News & Politics

Turning Points: Moments in DC’s History

Here are the key moments that changed Washington—the decisions, people, and events that made the city what it is today.

Washington is a young capital city—Rome, London, and Beijing have existed for centuries. The US government moved here in 1800, a mere 208 years ago, its modest collection of files and clerks arriving in wagons and carriages over rugged roads from the temporary capital of Philadelphia. There were just a few hundred people here then—mostly in Georgetown and Alexandria—and the move was a rare instance of a nation choosing to build a capital city from scratch.

But two centuries have been long enough for Washington to experience enormous growth: Its 5 million area residents make it America’s eighth-largest city and more populous than 30 states. It now stretches from the Chesapeake Bay on the east to the Blue Ridge Mountains on the west, from Frederick in the north to Fredericksburg in the south. The region has become so big that no one is surprised when one jurisdiction gets six inches of snow and closes its schools while another gets only a dusting.

Washington is old enough to have existed through many moments when some cataclysmic event, momentous decision, irresistible social trend, or clever invention changed it forever. Echoes of these turning points are still heard today, along with arguments about whether some of them made the city better or worse. Nobody doubts the wisdom of preserving Rock Creek Park or building Washington National Cathedral, but plenty of people decry the effect of the Whitehurst Freeway on the Georgetown waterfront or are puzzled by the lack of Metrorail service to the Tysons Corner area.

It’s possible that 2008 will provide a turning point that will have a lasting impact on the region. In DC, Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee are taking a bold approach to reforming the public schools, and the opening of a new ballpark for the Nationals promises years of excitement. In suburban Maryland, construction of the controversial Intercounty Connector, the highway linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties from Interstate 270 to Interstate 95, will be in full swing. In Northern Virginia, this will be a crucial year in deciding whether money can be found to build an extension of Metrorail to McLean and on to Dulles Airport. At last, the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge will be completed this summer with the opening of its second span.

Some turning points involve earthshaking events that occur elsewhere but reverberate through Washington. Wars are an example, especially World War II, which brought thousands of Americans here to pitch in on the home front. Closest to home was the Civil War, which turned Washington, located adjacent to Confederate Virginia, into an armed encampment and a hospital for the wounded. The War of 1812 was an oddity—the British marched through in 1814 and burned the Capitol and White House, but the war had little lasting effect on the city.

The electric streetcar made possible our early suburbs, and growth was extended farther afield by the gasoline-powered automobile. The typewriter, copier, computer, and Internet have revolutionized the way Washington works. And it’s a cooler place thanks to air conditioning.

Other turning points in Washington’s history are homegrown, triggered by some tough problem, some civic aspiration, or some political struggle that was ours alone. Here, stretching across the city’s past, are 40 of the most important. 

Baseball Returns

The Washington Senators usually started losing right after the President threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day, and there was much truth in the taunt that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” It got so the city couldn’t keep a major-league team. In 1961 Calvin Griffith moved the Senators to Minnesota, where they became the Twins, and an expansion team, also named the Senators, played 11 seasons—all but one with a losing record—before moving to Texas in 1972 and becoming the Rangers.

For more than three decades the city was without baseball, forcing Washingtonians to drive to Baltimore and become fans of the Orioles. But in 2005 Major League Baseball gave Washington another shot, selling the Montreal Expos of the National League to local developer Theodore Lerner, who renamed them the Nationals. A publicly financed $600-million ballpark on the banks of the Anacostia River opens March 29, with high hopes that it will see winning baseball and jump-start renewal of its rundown neighborhood. 

Terrorism Strikes

The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, that caused the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in Manhattan and cut a gaping gash in thePentagon changed Washington in ways that still reverberate. Some 125 people inside the Pentagon were killed, as well as 59 aboard American Airlines Flight 77, when terrorists crashed the jetliner into the building’s west side.

