Most of the buildings on the National Mall are well-known, beloved, and clearly have a purpose there. The Smithsonian museums are wonderful, and the juxtaposition of monumental federal buildings and spaces reserved for the use of the people is something special about the nation’s capital. We accept the Canadian Embassy and the Organization of American States because, well, they’re friends and allies and we all like to congratulate each other on how awesome we are. Even the Daughters of the American Revolution building and the Red Cross are worthy of placement on the National Mall because they’re Amurri-can, darn it, and represent something culturally iconic.
But the American Pharmacists Association? How did they manage to score a prime spot, the only privately owned spot, on the National Mall for their headquarters? And where does Abraham Lincoln come into it?
Though the American Pharmacists Association (known by many different names throughout its history) didn’t acquire the site for their headquarters building until 1928, they had a long history with the National Mall and Potomac Park.
The association was initially founded in 1852, and its first president was a Washington, DC druggist named John Lawrence Kidwell. Kidwell operated a drugstore on the first floor of 1347 Pennsylvania Avenue, in a notorious neighborhood known as “Rum Row” for its drinking and gambling dens. Kidwell apparently was an opportunist (or a humanitarian, depending on how you look at it) and made his fortune selling medical supplies to both sides during the Civil War. He became known as “The Quinine King”, and according to one colorful report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 1862 was even arrested for his efforts:
“The capture of Mrs. Turner, Miss Buckner, (with $300 worth of quinine in her bustle,) and B. Bailey, while trying to make their way into our lines near Centreville, has been published…They were from Washington, in a carriage loaded with sundry family stores, in which was found quinine and morphine, worth in the South $10,000. Messr. Kidwell, of …Washington city, druggist, [was] on Thursday arrested and sent to the old Capitol prison for selling these parties the contraband medicines, knowing, as is alleged where they were to be carried.”
(Personally, I wonder how anyone noticed Miss Buckner was carrying drugs in her bustle. And who had the temerity to investigate said bustle in the presence of the 70 year-old Reverend Bailey.)
Kidwell invested his fortune in real estate, as all good DC speculators do, purchasing a swampy tract south of the President’s House in 1869. The property remained undeveloped until Kidwell’s death in 1885 and became known as Kidwell’s Meadows, later Potomac Flats. In this 1863 photo taken from the Smithsonian Castle tower, Kidwell’s Meadows can be seen behind the incomplete Washington Monument.
Why did the “meadows” remain undeveloped? Possibly because they were a general flood zone for the Washington Canal and were regularly inundated with raw sewage and trash. In 1881, a record snowfall and subsequent melt flooded the entire National Mall area with sewage all the way to the base of the Capitol building. Members of Congress were not impressed and immediately ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to do something about it. The ACE dredged the Potomac for sand and filled in the riverside flats, accomplishing the dual goal of making the Potomac more navigable by deepwater ships and creating around 700 acres of new land for the city.
This of course created a legal kerfuffle over the ownership of the new land- did it belong to those who had previously owned the flats, such as Kidwell? Or to the federal government who paid to make it useful? In October 1895, the Supreme Court ruled against over 50 persons claiming ownership of the flats and declared the land property of the government: “[the land] was undoubtedly acquired for speculative purposes, and for the government to part with its land to promote such purposes [is] against public policy” (Washington Law Reporter, 11/21/1895, 745-780).
After this landmark decision, the beautification of downtown gained traction and culminated with the 1902 McMillan Plan for “the Improvement of the Park System in the District of Columbia”. This is the movement we’re all familiar with, designed to make Washington more attractive as the seat of government and building on the success of Chicago’s “White City” built for the 1895 World’s Fair. Doubtless, some people were still a bit ratty about being passed over by the Fair for some upstart western cow town.
One of the more iconic buildings produced by the Park Commission was the Lincoln Memorial, anchoring the far western end of the Mall. The Commission had a competition to design the memorial in 1912, insisting that someone could do better than the 70-foot high multi-statued equestrian-bedecked monstrosity by Clark Mills initially approved in 1867. Architect John Russell Pope was heavily favored to win the competition and submitted multiple designs for the monument that included a Greek temple, Egyptian pyramid, and Mayan ziggurat. The public and some members of Congress protested Pope’s artistic excesses, advocating for a simpler design that would align better with Lincoln’s humble image. The prize eventually went to Henry Bacon, who proposed a toned-down but sophisticated inversion of a classical temple.
Pope was understandably cranky about this, and even more cranky because his other attempt at Lincolnian monumentality, a shrine to the president’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, had been rejected in a previous 1907 competition.
Twenty years later, the American Pharmacists Association announced a design competition for a national headquarters to be located on the far west end of the Mall. Pope acted with delicious irony, submitting the 1907 Lincoln shrine plans that, if implemented, would literally and figuratively oppose Bacon’s Lincoln Memorial. One imagines an eternal staring match between the two.
The APA (blissfully ignorant to Pope vs. Bacon) had acquired the land for the building in 1928 after an aggressive, highly publicized campaign by Henry Armit Brown Dunning (of the Baltimore pharmaceutical giant Hynson, Westcott, and Dunning Company) combined with some deft lining of political pockets. The APA also took advantage of the Depression and the pharmaceutical industry’s relative stability during the crisis, offering a substantial sum for several adjacent lots in May of 1932 and pressuring Congress to authorize construction of the headquarters building. Congress attempted to recover its dignity by stating in the Congressional approval action that “[use of the building] shall be limited to organizations and institutions serving American pharmacy on a nonprofit basis”.
So there you go- artistic angst, Abraham Lincoln, and the American Pharmacists Association.
As a postscript– More dodgy negotiations with the government came in the 1990’s, when APA negotiated purchase of land behind the Pope building (and an unfortunate 1950’s annex) to build federal office space. The price for the large parcel in the heart of downtown was a measly $2.6 million, less than a quarter of its assessed value. “Multiple federal agencies” were involved, but somehow the National Park Service wasn’t invited to the party. The 322,000 square foot, six-story addition to the landmarked Pope building is incredible, particularly because anything taking federal money is supposed to abide by the Secretary of the Interior Standards. The 10th Commandment (aka SOI Standard) clearly states “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction…will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment”. Yeah, oops. CFA, who’s pulling your strings?