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On the Map

Most of us know the story of the nation’s capital, built atop a swamp in the 1790s and named for the first president of the United States — who, by the way, picked Washington, D.C., as the site for the seat of government in part because of its proximity to his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

Just how the city was built from the ground up over the course of more than 200 years, however, is a story best left to the experts — and their maps.

In a two-day conference kicking off Friday, “Visualizing the Nation’s Capital: Two Centuries of Mapping Washington, D.C.,” the Library of Congress will bring together almost a dozen experts and scholars from a variety of disciplines, all of whom use maps and geographical history to shed light on how the city evolved.

Architectural historian Pamela Scott will talk about how streets got their names; Don Hawkins, an architect with his own firm, will lay out the problems the early land surveyors faced in building up the District as we know it today.

Presentations later in the program take the topic into the 21st century. Dan Bailey, director of the Imaging Research Center and professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, will use computer simulation to illuminate how Pierre Charles L’Enfant conceptualized today’s D.C. Susan Spain and Eliza Voigt of the National Park Service will show how new mobile phone applications help guide visitors through the winding pathways of the National Mall.

And former D.C. Mayor Anthony
Williams will deliver the keynote address Friday evening, titled “The Mayor as City Planner.”

“Maps are fascinating in terms of exploration, in terms of helping us organize and think about our future,” Williams, a longtime map enthusiast, told Roll Call.

LOC staff have been planning the logistics of the conference, which is free and open to the public, for only three months. It’s this year’s theme for the annual conference named in honor of the first chief of the Geography and Map Division, Philip Lee Phillips.

But Ralph Ehrenberg, the current chief, said he and his colleagues have actually been mulling over such a symposium for a long time.

“The first chief of the division, in 1887, he was a native of Washington, and his dad was a Congressman for a while, and he collected D.C. maps and wrote books on them,” Ehrenberg said of Phillips. “So the symposium kind of dates back to that strong interest over the years. Colleagues who have used our resources over the years, they’ll be here to share some of their knowledge.”

Cartographer in Chief

One recent afternoon, Ehrenberg and reference specialist Edward Redmond spread out a sampling of maps across a long table in the heart of the Geography and Map Division in the Madison Building. 

It was only a small portion, they said, of the artifacts they’ll have on display at the conference this weekend that tells the story of how the District as we know it came to be.

Among their treasures are two sepia-toned, maps hand-drawn by George Washington. A surveyor and cartographer at the age of 15, he plotted out the area of Alexandra, Va., and the Potomac River. At 17 years old, he updated the map with a street grid — King Street, Duke Street and the like.

After the war, the cartographer-turned-general-turned-president chose the District of Columbia as the site for the new capital city. He tapped L’Enfant, an old friend from battle who was also an architect and engineer from France, to serve as the chief city planner.

L’Enfant envisioned the grid system we know today across central Washington, eschewing the European layout of sprawling streets for orderly blocks and squares of the traditional “American” cities such as Philadelphia.

The LOC has a copy of one of his earliest maps that might have been Washington’s personal copy. A scanned facsimile shows details that couldn’t have been made out in the original, among them the scribbled edits of another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson.

“He was a map editor,” Ehrenberg said. “He reintroduces the name ‘Anacostia’ because he was also an ethnographer and interested in the American Indian and wanted to maintain that knowledge. He crosses out the ‘W’ in the spelling of ‘Potomac’ and makes other comments. He renames the map itself. He changes the name of ‘Congress House’ to ‘the Capitol.’”

L’Enfant was discharged a few years later for a number of reasons: The last straw might have been when he demolished a building that sat in the middle of what was to be a new street, only later to find out it was the home of a powerful city commissioner.

“Just like in politics, you befriend the wrong people, you’re going to pay for it for the rest of your life,” Redmond mused.

But he made his mark: L’Enfant’s successors built on his ideas, and much of his work has remained in the geography of Washington today. 

There’s one noticeable change, though, on the National Mall. L’Enfant had wanted a grid system there, too. Andrew Jackson Downing, in 1892, created meandering “naturalistic” pathways.

Traveling Through Time

Ehrenberg and Redmond have a map from 1818 that might be one of the first published views of the Capitol proper — without the iconic Dome and wings for the House and Senate chambers that were added decades later.

“By the 1850s, with many more states and a huge population, there were Congressmen and Senators, and they needed a lot of room,” Ehrenberg said. “The Senate wanted to add wings, and the House wanted to add to the East Front of the Capitol. Well, the president, then Millard Fillmore, he steps in and does a compromise. He hires an architect the House wanted to hire, and then he puts on wings, which is what the Senate wanted.”

Jumping forward to 1962, there’s a map clipped from a newspaper showing the D.C. school zones — for “whites” and “coloreds.” In 1974, a similar map plots out an integrated school system. 

D.C.’s geography is still changing, from north of Massachusetts Avenue to the Southwest Waterfront of the Potomac to the development along the Anacostia. 

But how these areas change from year to year won’t be documented by meticulous hand-drawings on scrolls of aging paper.

“New maps will be digital,” Ehrenberg said, lingering over one such map. “They won’t be in this form.”

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