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The Case for Changing the Architecture on U.S. Currency

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The Americans on our money are getting more diverse: how about the buildings?

Until this week, seeing the Treasury Department all over social media was a rare occurrence. But when Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced a massive change in the look of the country’s currency, replacing President Andrew Jackson with abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, the symbolism of what had been a static piece of paper became more significant.

"Our currency will now tell more of our story and reflect the contributions of women as well as men to our great democracy," Lew said in a statement.

The shift, which comes after a campaign to diversify the faces on U.S. currency that generated more than a million responses from the public, won’t be the only change. Lew also announced the addition of women and civil rights leaders to the backs of the $5 bill (Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., classical singer Marian Anderson) and $10 bill (suffragettes Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony). The group images, depicting events that happened near or in front of those particular monuments, maintains a connection to the original design while helping to animate the history of these particular places.

But, while we’re reconsidering who should be depicted, and trying to showcase different chapters of the American story, maybe we should also consider what is memorialized on our money, specifically the buildings. The architecture on U.S. currency is fairly uniform, depicting memorials and neoclassical buildings associated with the capital and the American Revolution, such as the Lincoln Memorial ($5), U.S. Treasury ($10), White House ($20), United States Capitol ($50), and Independence Hall ($100). While these are all unifying symbols of this country, they all depict a fairly specific part of the U.S. story, a thin slice of the country's considerable contributions to architecture and design, and in the case of the White House, which was built with slave labor, a reminder of an unfortunate chapter of our history.

There are numerous incredible structures that could play a part in showcasing different sides of the American story: ancient Native American structures, such as the Taos pueblo, stunning dwellings that have survived for centuries; museums and buildings that represent our engineering and scientific achievements, such as Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, or one of NASA's facilities, such as Cape Canaveral; our architectural wonders, such as pioneering skyscrapers or the famous works of Frank Lloyd Wright; incredible parks and landscape features that represent our numerous natural wonders; or everyday housing that tell a more democratic story, such as the log cabins of settlers.

While our currency should be about American history and our unique experiences, there are also precedents found on the currency of other countries. Euro banknotes, in particular, showcase a wealth of architectural history and styles. Many countries also include pictures of famous monuments, or common, vernacular housing.

If our banknotes are meant to represent the diversity of the United States, perhaps the next redesign can show a more varied picture of the built environment across the United States. Based on the massive response Secretary Lew received when he proposed adding new faces to our money, imagine the public dialogue that may come from adding new facades.

What buildings do you think could serve as strong symbols of national identity on the back of U.S. Currency?

10 Homes That Changed America: New PBS Series Explores U.S. Architectural History [Curbed]