What Did Washington, DC Look Like in 1825?

We see images of Washington, DC as it looks today on a regular basis --- the Capitol building, the White House, the National Mall, maybe the monuments and memorials. But what did it look like when it was the nation’s new Capital City? Do you have any idea? Can you picture it in your head?

 To help you out a bit ---

The site for Washington, DC was chosen by President George Washington. He chose a diamond-shaped area of land (taken from Maryland and Virginia but later Virginia took their land back) about 100 square miles in size that lay between the Eastern Branch (now called the Anacostia River) and the Potomac River. It was a good location because it was almost halfway between the northern and southern states that existed at the time and it would allow easy access to the western frontier. The local towns of Alexandria and Georgetown were already established there and supported some river trade via their small ports on the Potomac.

(It also probably didn’t hurt that the land was just north of Mount Vernon, Washington’s home with his wife, Martha.)

So, in 1790 Congress authorized a federal district to be created and Washington, DC came into existence on the very spot George Washington had selected.

Now the new federal area needed to be designed.  Who should design it?

Pierre Charles L’Enfant

Pierre Charles L’Enfant

Pierre Charles L’Enfant (called Peter by then) was chosen by President Washington for the job. He had studied art under his father at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris and he had been an architect in New York City. And, perhaps most importantly, he had been a volunteer in the American Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. It was here that he met and became friends with General Washington. In 1791 Major L'Enfant requested the honor of designing a plan for the national capital. And President Washington hired him to design the new seat of American government.

Here is a brief description of some of L’Enfant’s plan, according to the National Park Service:

L'Enfant specified in notes accompanying the plan that these avenues were to be wide, grand, lined with trees, and situated in a manner that would visually connect ideal topographical sites throughout the city, where important structures, monuments, and fountains were to be erected. On paper, L'Enfant shaded and numbered 15 large open spaces at the intersections of these avenues and indicated that they would be divided among the states. He specified that each reservation would feature statues and memorials to honor worthy citizens. The open spaces were as integral to the capital as the buildings to be erected around them.

L'Enfant took a bold step and placed Congress in an important spot on a hill from which diagonal avenues named after the states radiated. This was in direct contrast to what existed in most European Capitals at the time. The grandest spot would have been reserved for the leader's palace. As a result, Capitol Hill became the center of the city, not the White House.

Now can you picture the new city? Can you change these words into images? When “our” John Ousley was hired by President John Quincy Adams to be the first White House gardener in 1825, can you picture what he saw? 

Today we have the artist, Peter Waddell, to help us with re-creating this vision of DC as a young capital city. Peter creates historically accurate (well, as historically accurate as possible!) paintings of Washington, DC from a bird’s eye view. One of the things we like the most about Peter’s work is that he is not just interested in the magnificent buildings of our history or in the great men and women of our history. He also presents ordinary people – the workers, merchants and servants who were an important part of the story.

In this video, Peter discusses his newest paintings of the city. They are on display in an exhibit called Eye of the Bird at the George Washington University Museum/The Textile Museum. The extensive research he did to accurately locate prominent buildings and get a feel for life in nineteenth-century Washington is amazing!

One of Peter’s painting in the exhibit titled “The Village Monumental” — so called because for decades after Washington, DC was founded, it was a collection of discrete villages — is meant to illustrate an actual day: June 17, 1825. It’s the day L’Enfant — penniless, angry, unloved by the Founding Fathers who had hired him — died.

The George Washington University exhibit also includes examples of other aerialist artwork from as early as 1838. In those days, an entrepreneurial artist would walk the streets of a town, sketching each building. These sketches would form the basis of a larger work, each structure put in its place and enhanced by artistic license.

The exhibit of Peter Waddell’s work, Eye of the Bird, is at the George Washington University Museum/The Textile Museum until December 23, 2018.

Side Bar:

In 2011 Peter Waddell completed The White House Project. It’s a set of 14 paintings commissioned by the White House Historical Association in celebration of their 50th Anniversary. Their request was for depictions of moments that took place within or on the grounds of the White House from 1796 to 1902. It reportedly took him six years to complete their requests. Not only was he meticulous about his painting, he spent many hours doing research at the National Archives. He studied invoices and inventories, old maps and architectural blueprints and read personal letters and private diaries.