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Past Planning for the Future: DC’s 1950 Comprehensive Plan … or, Planning Atomic-Age Washington

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

In November of 1950 a slender pamphlet appeared, “Washington Present and Future.” It was a promising if unprepossessing volume, the first in a promised series of six. Over the next six months it was followed by five more: “People & land”; “Housing and redevelopment”; “Open spaces and community services”; “Moving people and goods”; and “Regional aspects of the comprehensive plan.”

These six would comprise the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital.

In some ways, this first (six-part) document was nothing unusual. Washington was, and is, a city of plans, starting with Peter Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 design. But it is three underappreciated plans which gave us today’s Washington.

Andrew Ellicott revised L’Enfant’s design and gave us the street network familiar today. The subsequent, erratic 19th century expansion of residential development out from Washington City into that part of the District of Columbia beyond the L’Enfant plan area prompted Washington’s next great plan, the 1898 Highway Plan.

The Permanent System of Highways, as it was officially called, defined the pattern for the entire street network of the District, with the Highway Commission administering this street plan. [1] Once those roadway decisions had been made, the next defining plan, which was the subject of an October 2016 article in this space, was the 1920 Zoning Plan and its modifications.

The highway and zoning plans set the bones and flesh of the development of the District — streets were designated and land uses defined. What yet remained was locating public facilities.

The 1901 McMillan (officially, Senate Park) Commission started that process; it’s influence was more nuanced — playing an important role in the redevelopment of the core center city of Washington, but a more limited one further out — along with encouraging development of parks. All of these plans (Ellicott, highway, and zoning) were “comprehensive” in some fashion with respect to the particular scope for which they were designed. The development of an even more “comprehensive” comprehensive plan would take many more years.

Cover of the first volume of the 1950 Comprehensive Plan. image--DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

Cover of the first volume of the 1950 Comprehensive Plan. image–DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

Land use plan from first volume of the 1950 Comprehensive plan. map--DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

Land use plan from first volume of the 1950 Comprehensive plan. map–DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

Convergent Efforts

Several efforts to reshape urban Washington would coalesce in the 1950 Comprehensive Plan.

In the 1890s housing reformers took aim at alley dwellings. Residential dwellings in alleys had first been constructed in the 1860s in Foggy Bottom, in the alleyways behind the major streets. These dwellings varied widely in quality of construction, but most lacked basic sanitation facilities (as well as light and air circulation). Imposing legal restrictions on alley dwellings began in 1892. In 1914 the total abolition of alley dwellings was legislated, with a scheduled end date for inhabited alleys by 1918.

However, World War I and the consequent housing shortages led to repeated extensions of that deadline, decade after decade.The Alley Dwelling Authority (ADA) was created in 1934 to oversee the final abolition of those dwellings; in 1943 the ADA was reconstituted as the National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA), with housing reform advocate and Georgetowner John Ihlder serving as executive director. (For some of Ihlder’s influence in Georgetown see the March 2017 article in this space.)

Other agencies inherited or grew into planning roles and would play a part in the development of the Comprehensive Plan. The most immediate inheritor of the mantle of the McMillan Commission was the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), established in 1910. Its role was primarily architectural aesthetics but had been engaged in planning issues in its first decades. The next agency was the National Capital Park Commission (NCPC), created in 1924. Its initial role was to plan parks for Washington, harking back to the original role of the McMillan (Senate Park) Commission. In 1926 the words “and planning” were added to its title (and transforming it into NCPPC), reflecting an enlarged mission — giving it a much wider city planning role beyond parks by adding the following the mandate:

“. . . [of] preparing, developing, and maintaining a comprehensive, consistent, and coordinated plan for the National Capital and its environs, which plan shall include recommendation to the proper executive authorities as to traffic and transportation; plats and subdivisions; highways, parks, and parkways; school and library sites; playgrounds,; drainage, sewerage, and water supply; housing, building, and zoning regulations; public and private buildings; bridges and waterfronts; commerce and industry; and other proper elements of city and regional planning. . . .” [2]

 The Highway Commission was abolished and NCPPC inherited authority over managing the development of Washington’s street network.

