John Russell Pope was born in New York City on April 24, 1874, and died on August 27, 1937. His father, a portrait painter of renown who had been elected to the National Academy of Design in 1857, dies 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.
He was an American architect whose firm is widely known for designing major public buildings, including the National Archives and Records Administration building (completed in 1935), the Jefferson Memorial (completed in 1943), and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art (completed in 1941), all in Washington, D.C.
To his family background, Pope added an extraordinary talent and capacity for demanding work. His family 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 1984, Pope won two major competitions: the university’s Schermerhorn traveling 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 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, and 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 exceptionally 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,” was equally elegant in design and materials. His affinity for formal design clearly shows in his Georgian and Federal houses; his Tudor house, including his own house at Newport, was 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 a 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 the 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 the Pope and worthy of note (it has been said that the Pope designed more monumental buildings than any other architect of his generation) include:
- Temple of the Scottish Rite, Washington, D.C (1910)
— Lincoln Memorial in Hodgenville, Kentucky (1925)
— Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C. (1935)
— National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1936)
— Roosevelt Memorial portion of the Museum of Natural History in New York, NY (1936)
— American Battle Monument at Montfaucon, France (1937)
— Duveen addition to the British Museum for the Elgin marbles, London, England (1937)
— Tate Gallery sculpture hall, London, England (1937)
Pope died of cancer in New York on August 27th, 1937. His obituary in the New York Times remarked that when King George VI opened the Tate added, 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 of “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.
John Russell Pope is responsible for building some major public buildings in the United States. Especially in Washington, D.C. His classical style demonstrates that all great structures have their roots in Ancient Rome or Greece. You may pass one of Pope’s Buildings in your travels and you must be sure to stop and admire it now that you know its history. We pay tribute to John Russell Pope and his accomplishments. At Scarano Architect, PLLC, we are ready to assist you with all your architectural needs. Check out our website and give us a call today.