The Pentagon’s gaping wound was repaired within months, and a memorial to the victims is being built there now, but attempts to prevent another attack are visible everywhere. Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, which was closed to vehicles after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, has been redesigned as a pedestrian mall. More than a dozen agencies have been consolidated into the Department of Homeland Security, boarding an airplane now involves long lines and inspections, security is tighter in office buildings, and more cameras are used for surveillance. Private planes must observe a no-fly zone around the city, areas have been closed off around the Capitol, and concrete barriers and metal fences are fixtures of the cityscape. 

Old Names Disappear

Many of Washington’s biggest homegrown businesses flourished for decades—Riggs Bank since 1836, Woodward & Lothrop since 1880, Garfinckel’s since 1900, Hechinger since 1911, and Giant Food, which opened Washington’s first supermarket in 1936.They all expanded into the suburbs after World War II, but they could not withstand the nationalization of banking and retailing, which gained momentum in the 1990s. New competition arose from Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and other national retailers that began to recognize the Washington market as one of the country’s most affluent, while local banks saw their territory invaded by huge banks with hundreds of locations.

One by one the old local businesses closed—Garfinckel’s in 1988, Woodward & Lothrop in 1995—or were bought out, in the case of Giant Food and Riggs Bank, by much bigger companies from out of town. Hechinger, which could not stand up to Atlanta-based Home Depot, closed its last store in 1999. 

Law Firms Get Big

Lawyers have long been important intermediaries between the federal government and business, even more so as regulation has touched every corner of the economy. But Washington’s leading law firms have grown much bigger over the past generation.

An annual survey by Legal Times detected an important moment in 1990, when two old-line Washington firms—Arnold & Porter and Covington & Burling—became the first to employ more than 300 lawyers. Last year the largest firm, WilmerHale, had 511 lawyers here; four other firms had more than 300. Out-of-town firms with big Washington offices has been another trend—17 of the 30 largest firms here have roots in other cities. The money is bigger, too—profits per partner at Arnold & Porter, about $440,000 in 1990, were $852,000 last year. That buys lots of houses in Potomac and Great Falls, luxury cars, and vacation homes. 

Blacks Head to PG

The area’s biggest concentration of African-Americans—and the center of their cultural life—was in DC until the mid-1950s, when the city became majority black. Suburbanization was a white thing in those days, as housing discrimination against blacks in the new suburbs was absolute. But the civil-rights movement created new homeownership opportunities for blacks in the suburbs, not only by outlawing housing discrimination but by breaking down barriers to education and jobs, which led to higher incomes.

No place experienced the resulting boom in African-American homebuying like Prince George’s County, where middle-class families by the thousands filled new subdivisions. The county’s black population jumped from 14 percent to 37 percent during the 1970s, reached 51 percent by 1990, and is now about 66 percent. With 543,000 African-Americans—some 200,000 more than in DC—Prince George’s is one of the country’s wealthiest majority-black suburbs. 

Mobil Enters Fairfax

Much of Washington’s private sector—especially law firms, trade associations, and defense contractors—has consisted of enterprises located here to feed off the federal government. The giants of American business on theFortune 500 list were more commonly headquartered in New York City.

It was a coup in 1987 when Mobil, the nation’s fifth-largest industrial company, moved its headquarters from Manhattan to a site near the Beltway in Fairfax County. The oil company had been in New York since 1866, but complaints from junior executives about the high cost of housing and a difficult commute convinced Mobil to go suburban. When Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999, the headquarters was shifted to the Dallas area, but Mobil’s presence here established Fairfax and its suburban neighbors as an attractive corporate location. It was part of a general growth in the region’s private sector, which now includes many high-tech companies and such financial powerhouses as the Carlyle Group. 

Cuisine Gets Haute

In comparison with New York or Paris, Washington had a lackluster reputation as a restaurant town—meat-and-potatoes was more common than haute cuisine. Though a few French restaurants thrived during the Kennedy years, the arrival in 1979 of a 32-year-old chef named Jean-Louis Palladin helped set a higher standard.

Palladin was the youngest chef to earn two stars from the Michelin guide at his restaurant in his native France, and the small and expensive restaurant he opened in the Watergate Hotel created a sensation. It was called Jean-Louis to avoid confusion with the Paladin character in a popular old television western. Jean-Louis introduced Washingtonians to exotic dishes that experimented with American ingredients—all coupled with a wine cellar that held thousands of bottles. The restaurant closed in 1996, and Jean-Louis died of lung cancer at age 55 in 2001—but the boom in fine dining has continued. 