The Second World War put an incredible stress on the infrastructure of Washington, and planning for the future of the post-war capital began early during the war. In an ironic twist, many of those responsible for planning Washington’s future were the one’s planning the celebration of the capital’s past. The tightly-knit planning and historical communities were Janus-like during the late 1940s — planning the National Capital Sesquicentennial celebrations while simultaneously developing a comprehensive plan for the future development of the Washington region, even deserving mention in President Harry Truman’s foreword to the plan.

Divergent pressures: “Dispersal” and “Decentralization”

An image like this one showing the outer radius of one and a half miles represented the thoughts which drove the dispersal planning efforts. image--National security factors in industrial location, National Security Resources Board, Sep. 1948; page 3.

An image like this one showing the outer radius of one and a half miles represented the thoughts which drove the dispersal planning efforts. image–National security factors in industrial location, National Security Resources Board, Sep. 1948; page 3.

The DC Redevelopment Act of 1945 directed NCPPC to do comprehensive planning, including as follows:

To “. . . develop a comprehensive or general plan of the District of Columbia, including the appropriate maps, charts, tables, and descriptive, interpretative, and analytical matter, which plan is intended to serve as a general framework or guide of development within which the various project areas may be more precisely planned and calculated, and which comprehensive or general plan shall include at least a land-use plan which designates the proposed general distribution and general locations and extents of the uses of the land for housing, business, industry, recreation, education, public buildings, public reservations, and other general categories of public and private uses of the land.”

The Act’s formal (and very long) title says it all:An act to provide for the replanning and rebuilding of slum, blighted, and other areas of the District of Columbia and the assembly, by purchase or condemnation, of real property in such areas and the sale or lease thereof for the redevelopment of such area in accordance with said plans; and to provide for the organization of, procedure for, and the financing of such planning, acquisition, and sale or lease; and for other purposes.” (60 Stat 794).

The comprehensive planning aspect was a small part of what the Act directed but was intended to provide the context for smaller area redevelopment plans — most notable of which was the urban renewal redevelopment of Southwest Washington. It also created the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) to manage redevelopment projects.

In 1947 NCPPC precisely undertook the comprehensive planning project and generated several hundred pages of analysis, charts, and maps. Copies still exist, filed with the records of the National Capital Planning Commission at the National Archives. The contents outline 13 chapters (plus two unnumbered) covering the same subjects as the plan as eventually published but including more about the actual plan itself and implementation measures.

Table of contents page of draft Comprehensive Plan, 1948. image--Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, Record Group 328, National Archives.

Table of contents page of draft Comprehensive Plan, 1948. image–Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, Record Group 328, National Archives.

By April of 1948 draft copies were being prepared for publication. The project started to slowly fall apart and the Comprehensive Plan lay in limbo for several years. In April 1949, President Truman ousted NCPPC’s long-serving chairman General U.S. Grant, III (and would do a similar putsch to the board of the Commission of Fine Arts). Congress struck the $20,000 from the budget allocated to print the plan.

A key factor in the difficulties the planning process faced was the entry of new actors and new concerns. The National Security Resources Board (NSRB) had been given the mandate to plan for continuity of government. Location or relocation of federal facilities in Washington had been the domain of NCPPC. On May 18, 1948 Arthur M. Hill had sent a note to still then NCPPC Chairman General Grant, with a copy to General Philip Fleming, head of the Federal Works Administration (FWA), directing Fleming to study and report on “a policy and general plan for the location of future government buildings in and about Washington, D.C., which will provide greater security against possible atomic bomb attack.” His memorandum further directed the following:

“It is suggested that you consider the problem of whether or not all federal government buildings, except those in the immediate construction category, should be erected in locations sufficiently dispersed so that reasonable security against a possible atomic bomb attack would be provided. This problem has been discussed with Messrs. Follin, MacDonald[,] and Reynolds of your staff.”

Hill was the chairman of the NSRB, evidently entitling him to issue this rather extraordinary directive. It is curious as well, since Grant had reached out to Hill on February 2, 1948 suggesting Hill coordinate his efforts with those of NCPPC and the Comprehensive Plan. General Grant surely would have been piqued with this kind of directive.

