Fortress of Finance: A History of the U.S. Treasury Building

Lecture by Pamela Scott, Architectural Historian
February 9

The apparently “unified” exterior of the U.S. Treasury Building belies that it was created by five major Greek Revival architects and was built over four decades. Robert Mills won the 1836 competition and each of his successors—Thomas U. Walter, Ammi B. Young, Isaiah Rogers, and Alfred B. Mullett— changed the design of his predecessor. All of the architects faced similar problems to varying degrees:  politically motivated congressional investigations; labor unrest; and timely delivery of materials. Each explored how emerging technologies could be applied to facilitate the rapid and orderly construction of the largest federal building of its time.

At the same time, each architect expressed his individual interpretation of America’s foray into the revival of Greek architecture. Characteristic exterior and interior features associated with each of the architects and the draftsman J. Goldsborough Bruff will be clarified. Because the text of Fortress of Finance was cut by twenty percent, the lecture will also include a longer discussion of the construction of Mullett’s Cash Room than appears in the book.

Pamela Scott is currently an independent scholar. Ms. Scott recently completed a major history of the U.S. Treasury Building, 1798-2005 titled Fortress of Finance, published in June 2010. 

The Springfield Gas Machine: Illuminating Industry and Leisure, 1860s–1920s

Lecture by Donald W. Linebaugh, PhD
March 29

Developed just after the close of the Civil War, the Springfield Gas Machine was a unique commercial and domestic gas lighting system marketed for use in homes and businesses beyond the infrastructure of a city’s gas supply system. The self-contained unit was perfectly suited to accommodate an expanding rural and suburban U.S. landscape as middle- and upper-class American families were looking to find simplicity in the countryside without losing any modern comforts of the city. Industries, too, were looking for a means to operate more efficiently and implement longer work hours for various consumer operations. Perhaps more important, owners of the Springfield system could retain control of their light production during a time when corporations were reaping large benefits from their monopolistic hold over municipal gas works.

Dr. Linebaugh will explore the story of the Springfield Gas Machine from its invention through its replacement in the early twentieth century with less expensive and more accessible forms of lighting using electricity. His lecture will investigate how gas lighting was, for its time, a major innovation in domestic and commercial lighting, and how it changed daily life and social behaviors in the late nineteenth century as the comforts of home became a reality for suburban and rural Americans. 

Donald W. Linebaugh is an associate professor in the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at the University of Maryland and director of the Historic Preservation Program. 

Members-only study tour of the U.S. Treasury Building

March 31

Built over the course of thirty-three years, this familiar landmark is the product of some of the most important figures in nineteenth century American architecture. Many of you heard Pamela Scott’s recent lecture highlighting the complex story of its design and construction. This was a chance to see some of Treasury’s spectacular interiors and add to your understanding of the building. Tour highlights included the restored West dome and lobby and the Cash Room. 

What is now the largest house in a neighborhood of mansions began as individual 19th century row-houses combined into a single grand house in 1884 by Stanford White for Robert Garrett, the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In 1902, several years after Garrett’s death, his wife married Dr. Henry Jacobs and hired John Russell Pope to expand the house, absorbing a neighboring building to add a library and a theater.  Ross Winans, the second generation of a very wealthy Baltimore family hired McKim, Mead and White in 1882. Stanford white was the lead designer and Cass Gilbert was clerk-of-the works. The design owes much to White’s mentor H.H. Richardson, but the firm’s own style typical of this period is unmistakable in the rich materials and inventive colonial details. 

Members-only study tour of Two Baltimore Houses by McKim, Mead, and White:  The Winans Mansion and the Garrett Jacobs Mansion

May 19

Ranch houses – recreation rooms – split-levels – living-kitchens. Everybody can conjure up visions of them and most people have experienced them first-hand, but few are aware of the degree to which a single concept—casual living—had on their development. Casual living was the primary shaper of change in American house design during middle decades of the twentieth century. It was a purposefully laid-back, easy-going, and supposedly effortless lifestyle, whose outward character masked the complex geographic, economic, domestic, and spatial factors that underpinned its formation. Casual living promoted togetherness for nuclear families no longer residing in proximity to their extended kin. It advocated a type of sociability and a level of consumption that bridged differences between neighbors of varied backgrounds. It challenged long-standing boundaries between work and leisure within the house. 