Metro Opens

On Metrorail’s opening day in 1976, more than 50,000 people stood in line for a free ride, even though it covered only a small segment of the Red Line in downtown DC. Metro was one of the grandest public-works projects in the nation’s history; construction of its 103 miles of track and 83 stations took 30 years. It was built partly as an alternative to a proposed system of freeways that would have cut a wide swath through neighborhoods in DC and close-in suburbs—a plan that aroused a successful protest by a coalition of black and white residents.

Praised for its design, Metro also helped tie the region’s jurisdictions together, spurred real-estate development around its stations, and took thousands of commuters off the highways. With 700,000 riders a day on average, it is the nation’s second-busiest subway, behind New York’s. 

DC Gets Home Rule

The District, because of its status as the nation’s capital, was governed for most of its history by a three-member commission, appointed by the President, and by politicians who ran congressional committees overseeing its budget and policies. That left DC’s citizens disenfranchised—a situation that became more grating as the city, in the mid-1950s, became majority African-American and as congressional committees continued in the grasp of white segregationists from the rural South. In the 1960s the old system began to change: The commissioners were replaced by a presidentially appointed mayor (Walter Washington) and city council in 1967, DC residents voted the first time for president in 1964 and a school board in 1968, and they elected a nonvoting delegate to the House (Walter Fauntroy) in 1970.

The biggest change came in 1973, when Congress granted DC partial “home rule,” including the right to elect its own council and mayor, an office won first by Walter Washington in 1974, followed by Marion Barry, who served four terms. 

Skins Start to Win

The Redskins beat the Chicago Bears, 28–21, behind Slingin’ Sammy Baugh for the 1937 NFL championship and had decent teams through the mid-1940s, but for 25 years after that they were wretched. A turnaround began when the team was sold in 1969 to superlawyer Edward Bennett Williams, who brought in Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, to run the team. Lombardi’s first Redskins went 7–5–2 in 1969, breaking the tradition of losing seasons, but he died of cancer soon after.

In 1971, Williams turned to George Allen, a former Los Angeles Rams head coach, whose win-now philosophy and reliance on veterans—dubbed the Over-the-Hill Gang—excited Washington’s long-suffering fans. Allen took the team to the playoffs five times in seven years, including 1972, when the Redskins lost the Super Bowl to the Miami Dolphins. The winning was unmatched until the 1981 arrival of Joe Gibbs, who coached the Redskins to four Super Bowls, winning three. 

Don’t Tear It Down

The battle to save Washington’s historic buildings from destruction goes back to 1858, when an association of Southern ladies rescued the Mount Vernon home of George Washington and turned it into a shrine to the first president. Clubs of black women raised money to repair the Anacostia home of the African-American orator Frederick Douglass, which they turned over to the National Park Service in 1962.

One of the biggest breakthroughs came in 1971 with the formation of Don’t Tear It Down, a group that successfully protested the proposed demolition of the Old Post Office, whose giant clock tower remains a landmark on Pennsylvania Avenue. Don’t Tear It Down, now known as the DC Preservation League, also was instrumental in DC’s passage in 1978 of a strong law protecting historic buildings and neighborhoods. Among many once-threatened gems that have been reborn are the Willard hotel and Union Station. 

Kennedy Center Debuts

Washington was considered a cultural backwater in comparison with London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, and other capital cities. The city had a well-educated and affluent audience, but the fact that its concert venues were limited to Constitution Hall and Lisner Auditorium was a symbol of underachievement.

That began to change with the opening in 1971 of the Kennedy Center, with its three large halls for music, opera, dance, and theater. Some disliked Edward Durrell Stone’s design, likening it to a marble cake box on the Potomac, but it attracted big audiences for the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Opera, and visiting performers. Arena Stage, created in 1950, gained much attention with the first production of The Great White Hope starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in 1967 and was similarly crucial to the city’s theater boom. 

