Washington makes so much history every second that its early days are too often forgotten. Fortunately, there are a select few who guard the past and try to bring it into the present. The 26th annual Washington, D.C., Historical Studies Conference at the Martin Luther King Library late last month was full of facts and ideas the Chronicler didn't know.
That Washington actually was laid out as a city separate from its county was explained in a lecture--actually a verbal geographic map of the city and its surroundings drawn by Laura Henley Dean, a member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Dean explained that L'Enfant City nestled among the woodlands and fields of the agricultural county, planned so the seat of government was laid out east of Georgetown, west of the Anacostia River and south of Florida Avenue, which until 1890 was called Boundary Street. Dean said that thoroughfare followed the base of the coastal plain terraces overlooking the city.
"This design relegated the county geographically and culturally distant from the center of national government and power--part of a larger hinterland to which the city's wide avenues would beckon," she said.
"The broad avenues named for states radiate from the Capitol like spokes from a wheel. The avenues cross diagonally a checkerboard array of narrower numbered streets that run perpendicular to streets with letter names," Dean said. "The L'Enfant plan lacked a discrete focus, but was instead a system of larger and lesser centers widely dispersed over the terrain. . . .
"It is clear," she said, "that the planners intended a community whose members were to work or live not together but apart from each other, segregated into distinct units. . . . Congress, president and court vie for dominance . . . separated by a considerable distance, and situated to command different aspects, avoiding mutual confrontation."
The county landowners were more fortunate than those in the city, who lost some of their real property to the making of the new capital. For the plantations, most of which cultivated tobacco, and the smaller vegetable farms in the area, Washington City was a potential market.
Dean said the middling planters, farmers, tenants and slaves lived in dispersed habitations, separated by cultivated and fallow fields and woodlands. The dwellings typically included one or more auxiliary buildings--kitchens, meat houses, stables, quarters for the workers, and corn and tobacco houses.
At first, the city's population grew slowly. Almost two centuries ago, when President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, came to Washington, only 109 brick and 263 wooden buildings were habitable in the city. Before long, the county became suburbs, and the distinction between it and the city disappeared.
Dean also divides Washington into geologic sectors. North of Florida Avenue are the plains above the fall line between the rocks of the Piedmont plateau and the highly erodible sediments of the Atlantic coastal plain. The western part of the city is mostly on the Piedmont plateau, an upland underlaid by metacrystalline rocks and mantled by soil and weathered rock. East of the Anacostia are linear bluffs and terraces.
The coastal plain, she said, consists of much younger sands, clays and gravels laid down by river or sea 10,000 to 100 million years ago. The terraces were variously formed from about 5 million years ago to recent times.
Dean said the meaningful contrasts in the L'Enfant plan between the seat of government and the outlying areas made it possible to argue that the county created a context for understanding and experiencing the capital city. Perhaps it served as a metaphor for America's agrarian strength and what the nation might become, for the rural past and the emergent future.