative stamps, planning conference, state days, a film, historic markers, Freedom Fair exposition. Much did come off but much did not due to the reluctance of Congress to provide funds and impossibly short time-frames once funds were made available.
Plans for the Freedom Fair never came to fruition. Similarly, a memorial fountain commemorating Pierre Charles L’Enfant, proposed in H.R. 4274 never progressed. The Washington Times-Herald’s Glenn Dillard Gunn was savage in his summary of his review of NCSC musical events, blaming wet weather and poor design of the amphitheater. Locals were pushed aside by Truman’s cronies; the resentment was intensely felt, even in matters as small as the marker project. F. Regis Noel, president of the Columbia Historical Society, feeling slighted, was scathing in his criticism of the sesquicentennial management and threatened non-cooperation.
Nevertheless, there were tangible accomplishments beside the amphitheater. Chalmers Roberts produced the book Washington, Past and Present: A Pictorial History of the Nation’s Capital to coincide with the celebration and catalogs of several of the exhibitions were also published.
Even attempts to tie up loose ends were complicated and slow. By February of 1952 the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, David E. Finlay, was writing letters of support to Congressmen Carroll Kearns, Emanuel Celler, and Roy W. Wier, all of whom had introduced legislation (H.R. 6141, 6158 and 6166) to reallocate the remaining NCSC funds for a “National War Memorial.” This memorial was planned to be for theater and opera house.
The funds weren’t allocated but the project remained in the minds of planners and politicians. It would take a number of years, but a final legacy of the Sesquicentennial would be this memorial, redubbed the National Cultural Center. The Center, planned in the 1960s and completed in the 1970s we know today as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
 Harry S. Truman: “Remarks at the First Meeting of the National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission,” March 8, 1948. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
Special thanks to Kay Fanning, historian of the Commission of Fine Arts and other CFA staff.
References & Resources
“Office Files of Hans Paul Caemmerer, ca. 1924–1954.” Records of the Commission of Fine Arts, RG 66, National Archives. [Note: the records of the National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission itself were not accessible at the time of writing.]
Minutes of the Commission of Fine Arts, Vertical Files – Sesquicentennial – Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library.
Work Projects Administration (Writers’ Program), Washington, D.C.: A Guide to the Nation’s Capital (New York: Hastings House, 1942, rev. 1949.)
Seth C. Bruggeman, Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (University of Georgia Press, 2008).
Roger Meersman, “The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: From Dream to Reality,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 50, pp. 525-588 (1980)
Richard M. Fried, The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!: Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold-War America (New York, Oxford University Press, 1998).
William V. Cox, 1800-1900 Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Establishment of the Sea of Government in the District of Columbia (Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1901).
“National Capital Centennial – Program from 1900″ (blog, Idaho Meangerings).
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.
© 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.