This post was contributed by Kaitlyn Tanis, intern at the American Art and Portrait Gallery Library.
Walking around downtown Washington, D.C. (located between the Capitol and the White House) is always a sight to behold. Between the grand marble buildings, the throngs of tourists, museums, and the vast number of restaurants, downtown D.C. represents the diversity and beauty of the city.
However, the area was not always a thriving tourist destination. Pre- 1960s, downtown D.C. was a crime and poverty-stricken area where few tourists ventured. Beginning in 1960, a group of businessmen and politicians began to work together in order to improve the district. The National Capital Downtown Committee’s goals were to improve transportation, environmental conditions, encourage private development, expand employment, increase housing, bring more historic and educational facilities, and return the area to its original historic charm. The project came to be called “Downtown Progress.”
This new project came to inspire the change and the current dynamic that we can see today within this area. Downtown Progress sought to develop means to attract people to the region by encouraging new businesses to open up what were once dilapidated storefronts and restaurants, leading to new employment opportunities for the lower and middle class, as well as additional living accommodations for the residents of the neighborhood. The goal in the 1960s was to create 5 million square feet of office space, increase retail employment to 23,000, and have the total employment increased to 77,500 for the downtown area.
One of the major developments that coincided with this effort was new modes of transportation that allowed Washingtonians to get to different areas of the city faster; this included a Minibus service and a tourist bus that would shuttle tourists around the Mall. The Minibus had been used during the March on Washington in 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous, “I Have A Dream” speech. Additionally, Metro Rail was born with the start of the Red Line that ran from Rhode Island Avenue to Farragut North. A new freeway system would also be developed in order to better accommodate the larger amounts of people traveling to the area for work.
Additionally, an increase in educational experiences would inspire a better community for future generations. Parks, youth gardens, public programming, and public libraries would be created. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library was designed in 1968 by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and was funded by Downtown Progress. Union Station was originally planned to become the Capital’s Visitor Center, which was set to open in 1971. The National Park Service was going to create exhibits, films, and other displays about Washington, D.C., though the project was never completed as planned. Ford’s Theatre was restored to its original glory and a museum and educational center were established. Also part of the downtown planning: the Patent Office Building would be turned into an art museum (proposed in 1968) to house the National Collection of Fine Arts (which today is the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and the newly founded National Portrait Gallery.
Because the National Portrait Gallery was within the central part of the Downtown District, the Smithsonian Institution contributed ideas to the project and was kept well-informed about the various plans that were being developed. Other endorsers for the project include President and Lady Bird Johnson, Knox Banner (Executive Director of Downtown Progress), Richard Hollander (Editor of The Washington Daily News), The George Washington University, the National Park Service, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Downtown Progress was officially disbanded in 1977 and turned into a public sector of the government known as the National Capital Planning Commission. However, the efforts of the project can still be seen today as you walk around Chinatown, visit the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, shop or grab a bite to eat at one of the many cafes and restaurants.
These papers, brochures, and meeting notes can be seen in the AA/PG Library’s Downtown Progress institutional file, part of the Smithsonian Libraries’ Art and Artist File collection. For additional information, The National Capital Downtown Committee has published other books:
–Kaitlyn Tanis is an AA/PG Library Intern for the summer of 2013. She is a rising junior at Susquehanna University, double majoring in History/Anthropology with a minor in Public Relations.