Finding the Master Builder: The Executive Committee at Work, 1921

June 10, 2016

Finding the Master Builder: The Executive Committee at Work, 1921

Harvey Wiley Corbett’s initial sketch, made in October 1921, while on the train back to New York after visiting the site of the Memorial, depicts a monumental lighthouse with distinctive Beaux-Arts features, including a highly-decorated roofline on the lower structure, and a grand archway at the door. The design would be refined in the coming months, but the original concept proved to be a compelling inspiration.

Although President Louis A. Watres was empowered to secure an architect in 1920, it was not until after the February 1921 annual meeting of the Memorial Association that the search truly began.

He elected to delay the process until the Association had secured sufficient land holdings and had generated sufficient cash flow to sustain the monumental project. With deeds to more than 12 acres and over $350,000 in hand, he and the Executive Committee decided to seek advice from schools of architecture at several notable Eastern universities.

Three months later, on May 3, 1921, the Executive Committee met in New York City. Its members were President Louis A. Watres of Pennsylvania; Melvin M. Johnson of Massachusetts; William L. Daniels of New Jersey; Charles C. Homer of Maryland; William S. Farmer of New York; and Committee Secretary J. Claude Keiper of the District of Columbia. Their purpose was to determine the proposed Memorial’s architectural style. Unfortunately, the solicited schools of architecture were of little help, but a report from the American Institute of Architects, prompted the men into what was recorded as a “very extensive” discussion of the various options.

A Question of Style

The Committee’s deliberations led them to strongly consider both the Colonial and the Gothic styles, with “the former on account of its association with Washington, the latter because of its Masonic origins.” In the end, the Committee agreed to contact eminent architects whose work best represented the two styles. The results of these inquiries would be presented at the next meeting.

The conversation continued when the Board reassembled in Washington, D.C., on September 12. They addressed several non-architectural issues at the beginning of this meeting. John H. Cowles resigned upon becoming Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction. The Association reported that their total funds available stood at over $400,000. The Board decided to send letters to every Grand Master to encourage promotion of the anniversary celebration of George Washington’s Masonic initiation on November 4th. Further decisions were made on formally incorporating the Association, supporting state promotional chairmen and completing the details of the partnership agreement with Alexandria-Washington Lodge No- 22.

After lunch, the Directors took an outing across the Potomac to Alexandria in order to inspect Shuter’s Hill. In light of a report by Charles Callahan, the Board agreed to purchase fringe parcels of land to ensure that future developments would never encroach upon the Memorial. The Board also agreed to contract with a landscape architect to beautify the hill.

Three Potential Architects

Then, the Committee gave consideration to the replies that had been received from their inquiries about architectural style. Three architects—Paul P. Cret of Philadelphia, John Russell Pope of New York and Ralph A. Cram of Boston—recommended neither the Colonial nor Gothic approach, but unanimously endorsed that the Memorial be designed in the Classical style. The Board accepted this expert assessment in stride, and voted to secure the services of either Cret or Pope. If neither were available, they would approach Cram to become the Memorial’s architect.

Paul Philippe Cret (1876–1945) was a French-born architect who taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Educated in Lyon and Paris, he came to America in 1903. Cret was famous for working in the Beaux-Arts style, which employed Classical Greek and Roman forms to create buildings with pronounced ornamentation. Examples of his work that would have been known to the Committee are the Pan American Union Building in Washington, D.C. (1910), the National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge (1917), and the Indianapolis Public Library (1917).

John Russell Pope (1874–1937) was also among America’s greatest architects. Also trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition, Pope was a confirmed Neo-Classicist who was able to design in Gothic, Georgian and Tudor styles as well. His accomplishments already included the House of the Temple of the Scottish Rite’s Southern Jurisdiction in D.C. (1915), the Branch House (1916) and Union Station (1917), both in Richmond, Virginia.

Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942) was an active builder of collegiate and ecclesiastical buildings in the Gothic style. He was the senior partner in the firm of Cram & Ferguson in Boston, and was the chair of the school of architecture at MIT. Among his more famous works were Princeton University’s Cleveland Tower (1913), New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine (c. 1916), and All Saints Church of Peterborough, New Hampshire (1920).

A New Option

On October 10, four weeks after the Directors’ meeting, the Executive Committee reconvened in New York City. The Committee reviewed the reports “on individuals and firms of architects obtained by the Chairman.” The minutes do not specifically mention Messrs. Cram, Pope, or Cret, but simply report the Committee adjourning to the offices of Helmle & Corbett, “who had been interviewed earlier in the day by Brothers Watres and Daniels.”

It appears that all three of the other architects had declined the commission, or that perhaps the Committee found them unsuitable. While Cret, Pope, and Cram did not work on the Memorial, all of them made major contributions to the Capital region, which is the Memorial’s context. Cret would later design the Folger Shakespeare Library (1932) and the Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building (1937). Pope went on to design the National Archives (1935), the National Gallery of Art (1941), and the Jefferson Memorial (1942). For his part, Cram made many contributions to the design of D.C.’s National Cathedral.

The Builder Found

How Louis Watres and William Daniels came to know the firm of Helmle & Corbett is unclear, but it may be through their work on the Brooklyn Masonic Temple (1907). In any case, after the visit and much discussion, the committee passed a resolution to have Harvey W. Corbett visit Shuter’s Hill and asked his firm submit a contour map with “a model of such a structure as they propose to erect thereon . . . .”

Harvey Wiley Corbett (1873–1954) graduated with an engineering degree from the University of California in 1895 and studied design in Paris. Among his first commissions were the municipal buildings of Springfield, Massachusetts, dedicated in 1913. Although Corbett had a Beaux-Arts background, he also embraced Modernism, becoming a champion of step-back skyscrapers. One of his most impressive accomplishments in New York was the Bush Tower (1918), a 30-story skyscraper with Neo-Gothic elements.

A few days after meeting with the Executive Committee, Corbett traveled down to Alexandria and, in the company of Louis Watres and Charles Callahan, inspected Shuter’s Hill. Back on the train to New York City, he sketched his vision for the Memorial.

A few days later, on October 29th, the Executive Committee convened again in the offices of Helmle & Corbett. The minutes report: “The sketches were explained to the Committee at length and were approved by it, as a general scheme, the details to be submitted at the next meeting of the Committee.” And with these words the Memorial had its master builder.

Mark A. Tabbert is the Director of Archives & Exhibits of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association.
Next: The Memorial Temple: The Designer and the Design, 1920–1921