Two ideas circulated for protecting the federal government: “dispersal” and “decentralization.” Dispersal was a term brought into the discussion of the future of Washington, DC a few years earlier. Careful distinctions needed to be clear between the confused terms dispersal and decentralization. Often used interchangeably, ultimately dispersal came to mean relocation of federal agencies within a buffer 20 miles around the District of Columbia. Decentralization, on the other hand, was the relocation of agencies entirely outside the Washington region.

In 1947 a “trial balloon” for dispersal was lofted — the creation of a “federal city” immediately southeast of Washington in Prince George’s County. It was an audacious plan, encompassing an area larger than the District of Columbia. At its center would have been the airport which is now Andrews Air Force Base. (The Suitland Federal Center now existing is the merest fraction of what might have been).

Map of the Washington region with the proposed "Federal City." map-- Sunday Star February 16, 1947. map--Records of the National Capital Planning Commission. Record Group 328, National Archives.

Map of the Washington region with the proposed “Federal City.” map– Sunday Star February 16, 1947. map–Records of the National Capital Planning Commission. Record Group 328, National Archives.

Dispersal immediately became coupled with transportation issues — the horrors of war and the horrors of traffic collided. Dispersed offices meant more travel for workers whose homes could not be dispersed as simply. Almost immediately the NCPPC received advice. “Decentralization vs. Centralization of government employment in the Washington Metropolitan Area” was a confidential memorandum from Arthur J. Rabuck. Rabuck was co-author of the 1946 book New City Patterns in which he and presciently wrote on the suggestion of building a subway system to cope with new transportation challenges of a more dispersed federal workforce, including the following observation on page 16:

“. . . any such system of subways would be only the beginning of a most vicious cycle involving repeated demands for more centralization of employment and higher densities of population to support inflated property values and the forever skyrocketing costs of maintenance, operation[,] and extension of the system. That type of cycle always leads from bad to worse and never gets any nearer a satisfactory solution of the problem.

Further, on page 18, “You may rest assured that, if Plan “C” is carried out, sooner or later the Congress is going to as “why did the NCP&PC approve a plan in 1948 which has resulted in the saddling the major share of the cost of a subway system on the backs of federal taxpayers throughout the country?”

Rabuck’s memorandum referred to above, was dated July 21, 1948. At that point he was a planner on the FWA’s Public Buildings Administration staff but had worked on the nascent Comprehensive Plan as an NCPPC staff member in 1947 and 1948.

Washington Daily News, August 30, 1948. image--Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, Record Group 328, National Archives.

Washington Daily News, August 30, 1948. image–Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, Record Group 328, National Archives.

The confidential October 27, 1948 NSRB-R-13 “A recommendation to the President by the National Security Resources Board on security for the Nation’s capital” had been created by NSRB in consultation with a variety of military and other agencies, including the FWA, Munitions Board, and Bureau of the Budget (not NCPPC, however). Its recommendations included directing the FWA and NCPPC to prepare a master plan for federal government agency dispersal in the Washington region. Upon approval by the President the master plan would govern all future military and civilian planning in Washington. Potential candidates for decentralization outside Washington would be determined as well. Additionally, alternative locations for an evacuated federal government were to be planned. The FWA was directed to plan underground office space “for the efficient conduct of war” housing 5,000 persons as part of the master plan.

Cover page of NSRB-R-13 report "Security for the Nation's Capital" Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, Record Group 328, National Archives,/em>.

Cover page of NSRB-R-13 report “Security for the Nation’s Capital” Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, Record Group 328, National Archives,/em>.

Several assumptions were stated, including capping federal employment in central Washington at 135,000. New buildings needed to replace World War II temporary buildings would fall under the auspices of the new master plan and be dispersed five to 10 miles from each other and downtown Washington.

World events spurred concern about Washington planning. The Soviets has exploded their own atomic bomb on August 29, 1949. In response to events in Korea, President Truman ordered U.S. forces into Korea on June 27, 1950 and declared a state of national emergency on December 16, 1950. These actions led to further urgency for dispersal (around the Washington region) of various government agencies and decentralization (out of the Washington region) of others. By February of 1951 hearings were being held on a dispersal bill, ultimately narrowly defeated.

