Washington built on a swamp? Think again.

John Kelly
Columnist April 1, 2012

It is April Fools’ Day, and Answer Man was planning on making you believe something that wasn’t true.

But then he decided to do something even harder: Make you disbelieve something that’s untrue.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Many of the things people say about Washington are simply myths, as fun as they are to cling to. Allow Answer Man to debunk a few of them and enlist you in his effort to stamp them out.

●Washington was built on a swamp.

Some historians say that, contrary to popular belief, Washington had no swamps. Don Hawkins isn’t one of them. He studied maps and surveys from the late 18th century and determined that there was some swampy land — a whopping 1 percent of the total area that Pierre L’Enfant was charged with designing.

Don says there were swamps (defined as wetlands with trees) at the edge of the Anacostia, at Tiber Creek (today’s Constitution Avenue), around what became the National Gallery, and at Swampoodle, the Irish neighborhood near today’s Gonzaga High School. That’s just a fraction of the capital. No great reclamation project was needed to create buildable land.

In other words, it’s a gross exaggeration to say that Washington was “built on a swamp.”

“I think it has survived because it’s such a useful analogy for the way Congress works,” Don said.

●Washington was once a hardship post for British diplomats.

Yes, it’s always gotten yuckily hot and humid here in the summer, but was it ever so unhealthy that with the British Embassy workers found a little something extra in their pay packets to put up with it, something called a “diplomatic service compensation allowance”?

Journalists and politicians love to slip that line into their stories and speeches, but it simply isn’t true.

Several years ago, Answer Man asked historians at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to look through their records. In 1907 — well before air conditioning had transformed the city — Washington was not on Her Majesty’s list of “unhealthy places.” Spot checks from earlier lists uncovered no mention of Washington.

●No building in Washington may be taller than the Washington Monument/U.S. Capitol.

It’s true that no buildings are taller than those two landmarks, but that’s just a coincidence. The actual rules regarding the size of buildings has to do with width, not height.

While there were earlier height limits — based on a perceived need for sunlight and air circulation, along with the literal shortcomings of firefighting equipment — the first rules taking into account street width went into effect in 1894. That’s when some residents were horrified by the new 14-story, 160-foot Cairo apartment building on Q Street NW.

The city decreed that new construction could be no higher than the width of the street it was on and no higher than 90 feet on a residential street and 110 feet on a business street.

The rules were amended somewhat over the years, but the basic principle has remained: We’re a horizontal city, not a vertical one.

●When he designed Washington, Pierre L’Enfant included traffic circles and wide streets as a way of defending the city against invaders and/or angry mobs.

Scott W. Berg doesn’t claim to have read everything L’Enfant ever wrote, but as the author of “Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.” he’s read most of it.

“He never mentioned defense,” Scott said of L’Enfant. Neither did George Washington or Thomas Jefferson in their letters to the French engineer. Repeat after Answer Man: D.C.’s avenues aren’t wide so that troops can march there. The traffic circles aren’t meant to double as gun emplacements.

That’s not to say the founders weren’t interested in protecting the capital, just that they expected invaders to come down the Potomac.

That’s why artillery was placed at Fort Warburton, today’s Fort Washington. (Of course, when the British invaded in 1814, they came overland.)

After multiple revolutions gripped France in the 19th century, the notion that Washington was designed to protect against civil unrest was sort of retroactively grafted on.

Don Hawkins thinks the myth got started some time in the late 1800s, when a Massachusetts politician named Benjamin Franklin Butler tried to convince a skeptical Congress that Washington’s streets needed paving.

He claimed that George Washington himself — mindful of the military expediency — had ordered up broad streets “and therefore Congress owed it to the city to pay for the wider avenues that Washington wanted.”

No, L’Enfant liked wide avenues because they reminded him of a street in Paris: the Champs-Élysées.

Send your questions about the Washington area to answerman@washpost.com. To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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