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Crystal City: Frank Lloyd Wright’s long-lost D.C. masterpiece

See what caused Wright’s project to go wrong

All images via the Library of Congress

Roy Thurman was perhaps the most ambitious developer in D.C. history. During the height of WWII, as the United States debated putting troops on the ground across Europe and launching the Pacific Theatre, Thurman proposed building a Rockefeller Center-style Super Block just above Dupont Circle. He knew the architect would be Frank Lloyd Wright, and the development, which Wright called Crystal City, would be a masterpiece.

“Concrete pillars will rise like the branches of trees ... Screens of marble, glass, and bronze will be suspended from the steel—like the leaves,” said the architect to a gathering of Washington D.C., journalists when he unveiled his designs, according to an October 1939 article of the Washington Times-Herald.

A conglomerate of 21 buildings comprised a structure where “two walls of every room [would be] made entirely of glass.” High rise apartments floated above shops and a movie theatre. A surrounding courtyard of marble stretched outward. It served as the top for a massive underground parking garage with “tunnels from the uphill street level of Connecticut Avenue so that eight miles of automobiles can be parked in the garage, an integral part of the structure, within 20 minutes,” the Washington Times-Herald reported.

Dr. Neil Levine, professor of Art History at Harvard University, says, “Connecticut Avenue at the time was the preferred traveling route for commuters.” His book, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright, is considered a definitive text on the architect.

“Back then, D.C. was one of the fastest growing cities in United States,” says Levine, “with more cars than Los Angeles.”

To shorten commutes, residential areas had crept into much of Northwest D.C. This complicated the path to market for developers. Once a plot of land was considered residential, it by law fell under stricter height requirements. Prevailing thought differentiated residential areas from commercial ones. Developments like Rockefeller Center and Crystal City—with high-rise apartments and shops planned along the courtyard—sought to challenge this paradigm.

A residential area could be 90 feet tall with a 30-foot setback at its highest. Commercial developments would need to compete for space even though they were allowed to be taller at 110 feet with a 20-foot setback. Crystal City was both residential and commercial, 180 feet at its tallest, twice as tall as the cutoff for the residential tract where Thurman was determined to build it.

D.C. has a long history of monitoring the height of its buildings. The tract Thurman leased, Temple Heights, had already been the scene of one unsuccessful development. In 1930, The Grand Lodge of Masonry failed to build the United Masonic Temple upon it.

With a design too tall for the tract, the Masons had approached then-President Herbert Hoover to seek an exception on religious grounds. A non-commercial, non-residential development, they argued, should be exempt from the Height of Buildings Act. With the President’s help, a religious exemption bill passed through Congress.

Hoover, in a private meeting with the Masons, explained that D.C. law still gave the National Capital Park and Planning Committee final say, according to Levine’s 2016 publication, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright. They ended up denying the United Masonic Temple.

According to Crystal City Historian Dr. Neil Levine, Wright began referring to the project as Crystal Heights as well after hearing the name of the plot of land for Thurman’s proposed development.

“But it will not be built on the heights,” announced Wright at the press conference for the development. “Rather, it will be of the heights.”

Building the development among the trees rather than onto the street would potentially exempt them from many of D.C.’s zoning regulations. This tactical design decision by Wright and Thurman necessitated a tunnel from Connecticut Avenue NW as the entrance.

Needham C. Turnage, the former United States commissioner for the District of Columbia and former Grand Master of the Masons, negotiated an intricate contract with Thurman.

The 180-day lease would cost Thurman and his syndicate of investors $15 million plus $1,000 for every month after 180 days. Another provision was reported in the Washington Times-Herald, “The plan for development of the 10-acre tract now owned by a Masonic order calls for preservation of the oak trees.”

Although hard to imagine now, the area in northern Dupont Circle where Connecticut Avenue NW meets Florida Avenue NW was one of the last truly undeveloped tracts in metropolitan D.C. In photographs, the forest looks pasted on.

“The property has been estate-owned antedating the establishment of the District of Columbia,” Thurman noted. “It was last occupied by its owners during the early part of this century.”

“In fact, Treaty Oak will be the central feature of one of the terraces,” Wright informed his audience during the press conference.

The story goes that Chief Mannacassett of the Anacostia tribe entertained American captives in a teepee beneath a great oak tree. There, he asked a young captive for her hand in marriage. She refused, but rather than put her to death, Chief Mannacassett forbade her from leaving the area around the tree. Since then, the tree was called Treaty Oak.

Treaty Oak ominously appears in article after article about the Crystal City development. According to the Evening Star, “In the realm of fantasy is also the tale that George Washington wanted to erect the Capitol of the United States on the site ... but the widow refused him.”

When news came that the National Capital Planning Commission had rejected Crystal City, Wright responded by doubling down on his inflammatory press appearances, criticizing the D.C. government and the National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

“I had supposed our strength and greatness as a nation ... not to lie in a leveling-off process characteristic of totalitarian government,” Wright wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

Thurman instead looked to the Hoover bill that was supposed to have helped the Masons, although Levine speculates that there was never any assurance from the city that this bill could be used for the development.

