Washington Post Magazine: The Beginning of the Road
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; 12:00 PM
What did Pierre L'Enfant see in 1791 when he made his first visit to the area that would become the nation's capital? An architectural historian is on a mission to learn the lay of the land, and he's getting the help of some high-tech computer wizardry to reconstruct L'Enfant's view.
View animated reconstructions of Washington landmarks and buildingshere.
Washington Post Magazine contributor Scott W. Berg and architectural historian Don Alexander Hawkins were online Tuesday, September 2 to discuss this week's Washington Post Magazine cover story, "The Beginning of the Road."
Berg teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University. He is the author of Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. Hawkins in an architectural historian and co-curator of Washington: Symbol and City, a long-term exhibit at the National Building Museum.
A transcript follows.
Scott W. Berg: Hi, everyone. Let's talk early Washington! I'm very happy to have Don Hawkins along for this chat to answer your questions about the territory that became Washington D.C. His work in this area has been close to heroic, as I hope my article made clear.
Some of your questions may deal more with the work of Dan Bailey and the Imaging Research Center at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. We'll try to answer such questions as best we can without putting words in Dan's mouth. (Those interested in the IRC's video "Visualizing Early Washington" can find it at www.irc.umbc.edu.)
Don Alexander Hawkins: Hello to all of you who are interested in the beginnings of the city of Washington. I've looked at the subject from a lot of different angles, so I hope I can answer your questions. Dan Bailey is the person who knows about the technology, but I will try to handle your history questions.
Washington's role?: This great articles points to but does not state what an audacious accomplishment the creation of the city of Washington was in 18th century America. Take a look at what had been built in New York, Boston or Philadelphia up until then. Nothing with the grandeur or scope of the Capitol or the White House had been attempted in either of these well populated, settled cities. Not only did America not have any schools for architects, the tidewater area that became the nation's capital did not even have a talented workforce of stone cutters and artists on hand.
If we think DC is often unfavorable compared to New York, remember that our oldest buildings outclass anything built in the rest of 18th century America.
The real genius behind the city was George Washington. Without his stature and will to create a city out of nothing, none of this would have happened. I've always assumed that Washington picked L'Enfant knowing in general terms what sort of city the Major would plan. The real credit should go to George Washington.
Scott W. Berg: Dan Bailey at UMBC told me over and over just how stunned he was to learn of the provisional nature of the capital's beginnings, what a gamble it really was. Keep in mind that between 1791, when the work began, and 1800, when the federal government moved to Washington, most people in Philadelphia (then the capital) didn't think Congress would *ever* leave. Just about everyone outside of this area was a bit flabbergasted that it happened. Even late as 1850, there was still talk of moving the capital to St. Louis or Chicago.
Scott W. Berg: As for George Washington's relationship to the federal city, and particularly the Potomac River, I also recommend Joel Achenbach's book "The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West".
Fairfax, VA: I think that this project is fascinating, and it's something that I've wanted to do in Alexandria for years. Looking at the ca. 1814 image of the Capitol, though, that appeared in the Magazine, I was surprised at how treeless you've depicted Cap. Hill. What was your justification for that? Had so much of it been that intensively farmed by then? Just struck me as looking too much like MD, heading up 270, or something.
Thanks again for all of your work; closest thing to a "time machine" that we've got.
Don Alexander Hawkins: The extent to which trees were removed from any particular square by 1814 is a matter of both investigation and guesswork. The top of Capitol Hill had been farmed pretty extensively before the founding of the city.
Scott W. Berg: Also, keep in mind that that image, from the Imaging Research Center at UMBC, is mostly designed to show the Capitol building and the shape of the land -- the roads, fields, and trees there are partly schematic and not designed to be "realistic." Actually, the Potomac River and opposite shore (Virginia now, but D.C. then) are as "realistic" as anything in that image. It was remarkable to see just how different the river appeared then, how dominant it was.
Banneker: It does not surprise me that your article did not say one word on the contributions of Benjamin Banneker 1731-1806. Nor did you say anything about L'Enfant being fired by George Washington in 1791 for frequent conflicts with the 3 Commissioners appointed by Washington. I guess it also slipped your mind that Benjamin Banneker was on the team that assisted with the survey of DC? It's 2008 and African Americans still can't get a break in History.