Nixon the Regulator

Richard Nixon is often remembered for his opening to China and for the Watergate scandal, but one of the Republican president’s most unexpected legacies—with a big impact on the Washington region—was creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Established in 1970, EPA has grown into a Cabinet-level agency of 17,000 employees with regulatory power over much of the economy and stands as a reminder of how much environmentalism has come of age. Businesses as well as local and state governments must pay close attention to EPA on emissions from cars and smokestacks, pollution of rivers and lakes, use of toxic chemicals, wastewater treatment, solid-waste disposal, drinking water, land development, highway construction, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Nothing gets built here—whether the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge or the Intercounty Connector in suburban Maryland—without EPA’s involvement. 

Malls Galore

Subdivisions beyond DC’s boundaries, with their sprawling collection of middle-class homes, were once called the “bedroom suburbs,” meaning people lived there but came downtown to work and do serious shopping. The first suburban shopping centers appeared in Arlington, Silver Spring, and Wheaton in the 1950s, but the one that had the biggest impact was Theodore Lerner’s Tysons Corner Center, which opened in 1968.

Tysons—like White Flint Mall, which Lerner opened in 1977 on Rockville Pike—was an upscale conglomeration of dozens of stores anchored not just by local department stores but by Bloomingdale’s, which brought Washington a taste of New York trendiness. These were followed by other “super-regional” shopping centers and ensured that Washington’s suburbs were no longer just a place to sleep. ➝ 

Rioting in the Streets

The message of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 had been one of hope, and it was followed by historic civil-rights legislation. Yet very shortly, as poverty and joblessness persisted for black Americans, several major cities erupted in riots—the first in Los Angeles in 1965, then in Detroit and Newark in the summer of 1967.

It was Washington’s turn in April 1968. Anger surrounding the assassination of King led to five days of burning and looting in the heart of DC. Federal troops and the National Guard were called up to protect the city, but 13 people were killed and dozens of stores were damaged or burned to the ground. These events further discouraged white suburbanites from coming downtown to shop, and the most heavily damaged areas—7th and 14th streets, Northwest, and H Street, Northeast—have taken years to move toward revival. 

Immigrants Come fast

When US immigration law was changed in 1965 to end a longstanding bias for Western Europeans, few expected that it would transform Washington into a top destination for Asians, Latin Americans, Middle Easterners, and Africans. Washington, which mostly missed big waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is now the fifth-largest gateway for immigrants, behind Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Miami.

About a million of the Washington region’s residents—one in five—are foreign-born. Pushed out of their homelands by war or drawn here by economic and educational opportunities, the largest numbers have come from El Salvador, South Korea, India, Vietnam, China, Mexico, the Philippines, Peru, Jamaica, and Iran. Nine of ten live in the suburbs, where their restaurants and shops have added the spice of cultural diversity and their children have filled the public schools. 

Beltway and Suburbia

With completion of the Capital Beltway in 1964, which included the Woodrow Wilson and American Legion bridges over the Potomac, it was possible for the first time to drive easily between Virginia and Maryland without going through the District. The 64-mile circumferential highway—with 22 miles in Virginia and 42 miles in Maryland—featured the latest in engineering, with four and six lanes separated by medians and limited access via ramps.

Part of the nationwide interstate system started in the Eisenhower administration, the Beltway was intended to be a bypass to divert long-distance traffic around the District. It also made accessible thousands of acres of suburban land, which began sprouting subdivisions financed by the GI Bill—transforming the Beltway itself into a crowded main street for commuters. 

Goodbye Sleepy Town

John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 made him the first Catholic to assume the presidency and, at age 43, the youngest person elected to the nation’s highest office. He was the first telegenic president, a master at exploiting the power of television. He inspired liberal idealists who flocked to government service and the new Peace Corps, and he challenged the nation’s scientists and engineers to land a man on the moon.

