Four of the seven members of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, a generally low-key, earnest design advisory group that became embroiled in battles over architectural style during the Trump era, have been told by the Biden administration to resign or face termination, according to the commission’s chairman.
All seven members of the commission were appointed by former President Donald J. Trump; four were appointed on Jan. 12, just days before Mr. Trump left office.
The commission offers advice on “matters of design and aesthetics, as they affect the federal interest and preserve the dignity of the nation’s capital,” according to its website. Mr. Trump thrust architecture into the culture wars late in his presidency when he signed an executive order establishing classical architecture as the preferred style for new federal buildings, over the opposition of prominent architecture and preservation groups, which bristled at any attempt that could be seen as trying to impose a national style.
The commission’s chairman, Justin Shubow, who was a driving force behind the push to promote classical architecture, said that he and three other members of the commission — the architect Steven Spandle, the artist Chas Fagan and the landscape architect Perry Guillot — had been asked to resign. He noted that the commission’s members are appointed to four-year terms, and said that seeking their removal would break a longstanding precedent.
“The administration’s actions constitute an attack on classical architecture, a style that is beloved by the vast majority of the American people,” Mr. Shubow said in an email, adding that he hoped the administration did not intend to “bring back the ugliness of Brutalism or any other dismal styles.”
Mr. Shubow declined the request to resign, according to email correspondence reviewed by The New York Times. The emails showed that he had received a formal letter from an assistant to the president requesting his resignation on Monday. The letter said that if the White House did not receive his resignation, his position with the commission would be terminated effective 6 p.m. the same day.
“In the Commission’s 110-year history, no commissioner has ever been removed by a president, let alone the commission’s chairman,” Mr. Shubow wrote in an email response. “Any such removal would set a terrible precedent.”
A spokesman for the White House said Tuesday that Mr. Biden planned to appoint four new members to the Commission on Fine Arts who will collectively bring a wider range of aesthetic viewpoints. The appointees include: Peter Cook, a Principal at HGA Architects who has worked on the National Museum of African American History and Culture; Hazel Ruth Edwards, the chair of the Howard University Department of Architecture; Justin Garrett Moore, a designer and urbanist at the Andrew Mellon Foundation; and Billie Tsien, a partner at Todd Williams Billie Tsien Architects.
Administration officials noted that the four members they had removed had been appointed by the previous administration, and suggested their aesthetic sensibilities — including their strong advocacy for classical architecture — did not align with Mr. Biden’s.
Before the change, all seven members of the commission had been white men.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Mr. Guillot, who worked on a recent renovation of the Rose Garden, confirmed that he too was asked to resign his position on Monday. He said he had thought it best to simply let the 6 p.m. deadline pass, after which he wrote a letter to White House staff lamenting that his term had been so short and offering the Biden administration good wishes.
“I thought this was the way to let it go gently,” he said, adding that he would have preferred to stay on. “I found the work incredibly meaningful.”
Mr. Guillot also said he did not “come from the strict classical school.”
“This will be a moment when the C.F.A. also became politicized,” he said. “It may in fact be that terms are new when an administration begins, like a cabinet post.”
Mr. Spandle and Mr. Fagan did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment on Tuesday. Mr. Shubow said Mr. Fagan had resigned as White House officials requested.
Mr. Shubow, who was chosen as chairman of the commission in January, shortly before Mr. Trump left office, noted that all four of the Trump administration’s late-term appointments had replaced members appointed by former President Barack Obama as he was about to leave office.
The classical architecture issue proved divisive among architects. The order President Trump eventually signed, titled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” established classical architecture as the preferred style for new federal buildings but stopped short of banning other styles.
The American Institute of Architects called on the Biden administration to reverse the order. Philip Kennicott, the art and architecture critic for The Washington Post, wrote in February that President Biden should remove the members of the commission, describing them as less distinguished than their predecessors.
Mr. Biden revoked the architecture order soon after he took office.