April 12, 1935 — Sept. 4, 2022
Arthur Cotton Moore ’58 *60 is not yet done building the city of his birth, and death.
The renowned architect left behind a raft of drawings intended to make Washington, D.C., even more livable and beautiful. And he died believing that others would one day turn some of his capital ideas into reality.
“Nothing is architecture until it’s built,” he liked to say.
Moore built plenty in his 87 years. He restored the Library of Congress, renovated the Old Post Office, and developed Washington Harbour on the Potomac River. He oversaw the construction of more than $1 billion in office buildings while defying the conventional local belief that “good architecture is just a utilitarian building whose greatest virtues are making money and not leaking,” as he once put it.
As it happens, Princeton University is where Moore found himself. He came to campus at midcentury intending to be a Foreign Service officer. But as a freshman he took a course in preliminary architectural drawing, and it awakened in him a boyhood interest in building buildings.
“Mr. Moore sought to confer on the city’s architecture a hint of lightness, even whimsy, with his signature curvaceous, futuristic forms.”
— Emily Langer, the Washington Post
“What hooked me was the idea of making your drawings come to life,” he once told The Washington Post. “I find great excitement in actually seeing my squiggles on paper built.”
He was a two-time Tiger — earning a bachelor’s in architecture in 1958, and a master’s of fine arts in architecture in 1960. He began working for big firms in New York while he was still in school; after graduation, he worked for a pair of Washington’s big architectural firms. He was 30 in 1965 when he opened his own shop. And for the next half-century he did as much as anyone since Pierre L’Enfant to shape what Washington looks like today.
L’Enfant was the Parisian-born military engineer in George Washington’s Continental Army who later designed the federal city. Moore was the sixth-generation Washingtonian who loved L’Enfant’s layout — and its location on the Potomac.
“I love the city,” Moore once told the Post. “I want to make it as magnificent as it can be, as it should be.”
To that end, Moore took delight in preserving what was best in the city’s old buildings while infusing imagination into its new ones. And he saw himself as more than an architect: He was also a preservationist, urban planner, painter, furniture maker — and futurist.
Our Nation’s Capital: Pro Bono Publico Ideas is his 2017 book that offers big ideas for the future, including an expanded National Mall with a giant underground parking garage that could double as a reservoir for stormwater. Moore told Washington Business Journal that he was leaving the book “as a series of ideas that people can take up over time.”
Some critics mocked Moore’s inventive designs as “Moorish architecture.” He preferred to style them as Industrial Baroque, once telling The New York Times, “Baroque deals with modern design’s fear and loathing of the curve — just what I think is missing in modern design” with its endless array of right angles.
“Mr. Moore sought to confer on the city’s architecture a hint of lightness, even whimsy, with his signature curvaceous, futuristic forms,” Emily Langer wrote in the Post days after his death in September.
Once, in the 1990s, the Post’s architecture critic erroneously identified Moore as the architect of the Kennedy Center. This horrified him. He told Washingtonian magazine in 2005 that the center looks like a Whitman’s Sampler box, with toothpicks for columns.
Moore and his wife, Patricia, lived next door to the Kennedy Center in their later years, on the top floor of the Watergate, with expansive views of the Potomac where it curves past Georgetown to his own Washington Harbour mixed-use development.
“We should use the river more,” Moore told Washingtonian. He suggested a broad stairway to the river from the Kennedy Center, with ferry service to connect it and the Harbour with Arlington’s Rosslyn neighborhood on the Virginia side. “It would be such an easy, natural circuit.”
L’Enfant devised Washington. Arthur Cotton Moore built it. And he’s not done yet.
Erik Brady is a freelance reporter who lives in Arlington, Virginia.