Friday, November 23, 2012

What would Adolf Cluss do?

A couple of years ago, at a meeting about the redevelopment of the Hine Jr. High site (8th and Pennsylvania, SE), one of my neighbors asked the architect, "What would Adolf Cluss do?" Cluss had been the architect of so many beautiful buildings in DC, such as the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building (to the right) and Ward 6's Eastern Market (to the left). Cluss also designed the Wallach School (below), the school torn down to make way for Hine Jr High. So, if Cluss was alive today, what would he have done with the Hine site? Since he built such beautiful buildings that are so popular today, could we capture some of his spirit and inspiration?

Well, this is an interesting question, especially considering the fact that Cluss was a communist, an active participant in the 1848 revolution in Germany, and a close friend of Karl Marx. For information about Adolf Cluss (1825-1905), I turned to the beautiful book Adolf Cluss, Architect: From Germany to America. Arriving in the US in 1849, Cluss worked at the Navy Yard and organized the workers there. He also sought to transplant the Communist League from Germany to the United States and wrote articles for a variety of communist and left-wing periodicals. In 1858, Cluss broke with Karl Marx and allied with German communist and future Civil War Union General August Willich (Letter from Marx to another revolutionary; see much of Marx's correspondence here).

In 1862, Cluss began his architecture career when he won a competition to design the Wallach School, yes, the school before Hine. He designed six of the earliest public schools in Washington, DC, and many public buildings and public works, as well as private residences and churches. As discussed on the book's website, "Cluss promoted the quality of urban life by designing enduring, beautiful school buildings for Washington's students, both African-American and white. His public schools in Washington enabled all segments of society, regardless of wealth or race, to experience architectural beauty and style." In her review of another book on Cluss, Kate Holiday wrote, "Cluss's idealism made him an active urban reformer, and he spent much of his architectural energy on building 'multiclass urban public schools.'" At that time, such an approach was, in fact, revolutionary!

However, maybe such an approach would also be revolutionary today in an age when most developments involve condos (with a few "affordable" units), high-end retail, boutique hotels, and high-rent office space. So, what would Cluss do? He almost certainly would not design something like the current Hine redevelopment plan. Any ideas of what Cluss might do?


  1. Civic buildings are different from private buildings. Cluss also designed private buildings. In fact, he built the ritzy Shepherd's Row at Farragut Square. These opulent houses were far out of reach for most people.

    So to answer your question, Cluss might build opulent residences on the Hines site.

  2. Cluss might also ask "Why are you asking me what an architect from 150 years ago would do?"

    Cluss might also look at DC's population growth during the time Eastern Market opened. In 1850, DC had grown 53% over the past decade. In 1860, it had grown 45% over 1850. In the 1870 Census, DC registered a whopping 75% growth rate over 1860. Those double-digit growth rates continued for decades.

    Someone dealing with building, construction, and development might look at those numbers and say "hey! we need to build more!"