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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

BY SCOTT W. BERG  |  SUNDAY, AUGUST 31, 2008  |  Q&A, Tuesday at 12 Noon ET

A digital rendering of the U.S. Capitol as it would have looked in 1814.

"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."

"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."

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.

A topographic map of Washington in 1791 by Don Alexander Hawkins.

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.

Hawkins eventually studied at the Architectural Association in London and at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh before completing a master's degree in architecture and urban design at Catholic University. Sitting in a Washington history seminar at Catholic in 1975, a course team-taught by estimable city scholars Frederick Gutheim and Leticia Woods Brown, Hawkins realized that "mapping early Washington and understanding its development was not that easy to do, because first of all you didn't have good maps at the beginning, and then they were all different colors and flavors. I realized there were a lot of cartographic records, and I thought it would be worthwhile doing a kind of uniform history of what was known about the place before it was the capital, a map of Washington as it was."

Hawkins's map overlaid with the L'Enfant/Ellicott plan.

A simple enough goal, then. He would re-create the landscape encompassed by L'Enfant's 1791 plan -- think roughly Florida Avenue down to the Potomac and Anacostia rivers -- in the form of a large-scale topographic map that would also seek to fix the location of 18th-century roads, waterways and, as much as possible, individual buildings. After bringing his architectural practice up to speed, Hawkins began the project in earnest in 1981, expecting that creating his representation of early Washington would be an after-hours hobby of sorts, the enjoyable occupation of a few years at most.

That was then, this is now, and he's still at it. In the meantime, the project has cost Hawkins tens of thousands of dollars and has involved several unforeseen contributors, including his daughter, Sarah, hired in 1984, the summer before she went off to New York University, to meticulously measure and trace a set of detailed surveys of the early city stored on top of cabinets at the National Archives. These surveys, a set of surface profile maps created by cartographers Thomas Freeman and Nicholas King in 1797, only went as far north as K Street, and so, for information about the rest of the city, Hawkins fell back on any number of written descriptions and reminiscences by 18th-century travelers and residents. (A sample grab: "At the time I am speaking of, the corner of Fourteenth and G streets was overgrown with grape vines, thorn bushes, blackberry bushes, &c. In some places, not far from German Hall, rabbits then burrowed.") And where the written descriptions left gaps, he turned to paintings of the period and to the earliest photographs of the city, eyeing the rise and fall of land and staying alert to signs of change. An abnormally long staircase, for example, served as the telltale indication of a former street elevation, while a suspiciously unnatural rise along the water denoted fill carried in from construction sites.

Each new discovery led Hawkins inch by inch, pencil mark by pencil mark, topographic contour by topographic contour through a series of drafts, the fifth of which he published in 1991 in Washington History, the journal of the Historical Society of Washington; the Library of Congress purchased the original for an exhibition on city history and later placed it in its online digital archive.

Hawkins likes to refer to maps as "sentient," and his creation, indeed, seems to speak of a very different Washington. Here's the Potomac, wider by three-quarters of a mile than it is today, as yet unfamiliar with East and West Potomac Park or the Tidal Basin, where the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials would rise on landfill more than 100 years after L'Enfant designed the city. Here's the ostentatiously named Tiber Creek, a wide, shallow estuary that was first turned into a fetid, half-realized canal before it was forever buried to become the trunk sewer that still runs under Constitution Avenue NW. The text Hawkins wrote to accompany the publication of his map describes Capitol Hill as a lumpy and thickly forested eminence rising 80 feet above a mosquito-infested patch of spring-fed marsh at its foot, and explains how the short, steep bluffs on the north side of the Tiber provided the platform for the future site of the White House. This gently rolling landscape was bordered to the north by a five-mile-wide arc of higher, more broken ground and overlaid with fields of tobacco, corn and wheat, interlaced with small forests of maple, black cherry and tulip poplar, and dotted with the Georgian homes of wealthy planters and the sagging wooden structures of tenant farmers and slaves. The land that became L'Enfant's federal city was never a swamp, but it was a water-rich environment, crisscrossed by streams and framed by Rock Creek, the Potomac and the Anacostia, known then simply as "the Eastern Branch."

This prelapsarian Washington is what Hawkins is trying to help me envision as we spend a series of afternoons driving around in his Jaguar, a cantankerous piece of automotive history he calls "part of my costume." One such journey begins on 22nd Street NW, where it crosses Massachusetts and rises to become

Surveyor Andrew Ellicott's 1792 version of Pierre L'Enfant's plan.

