White House Quarterly Releases New Issue, Article Focuses on Lafayette Square Preservation

The White House Historical Association’s latest issue of “White House Quarterly” focuses on military traditions at the White House and the influence of military life on the work of first ladies, and more.

One piece, “The Sketch That Stopped the Bulldozers: Grosvenor Chapman’s Role in the Preservation of Lafayette Square,” visits a turning point in the history of Lafayette Square (for those unfamiliar, Lafayette Square is the historic neighborhood a few steps from the White House). In the early 1960s, the area was up for demolition to make way for government office buildings. Luckily, the historic structures were saved by President and Mrs. Kennedy, who wished to follow a creative solution inspired by a sketch of the architect Grosvenor Chapman. “White House Quarterly” published the original sketch along with the story of how it came across President Kennedy’s desk.

Contributor to “White House Quarterly’s” latest issue and Grosvenor Chapman’s daughter Leni Chapman Preston was well-aware of her father’s role in many preservation-related issues, but he never discussed the preservation of Lafayette Square with her.

“It was not until his death in 1993, while preparing his obituary with my mother, that I learned what a central role he had played,” she said. “That resulted from his position with the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and his follow-through on a request to create a conceptual drawing that would show how to preserve the historic buildings on the west side of the square while constructing behind those a new government office building.”

This request was a direct response to a proposal by the General Services Administration to erase the square’s constructed history.

“Fortunately, my father’s drawing made it into the hands of Mrs. Kennedy and from her to the president,” Preston added. “He then presented the concept to the architect, John Carl Warnecke, who was commissioned to design the project.”

At the time of her father’s death, Preston had been working in the field of historic site management for 20 years, first at Monticello then at Tudor Place in Georgetown as curator.

Preston acquired her interest in historic preservation from her father by what she calls osmosis. Throughout her childhood, preservation activists met in the family’s living room to prep strategies to prevent projects like the Three Sisters Bridge and large Georgetown waterfront developments. Combined with a historian’s interest in accuracy, Preston ended up linking up with the White House Historical Association.

“By chance, I came across an article by Warnecke about his work at Lafayette Square on the White House Historical Association’s website,” Preston said. “In that he made no mention of my father’s sketch nor the role that others played including David Finley, founding Director of the National Gallery of Art, William Walton, a friend and advisor to the President, and Charles Glover of the Committee of 100.”

It was Preston’s mother who, after her father’s death, secured public recognition of all four men with a plaque on Lafayette Square.  It landed on Preston to contact the Association to suggest that they might wish to ensure a full accounting of such a vital preservation story.

“The result is the excellent article that the editor, Marcia Mallet Anderson, wrote and which I was pleased to collaborate on,” she added.

Grosvenor Chapman, was an architect who trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where her father was born. He originally wanted to be a naval architect but his mother convinced him her would make more money as an architect.

“When my parents came to D.C. during World War II, they purchased a small house on 34th Street below Volta Place,” Preston said. Her father made changes to the home until it was not sufficient for a growing family. They then bought a few remaining empty lots in Georgetown on Q Street NW opposite the Volta Street Playground. It was there Preston’s father and mother built the home that the family owned from 1949 until last year.

“He wrote about the his philosophy for the design of the house, saying: ‘Although a strong advocate of the ‘Contemporary’ architectural style of the 1930s and ’40s, he decided he should adopt his design to a manner more in keeping with Georgetown historical Federal style while sacrificing as little as possible in the way of modern material and technology in the structure and contemporary living arrangements and convenience in the plan,’” Preston added.

Preston continued, “The interest expressed there, in the value of Georgetown’s architectural style, was a predicate, I believe for the preservation work that became a hallmark of his career.”

While Chapman’s designs included private and public housing, schools, and even a gas station, he moved more and more into a major role as civic leader and activist.  From the 1950s until his death, he could be found in Capitol Hill hearing rooms, at the White House to celebrate the creation of DC’s Metro system, and at civic meetings across the city including at the Georgetown Citizens Association, where he served in multiple capacities, including as president.

Those interested can purchase a copy of the magazine here.










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