Washington’s reputation as a sleepy Southern town began to fade as Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, brought a French chef to the White House, entertained Nobel laureates, and hobnobbed with chic friends in Georgetown. It was Kennedy who noticed the rundown look of Pennsylvania Avenue during his inaugural parade, leading to creation of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. The PADC spurred renewal of the avenue, in turn triggering a resurgence of downtown DC, now filled with offices, restaurants, clubs, and the Verizon Center. 

Dulles Goes to Virginia

As commercial aviation moved into the jet age after World War II, it became clear that Washington would need a second airport with longer runways than could be built at National. The federal government considered nearly 20 sites, including Gaithersburg, Beltsville, Waldorf, Gainesville, Germantown, Camp Springs, Great Falls, and Burke, where it actually bought some land. But President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 picked a site in Northern Virginia straddling Fairfax and Loudoun counties—25 miles from downtown DC—and work soon began on what would become Dulles International Airport.

The first American airport built specifically for commercial jets, it featured its own access highway, mobile lounges to transport passengers, and a dazzling design by Eero Saarinen. After many years as an underused white elephant, Dulles now serves 25 million passengers a year and is the economic engine driving job growth in Northern Virginia. Had Ike chosen Germantown, the geography of the region’s economy would have been vastly different. 

Let’s Tear It Down

Washington tore down an entire neighborhood—a rundown area known as Murder Bay—to build the Federal Triangle in the 1930s. But in 1954 city and federal officials initiated an even more sweeping plan of “urban renewal” in Southwest DC involving demolition of a 400-acre area of rowhouses, restaurants, and businesses.

Nearly every building in the site was demolished and 23,000 residents displaced, about three-fourths of them black. The neighborhood—which, like Georgetown and Capitol Hill, likely would have moved toward gentrification—was transformed into a collection of modern townhouses and high-rise apartments, large federal office buildings, Arena Stage, and L’Enfant Plaza—all crosscut by the Southwest Freeway. Few of the old residents could afford the higher rents, and they never returned. 

Outlawing Segregation

When 50,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925, Washington’s African-Americans had every right to wonder if they ever would be accorded full citizenship. They were segregated in housing, jobs, streetcars, restaurants, swimming pools, theaters, restrooms, and schools. They kept up the fight against Jim Crow, inspired by events such as Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and by their own thriving institutions, including Howard University, Dunbar High School, the Lincoln Theatre, black churches, and the NAACP.

An important legal case in 1953 ensured their right to sit with whites in DC restaurants, but the biggest victory came in 1954 when the US Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for black youngsters were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. DC’s public schools were integrated that fall, but so many whites soon transferred their children to private schools or fled to the suburbs that most DC schools became largely black. 

The Scary Bomb

The Soviet Union’s testing of its first atomic bomb in 1949—just four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki—confirmed that America’s World War II ally would be a threatening adversary for years to come. The Cold War with the Communists would dominate Washington’s attention through wars in Korea and Vietnam, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the space race.

Washington became Ground Zero—its federal buildings stocked with khaki-colored barrels of rations, its children diving under desks during civil-defense drills, and some homeowners building bomb shelters in their backyards. Fear of a direct hit was one reason the Capital Beltway was built ten miles from the center of DC and why several federal agencies—including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Atomic Energy Commission—were headquartered in the suburbs. Underground shelters and command centers for the President, Cabinet members, military leaders, and Congress were built even more distant—at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and at Mount Weather in Virginia. 

Pentagon to Virginia

When the Pentagon opened in 1943, it shouted superlatives—world’s largest office building, home to 23,000 military and civilian personnel, 17.5 miles of corridors, built in just 16 months at a cost of $83 million. Just as important to the region’s future was its location on the Virginia side of the Potomac instead of in Foggy Bottom, where it once was planned.

The culture and economy of Northern Virginia have been shaped since by the military presence, reverberating from the Pentagon to the offices of defense contractors in Crystal City on out to the Dulles corridor. A similar effect in health sciences resulted from the location of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda; NIH began building its campus on an estate donated to the government in the 1930s. 

Winning the War

About 27,000 fans were enjoying the Redskins game at Griffith Stadium on December 7, 1941, when the loudspeaker began booming orders for high-ranking military officers to report to their commands. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had thrust the United States into World War II, which would draw thousands of men and women to Washington to help defeat the Axis powers.

