The Southern Building

When describing lions on the Southern Building’s facade, the word “festooned” seems appropriate.  The Southern Building has 274 open-mouthed, male lion heads set in three different types of ornamentation.  I have yet to find more lions depicted in any single piece of art or architecture in Washington, D.C.   

Southern Building - 805 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005

The vast majority of the lions are set below windows with circular ornamentation surrounding them. The next most common style occupies the first two floors of the building and uses the same lion head on a spare, wavy terra cotta tile field.  The third, and least common, again appears to be the same lion head, but topping a shield over a column near the top of the building.  Lion heads are often depicted with natural elements or with ornamental frames, but I am drawn to the abstract wavy, pattern used on the lower floors of the Southern Building.  It hints at a future architectural aesthetic that extends beyond the turn-of-the-century, Beaux Arts style of the building.  

The building receives minimal commentary in historical literature and is overshadowed by two major personalities involved in its design and ownership:  architect Daniel Burnham, who looms large over architecture in the United States, and Robert Wynne, who advocated for his company, First National Fire Insurance, to take a 50% ownership stake in the building.  

Burnham was a renowned architect and city planner and played a significant role in the development of Chicago through the turn of the century.  He also shaped modern Washington, DC with his service on the McMillan Commission.  The McMillan Commission developed a plan for the parks system of Washington, D.C. and, while never formally adopted, the commission’s plan has served as guidance for later groups, including the National Capitol Planning Commission.  The commission’s report is frequently cited as the source for the monumental core of Washington, D.C. The Southern Building was one of the last buildings Burnham helped design before he died in 1910.  It was built rapidly following the demolition of Saint Matthew’s Church, whose parish had moved a few blocks north and west to Rhode Island Avenue to Saint Matthew’s Cathedral. In designing the Southern Building, Burnham and his firm borrowed extensively from classical forms and used them almost indiscriminately, as was the case with many of his other works.  After the building’s completion in 1912, the advertisements for leasing space there focused on the modern amenities and the “grandeur” of the building.  The application for historic district designation described the Southern building in detail but I could not find a contemporary source that mentions the lions:

“... this U-shaped structure is one of the most exuberantly terra cotta-ornamented buildings in the city. With terra cotta spandrels between buff-brick piers, the building features a delicately ornamented parapet. Its Italian Renaissance origins are evident in the symmetrical design, treatment of the first two stories as a base, and the "incorporation of the upper story" into the cornice.”

While corinthian columns were probably Burnham’s most used architectural trope, he used lions in several other of his buildings, including the Flatiron building in New York City, the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth, Minnesota, and Columbus Circle in Washington, D.C.  He also used decorative spandrels in several buildings, including the Pangasinan Provincial Capitol in the Philippines.  However, the use of lions on this building did not appear to have any special meaning.  By the time the Southern Building was drafted, it was late in Burnham’s career and he had large teams working on each building.  Choices were sometimes driven by available components in catalogs.  In this case, the lions on the Southern Building would have been the catalog of the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company.

The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company was at one time the largest producer of terra cotta in the United States and had factories up and down the East Coast.  They grew rapidly during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s through a series of acquisitions.  The company produced features for the U.S. Supreme Court, the Flatiron Building, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Bronx Zoo’s Lion House.  By the 1920’s, Atlantic Terra Cotta claimed to have supplied materials for 40% of the terra cotta buildings in New York City and had product lines that covered nearly every style an architect could desire.  A July 1916 Architectural Digest article describes a terra cotta model becomes very cheap to reproduce after it has been created.  Perhaps the Southern Building was simply a case of getting their money’s worth by making 274 copies.  

Frugality would have appealed to Robert Wynne, though the seemingly prudent investment in the Southern Building proved to be a professional boondoggle for him.  Robert Wynne had a remarkable life that included serving as a telegraph operator, reporter, private secretary to the Secretary of the Treasury, and Postmaster General of the United States.  Wynne became involved with the Southern Building when he was appointed President of the First National Fire Insurance Company.  Soon after the completion of the building in 1912, First National Fire purchased a half-interest in the Southern Building.  The stockholders of First National Fire sued the company as part of a bid to oust Wynn and in early 1913 the building purchase and stockholder litigation attracted the attention of Congress as they looked into fraud by insurance companies.  The Washington Post reported on June 2,1914 that the congressional inquiry had been:

“..precipitated largely by the fact of an increase of nearly $500,000 in the officially assessed valuation of the Southern building.  The committee’s investigation resulted in a report which was not to the discredit of the standing of the companies, and it was decided by the committee, after many expert witnesses had been put on the stand, that the building was worth as much and probably more than the amount at which it was listed in the companies’ assets.”

Wynne was ousted as president in April 1914 only a few months before the congressional inquiry vindicated First National Fire’s investment in the Southern Building.  What followed was, nearly seven years of legal wrangling included Wynne’s reinstatement, several changes of ownership for the building, and over 50 Washington Post articles documenting the drama as it played out.  In August 1917 in an article titled, “Charges Malice Injured Business,” the Washington Post reported that Wynne petitioned the court to put the company into receivership.  The valuation of the building in the eventual liquidation once again proved Wynne’s investment in the building had been a financially responsible decision.

In the end, there is nothing that seems to tie lions to the building, the architects, the owners, or even the location.  Even being located on the site of a former Saint Matthew’s Church seems to offer no clues, as the lion is a symbol of Saint Mark while Saint Matthew is traditionally represented with the figure of an angel.  So until I take a trip to Texas to review the Atlantic Terra Cotta archives or to Chicago to review Daniel Burnham’s papers, it is likely to remain a mystery.

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