France’s greatest building is a church, Notre-Dame de Paris, while India’s greatest building is a royal mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. Our greatest building is a train station, Grand Central Terminal, a monument to a nation in motion, if one built for a future that never quite managed to arrive. It is adjacent to another of the great American monuments, the wildly exuberant Chrysler Building, and only a few blocks from the Empire State Building, the great symbol of American confidence built mostly by European immigrants and Mohawk steelworkers in just 410 days. These are the real monuments to a nation whose business is business, in Calvin Coolidge’s maligned phrase, and they are rather different from the accretion of marbled monstrosities 225 miles to the southwest.
Washington is a city full of monuments and monumental architecture. But monuments to what? The capital city’s federal architecture is rooted in classical forms. The Capitol is an aggrandized secondhand Roman design by way of the Paris Panthéon, while we have a Greek temple dedicated to Abraham Lincoln and a tribute to the father of the country that would have been familiar to both Freud and Ramses II. One can understand why the early Americans turned to classical forms for their buildings. They wanted to show that this new country of free men could hold its head high in the world and stand beside the pomp of any empire. They did not wish to be seen the way Napoleon would contemptuously regard the British, as “a nation of shopkeepers”—but we would do well to remember that that phrase did not originate with the little corporal but with Adam Smith in the seminal year 1776. George Washington abjured any title loftier than that of “Mr. President,” and we built him an obelisk four times loftier than those dedicated to Julius Caesar. It may have been that the Washington monument was intended to elevate the standing of General Washington, commander of the armies, but there is a discernible subtext: It is also a symbol of the ascendancy of his namesake city.