Symbolism in D.C.

Recently, my family and I took a vacation in Washington, D.C. While I have been to the nation’s capital several times, on this trip I visited a number of sites and buildings that I had never been to before, such as the Library of Congress, Supreme Court, National Portrait Gallery, Ford’s Theater, and the National Archives. As my family and I visited one building to the next, we took guided tours to learn as much as we could about the building and the institution housed within and, in taking these tours and listening to the knowledgeable guides, one thing jumped out at me over and over again: symbolism. 

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Many of the buildings we visited were built as far back as the early-to-mid-1800s, and the architectural style of these buildings range from Beaux-Arts to Neoclassical Revival to Greek Revival.

Supreme Court Building

Supreme Court Building

Ford's Theatre Gallery

Ford's Theatre Gallery

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery

National Archives Building

National Archives Building

Based on these styles, it seems as though it was commonplace to depict certain events, stories and/or histories, and represent certain themes, through the architecture of the building itself (e.g., staircases, domes), and by including statues, paintings, and focal points. By example: in the U.S. Capitol Building’s Crypt there is a white marble mark (compass rose) on the floor which represents the center of D.C.’s grid street plan (not the geographic center of the city); in the Library of Congress there is a mosaic of the goddess Minerva, as she is the protector of the library; in the National Archives there is a mural which commemorates George Washington accepting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (why is Abraham Lincoln in the mural, can you find him?).

Goddess Minerva, Library of Congress

In the center of the Crypt, a white marble star is inlaid into the floor marking the center of Washington, D.C.

You could fill pages with all of the symbolism that can be found from one building to the next, and get lost in all of the trivia, history, facts, and figures. But, in soaking this all in, I started to wonder, where has all of this symbolism gone in today’s architecture? 

George Washington accepting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, National Archives

From one new government building to the next (see the US GSA building below), it seems as though there is no real symbolism being designed into the structure itself and/or the components within. Yes, a new building might include one or two statues or plaques to commemorate something or someone, but this pales in comparison to the buildings of yesterday. Why is this and when did it start to happen? When did architects and/or the project owner look to minimize these elements of design or get rid of them entirely? Are there no more stories to tell, people to remember, events to look back on? I recall the 1930’s-era post office in the town I grew up in and even in this small and simple building there are paintings that depict scenes from the history of Long Island. Look at a new post office today and the only symbols one might find are icons to help explain how to use the automated postage machine. 

U.S. General Services Administration, Federal Center South Building 1202, Seattle, WA

U.S. General Services Administration, Federal Center South Building 1202, Seattle, WA

As a student of history, I could read about the symbolism found in a place like Washington, D.C. for hours on end. It’s sad to think, and see, that all of this seems to be forgotten in today’s government, as well as commercial buildings. Sure there are building designs to marvel at and ask, how was that built, but it is not the same as seeing the various representative symbols that tell a story about a person, place, or thing.


Roger Marquis, AIA Associate, Business Development Director

Roger Marquis, AIA Associate, Business Development Director