Since the eighteenth century, 53 Presidents of the United States have been inaugurated in our nation’s capital, 9 colleges and universities have opened, and 600,000 people currently call Washington, DC home. A district full of activity and rich in history, the District of Columbia was founded by and named after President George Washington in 1790. Washington chose the site for the nation’s capital along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers as a compromise to southern politicians, who resisted the capital placement too far north, in New York or New England.
Congress was unable to contribute the necessary funds to develop the capital, which resulted in President Washington bartering local tobacco growing landowners for the property. Simultaneously, Washington selected the French architect and engineer, Pierre L’Enfant to develop the master plan. Ten years later, in May of 1800, the capital officially relocated from Philadelphia after the first buildings were opened. Mimicking Paris, L’Enfant had a bold vision for the entire 68 square mile site, including 400ft. wide boulevards lined with ceremonious nodes. As specified by L’Enfant, the District is divided into four unequal quadrants, northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest. Unfortunately, a lack of funding halted L’Enfant’s ideas for decades, until the gaps of the master plan slowly faded in.
The War of 1812 was a huge step backwards for our new capital, as most of the city was burned to the ground by the British. The areas left untouched were the home of the Commandant of the Marines, the Patent office, Post office, and residential areas. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, came a population growth for DC, as freed slaves became residents. Within ten years, the population increased by 75%. The growth in population sparked a growth in L’Enfant’s master plan, which initially only spanned to Boundary Street (currently Florida Ave). In addition to the neighborhoods of the Capitol, Center Market, and the White House, Georgetown and rural areas began to develop. Once streetcar lines were expanded in the mid-1800s, suburbs of LeDroit Park and Anacostia became more of a commonality.
As the 20th century approached, L’Enfant’s master plan was far from a reality, as randomly placed buildings took over the capital. In 1901, the McMillan plan was proposed to preserve the integrity of L’Enfant’s plan, but included landscape development of the Mall, new federal buildings, monuments, and a city wide park system. After this commission was completed, Washington, DC became the monumental city it is today, which now attracts almost 18 million people a year. Architecturally, the skyline of Washington, DC is famous for being low and wide, as restricted by law. Contrary to popular belief, the law does not restrict buildings to the height of the Washington Monument, or US Capitol. Rather, the height is restricted to the width of the adjacent street, plus twenty feet.
Washington, DC has a history spanning only 212 years, but has developed a diverse culture, rich historic sites, and iconic architecture. Especially in an election year, the happenings in such a politically-driven city are abundant, and create a dynamic environment.