Scott W. Berg: Thanks for the comment.
Surveyor, astronomer, and almanac writer Benjamin Banneker--a free African-American who tended a farm in Baltimore County--is a very important figure in the work done on Washington in 1791. My article was about the people working today to re-create the area's topography as it was in 1791, and that meant not mentioning any historical figures besides L'Enfant, and for that matter barely dealing with L'Enfant's amazing story. (My recent book about L'Enfant and the origins of the federal city, Grand Avenues, discusses Banneker's role.) A terrific new book by my friend Fergus Bordewich, titled Washington: The Making of the American Capital, goes to greater lengths to feature Banneker and put his experience in the vital context of slaves and free African-Americans in the Washington area at the time. It's a fascinating story and Banneker, for many reasons, is a fascinating man.
More resources?: Marvelous detective work! Fascinating!! Have you used foreign archives such as early sailing logs that might be at the British Museum or perhaps the Ordinance Survey? Any estimate of the amount and sources of the fill materials used to build up the area that is now the Mall, East Potomac Park, etc.? Is more material available online (or elsewhere) for geographers interested in more in depth study?
Don Alexander Hawkins: I don't know of any sources of useful information from outside Washington. The DC collections in the Library of Congress, Archives, DC Archives, Historical Society and MLK are full of the kinds of incidental information that go to make up a picture of the past. Large scale calculations, etc. are in the reports of the Corps of Engineers, but not very expressive of the changes they describe.
Archaeology?: Fascinating! Just wonderful. Am going to share with friends and family all over the country. I was hoping to read about how archaeological excavations in the city contributed to this effort.
Scott W. Berg: Peter Chirico, a geographer at the USGS who was mentioned in the article, has done some fascinating work with surveys done by Metro decades ago, when the various lines were originally being built. The core samples done along with those surveys indicate very clearly where the original land ends and fill begins -- providing a really clear picture of the original shape of the ground, at least in those corridors where Metro now runs.
Falls Church, VA: What you're doing sounds compatible with Google's earth and map technology. Is there any chance of partnering with them to create something like "Google History?" Also, is there any place I can view the tour described in the article? Thanks.
washingtonpost.com: Click here to see the animated illustrations.
Scott W. Berg: Wow -- that would be a question for Dan Bailey and the IRC. Google certainly seems to have the resources and the ambition, though. Plus, this kind of high-tech historical re-creation isn't just happening in DC -- for example, there's an effort in New York called the Mannahatta Project that is doing the same kinds of things for early Manhattan. Perhaps someday you'll be able to take a tour around the U.S. or the world, looking at early landscapes in really cool 3-D representations! I mean, what Don and Dan have done is in many ways, despite their many years of work, just a beginning. Think of that . . . .
Mobile, AL: I am a descendant of Ninian Beall, who, according to family legend, once owned a tract of land called Beall's Levels that has since become the Ellipse and part of the Mall. Is this correct?
Don Alexander Hawkins: Ninian Beall was an early owner of the land around the White House, which was subdivided somewhat before the city was laid out. David Burnes was the owner of it by that time. A map drawn by Cynthia Elliott, based on long term studies by Priscilla McNeil in volume 3, number 1, page 42 of Washington History Magazine shows all the original proprietors' holdings in the city.
Technology: This is a great article about an interesting time in our regional history. Using cutting edge imaging technology to connect the present to our past is a great way to get students (and adults) interested. One suggestion would be to provide links to on-line historical image resources such as the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Reading Room.
Scott W. Berg: The Library of Congress has more than one database of wonderful images. The P & P Reading Room is one; so is the American Memory collection, specifically the "Architecture, Landscape" link.
Washington, D.C.: I was surprised to read that D.C. was not originally a swamp, as seems to be a "fact" everyone knows and repeats. How swampy was this area? And why do people say it was a swamp if it wasn't really?
Don Alexander Hawkins:"Swamp" is a loaded word that is a handy metaphor for how people think of the political activity in Washington. For a riverside location, this city was unusually free of the kind of swampiness one should expect to find. I calculated that only one percent of the L'Enfant Plan area was swampy.
washingtonpost.com: The Mannahatta Project (Wildlife Conservation Society)
Scott W. Berg: Here's a link to the Mannahatta Project, mentioned earlier. Also great stuff.
