On Monday, President Joe Biden broke with a century of precedent by demanding the resignations of four members of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts.
Classical architecture is not a partisan issue.
President Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Democratic Party, was an enthusiastic champion of the Greek Revivalism thankfully still visible in both the capital and his Monticello home. When he designed the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he took great care in the landscaping and architecture, knowing their likely effects on generations of young minds.
Fifty years later, President Abraham Lincoln insisted that construction of the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol continue despite the bloody and costly war taking place sometimes just 50 miles from the seat of government. Public beauty in civic buildings, he believed, was crucial to the future of the Union.
Democrat President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drew inspiration from the great Republican of the Civil War, championing the classical and moving ahead with Washington construction as he sought to prepare the country for the world war he saw descending on our fragile peace.
Democrat Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan played an interesting role in Washington’s architectural history, both helping to craft the 1962 General Guidelines that undid more than 50 years of ordered-classical government buildings, then later criticizing the modernism that took its place.
“Twentieth Century America,” he lamented in 1970, “has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of its public order.”
The preference for the classical is not simply confined to politicians but is immensely popular with the public that lives among these buildings and sees them in either their daily business or on trips to their cities. A survey conducted by The Harris Poll and commissioned by the classicist National Civic Art Society found that, when presented with a picture of a modernist courthouse and a classical one, members of the public preferred the classical design by nearly 3:1, regardless of age, sex, or race.
But in academia and among elite art and architecture circles, the preferences of the American people and its leaders past and present are passe at best, and fascist at worst. On Monday, President Joe Biden broke with a century of precedent by demanding the resignations of four members of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, including Chas Fagan, Steven Spandle, Perry Guillot, and Commission Chairman Justin Shubow. His reason? He doesn’t like the classic aesthetic.
“The counsel’s office,” Bloomberg reports, “advised that President Joe Biden has the authority to remove the commissioners, whose staunch support for classical architecture does not align with his values.”
Fagan is a renowned sculptor and painter whose statue of former President Ronald Reagan stands in the Capitol Rotunda, whose statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks stands in the National Cathedral, and whose paintings include the Vatican’s official portrait of St. Mother Theresa and first lady Barbara Bush’s official portrait.
Shubow serves as the president of the National Civic Art Society, a non-profit organization that fights for classicism in public works, and is at the forefront of the battle to rebuild Manhattan’s destroyed Penn Station. Guillot’s works include the new White House Rose Garden and Children’s Garden, and Spandle’s work includes the White House’s beautiful new Tennis Pavilion.
The four men come from different backgrounds and disciplines, but all appear to have been targeted for removal to create a more “diverse” and less classically oriented commission, despite Guillot not considering himself a classicist and Shubow being the first Jewish chairman in the history of the commission.
Their replacements include urban planner and Howard University architecture professor Hazel Ruth Edwards, Andrew Mellon Foundation program officer Justin Garrett Moore, architect Billie Tsien, whose firm is responsible for the Obama Presidential Library design, and Peter D. Cook, whose designs include the Smithsonian’s sandcrawler-esque National Museum of African American History and a pavilion seemingly inspired by the Star Trek badge.
The purge, The Washington Post reports, followed a complaint from the deputy mayor of D.C., who told the Biden White House that because of the commission’s power to approve the city’s development, its members “could impede Washington’s progress toward racial and economic equity, climate change and affordable housing.”
All four replacement commissioners are modernists, none identify as white males, and three — Ruth Edwards, Garrett Moore and Tsien — are outspoken allies of the administration’s focus on race (and racism) in everything and above all else. “Biden,” the Post’s chosen search-engine headline reads, “removes four white men from Commission of Fine Arts.”