The American architect John Russell Pope (1874-1937) was the major exemplar of the classical tradition in the United States. More than any other, he was responsible for the stylistic showcase of classical elegance demanded by the federal government and by wealthy private citizens during the first third of the 20th century. His work is mostly on the East Coast, with Washington, Baltimore, and the New York City area being major centers.
John Russell Pope was born in New York City on April 24, 1874. His father, a portrait painter of renown who had been elected to the National Academy of Design in 1857, died when Pope was only six years old. The family claimed descent from John Pope, who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s. His mother's family (Loomis) were also pre-Revolutionary War residents of America.
To this family background, Pope added an extraordinary talent and capacity for hard work. His family originally intended for him to study medicine, and he first attended the College of the City of New York with this in mind. After three years he enrolled at Columbia University to study architecture under William R. Ware, a major force in the training of a generation of architects. Pope excelled at his architectural studies; he served as an assistant to Ware and worked with Charles F. McKim of the distinguished firm of McKim, Meade, and White.
At graduation from Columbia in 1894 Pope won two major competitions: the university's Schermerhorn travelling fellowship for a year of study abroad and the first architecture fellowship of the American School (later Academy) in Rome. He spent the years 1895-1897 in Italy, Sicily, and Greece in serious study. Years later one commentator was to marvel at the number of measured drawings and reconstructions of ancient monuments Pope made during this time. At the conclusion of the fellowship Pope enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, completing the full course of study in less than the two years usually required. As critic Henry Russell Hitchcock wrote, "Americans, not Frenchmen, were … the worthiest products of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and thus heirs of the strongest academic traditions in the world."
After returning to the United States in 1900 Pope worked for three years for the architectural firm of Bruce Price before opening his own office in New York City. In the next few years he was joined by Daniel Paul Higgins and Otto R. Eggers, his life-long partners.
In 1912 Pope married Sadie G. Jones, daughter of Sarah Pembroke Jones of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Newport, Rhode Island, one of the queens of Newport society. Shortly after the death of her husband, Sarah Jones married Henry Walters of Baltimore, thus formally linking Pope to the "richest man in the South." Although the social standing of the Jones family helped to make Pope's firm visible, it was Pope's business methods and design talent that made the practice flourish and earned the numerous honors which marked his career.
Almost all of Pope's early designs were for very large houses for influential bankers, businessmen, and other prominent people. He worked successfully in the Georgian, Federal, Italian Renaissance, and 18th-century French styles. His houses have been described as setting a new standard by "achieving archaeological correctness while retaining the qualities of livability demanded" by Americans. Pope's houses, no matter what their "style, " were equally elegant in design and materials. His affinity for formal design clearly shows in his Georgian and Federal houses; his Tudor houses, including his own house at Newport, were probably the most "correct" seen in the United States up to that time.
After about 1910 Pope's practice grew to include churches (he built four notable ones), one important commercial building (Union Station in Richmond, Virginia), and master plans for five colleges and universities (Hunter, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and Yale). But it was the monumental public buildings that truly characterized Pope's work and on which his reputation rests. These buildings show his adherence to the classical tradition and demonstrate his belief that monumental architecture must have its roots in ancient Greece or Rome.
Beginning with the Washington [D.C.] Scottish Rite Temple (finished in 1915, based on the mausoleum at Halicarnassos), which was honored by the Architectural League as the finest building of the year, Pope's attention appears to have been captured by the development of the nation's capital. Earlier, in 1901, the U.S. Senate Park Commission (sometimes called the McMillan Commission) had restored the L'Enfant plan as the basic guideline for the development of the District. Then in 1910 the Commission of Fine Arts, under the chairmanship of D. F. Burnham, was created to oversee the architecture and planning of Washington, D.C., Pope was appointed to this commission in 1917 and served for five years. The waiting room in his office contained the framed letter from President Wilson appointing him to the commission and the letter from President Harding thanking him for his services when his term expired in 1922.
After 1922 Pope's contributions to Washington turned from words of advice into marble. Constitution Hall was completed for the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1929 (Pope took no commission for the building, seeing it as a memorial to his mother, who had been an active member of the organization) and the National City Christian Church in 1930. The American Pharmaceutical Institute (1933) was followed by the National Archives Building (1935) and the plans [unbuilt] for the Theodore Roosevelt memorial (1935). The National Gallery of Art (1939) and the Jefferson Memorial (1941) were completed by Pope's partners after his death. There were also a number of mansions designed by Pope in the city, most of which are still standing, although they are now used as embassies or by organizations rather than for private homes.
Some other buildings designed by Pope and worthy of note (it has been said that Pope designed more monumental buildings than any other architect of his generation) include: the Lincoln Memorial in Hodgenville, Kentucky (1925); the Roosevelt Memorial portion of the Museum of Natural History in New York (1936); the American Battle Monument at Montfaucon, France (1937); and the Duveen addition to the British Museum for the Elgin marbles (1937) and the Tate Gallery sculpture hall (1937), both in London.
Pope died of cancer in New York on August 27, 1937. His obituary in the New York Times remarked that when King George VI opened the Tate addition he "paid tribute to the genius of Mr. Pope by characterizing the building as 'the world's finest sculpture gallery."' President Hoover had also extolled Pope's talent when he laid the cornerstone of the National Archives Building, describing the structure as "one of the most beautiful" in America. But by the time he died the "international" style had captured the leading architecture schools, and Pope's severe classicism was anathema. Published attacks on the design for the Jefferson Memorial included descriptions as "a cadaver, " "a servile sham, " and "decadent stylism"; whereas the more polite criticism of the National Gallery followed the British description "contemporary architecture's greatest flashback." The architect himself was sometimes derisively called "the last of the Romans." Only recently have scholars begun to reevaluate John Russell Pope and to understand and appreciate him for what he was: a true classicist whose work is never out of style.
There is neither a biography of John Russell Pope nor an extensive critical study of his work. His own drawing may be seen in Pencil Points (December 1924); his business methods are documented in "Office Manual of John Russell Pope, Architect—Routine and Procedure, " Architectural Record (February-March 1931). Biographical information and some evaluations of his work may be found in various publications issued at the time of his death: American Architect and Architecture (October 1937), Architectural Record (October 1937), Architectural Forum (October 1937), and Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (November 22, 1937). George Gurney, Sculpture and the Federal Triangle (1985) contains a chapter documenting Pope's involvement with the sculpture on the National Archives Building. The best short essay evaluating Pope's work is Phoebe Stanton, "A Note on John Russell Pope, Architect, 1874-1937, " Baltimore Museum of Art Annual: Studies in Honor of Gertrude Rosenthal (1972).