Washington, DC: What do you think DC will look like in 20 years? Any futuristic images?
washingtonpost.com: To compare, check out Marc Fisher's Post Magazine article from April on how Washington might look in 2025... and the response to Fisher's article by other experts that ran in the current issue.
Scott W. Berg: Passing this along. Trying to uncover the past vs. trying to peer into the future -- both have their challenges.
Washington, D.C.: Can you imagine any other plan for the area that George Washington had identified as the setting for the capital city? One that would have produced a sense of place and have been flexible enough to have survived intact into the 21st century?
Scott W. Berg: Well, Thomas Jefferson himself drew a quick sketch plan for the federal city -- a small, humble affair, somewhat akin to the grid plan of Philadelphia. L'Enfant and George Washington both rejected that vision out of hand. L'Enfant, early in the project, told Washington that he expected the city to someday fill with half a million people -- a statement that most of Washington's contemporaries would have though insane. To Washington's credit (or detriment, in some eyes) he took L'Enfant's vision very seriously and became a sort of collaborator. And, many years later, the city did reach half a million people. Much of what L'Enfant designed in 1791 -- streets, public spaces, arrangement of elements -- was created was the far-off future in mind. That's what constitutes a "visionary."
Washington D.C.: Good afternoon. I'm so awfully sorry I didn't bring my copy of "Grand Avenues." In it would be all sorts of question marks in the margins of wonderful things I would have wanted to ask, and even more check marks and exclamation points of passages, facts or insights that I would have wanted to congratulate you on and thank you for.
But I did bring a copy of this weekend's article, Mr. Hawkins, along with the 1991 issue of "Washington History" which, when I read it in 2005, it absolutely lifted the top of my head off, it was so thrilling. I'd been wanting those maps for years (most particularly the map showing the patchwork tracts of the original proprietors), and you'd been doing them all along! What an extraordinary city, and how wonderful it is to think of all the people out there devoting their lives, the scholarship and their passion to preserving the treasure of it.
I have a million billion questions, and I now can't think of a single one.
Scott W. Berg: Thanks for the kind words about the book and the article. We would be remiss if we didn't mention the name of Priscilla McNeil (hope I'm spelling correctly) who in that same 1991 issue of Washington History did absolutely crucial work in mapping out the various landowners and the boundaries of their property in 1791.
L'Enfant: Does seeing the city how it must have looked before there was a city affect how you view the decisions made by Pierre L'Enfant about the layout of the city? Do you think a "modern" planner would have made different decisions, and if so what might be different?
Don Alexander Hawkins: L'Enfant had a design idea for the city before he ever saw the landscape it would have to be laid over. I believe he arrived on the site prepared to find three centers from which to radiate the federal avenues. Where he could best locate those centers - Administrative, Legislative, and Commercial - was the problem he faced when he saw the actual shape of the land.
Scott W. Berg: To which I'll add that a modern planner certain would not have had the autonomy that L'Enfant was given by George Washington, at least for his first few months on the project. I won't make any easy jokes about committees here, but L'Enfant was born and raised in Paris and was familiar with a system of royal patronage through which architects and planners received an enormously free hand (sometimes to the public's benefit, sometimes not), and that, in a way, was how he saw his relationship to President Washington. (Whether Washington saw it that way or not, well, probably not.)
Not that it's exactly to the point, but China's recent staging of the Olympics is an interesting modern case study in what kind of things can be built with a government able to say "this must happen."
washingtonpost.com: Can Washington Catch A Break? (Washington Post Sunday Source, Aug, 24)
Scott W. Berg: Here's a fun article by Dan Zak in last Sunday's paper that speaks a little bit to the abuse heaped on the city by politicians over the years -- abuse that has included the near-constant use of the "swamp" metaphor, as in "swamp of corruption," "swamp of sin," etc. It's a fascinating case of a metaphor becoming, for many people, a physical reality. No, the federal district was not a *literal* swamp, but we also live in a world of words.