Population soared as these newcomers pitched in, taking in stride shortages of everything from carbon paper and typewriters to housing and cars. About 40,000 people were employed in the Navy weapons plant on the Anacostia, 50,000 worked in temporary office buildings on the Mall, there were air-raid drills and blackouts, bond rallies and victory gardens, and everyone was subject to the rationing of gasoline, tires, coffee, butter, and other commodities. The war took the lives of 417,000 military, who had to wait nearly 60 years for their memorial on the Mall. 

A Real Airport

Washington’s first commercial flights operated out of Washington-Hoover Airport, which sat on land near the present Pentagon and had a highway through it that required a stoplight to halt traffic when a plane was taking off or landing. The airport was inadequate to serve the capital’s growing aviation needs, and President Franklin Roosevelt determined in the late 1930s to build a new one.

Several sites were considered, including one near Camp Springs in Maryland that became Andrews Air Force Base, but a riverside area in Arlington known as Gravelly Point was chosen. National Airport was close to the city—accessible by the George Washington Memorial Parkway—and 700 acres of new land could be created there by filling in the Potomac. Despite complaints about short runways and noise since its opening in 1941, approaches to the airport offer an inspiring view of the capital, and it serves 18 million passengers a year. 

FDR’s New Deal

When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Washington, like the rest of the country, was suffering from the Depression. The Shoreham, Hay-Adams, and Mayflower hotels were in receivership, the developer Harry Wardman had gone bankrupt, and thousands of unemployed World War I veterans had descended on Washington in a Bonus March to seek benefits.

The resulting New Deal created such national institutions as Social Security, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, but its short-term job-creation programs also changed the local landscape. The Federal Triangle, conceived during the Hoover administration, was built, the new town of Greenbelt was constructed in Maryland, the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Skyline Drive were created, the National Zoo got new facilities, rows of elms were planted on the Mall, and public buildings were decorated with murals. 

Loving the Automobile

As hundreds of people were driving to Armistice Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery in 1921, a motorist ran out of gas on the bridge to Virginia—delaying the presidential motorcade, creating Washington’s first major traffic jam, and reminding everyone of how the city was being altered by the automobile.

The first horseless carriages appeared here in 1897 as playthings of the wealthy, but mass production soon made cars available to the middle class. Car registrations in DC jumped from 56,000 in 1920 to 155,000 in 1930, a decade that saw the introduction of a driver’s-license requirement, a gasoline tax, and the first highway map. Congestion and parking became such problems that traffic signals were erected, underpasses were built beneath traffic circles, workers stashed their cars on the Mall and in a vast lot in the Federal Triangle, and the federal government began staggered hours to ease commuting. 

No Tall Buildings

Chicago and New York City were competing in the late 19th century to see which could put up the tallest building, exploiting structural steel and the newly invented elevator. In Washington, construction in 1894 of the 12-story Cairo apartment house on Q Street east of Dupont Circle triggered protests from neighbors who feared that more tall buildings would follow, blocking out sunlight.

At 160 feet, the Cairo was the tallest private building in town, though shorter than the Washington Monument (555 feet) and the Capitol (288 feet). The protests were answered when Congress passed a height-limitation law in 1910. Ever since, with a few exceptions, buildings in DC have been limited to 130 feet, creating a low skyline reminiscent of Paris, maintaining the symbolic primacy of the Capitol, and making DC unique among America’s largest cities. 

Mall Makeover

As Washington approached its 100th anniversary in 1900, the Mall was a mess. There were railroad tracks running across it, the bustling Center Market stood on its northern edge, and there was a test plot in front of the Agriculture Department. Rethinking the Mall fell to a commission headed by Michigan senator James McMillan, with leading architects, a landscape designer, and a sculptor as members.

A key figure was Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who had worked on the Chicago world’s fair of 1893 and was a proponent of the “city beautiful” movement to improve America’s urban landscape with well-designed parks and public buildings. The McMillan Plan, issued in 1902, envisioned the Mall as a broad, open space, established classical revival as the architecture of choice for its buildings, and proposed the Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Bridge. It also got the train station and tracks removed—replaced by a new Union Station designed by Burnham. 

