Mount Rushmore. The Washington Monument. The Empire State Building. These are some of the most familiar, most photographed structures in the US. But though they seem unchangeable to us, all of these icons came close to looking very different than they do today.
Over the past few years, we’ve looked at the unbuilt world in a number of different ways: Monuments. Airports. Skylines. Bridges. But while the radical, rejected proposals for familiar are buildings are fun, it’s also interesting to look at how the actual built designs were edited — even during the construction process.
These structures took decades and millions to build, so it’s no surprise their forms were they result of years of contention and revision. But what is surprising? The small tweaks that completely altered their present-day designs.
Thanks to sheer familiarity, Mount Rushmore seems like a perfectly normal thing to most of us. But really, consider this idea: A quest to carve the 60-foot-tall faces of four American presidents on the side of a sheer stone wall, itself the subject of controversy after the United States seized it from the Lakota? Yeesh.
But the 1920s and ’30s were a different time, and the sculptor Gutzon Borglum — who had also undertaken an ill-fated attempt to carve the likeness of Robert E. Lee into Stone Mountain years earlier — was a man on a mission. In fact, if he hadn’t died in 1941, Mount Rushmore would look very different: Borglum originally wanted to carve the presidents down to their waists.
The Empire State Building
It’s a longstanding bit of urban lore that the Empire State Building’s original spire was intended to serve as a docking station for dirigibles. And that was proposed by the building’s owners, who claimed that passengers on transatlantic dirigible flights would be down on 34th street within seven minutes of docking at the ESB.
But not all was as it seemed: The concept was actually a well-placed foil to add enough feet onto the building to make it the World’s Tallest. In fact, as The New York Times explains, there was no demand for a dock on the part of airship companies, and even some early attempts by dirigibles to connect to the spire proved extraordinarily difficult and dangerous.
Still, designs and concept collages for the spire did once exist — though they never came to anything.
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate today is all Art Deco stateliness, long lines coated in deep, crisp orange. It could have ended up as a gnarly gothic monstrosity covered in yellow stripes.
According to PBS, the bridge’s (embattled) designer Joseph Strauss had originally envisioned a very different structure: A hybrid system combining cantilever and suspension systems, resulting in a bizarre pastiche of steel beams capped with ornamental bobbles. In the end, many credit the bridge’s elegance to the work of engineer Charles Ellis, whose contributions to the project were largely whitewashed.
Fascinatingly, the Navy apparently had originally wanted to bridge to be painted with its own “dazzle” job, black with yellow stripes, so ships passing would be able to identify it in the night. So not only could the bridge have had a radically different form — it also could’ve been covered in tiger stripes.
It took four decades to complete the Washington Monument, mainly thanks to problems with fundraising and the start of the Civil War. By the time the cash and the country were in order, the original design by Robert Mills — which called for a stately colonnade to ring the base, and tapered into a flat obelisk at the tip — was two decades old and hopelessly out-of-date.
By the time crews had taken up work on the partially-finished obelisk, its design had been altered: Gone was the colonnade, and the flat obelisk had been knocked into a more classically Egyptian shape — the final design that’s so familiar to us today.
Picture: Wikimedia Commons.