Easter at the White House, Washington, DC, 1926. Library of Congress
Easter at the White House, Washington, DC, 1926.Library of Congress
Before Washington, DC became the capital city of the United States, it was a sprawling, 100-square-mile plot of plantations, forests, and hills.
The city’s urban plan was the brainchild of French immigrant and architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who envisioned an egalitarian design for the District — a vision that was a physical manifestation of the American dream. In the 18th century, L’Enfant filled DC with plenty of public space, including parks, plazas, and wide sidewalks.
Over time, DC transformed from a modest Native American settlement into the dense metropolis it is today.
Let’s take a look at this journey:
In the early 17th century, several native tribes of the Piscataway people lived on the land that is DC today.
Conflicts with European colonists forced the Piscataway to form a new home in Maryland in 1699.
In 1790, Congress established Washington, District of Columbia, a 100-square-mile district along the Potomac River.
A year later, three commissioners managing the capital’s construction named it in honor of President George Washington. The district was named Columbia, a fond name for the US at the time.
Washington enlisted Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French immigrant and engineer for the US military, to plan the city in 1791.
Library of Congress
L’Enfant had an ambitious plan: to turn a rural site into a metropolis fit for a burgeoning nation.
A digital rendering of the US Capitol as it would have looked in 1814. Don Hawkins
A digital rendering of the US Capitol as it would have looked in 1814.Don Hawkins
The National Mall’s plan was influenced by European urban design, but was also adjusted for American sensibilities. For example, pedestrians could access it from all corners, which communicated the idea that “every citizen was equally important,” L’Enfant biographer Scott Berg told Smithsonian.
The word “mall” is short for "pall-mall," a nod to a tree-bordered walk in London’s St. James’s Park.
L’Enfant filled the District with wide avenues, public squares, and parks.
Washington, DC, circa early 1900s. NYPL
Washington, DC, circa early 1900s.NYPL
However, city commissioners worried about rising construction costs and appeasing DC’s rich landowners, since L’Enfant wanted expansive public areas. L’Enfant resigned in 1792. When he died in 1825, he had still never been paid for his work.
During the War of 1812, British troops burned down parts of modern-day Baltimore as well as DC, including the Capitol Building, the Library of Congress, buildings in Capitol Heights, and the White House.
The White House was rebuilt from 1815 to 1817, and reopened in time for President James Monroe’s inauguration. Other damaged buildings were re-constructed as well.
The White House, circa 1846. Library of Congress
The White House, circa 1846.Library of Congress
Throughout the 19th century, the city invested in transit and waterways. Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as well as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began in 1828.
Eckington Yards, B&O Railroad, 1923. Public Doman
Eckington Yards, B&O Railroad, 1923.Public Doman
The federal government grew in size with the start of the Civil War in 1861.
Construction of Treasury, February 3, 1858. Wikipedia Commons
Construction of Treasury, February 3, 1858.Wikipedia Commons
From 1850 to 1900, DC’s population increased five-fold and surpassed 278,000 people.
Construction of the US Capitol continue during the Civil War, 1860. Wikipedia Commons
Construction of the US Capitol continue during the Civil War, 1860.Wikipedia Commons
Source: US Census
A section of the Washington Aqueduct was completed in 1859, giving drinking water to residents and reducing their dependence on well water.
Library of Congress
Source: The US National Park Service
Slavery was abolished in DC on April 16, 1862 — eight months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Men loading snow onto wagon after a snow storm, Washington, DC, 1910s. Library of Congress
Men loading snow onto wagon after a snow storm, Washington, DC, 1910s.Library of Congress
Days after the end of the Civil War in 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot and killed Lincoln in Ford’s Theater. Below is his funeral procession.
Library of Congress
The Washington Monument opened in 1885. Here it is half-finished in 1860.
In 1901, a team of architects and planners called the McMillan Commission started expanding DC’s park system.
The McMillan Plan for Washington, DC. Wikipedia Commons
The McMillan Plan for Washington, DC.Wikipedia Commons
The updated plan made way for the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.
From Washington Monument East to Capitol over Agricultural Department, Washington, DC, 1910
From Washington Monument East to Capitol over Agricultural Department, Washington, DC, 1910NYPL
The Commission demolished a number of slums in the early 1900s.
A view of Washington, DC, early 1900s. Library of Congress
A view of Washington, DC, early 1900s.Library of Congress
Many residents lived in substandard housing dubbed “alley dwellings.”
A family in an alley dwelling in Washington, DC, July 1941. Library of Congress
A family in an alley dwelling in Washington, DC, July 1941.Library of Congress
This lack of suitable housing led to the creation of the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934, a federal housing agency that built affordable and sanitary housing units.
In 1907, Union Station opened as the city’s main train terminal.
A Washington, DC street car, 1890. Library of Congress
A Washington, DC street car, 1890.Library of Congress
In the 1800s and early 1900s, livestock grazed the Mall. President William Howard Taft had a pet cow named Pauline, seen below on the Navy Building lawn circa 1910.
Library of Congress
President Woodrow Wilson kept dozens of sheep on the White House South lawn during World War I. The flock cut the grass and garnered $52,000 for the Red Cross through a wool auction.
Library of Congress
Source: The White House Historical Association
Wilson also instituted segregation in several federal departments for the first time since 1863. The policy held for decades.
African American men pave a road in Washington, DC, circa 1910 to 1930. Library of Congress
African American men pave a road in Washington, DC, circa 1910 to 1930.Library of Congress
Source: The National Postal Museum
In 1919, a group of white residents attacked black residents in four days of mob violence, which resulted in 15 deaths and 150 injuries in DC. The second Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in the 1920s.
J.M. Fraser from Houston, Texas leads a KKK parade in Washington, DC, 1926. Library of Congress
J.M. Fraser from Houston, Texas leads a KKK parade in Washington, DC, 1926.Library of Congress
Source: The New York Times
During the Great Depression, the District’s population grew quickly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, which created more federal agencies and jobs.
Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, DC, 1913. Library of Congress
Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, DC, 1913.Library of Congress
One of the largest office buildings in the world, the Pentagon opened in 1943.
A crowd boards a bus going to the Pentagon building, Washington, DC, April 1943.
A crowd boards a bus going to the Pentagon building, Washington, DC, April 1943.Library of Congress
Over the next three decades, Washington,DC served as the center stage for the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., surrounded by crowds carrying signs, Washington, DC, 1963.
Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., surrounded by crowds carrying signs, Washington, DC, 1963.Library of Congress
In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the city’s population declined by the tens of thousands as many white residents — drawn to new residential development and suburban malls — migrated to outer suburbs.
A delicatessen at 73 112th Street, Washington, DC, circa 1910 to 1930.
A delicatessen at 73 112th Street, Washington, DC, circa 1910 to 1930.Library of Congress
Source: The Atlantic
In the past four centuries, DC has gone from a giant plot of rural land to a diverse, modern city.
Aerial view of Washington, DC, 1980. Library of Congress
Aerial view of Washington, DC, 1980.Library of Congress
Today, more than 690,000 people call it home.
Source: The US Census