Building Museum exhibit shows DC that could have been

Washington has an elegance here that seems almost built in, but there's another take on our city that never came to be. A new exhibit at the National Building Museum takes a look at what could have been, displaying original designs that are sometimes dramatically different from the monuments and cityscape we’re used to.

Some proposals “would have been pretty hideous,” says Martin Moeller of the building museum, “but also very ornate proposals, everything from an Italian bell tower to a pagoda.”

The original design for the Washington Monument is one of the sketches on display at the National Building Museum's “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit, which opens Saturday.

“This show is very much about the Washington that could have been,” Moeller said.


A Maryland architect wanted to put a giant chicken on the top of the Capitol. Another thought of a high-rise in the middle of the Pentagon.

“There are definitely some not so good ideas here, but there are some beautiful projects here,” Moeller said.

The exhibit includes a sketch for the White House by Thomas Jefferson. At one point there was a proposal for replicating the White House and putting those buildings on either side to create a huge courtyard in the middle.

An early design for the Lincoln Memorial was radically different. Imagine Marion Anderson singing or Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in front of a pyramid.

The exhibit starts with images from 1791 and includes present-day unbuilt ideas like a reimaged southwest waterfront done by local company, Studio 27 architecture.

“This is our vision of what we think would be a great step forward in making the city better as a whole,” architect Niki Livingston said.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off