Crystal City was an unrealized DC design by Frank Lloyd Wright

The legend clung to the massive oak tree that once stood in the nine-acre triangle of forest that grew incongruously on the corner of Connecticut and Florida Avenues to the northwest. The tree was known as the treaty oak, supposedly because Native Americans and white settlers negotiated agreements under its branches. But in the 1940s, any tree in an expanding Washington was threatened by the axe.

It is unclear whether the Treaty Oak would have survived the district Freemasons’ plan for the site, known as the Dean tract. As Answer Man wrote last week, in 1922 the Masons announced their intention to turn 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”.

This is how the DC developer Roy Sage Thurman describe Frank Lloyd Wright in 1940. The 73-year-old Wright’s modernist style may have been celebrated around the world, but he was not represented in the nation’s capital.

For Temple Heights, Thurman envisioned what we would today call a mixed-use development. And he hired Wright to design it.

Wright was not a fan of prototypical Washington architecture, proclaiming that the city had “a smugness of deadly conventionality”. The federal buildings were intended to “satisfy a kind of completely obsolete grandomania.” Greek and Roman influences were everywhere, producing too many solid buildings. John Russell Pope the domed Jefferson Memorial, he said, was “the biggest insult to date”.

With Thurman’s command, Wright was going to shake things up – or try to.

The fascinating story of Wright’s failed attempt to animate the Washington 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 softcovers. He was somewhat unknown, so much so that the architect, writes Levine, hired an investigator to write a confidential report on Thurman. (The report was completed after Wright was well into the project. It revealed that Thurman had not been very successful.)

Thurman asked Wright to place on the sloping site of Dean tract a complex that would include a hotel, apartment building, parking lot, movie theatre, shopping center and other commercial spaces. It would be an almost autonomous city within the city.

The design morphed over the months of 1939 and 1940 that Wright worked on it. What all the designs had in common was a crescent of large conjoined buildings – more than a dozen, most of them 12 to 14 stories high – on high ground at the rear of the site. A large parking lot 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, art gallery, banquet hall, cocktail lounge, and other amenities.

Buildings, Wright wrote to Thurman, “should be constructed of white marble, verdigris bronze, and crystal [glass], and show the Capitol for a fallen dumpling and the hotels of Washington as insufferable. And this is to suggest that you change Temple Heights to CRYSTAL HEIGHTS because of the crystalline character of the whole building. It will be an iridescent fabric with every surface showing the best quality.

Thurman preferred the Crystal City name for the $15 million project.

Levine suggests that Thurman hoped Wright’s stamp would help alleviate some of the same issues that had plagued the Masons’ design, among them the district’s height restrictions. There was also the matter of the Dean tract’s zoning designation: residential, not commercial. Buildings in residential areas were limited to 90 feet tall. The tallest tower of Wright’s design was about 200 feet. And the residential designation meant the stores that Thurman depended on were not allowed.

And then there was the striking, modern design itself, which Newsweek likened to “a Sunday school burlesque show.” Crystal City has not obtained zoning approval. Like the Temple of the Masons, it is a case of what might have been.

On March 13, 1953, a bulldozer knocked down the Treaty Oak. Government experts who examined the toppled tree estimated it to be around 350 years old. In 1962, construction began on the building that stands there today: the Washington Hilton.

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About Ethel Nester

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