Florida Avenue, the very spot where in the 1790s the mud-choked carriage road northward out of Georgetown made its steep, arduous turn toward Bladensburg. We drive a rough arc east across the top of the original city, stopping on Florida between 14th and 15th streets to ponder a block of rowhouses built into the ring of encircling hills, and then move on to Franklin Square, home long ago to the spring that supplied the White House with potable water. Next we continue east and make a quick trip along Oklahoma Avenue -- "This used to be the beach," Hawkins says -- and then it's down to Congressional Cemetery, which he describes as the only parcel of land where a modern-day Washingtonian can still tread over essentially the same ground L'Enfant traversed in 1791.

Leaving the cemetery, we enter the long frontage road connecting Pennsylvania Avenue to the all but deserted parking lots of RFK Stadium. We're not supposed to be here, but the measures designed to keep us out aren't exactly high-security, so we park the Jaguar and tramp through the weeds at the Anacostia's edge, searching for a clear view of the old ferry landing on the opposite shore. Our progress is stopped by a fence surrounding a CSX rail facility north of the John Philip Sousa Bridge, but we have a terrific conversation about the pros and cons of hobo life and the old-fashioned manufacturing virtues represented by iron rail spikes. On the way back to the car, we walk past two landscaping employees planting trees along the drive. They have just put one sapling into the ground and are sizing it up to make sure that it is true to vertical. Ever the architect, Hawkins stops and gives them a little help with hand signals: a little to the left, a little more, little more, there, good.

Hawkins's topographic map may not have been widely disseminated, but it was hugely influential in scholarly circles as the first systematic attempt to re-create the shape and composition of the land that eventually became the federal city. Its success was encouraging enough that Hawkins followed up nine years later, in 2000, with a similar representation of Washington in 1800, the year that Congress and President John Adams arrived from Philadelphia to take seasonal residence in the city. Still, Hawkins knows that, whatever their virtues, these are difficult maps for the uninitiated to appreciate; for most people, extrapolating three dimensions from a set of contour lines isn't really an intuitive skill. This helps to explain why he asks me to pack my laptop and meet him for breakfast one morning at the Cosmos Club, where Hawkins is a member, so that he can hand me a DVD containing an extraordinary new vision of early Washington.

What we see on my computer screen is the core of the city as it was at the beginning of the 19th century, lusciously rendered in 3-D, resembling for all the world a clip from a making-of feature attached to a Pixar film. The video talks us through the process of digitally animating early Washington, and ends in a virtual fly-by that carries us down Pennsylvania Avenue, traversing the length of the Mall before finally alighting on a startlingly realistic representation of the Capitol as it was in 1814 just before the British burned it: two smallish square wings connected by a temporary wooden passageway, appearing nearly naked without its rotunda, outer wings or pedestrian plazas, all elements as yet unrealized.

VISUALIZING EARLY WASHINGTON: A Digital Reconstruction of the Capitol Circa 1814

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I've never seen anything like it. Here in moving pictures is a Washington still struggling to shed its provisional nature, a place where the federal presence consists of no more than a half-dozen buildings, a place where the Mall is only a low flat space filled with pastures and farm fields, where sheep graze a few dozen feet from the walls of the Capitol. I look up to notice that Hawkins is watching me intently, even anxiously. One thing is clear to both of us, even at first glance: A new candy store has opened, and it is filled with a lot more than the usual chocolate bars. Someone has taken Hawkins's laborious pen-and-pencil creations and brought them roaring into the 21st century.

DAN BAILEY IS AS CASUAL AND AMIABLE A PERSON AS YOU'D EVER WANT TO MEET, but there's something about the milieu over which he presides -- a seriously funky room full of powerful computers and diligently working students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County -- that seems to require me to use the word "mastermind." This is UMBC's Imaging Research Center, a high-technology hive of undergraduates and master's candidates under Bailey's tutelage who are producing amazing examples of digital animation at a ridiculous pace. The center's commissions come from all over and have recently included a tour through the ancient cities of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, a visualization of architect Louis Kahn's unbuilt Hurva Synagogue, a digital puppet of President Bush for real-time editorial cartooning, and a virtual stroll at eye level through the adjacent apartments of sisters Etta and Claribel Cone in Baltimore's Marlborough building, where until 1950 one of the world's most impressive private collections of Matisses, Picassos, Cezannes, van Goghs and Renoirs hung on the walls. Bailey's students are also working on a digital representation of Sherman's march and a complex multiplayer video game, based loosely on psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which relies on cognitive teamwork to rebuild a post-apocalyptic world.

