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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.”