In the 1950s, Americans began loudly clamoring for rooms and spaces that could accommodate and facilitate casual living. Two principal design arcs emerged out of a confusing multiplicity of responses to this desire. In one, the kitchen was transformed, first, into a living-kitchen through the addition of space for informal dining, and then into the somewhat larger kitchen-family room. This pathway was most common to ranch houses and dwellings constructed on concrete slab foundations. In the other, the basement recreation room moved partially out of the ground on the lower levels of three distinct multistory house forms: the split-level, the bi-level, and the split-entry. The extreme architectural experimentation of the 1950s was a consequential, but ultimately short-lived step in the evolving relationship between casual living and domestic design. Very quickly, prospective buyers demanded a more sophisticated, and standardized, solution mirroring the more settled role of casual living in the American suburbs. 

James A. Jacobs is a historian for the Historic American Buildings Survey and the National Historic Landmarks Program, both divisions of the U.S. National Park Service.

Living Casually in the Mid-Century American House

Lecture by James A. Jacobs, PhD
June 5

Located outside Baltimore, Hampton was the late eighteenth-century home of  Maryland’s Ridgely family.   In  addition to its association with the establishment of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, one of its claims  to fame is that Hampton was  the first property federally  designated as nationally significant only for its  architectural qualities.  The story of Hampton’s recognition involves the collaboration of Fiske Kimball  and David Finley, who believed that part of their mission as museum curators was to expand the patriotic goals of the historic preservation movement to include the official and academic recognition of the intrinsic value of American architecture as beautiful works of art.  Their work to identify,  evaluate, and collect a representative sample of American art paralleled the National Park Service’s  mandate (beginning in 1935) to inventory, document, and recognize a comprehensive register of  nationally significant historic places. 

As a historic property with no association with important events or individuals, the designation of Hampton in 1948 can be viewed as the administrative foundation of Criterion C of the National Register of Historic Places.   This criterion is the most commonly listed among the National Register Criteria—more than 50 percent of listings reference a property’s architectural significance.  Hampton’s designation and the bureaucratic recognition of architectural significance absent historical associations are important for understanding the foundations of architectural history’s role within historic preservation.    

Dr. Sprinkle serves as a historian with the National Park Service in Washington, DC.  This presentation is based on the forthcoming Routledge book,Crafting Preservation Criteria: The National Register of Historic Places and Historic Preservation.

Hampton Mansion and the Creation of Architectural Significance

Lecture by John H. Sprinkle Jr., PhD
October 3

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Public Buildings Commission planned and built a coordinated complex of seven federal buildings in thepie‐shaped area between Constitution Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, which historian Antoinette J. Lee has described as “one of the greatest building projects ever undertaken.” Eventually called the “Federal Triangle,” this complex of government buildings contributes significantly to central Washington’s Beaux‐Arts character. The six‐story classical revival buildings define dynamic and inviting public spaces and are accentuated with monumental sculpture and exquisite architectural details. The Federal Triangle set an exceptionally high standard for federal planning and construction.

Thomas McDowell, architectural conservator for the General Services Administration, guided the participants around the entire complex and took them inside four of the monumental buildings. 

Members‐only study tour of the Federal Triangle

November 2

In 1468, the Greek Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472) donated hundreds of Greek and Latin codices from his vast manuscript collection in Ottoman-held Greece to the Venetian Republic. The donation formed part of an escalating political rhetoric that called for the rescue of artifacts associated with the Byzantine Empire following the conquest of the former Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks. After years of languishing in storage, the Republic finally commissioned the architect Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) to design a library, located in the economic, religious, and political center of Venice—St. Mark’s Square. The library not only enabled better access to the books donated by Bessarion, but also enshrined Byzantine and Venetian cultural patrimony as Venice renegotiated its relations locally and in the East. 

This lecture will evaluate the design and construction of Sansovino’s library as a monument to various collecting impulses, from the amassing of books and statues to the accrual of architectural motifs. By placing particular emphasis on the formation of a display space in the library for a collection of ancient statuary bequeathed to the Republic, the formulation of Sansovino’s library will be traced both as an espousal of Bessarion’s ambitions for collecting as well as its contributions to emerging theories about the embellishment of urban space. 

Janna Israel is an assistant professor in the art history department at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Designing Gifts, Constructing Libraries: Cardinal Bessarion and His Books 

Lecture by Janna Israel, PhD
November 29