But the NSRB never became the center of a United States command-and-control infrastructure it had threatened to become and it was merged away into bureaucratic oblivion during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. NCPPC won its struggle to control planning in the National Capital. (A 1944 study had indicated NCPPC did not have the authority needed to carry out its mission). The planned dispersal of government agencies was something NCPPC definitely wanted to manage; its own reorganization legislation and dispersal were both in play. In 1952 it was given new legislative authorization as the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC).

Dispersal’s public face became the problem of traffic, quickly recognized by politicians such as Senator Francis Case (R-South Dakota) who wrote to NCPPC in March of 1951 upon receiving the “Moving people and goods” section of the Comprehensive Plan. He wrote indicating the first step “in any dispersal” should be the construction of a circumferential highway outside the District. He also proposed increasing the gasoline tax and consideration of “one or two” toll bridges. [3]

The 1950 Comprehensive Plan (at least in its 1948 draft version) was the embodiment of what the planning mission had laid out for NCPPC in 1926 and reiterated in 1945. It was comprehensive in scope, with reams of supporting data, covering every aspect of municipal planning for Washington, DC. But it was too late. Even reworked and condensed the plan made little impact.

Timing had been bad; it was so long-delayed that the data was stale by the time of publication. Washington was changing rapidly and the 1950 census had only just been taken and the data was not yet available, further making the planning data obsolete, and to update would entail more delay. Further, concerns about integrating planning throughout the broader Washington region and the potential of dispersal of agencies made the plan obsolete upon publication. Planning would be driven by forces well beyond Washington, as well as those within.


[1] Matthew Gilmore, “The Olmsteds and the Development of the Permanent System of Highways for the District of Columbia.” (The Portolan, No. 98, Spring 2017).

[2] Laurence F. Schmeckebier, The District of Columbia, its government and administration, page 664 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1928).

[3] Senator Francis Case to Thomas S. Settle, Secretary and Legal Advisor, National Capital Park and Planning Commission, March 22, 1951 (Record Group 328, National Archives).


Editor’s Note: Associate Director Edward Giefer of the DC Office of Planning has shared with The InTowner a progress update on OP’s project for updating the Comprehensive Plan for the second time: “The 2006 plan was first amended in 2011. In early 2018, OP will be submitting to the DC Council legislation containing amendments to existing chapters and maps of the Comp Plan.

“OP is taking several other steps before submitting the amendment legislation to the Council next year: [1] A public Open Call for proposed amendments is underway now through May 26; [2] OP will evaluate all proposed amendments and will release in September a Draft Amendment Report for a 60-day public comment period; [3] Following the close of the public comment period, OP will prepare the final amendment legislation in late 2017 and submit it to the Council in early 2018.

“Our project website,, includes FAQs that provides more details about the Comprehensive Plan amendment cycle.”



Thanks to staff at the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Archives, David Krugler, Joshua Kaufman, Diana Lockshin, Paul Mahon, and Marc Dalby.

References & Resources

Thomas E. Luebke, ed.; Civic art: a centennial history of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. (U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 2013).

David Krugler, This Is Only a Test: How Washington, D.C., Prepared for Nuclear War. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Historic American Building Survey, Southwest Washington, D.C., Urban Renewal Area (HABS No. DC-856).

Howard Gillette, Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

Frederick Albert Gutheim and Antoinette Josephine Lee, Worthy of the nation: Washington, DC, from L’Enfant to the National Capital Planning Commission. (National Capital Planning Commission & Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2006).

Arthur J. Rabuck, “Decentralization vs. Centralization of government employment in the Washington Metropolitan Area.” (July 21, 1948; Records of the National Capital Planning Commission. Record Group 328. National Archives).

Laurence F. Schmeckebier. The District of Columbia, its government and administration. (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1928).

The comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950-’51): [Part 1] “Washington present and future” (a general summary of the comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs); [Part 2] “People & land” (a portion of the comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs); [Part 3] “Housing and redevelopment” (a portion of the comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs); [Part 4] “Open spaces and community services” (a portion of the comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs); [Part 5] “Moving people and goods” (a portion of the comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs); [Part 6] “Regional aspects of the comprehensive plan” (a portion of the comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs).

Charles Moore, ed., Improvement of the park system of the District of Columbia. [McMillan Commission plan]  (179 pp with photographs, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902).

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at 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.