A remarkable man from Philadelphia named John McShain constructed many of the historical landmarks in the Washington, DC area, including the Pentagon, the Jefferson Memorial, and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. During the 1940's and 1950's, John McShain's firm became one of the biggest builders in the country, known especially for its work on monuments, both ecclesiastical and governmental. From the beginning of his career as a general contractor (in 1926) to his retirement (in 1976), McShain completed more than 300 projects in the Middle Atlantic region of the eastern United States.
McShain was most active in Washington, DC, during and after the New Deal, when the rapid growth of the federal government created a demand for many new buildings. Whether the structures celebrated American culture or housed the expanding agencies of the military or the welfare and regulatory state, McShain's construction signs were likely to be found on them. From the 1930's through the 1960's, McShain's company completed more than 85 projects in the nation's capital. One 1950's journalist commented that Pierre Charles L'Enfant may have planned the nation's capital, but John McShain built it.
McShain's most noteworthy projects in Washington include the Jefferson Memorial (1939-41), the Pentagon (1941-42), the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (1959), and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1971). McShain also completed an extensive renovation of the White House (1949-52), which involved gutting the entire central section of the building while leaving the outer walls intact. Other government buildings constructed by McShain include the General Accounting Office (1950), the National Institutes of Health (1949-1955), the State Department (1961), and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (1968). Numerous other government buildings, foreign embassies, apartment houses, and private buildings in the DC area were also built by McShain's company.
Born on December 21, 1898 in Philadelphia, PA, John McShain was the son of John and Catherine McShain, two Irish Catholic immigrants. McShain's father founded a successful construction company based in the Philadelphia area, working mainly on projects sponsored by the Catholic Church. From his father, John inherited a strong faith in the Catholic Church, and he would continue to be a devout Catholic throughout his life. He attended both La Salle College High School and St. Joseph's Preparatory School, graduating in 1918. After briefly considering a career in the priesthood, McShain decided to attend at Georgetown University. Unfortunately, his father became seriously ill, and McShain transferred to St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia for his sophomore year. Shortly after the death of his father in 1919, McShain left college and took over the construction business his father had founded, abandoning his plans to become a lawyer.
In 1927, McShain was married to Mary Horstman, great niece of Bishop Ignatius F. Horstman, third bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland and the sister of one of John's classmates at Georgetown. Mary was a Philadelphia native as well and the daughter of a prominent Catholic family. During her youth, Mary attended St. Leonard's Academy and then enrolled at Rosemont College, where she graduated in 1925.
The McShains first became involved with Wheeling College in the 1980's with a visit from Fr. Thomas Acker. Fr. Acker had decided that a building project would reinvigorate the school and thought that what it needed most was a chapel. In 1983, the McShain's began a long tradition of supporting WJU with a donation of $100,000 to initiate the building of the Chapel of Mary and Joseph. For every year after that, the University received $100,000 gifts from the John McShain Charitable Foundation. John McShain passed away in 1989, and his wife Mary's death followed in 1998. In honor of the McShain's substantial contributions to the University, in 2000, the newly-constructed admissions center was dedicated in their name.
Information compiled from:
Biography Resource Center (www.galenet.com)
The Man Who Built Washington: A Life of John McShain by Carl M. Brauer
National Building Museum Website (www.nbm.org)
National Institutes of Health Clinical Center Website, (www.cc.nih.gov/)
Wheeling Jesuit University Chronicle, Fall 2000
Wheeling Jesuit University Chronicle, Winter 1998
Wheeling Jesuit University Website (www.wju.edu)