Bailey, in other words, is one of those people who has his hands all over the latest toys and knows a whole lot better than we do how to play with them, which makes it more than a little ironic that he's caught the early Washington history bug. His new obsession originated in 2003, when independent filmmaker Sabin Streeter of Kunhardt Productions, teaming with the Maryland Historical Society, approached Bailey to provide the visuals for a "public television-style" documentary of the life of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, confidante of Thomas Jefferson and the man responsible for rebuilding the Capitol after the British fires of 1814. And create those visuals he has, but Bailey's is also a classic artist's tale of one task metamorphosing into something wholly unexpected.

The Imaging Research Center demands comparison to the bridge of "Star Trek's" Enterprise, especially as Bailey has seated himself smack in the middle of the room with technical director and graduate student Eric Smallwood manning a monitor behind him and calling up images as fast as Bailey asks for them. In front of us, students at a row of computer workstations churn out lifelike animations one quotidian detail at a time: an authentically sagging farm shed, a period carriage accurate down to the spokes, a carefully documented private residence near the Capitol. Above this fray floats a theater-size screen that can display desktop images from any three computers in the room side by side. Today, the center image is Hawkins's map of Washington in 1800 superimposed on a three-dimensional model of the city. To one side, there is a page from a digital database of early sketches and paintings of Washington, and on the other a drawing of the Capitol in 1830 by John Rubens Smith, the point of view looking up at the building from the base of the hill.

With Smallwood's help, Bailey walks me through the project, laughing every so often with the air of someone who can't quite believe what he's stumbled onto. Despite the instantly recognizable patina of geeked-out cool here, Bailey's job is less to push pixels around (after all, that's what students are for) than to get serious about good, old-fashioned historical detective work. Filmmaker Streeter's basic need was a digital image of the exterior of the Capitol in 1814, which Bailey knew would mean much more than the reconstruction of a single hill and building. "If you imagine you're holding a camera and you're walking around the Capitol taking pictures, you're going to see landscape all around," he says. "If you aim your lens northwest, for example, you have to know what Pennsylvania Avenue looked like in 1814. And to do that kind of thing, you have to dig some research up on the whole area."

That led Bailey straight to Hawkins, but also to other kindred spirits, including Peter Chirico, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey who has re-created the topography of post-Civil War Washington in minute detail, using a set of U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey maps from the late 19th century. Bailey has also leaned on a pair of the city's preeminent historians: Pamela Scott, an independent scholar and Latrobe expert who has published widely on the history and architecture of Washington, and William C. Allen of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol. For help properly cataloguing and representing the foliage of the District, Bailey consulted ecologist Charlie Davis, an expert in rare species who teaches plant and animal identification courses at Johns Hopkins University and who applied his botanist's eye to Bailey's collection of early Washington images.

A tombstone in Congressional Cemetery, which Hawkins says is essentially the same ground L'Enfant traversed in 1791.

The ignition of his latent love for early Washington is something of a surprise to Bailey, 56, who came to UMBC in 1987 after successful stints as a professional photographer and experimental filmmaker, with a late stopover at the Art Institute of Chicago to get a master of fine arts degree. (His short films are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris.) "I've never been a historian, and I still get spooked when people want to insinuate that I'm some kind of expert," he says, "but, on the other hand, I've never been all that interested in technology for its own sake. What keeps me interested in a project like this is less the images that we create than the scholarship needed to create those images."

This is history, then, through the back door. Before they'd even heard of each other, Bailey was already duplicating Hawkins's reliance on topographic maps, written descriptions and hundreds of images from the period. The databases created to house these collections have become resources in their own right, an especially groundbreaking development because all of the images are keyed to the IRC's "base map" of Washington in 1800, so that the map is dotted with symbols that indicate exactly where each painter's easel or photographer's camera was propped. This goes a long way toward cataloguing graphically which portions of the early city are well represented and which aren't, making a handy guide for the work of future researchers. "Lo and behold," Bailey says, "it isn't technology that's driving the history, but the other way around."