Coen Blaauw DC: Scott - loved the book. Bought the hardcopy last year. And gave the paperback version to my sister in the Netherlands who is studying American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. When she asked her professor whether she could write a paper based on your book he immediately borrowed it from her and did not return it until right before the deadline for my sister to submit the paper. I guess he loved it too! Coen Blaauw, Washington DC (PS: She received an A- for the paper.)
Scott W. Berg: I teach nonfiction writing and literature to grad students and undergrads at George Mason University -- you tell your sister I'll give her an A. Thanks for the comment.
Arlington, VA: Thank you, Mr. Hawkins, VERY much for all the work you have done creating your wonderful map of Washington in 1791. I too am an architect, I too love this city, and I too love to visualize what the area looked like before the city was founded. Your map is an invaluable resource. I realize that any work of this type involves many assumptions due to gaps in the various historical records. Approximately what percent of your map, would you say, is interpolation? Again, thank you for all the time you spent over the last three decades producing this work. P.S.: Good job on the Ballston land-use plan. It's one of the best-designed mixed-use neighborhoods in the region.
Don Alexander Hawkins: I am very confident of the accuracy of the area south of K Street and Massachusetts Avenue. I had good sources for everything there. North of that, I had a great variety of sources, some of which were contradictory. The topographic maps of the nineteenth century in the city are generalized and have shifting base lines, making them not very reliable.
Scott W. Berg: As Don says and as I discuss in the article, much of the work done to reconstruct the topography of this area, pre federal city, is the result of combining maps, drawings, and verbal descriptions across many different decades. It's a daunting task, one that would seem to lend itself to taking shortcuts -- and that's what's so impressive about the work done by Dan and Don, is that it involves no real shortcuts.
Alexandria, VA: Hi,
An 1850 map available on the Internet shows a Western District of Columbia near present day Metropolis IL and Capitol City, KY.
Do you know how seriously such a western DC was considered? Were any steps taken to make this change or was this something that never had any real support?
Scott W. Berg: All I can tell you is that the threat of the capital city moving west was never terribly serious, but it was nonetheless real. I hope to write more about this someday, perhaps soon. Here's a fact: newspaper editors in St. Louis and Chicago beat the drums for the change *very* loudly. It was the Civil War that put an end to all the talk.
Don Alexander Hawkins: It was the threat of abandonment of the city after suffering occupation by a horde of military and other strangers, that provoked the change to a territorial form of government with a mandate to modernize the city's infrastructure. The reinvestment in the city killed any further discussion of moving.
Rockville, MD: Do you know about the origins of the town of Georgetown? Doesn't it predate Washington's era?
Do you know why it was named Georgetown?
Don Alexander Hawkins: Both of the owners of the land that became the original Georgetown were named George - George Gordon and George Beall - and so was the king, George II. It would seem obvious to name a new town after the monarch, but George Gordon didn't much want a town on his land, so some people say his feelings were assuaged by having the town named after him. I think it was more likely the King that they meant to be honoring.
Cleveland Park, DC: The article was an inspiration and I enjoyed fantasizing what Washington looked like in the early days. You've made an amazing contribution to the city's history, but I was somewhat disheartened that WETA's funding has been put on hold due to budget considerations. Is there any way the public can contribute and earmark a donation to WETA for this particular project?
Scott W. Berg: It wouldn't hurt to contact WETA directly and tell them how interested you would be in seeing the Latrobe documentary come to life. I know I'd love to see it happen, but I'm not in the field of television and I have no idea how things like this eventually get made. I imagine it can be a struggle sometimes -- these can be expensive projects.
View from Cardozo: I have always been amazed at the wonder of the layout of Washington, and shall never forget the first time I was at Cardozo High, at the very top of the bleachers at the back of the school, it was moments after the sun had risen and the gold of that chilly March day will forever remain in my mind as how I view this city. Thank you for your ambition and your efforts that are recorded in the article, they bring back the wonder of the time when I first was exposed to the town.
Don Alexander Hawkins: This was nice to read about. The city is loaded with opportunities for such experiences. Having your eyes open to them is the blessing.
Scott W. Berg:"View from Cardozo," thanks for the comment. I like what you say about DC creating a feeling of wonder for you -- that's kind of what this article was about, that there are ways to look at Washington that still create wonder (and not just cynicism, or whatever). In fact, I wish I'd said something like that in the article.
Thanks everyone for your questions and comments.
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