Riding the Streetcars

Washington’s first streetcars, which began running between the Capitol and the Willard Hotel during the Civil War, were pulled along rails by horses. It was the introduction in 1888 of streetcars powered by electricity that revolutionized the way people moved around town to work, shop, and play.

By 1900 there were 190 miles of streetcar tracks extending throughout the city and into the suburbs, in comparison to 103 miles of Metrorail today. It was the streetcar—linking cheap lots on the periphery with offices and stores downtown—that made possible the development of early suburbs such as Mount Pleasant, LeDroit Park, Brookland, and Chevy Chase. Buses began replacing streetcars in the 1930s, and the last one ran in 1962. 

It’s a White-Collar Town

Creation of the US Civil Service Commission in 1883 was not only a blow against the old spoils system of political favoritism in federal employment but a sign that Washington was becoming a white-collar government town. Other cities might have dirty factories where immigrants toiled with their hands, but Washington was a place where managers, clerks, and technicians worked in offices using their heads.

New agencies, including the Justice Department and Interstate Commerce Commission, were created, and federal employment soared from 13,000 in 1881 to 24,000 a decade later. Government work was steady—Washington was said to be recession-proof—and it made a middle-class life possible. There also were more jobs for women, as stenographers, file clerks, or operators of the newly invented typewriter. 

Great Flood

A severe winter in 1881 followed by melting pushed the Potomac River over its banks, knocking out three spans of Long Bridge (at 14th Street) and inundating Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall. The flood underscored the need to gain control of the river in DC, which had hundreds of acres of mud flats that were bare at low tide and a trap for sewage.

Congress soon appropriated money to dredge the river to improve shipping channels, with the dredge material used to build up the mud flats into usable land. The project was assigned to Major Peter Hains of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the result was 621 acres of new land and the Tidal Basin. Developers wanted the land used for homes and businesses in the manner of Boston’s Back Bay, but others were successful in 1897 in getting it designated as a public park. Cherry trees, a gift from Japan, were planted around the basin in 1912. 

The Boss Rebuilds

Washington was so tattered after the Civil War that some people thought the capital should be moved, perhaps to Philadelphia or to a centrally located city such as St. Louis. But a move was forestalled in part by an aggressive modernization of the city’s infrastructure led by Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the key figure in a new territorial government granted the District by Congress in 1871.

Shepherd graded and paved city streets, built sewers and gas lines, planted trees, filled in the polluted City Canal (now Constitution Avenue), and much improved the city’s appearance. But he spent so much money so fast that Congress intervened, forcing him from office and taking away DC’s territorial independence in 1874. 

Water for All

On Christmas Eve 1851, a fire in the Capitol destroyed the room housing the Library of Congress, partly because there wasn’t enough water to extinguish it. The city’s water, which came from wells or springs, also was inadequate for the daily needs of a growing city of 58,000.

Congress put Lieutenant Montgomery Meigs of the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of designing a more modern system, which he began constructing in 1853. Called the Washington Aqueduct, it drew fresh water from the Potomac above Great Falls and relied on gravity to transport it 12 miles into DC through a giant conduit that crossed over Cabin John Creek inside a bridge. Construction was held up by the Civil War, but the system was finished in 1863 when water spurted 100 feet high from a new fountain at the foot of Capitol Hill. This basic system, improved over the decades, remains in use today. 

A Very Bloody War

After the defeat of Union troops by Confederates at Manassas in July 1861 signaled that the Civil War would be long and hard, Washington was transformed into an armed camp and refugee center. The city’s population doubled as thousands of Union soldiers were quartered in tents, barracks, and government buildings and as thousands of African-American slaves fled here seeking refuge. Cavalry horses filled vast corrals, cattle pens and a slaughterhouse occupied the grounds of the unfinished Washington Monument, and buildings were commandeered to house the wounded.

