The sheer number of artifacts in the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.’s archive is mind-blowing. There are over 100,000 cataloged photographs alone, in addition to thousands of manuscripts, maps and books centered on local history. Most of these items were donated by private collectors, businesses, local organizations and other historical repositories, and date as far back as 1640.
A collection this size obviously requires a massive storage facility, which is why the city offered the Carnegie Library to the 125-year-old nonprofit for free, under a 99-year lease that began in 1999. The historical society’s new space at the Apple-renovated building — dubbed the DC History Center — boasts two galleries filled with the society’s collections, a remodeled Kiplinger Research Library that will open in July (both free to the public) and a gift shop co-run with Shop Made in DC.
“This is the community space that the neighborhood has needed to bring everyone together,” says John Suau, the historical society’s executive director. The group’s most impressive exhibition, “The Big Picture,” features beautifully preserved panoramic photos of Washington taken over the past century. Some are displayed on touch-screen boxes and large monitors, while five are printed on fabric that stretches 9 feet high and 40 feet wide. Here are three of the stunning images that will take you back to bygone eras in D.C. history.
Amelia Earhart at Bolling Air Force Base (1930)
Back in the 1930s, the thought of being lifted tens of thousands of feet into the air inside metal contraptions was downright terrifying. This photo of Amelia Earhart and the Feminine Flying Fleet of the Philadelphia Club of Advertising Women was taken at the Air Force base after the women landed in D.C. “This flight from Philadelphia to Washington was a marketing ploy to encourage people to buy a ticket and get on a plane,” Suau says.
Randall Junior High School graduating class (1954)
Take a close look at this class photograph — see anyone familiar? Among the 1954 graduates of D.C.’s now-defunct Randall Junior High School is Motown pioneer-to-be Marvin Gaye. The District native sharpened his singing skills in the school’s glee club before embarking on a storied music career.
The circus comes to Union Station (1917)
With a bustling swarm of commuters around the clock, Union Station can be a real circus. In 1917, there actually was one that set up right in front of the building. “This is the oldest image we have blown up in the exhibition,” Suau says of this photo of the Con. T. Kennedy traveling circus. “At the [far left] end of the picture is the Monkey Speedway — they were putting monkeys in electrical cars and running them around the racetrack. We couldn’t do that today.”