Washington, D.C., was conceived in the 18th century as a great, new urban seat of government. Yet it remained a village for several decades of the 19th century.
It is hard to know exactly when Washington became a city. But between 1814 and 1860, the District, having relinquished its acreage in Virginia, achieved critical mass. Congress had persevered in its commitment to making Washington the undeniable national capital despite skepticism, miserable weather, mosquitos, mud and burning by the British.
Growth was spurred by the need to serve, lobby or report on those who governed. The C & O Canal was built in the belief that D. C. could become a great trading port for America's heartland. Hotels, rooming houses, residences, stores and restaurants randomly filled blocks of L'Enfant's plan, sometimes obscuring it.
The sale, subdivision and development of property was unregulated; free market forces determined the price, size, shape and use of lots. And the mall, the ''Grand Avenue'' of L'Enfant's plan, was grazed by cattle and bisected by the sewage-filled Washington canal connecting the C & O and the Anacostia.
Washington's unique pattern of streets became a network of muddy roadways. Although streets and public spaces were the federal government's responsibility,, Congress did little to plan or improve thoroughfares, leaving this to local citizens and developers who usually could not afford to grade and pave properly L'Enfant's 160-foot wide avenues or 90-foot wide streets.
During the Civil War, the District became an administrative and military beehive. After 1865, freed slaves and others migrated to the city by the thousands to look for new opportunities. Unfortunately, many remained unemployed, ill-housed and underfed, occupying ramshackle dwellings in alleys or on federal property.
Post-war demographic pressures were overwhelming. From 1800 to 1850, the District's population had grown from 14,000 to 50,000. In 1870, it reached 132,000! Clearly, while the Union had been restored to order, the capital's order was faring poorly.
Laissez-faire optimism and expansion typical of nineteenth century Americaproduced a distinctly schizophrenic urban landscape, the result of L'Enfant's visionary, orderly plan being filled in haphazardly by ad hoc private construction on blocks subdivided into smaller and smaller lots, punctuated periodically by monumental federal buildings.
The expanded, massive Treasury Building east of the White House typified the situation. Sited there impulsively one morning by an impatient Andrew Jackson, this neo-classical edifice rudely interrupted L'Enfant's intended visual and symbolic connection along Pennsylvania Avenue between the President's House and the Capitol. The Old Patent Office, now the National Portrait Gallery, was built at 7th and G streets in 1836, just before the Treasury. Its location had been intended for a church.
The city had also sprawled rapidly. Housing appeared east of the Capitol, to the northwest along Massachusetts Avenue and K Street, and further north at Meridian Hill and Mt. Pleasant. Alley occupancy kept increasing, and Washingtonians began to realize that their city, no longer a village, needed schools, sewers, a water supply system and paved streets. A city of slums, social unrest, disease, swamps and rampant land speculation was overpowering the city of aspiration.
In 1868, Mayor Sayles Bowen changed the city's paving standards, laying 15 miles of sidewalks and four miles of sewer. Nevertheless, in 1870, there were still 200 miles of unpaved streets, and even more without sewers or drainage. Much of Washington's property remained marshland and subject to periodic flooding. South of the White House, the ellipse of today remained a swamp.
Political problems accompanied physical ones. Congress, alarmed by the behaviour and corruption attributed to local governing officials, was equally worried about the implications of universal suffrage which, in D.C., implied enfranchising a fast-growing Black population. Its response in 1871 was to abolish, for a century to come, local self-government in the District of Columbia. The city charter form of government was superseded by a congressionally-appointed governor, council, and board of public works.
This new form of government, created by the Territorial Act, ushered in a "new era," and with it came row-house developer Alexander Shepherd. Shepherd was appointed to the board of public works, over which he quickly gained control. In three years, he proceeded to transform Washington. Earning the title "Boss" Shepherd, he spent millions of dollars for sewers, grading and paving streets, water mains and trees.
Unfortunately Shepherd's zeal and willingness to ride roughshod over his opponents were not offset by equally compelling technical expertise or aesthetic sensitivity. His "comprehensive" plans could not await detailed or accurate surveys or the assurance of funding. He intended to urbanize totally the Washington landscape from the Mall to P Street, from New Hampshire Avenue to New Jersey Avenue, whatever the costs.
With little advance public notice, street levels were completely revised for drainage, new bridges installed, hills cut and valleys filled. Even streets lined with vacant lots and few buildings were improved for future growth. Street railways were extended, street lighting added and more land acquired and subdivided by developers to the north and northwest. In 1872, over 1200 new structures were built.
To Shepherd and many others, Washington's cache' was its individual public edifices and wide streets, not its overall form or potential network of public spaces and parks capable of cementing the parts. Streets, alleys and public space accounted for 54 percent of Washington's developed area, according to one study, compared with 29 percent in Philadelphia, 35 percent in New York City and 25 percent in Paris.
Shepherd was convinced his comprehensive plans would foster real estate activity and increase property values. But busts often follow booms.. In 1873 and 1874, panics, bankruptcies and economic depression set in. Investigations and hearings led Congress to dissolve the territorial government andreplace it with three presidentially-appointed commissioners.
Boss Shepherd, condemned for his bulldozing tactics and free-wheeling fiscal strategy, headed for Mexico, leaving an indelible mark upon the city.
By 1879, the District had 150,000 permanent residents, mostly because of the federal government, whose employes numbered 7,800 in 1880 and 23,000 in 1890, a nearly threefold increase in 10 years.
The nation's capital had become a city, but not the commercial port envisioned a half-century earlier. The C & O canal, constructed with such painstaking optimism, would never make Washington a ''continental emporium'' or trading center. Washington's fate was tied to the growth of government and the real estate market, and little else.
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