Next week, the Library of Congress hosts what it says is the first conference on the mapping of Washington — a look at how cartographers sketched in the blank canvas along the “Potomack” and filled out the portrait over the next two centuries.
It is the story of an invented city, a “paper city,” on a site picked by George Washington, following a design by the French-born architect and veteran of Valley Forge Pierre Charles L’Enfant, with tweaks by Thomas Jefferson.
“No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity . . . of deliberately deciding on the spot where their Capital city should be fixed,” L’Enfant wrote Washington in 1789. Like the new country, the city would be fresh and innovative, a work of science and art.
The library’s world-class map collection details the evolution of the “Territory of Columbia” from L’Enfant’s radiating hubs to the arrival on Jenkins Heights of the solitary Capitol (with a fence to keep the cows out) to the city’s advancement beyond Boundary — now Florida — Avenue.
Along the way, the maps, which library officials recently previewed, show that plans changed.
Goose Creek was renamed Tiber Creek, turned into a canal and then buried beneath Constitution Avenue. “Congress House” became the Capitol. And what was the “Eastern Branch” of the Potomac River became the Anacostia.
The “grand cascade” on Capitol Hill was never realized, nor was the national church downtown or the commercial center on East Capitol Street. There was a Mall, but it ended at the river bank, then just south of the White House.
In 1790, Congress decided to locate the capital somewhere along an 80-mile stretch of the Potomac but left it to President George Washington to pick the exact site. He did so a year later, choosing a spot between the ports of “George Town” and Alexandria.
Washington “believed that a successful capital city . . . was a necessity because . . . the Constitution was paper and changeable,” said Don Alexander Hawkins, a Washington architect and longtime student of the city’s design. “He felt that continuity was important and that the capital city would demonstrate the value of the Constitution.”
By 1800, when the government moved here, there were only 372 houses and 3,000 residents.
By the Civil War, though, the maps indicate a population of 61,000 in a Washington ringed by so many forts that it was “the most fortified city in America, and probably in the world,” said Ralph E. Ehrenberg, chief of the library’s geography and map division.
There are topographical maps, old fire insurance maps — the Treasury Department is labeled a “war risk” building — and old school precinct maps, which have one category for white schools and another for “colored.”