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The Beginning Of The Road

High-tech computer wizardry and good old-fashioned historical sleuthing are re-creating the lost world of Washington's origins

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By Scott W. Berg
Sunday, August 31, 2008; Page W08

"We have on one side a river two miles wide, on the other one mile wide, containing a fine harbor for the largest ships. The country round rises in all the diversity of hill and dale that imagination can paint."

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-- WILLIAM THORNTON, ARCHITECT, OCT. 5, 1797

"The hills are barren of everything but impenetrable woods, and the

valleys are mere swamps, producing nothing except myriads of toads

and frogs of enormous size."

-- AN ANONYMOUS STONEMASON, JAN. 28, 1796

DON ALEXANDER HAWKINS HAS DRIVEN ME ACROSS WASHINGTON IN HIS BELOVED '87 JAGUAR so that we can stand in the middle of the road in front of Cardozo Senior High School and gaze down the steep hill of 13th Street NW. We're here, looking over the rooftops of Shaw, to take in what Hawkins calls "the view of all views." My first instinct is to disagree. We're 190 feet above sea level -- so Hawkins informs me -- high up, but not quite high enough to create a clear line of sight into the center of the city. The panorama has a desultory quality, the White House difficult to see, the Capitol and Washington Monument truncated by closer buildings, the Potomac River shapeless and indistinct in the distance even on this clear summer afternoon.

I have good reason, though, to withhold my reservations. As an architectural historian, Hawkins has influenced the thinking of any number of Washington journalists and scholars, and his work as a city planner has included the land-use plan for Ballston, along with maps of several Washington historic districts, including Logan Circle and Kalorama. Co-curator of "Washington: Symbol and City," a long-term exhibit at the National Building Museum, he also sits on the board of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and recently finished a two-year term as chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. A dean among Washington's residential architects, he has played a role in more than 250 building projects throughout the city. Though Hawkins is resigned to a tremor in his drawing hand, at 71 he's trim and impressively spry. For what it's worth (and Hawkins might not think it's worth much), there's a passing resemblance to Frank Lloyd Wright at the same age, eyes knife-sharp and searching beneath a healthy wave of white hair.

What Hawkins doesn't know about Washington isn't anything I'm likely ever to learn, so I pay attention. At the moment, he isn't primarily interested in the buildings below us or, for that matter, in the streets and squares of the city or the federal monuments on the Mall. Rather, we're dodging cars on 13th because he wants me to get a sense of what it was like more than 200 years ago to stand high on this cap of nearly impassable hills and look down at the tidal plain that would soon become America's federal city. He wants me not to notice the view so much as to erase it until I see only a shape, "the body of the city," in his phrase. Spread in front of us here, more completely than any other place we might visit, is the most recent entry in Washington's eons-old geologic timeline of sedimentary fill piling up against the continental shelf, a timeline only recently augmented by the arrival of American Indians, colonial tobacco farmers, itinerant politicians and the rest of the players involved in Washington's brief but crowded human history.

Hawkins has spent nearly three decades working to answer one seductive and surprisingly slippery question: What was the land like back then? By "back then," Hawkins has a specific moment in mind. He means the rainy evening in March 1791 when cocksure French emigrant Pierre Charles L'Enfant, George Washington's handpicked city planner, rode alone into Georgetown with his pencils, compass and assorted drafting tools to begin the work of transforming 6,000 sparsely settled acres at the center of the new federal district into the capital of the freshly constituted United States.

The project has become Hawkins's compulsion, one he is certain will occupy him in one way or another for the rest of his professional life. "It wasn't figuring out L'Enfant's layout that I first had in mind," he says, "figuring out his thinking and how he was reacting to the geography. I was more interested in his design independent of the topography. But eventually I realized that it makes a huge difference. What he saw when he got here makes all the difference in the world."

Hawkins's interest is both intellectual and intensely personal. He was brought to the area by his parents at the start of World War II, and by the time he was 8, he and his school friends made Arlington National Cemetery their summer play park. By the time he was at St. John's College High School outside Rock Creek Park, he had discovered that playing hooky to avoid morning inspections -- 48 late arrivals and absences in his freshman year alone -- was an ideal way to explore a city he was coming to love. Weekly trombone lessons in what is now the Sisterhood of Spies room of the International Spy Museum on F Street NW and a job running advertising copy for the Washington Daily News gave Hawkins additional excuses to spend afternoons wandering the city, absorbing the complexities of its street plan, the evolution of its architecture and the daily rhythms of its people.


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