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Funkstown:  Connecting the City to Foggy Bottom’s Kennedy Center

By Frank Leone

Foggy Bottom is fortunate to have the Kennedy Center, but its location here was controversial and access challenges remain. Washington Post architectural critic Wolf Von Eckardt, argued that a “spaghetti maze” of highways would limit access and hide the Center from view. He was right, of course. Planners have proposed various options, although the best solution may be to deck over the Potomac Freeway chasm, and integrate the Kennedy Center with the city. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and D.C. Office of Planning (OP) are considering options – let them know what you think.

Architect Edward Durrell Stone’s early design for the Kennedy Center featuring accessible front entrance. (Ralph Becker, Miracle on the Potomac, at 25)

The idea of a National Cultural Center began as a Cold War initiative during the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration. Moscow had the Bolshoi Ballet. Washington had some local theaters, but lacked a national performing arts center.  Legislation authorizing the Center was adopted in 1958. Fundraising for the Center – both federal and private – was well underway when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The Center then was not only named for Kennedy – it was to be his only monument in D.C.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presents world-class classical and contemporary music, opera, drama, dance, and other performing arts, engages in culturally diverse education and outreach programs, and provides facilities for other civic activities. It is also a “living memorial” to President Kennedy. (The Center currently hosts an excellent exhibit on JFK, Arts and Ideals.) Thus the National Park Service administers grounds, maintenance, and security while the Center handles the arts.

Stone’s early “clamshell” design for the Kennedy Center featuring a grand entrance with river access. (Kennedy Center Archives) The circular plan inspired the Watergate, but budgetary restraints resulted in the current white marble rectangular box.

The location, design, and especially funding of the Center were controversial. A 1957 District Auditorium Commission Report recommended the current Foggy Bottom site (although with the larger footprint) as a pavilion in a park-like setting.  During the 1950s, industrial Foggy Bottom was being replaced by new development. Much of the site had been occupied by the Christian Heurich Brewery, but the federal government had obtained most of the site in connection with Theodore Roosevelt Bridge construction. Congress donated the site for the Center, but the location issue was contested until 1965. Groundbreaking was in 1964, actual construction began in 1965, and the Center opened in 1971.

Foggy Bottom location critics raised concerns about the Center being an island isolated by highways, and issues with pedestrian access, traffic, parking, airport noise, and building stability – would it sink into the Potomac? Local opponents included developers of Potomac Plaza and Peoples Life Insurance (now the Saudi Embassy) who feared conflicts with their building plans, and property value disputes with owners of the Watergate Complex, Marjorie Hendricks’ Watergate Inn, and Bluebell Waffle and Donut Shop. Re-routing of the Potomac Freeway/Inner loop west leg was also required.

Alternative proposed sites included Southwest (which was then being redeveloped), what became L’Enfant Plaza, or the National Air and Space Museum Mall site. Downtown advocates pushed for a Pennsylvania Avenue location, as the street was undergoing one of its period re-inventions, or Franklin Park. Some proposed that the concert hall and opera house/theater could be split up and placed in different locations, instead of a single massive building in Foggy Bottom. Proponents argued that these proposals provided for greater access and would enliven downtown and integrate performing arts into L’Enfant’s plan, instead of creating a “cultural island.” But once underway, attempts at relocation would probably have doomed the whole project and the Kennedy Center was built in Foggy Bottom.

The “spaghetti maze” of highways in front of the vacant lot that will become the Kennedy Center; Peoples Life building completed and Watergate partially completed.  (D.C. Department of Highways and District Department of Transportation, “Potomac River Freeway Completion,” DDOT Historic Collections)

The Kennedy Center remains a fabulous institution in an isolated site, lacking visual (or inviting) connection to the city for tourists and residents. In 2003, the Kennedy Center proposed architect Rafael Vinoly’s plan to deck over the Potomac Freeway, but could not obtain funding. The Kennedy Center then developed the REACH (opened 2019), but those new facilities don’t address the isolation issue. The NCPC-Commission on Fine Arts Monumental Core Framework Plan (2009) also recommended decking over the freeway and establishing a ceremonial boulevard and linear park. These issues are being considered as part of the NCPC/D.C. OP “Reimagining the Foggy Bottom Highway Tangle” project.  Note that the 56 page 2023 Report fails to even mention the Foggy Bottom Historic District. We will keep you updated on opportunities to participate in revitalizing the neighborhood and connecting the Kennedy Center.

Sources: The Kennedy Center, “Our Story” (accessed Jan. 2024); Ralph E. Becker, The Kennedy Center from the Beginning, Bartleby Press, 1990; Roger Meersman, “The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: From Dream to Reality,” CHS Records 50:525-588, 1980; Philip Kennicott, “At 50, Kennedy Center can no longer be a cultural island,” Washington Post, Sept. 3, 2021; Wolf von Eckardt, “Kennedy Center Is More Than Art Shelter,” Wash. Post, Mar. 22, 1964; Wolf von Eckardt, “Site for Cultural Center Wrapped in Spaghetti Maze,” Wash. Post, Dec. 16, 1962; D.C. State HPO, Kennedy Center Determination of Eligibility, Feb. 13, 2012; FBA History Project.



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