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About the Commission of Fine Arts

McMillan Plan rendering of early concept for the Lincoln Memorial by Charles McKim.

The U. S. Commission of Fine Arts was established in 1910 to meet the growing need for a permanent body to advise the government on matters pertaining to the arts; and particularly, to guide the architectural development of Washington. Legislation for the creation of the Commission was approved on 17 May 1910. Initially, the Commission was authorized to advise on the location of statues, fountains and monuments in public areas in the District of Columbia. On 25 October 1910, President William Howard Taft issued an Executive Order authorizing the Commission to advise on plans for public buildings erected by the Federal Government within the District of Columbia. Subsequent legislation (the Shipstead-Luce Act of 1930 and the Old Georgetown Act of 1950) extended the Commission's authority to regulate the height, exterior design and construction of private and semipublic buildings in designated historic areas.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was great interest in creating a review board to pass on the merits of art and architecture to be commissioned or acquired by the federal government. The custom then was for Congress to authorize the appointment of an ad hoc committee to advise on each project for which legislation was proposed. Generally comprised of laymen not especially qualified to comment upon matters of art or architecture, these committees disbanded upon completion (or rejection) of their projects.

Inspired by the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and by the City Beautiful movement, members of the American Institute of Architects and the Cosmos Club formed the Public Art League and proceeded to campaign for the establishment of a permanent art commission. In 1897, legislation was proposed that called for a commission consisting of two presidential appointees and the presidents of the American Institute of Architects, the National Academy of Design and the National Sculpture Society. The bill failed to become law because Congress preferred an advisory commission whose members were all presidential or congressional appointees.

In 1900 in conjunction with the celebration of the centennial of the establishment of Washington as the nation's capital, the American Institute of Architects chose Washington as the site for its annual convention, and thanks to its secretary, Glenn Brown, its theme was federal architecture and the grouping of public buildings in the capital. The architects were able to interest Senator James McMillan of Michigan in their plans; he was chairman of Senate's committee on the District of Columbia, and in March 1901 he secured the passage of a Senate resolution that created the Senate Park Commission, often called the McMillan Commission. The task of this commission, consisting of architects Daniel H. Burnham and Charles F. McKim, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was to develop "plans for the development and improvement of the entire park system of the District of Columbia." After studying Washington and several European cities and parks, the Park Commission recommended adherence to the principles of the L'Enfant Plan of 1791 and a coordinated park system for the District, with particular attention to the Mall and the placement of a memorial to Abraham Lincoln. This became the Plan of 1901 for Washington.

President Theodore Roosevelt, in response to an initiative of a committee of the American Institute of Architects, issued an executive order creating a thirty member Council of Fine Arts on 18 January 1909, shortly before he left office. The council held one meeting, at which the location of the Lincoln Memorial was considered and the site selected by the Senate Park Commission approved. Congress, however, refused to fund the council, since it was established only by executive order, and it was disbanded. The new president, William Howard Taft, was much in favor of a fine arts commission, but agreed that it should be established by congressional legislation. He encouraged Senator Elihu Root of New York to introduce a bill in the Senate, which was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Representative Samuel W. McCall of Massachusetts, and on 17 May 1910 the legislation establishing the Commission of Fine Arts was signed into law.

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Last Modified: October 31, 2002