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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