Good thing, too, as Streeter's Latrobe documentary is more or less stalled now at Washington's WETA public television station, trying to withstand sizable reductions in scope and budget. The work of digitally animating early Washington continues only because of Bailey's commitment of his spare time, UMBC's recognition of its scholarly value, and the potential use of the resulting animations for other projects. Bailey hopes to use his research, as well as that of Hawkins, Chirico, Scott, Allen, Davis and many others, to procure a grant or commission that will allow him to fully animate the evolution of Washington's physical appearance era by era, perhaps beginning as far back as John Smith's 1608 journey up the Potomac and stretching to the end of the Civil War 257 years later, when the photographic record becomes rich enough that people can picture the city without the IRC's digital help.

One especially enticing possibility involves using the latest and best video game software to walk the viewer through the streets of various historical iterations of Washington, the virtual "camera" positioned five feet above the ground to mimic the experience of a person living in the federal city. It's something of a pie-in-the-sky scenario, as technological requirements mean that Bailey can't just grin and bear the bill himself and do the work in his home office, as Hawkins did to create his original topographic map. But he says he's optimistic that money and other support will eventually appear, given the project's potential public appeal and the fact that so far the IRC seems to be the only place such comprehensive high-tech historical work on Washington is being done.

"At the start of the project, I literally went to the local library and expected to get two or three large coffee-table books on how D.C. looked," Bailey says. "Imagine my surprise when I didn't find any. It's the nation's capital, for crying out loud, and we're only talking about 200 years ago. Add to that what a remarkable story it is, how a small group of people were able to pull off the city against all odds. It was so precarious, such a work in progress. It's great to see the city as a work in progress."

Partway through another of our jaunts around the city, Hawkins detours to New York Avenue near Mount Vernon Square for lunch at his favorite "crummy haunt," only to discover that Hodges Sandwich Shop has gone out of business after 44 years at this address. We laugh at the very real dismay of our stomachs, but besides missing out on the chance for a roast beef sandwich ample enough for three meals, there's something ominous in the way Hodges has vanished so abruptly, not a "We're Closed" or "We've Moved" sign in sight. Gentrification looms, highly visible, to the south, and as we drive away, we ponder the state of the city and the future of its old places. This discovery in the middle of a trip devoted to unveiling the past, in fact, seems to unsettle Hawkins. In the past five years, he tells me, he's attended the funerals of nine people -- scholars, teachers, fellow architects -- who have been instrumental to his understanding of the city and its history. "I'm semi-panicked," Hawkins says, smiling, but I can see that he's more than semi-serious. "I haven't done yet what I need to be doing."

To that end, Hawkins is creating the sixth and final draft of his topographic map, which he can convert to a 3-D digital file and deposit in the collections of the Historic American Landscapes Survey, younger cousin to the far better-known Historic American Buildings Survey. There the culmination of 30 years' work can rest securely in the public domain for the use of future Don Hawkinses and Dan Baileys. The two men came to their fascination with Washington's history by very different paths -- pencils vs. pixels -- yet sometimes their goals appear nearly identical.

"I imagine someone like Dan being able to convey, or to evoke more easily for other people, what I feel when I'm looking at these maps," Hawkins says. "I imagine land heaving or seeping away into the sea; it just takes thousands of years for it to do it. What excites me most is the possibility of watching Dan's landscape gradually shifting from one era to the next, watching the shape of the city change before my eyes."

Telling urban history in any medium is ultimately a matter of scale, of paying attention to the big picture or the most particular details as the situation demands, and trying to avoid whiplash moving from one to another. It's a bit dizzying to ponder, but after 60 years in love with Washington, Hawkins seems to have found equilibrium.

"You know what I was doing the other day?" he asks. "I was taking my camera and looking through the lens at my old globe, holding it very, very close and trying to get an idea of what it would be like. You know, it's 1791, or 1800, you're coming across the ocean, and here's the coastline here. You're arriving at the place that will be Washington, the symbol, the gateway to this new country. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what that would have been like?"

Scott W. Berg teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University. He is the author of "Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C." He can be reached at He and Don Hawkins will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at noon.

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RENDERING: The Imaging Research Center, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; MAPS: Courtesy of Don Alexander Hawkins from Library of Congrass Geography and Map Division; Courtesy of Don Alexander Hawkins; From Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

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