A ring of more than 60 forts and 40 gun batteries was built on DC’s periphery, extending into Arlington and Alexandria to repel a Confederate invasion. One of those, now known as Fort Myer, is still active, but the city is filled with reminders of the war’s crucial role in the nation’s history—from the Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theatre to the battlefield park at Manassas and Arlington National Cemetery, on land once owned by Robert E. Lee. 

Building the C&O Canal

Washington has been such a white-collar town for so long that it is hard to remember that it once hoped to be a great port and trading center. The most ambitious project to this aim was the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which was dug along one bank of the Potomac River upstream from Georgetown into coal, timber, and wheat country. Washington intended to emulate the success of the Erie Canal, which linked Lake Erie to the Hudson River and on to New York Harbor.

Groundbreaking for the 184-mile-long C&O Canal took place July 4, 1828—the same day construction began on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad west out of Baltimore. But the canal—which flooded, froze over, and used slow-moving mules to pull its barges—was no economic match for speedier trains that ran year-round. The canal and its towpath were transformed into a national park for recreational use in 1971. 

Smithson’s Gift

Washington’s most surprising gift came in 1826 when English scientist James Smithson bequeathed his fortune of $500,000 in gold sovereigns to the government of the United States, a young nation he admired but had never visited. He specified that the money be used to establish an institution in Washington for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” and that it be named in his honor.

Some in Congress wanted to establish a national university, but in 1844 it was decided the Smithsonian Institution should have display halls for natural history, a library, a scientific lab, and a lecture hall. Its first building, James Renwick’s castle, was finished in 1855. Since then the Smithsonian has grown into a complex with nearly 20 museums offering free exhibits for millions of visitors and establishing the Mall as America’s front yard. 

L’Enfant’s Plan

Street layouts in many older cities evolved naturally; Washington is unusual in having been deliberately planned. In 1791 George Washington handed the task to Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a 36-year-old French architect and engineer who had served as a major in America’s Continental Army.

In just over three months, L’Enfant sketched out a plan for the center of Washington that endures today and is regarded as one of the world’s greatest examples of urban planning. He chose sites on high ground for the White House and the Capitol to give them symbolic importance and envisioned the Mall as a center for communal activity. He imposed over the traditional street grid those long diagonal avenues, including Pennsylvania Avenue linking the legislative and executive branches. He is buried on the highest hill in Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking his creation. 

Capital on the Potomac

Several cities and towns served as America’s temporary capital during and after the Revolutionary War, including Annapolis, Philadelphia, and New York. A permanent capital on the Potomac, approved by Congress in 1790, resulted from a political deal—struck by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York—that was rife with sectionalism. Northern states got the federal government to assume their debts from the war, and Southern states got a location where slavery would be legal.

Congress required that the new federal district be on the Potomac, with land taken from Maryland and Virginia, whose portion later was returned to the state. But the exact location was left to President George Washington. His choice was made with an eye to shipping, placing the capital at the head of navigation just below the barrier of Great Falls. 

Tobacco and Slaves

Settlers in Jamestown, led by John Rolfe, sent their first small shipment of Virginia tobacco back to England in 1613, and the addictive leaf quickly became the colony’s main cash crop. Tobacco led to deforestation, soil depletion, erosion, and the silting of rivers, but the money was impossible to resist. Shipments reached 1.5 million pounds by 1629 as tobacco spread elsewhere in Virginia and Maryland, including along the Potomac River.

Places like Georgetown, Alexandria, and Bladensburg were established as tobacco ports. Tobacco’s need for stoop labor was met at first by indentured servants from Europe, but as tobacco prices rose and more acreage was planted, this system evolved into the importation of captive slaves from Africa. Black slaves—sold at auction like livestock—made up half the population of Virginia and Maryland by 1800, and the country was headed toward a civil war.

Material for parts of this article was drawn from City of Magnificent Intentions by Keith Melder, Worthy of the Nation by Frederick Gutheim and Antoinette J. Lee, Washington Seen: A Photographic History, 1875–1965 by Fredric M. Miller and Howard Gillette Jr., and Washington: History of the Capital, 1800–1950 by Constance McLaughlin Green.