The Height of Buildings Act is the official reason why there is no Crystal City.

“If you want people to build your building, you don’t tell them how dumb they are,” says Richard Longstreth, a professor of American Studies at the George Washington University and a member of the Committee of 100 of the Federal City. The organization formed to protect the McMillan Plan, the original layout for the District. The committee also strives to protect historic developments in the District.

According to Longstreth, Wright’s reputation as an architect had followed him to D.C. “Wright’s projects act as if he’s on Tabula Rasa,” he noted.

The architect famously designed in a vacuum. Many saw this as the reason why Wright’s design did not integrate into the existing neighborhood.

For Thurman, preserving the famous forest of Temple Heights had done such serious damage to the infrastructure of the surrounding area that it necessitated a development like Crystal City.

“Unfortunately ... new construction did not keep pace with the rapid enhancement of Connecticut Avenue realty values,” wrote Thurman. “Owners and investors resorted to makeshift alterations, making for the ridiculous spectacle of old ramshackle, ‘$100’ structures on ‘$100,000’ land.”

Over 50 local stores had paid to be part of the development, not included in the $15 million Thurman had raised.

“It can be more difficult to build in Washington ... if you can only build so high you can only make so much, recouping your money is harder for a commercial venture,” says C. Ford Peatross, the former director of the Center for Architecture, Design, and Engineering at the Library of Congress.

Peatross, now retired, is fascinated by unfinished developments. His position at the Library of Congress had given him the resources to track down their stories. “I set out to find if the drawings survived,” says Peatross, “and turned up Thurman.”

The two later met at a condo in Southwest D.C. in the early 1980s. By that point, the old developer had become obsessed with sailing. Photos of boats covered the room where Thurman and Peatross discussed a binder as old as the Crystal City development itself. For over 50 years, Thurman had been adding the occasional news clipping to his collection of proposal notes and drawings. The binder now sits in Library of Congress’s archives.

“He wasn’t ready to let go of that album,” says Peatross.

For a while, all Peatross could do was sit with the man and talk about the development. They talked about the oak tree and funding that was always on the verge of drying up.

“He came from Cambridge Massachusetts,” says Peatross. “He had done low-end developments, not quite slums, but was turning over a new leaf in Washington.”

In D.C., according to Levine, Thurman had earned a reputation as a con man selling paperback books, which he turned into a stint as Vice President of the National Home Library Foundation. Succeeding in the development of the Longfellow Building, an earlier project, had attracted Frank Lloyd Wright with some trepidation. However, the man that Peatross had met in Southwest clung to the past and earnest about his desire to understand exactly how the Library of Congress would preserve the binder.

“This was the evidence of how that project happened,” said Thurman.

As the War came to a head, Wright abandoned the project. A private detective hired by Wright had confirmed that Thurman was late on personal rent payments since before the architect took on the project. Having been paid for his drawings and with no reason to believe the project would get off the ground, Wright left.

With the architect gone, Thurman stopped the project. He joined the Canadian military, then returned to Washington, D.C., after the War to continue developing. Nothing would be as ambitious as Crystal City.

Soon thereafter, 20th Street NW was extended through Temple Heights.

The Washington Post bemoaned the lack of available housing in D.C. in its report on the Crystal City development’s would-be apartments, writing, “Perhaps these will house a few of the 176,284 persons added to the District’s population between 1930 and 1940.”

A 2013 report by the city of D.C. found that upwards of $62 million in annual tax revenue could be generated by residents living in high rise apartments.

The National Capital Park and Planning Commission, now known as the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), found new alternatives to development that preserved the Height of Buildings Act, according to a report released during the same period of time. For the Commission, contemporary technology shapes the future of developments in the District.

“People are looking for more flexible office space,” says Julia Koster, director of the Office of Public Engagement at the NCPC. “They want to take their laptop, sit anywhere, and work without feeling constrained.”

Now, the focus has turned to making more livable outdoor space. The Southwest Ecodistrict is an example of this new path forward. Forests and sidewalks will connect separate Super Blocks throughout Southwest as Washington, D.C., prepares for a 30 percent increase in population by 2030.

For a city in need of more useable public space, the Ecodistrict functions similarly to the massive courtyard in the Crystal City development, but geared towards sustainability.

From 1921 to 1940, according to Levine, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission consolidated its power over Washington, D.C., architecture by specifically shaping an aesthetic for the District. Aside from the height problem, a contention point that stopped the development of the United Masonic Temple was that it looked like the Lincoln Memorial on a pedestal.

During this time, the list of approved constructions included the Folger Shakespeare Library and most famously the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. To Wright, the Jefferson, with its large romanesque pillars, was, “as out of place today as Thomas Jefferson himself would be if he came back wearing silk hose and a red velvet coat.”

He added, “In Crystal Heights, we have conceived a Washington Monument to modern progress and achievement.”

Where Crystal City would have been now stands a large assortment of buildings. Among these is the Washington Hilton hotel.

“When I was researching my book,” Levine says, “I went up to the Presidential Suite. Do you know what you can see right out that window? It’s the Washington Monument.”