1790s

The City That Was... And The City That Never Was

“The Indispensable Plan: 1791”  A painted portrait of what DC would have looked like if the city was laid out  exactly to L’Enfant’s plans. The image has red painted curtains framing  a familiar DC but with key differences. The colors are vibrant but there are a lack of people.

Walk up the spiral staircase at the GW Museum, take a right into the first gallery, and you will be met with a pair of large (5’ x 6’) bird-eye's-view paintings of Washington, DC. Both represent the capital city in the 1820s and, at first glance, the two works look very similar, with comparable coloring, landscape, and style. That’s not suprising as both were done by the same artist and, significantly, the two pieces share the same view – looking down on the District from Arlington Heights. But, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the paintings represent different perspectives of the fledgling national Capitol – one aspirational, the other more realistic.

Early map of DC showing the diagonal avenues named for states

What's in a Name? The State Avenues

There are fifty-one streets in D.C. named for every state and Puerto Rico. But, admittedly, not all state avenues are created equal. Some are long, vital roadways through our city. Others are historic and prominent—the location of our country’s most important events. And some are…well, a bit hard to find. Admit it: you probably couldn’t point to all of them on a city map. So why are some state avenues more prominent than others? Is there any method to the naming madness?

L'Enfant's Guide to Getting Fired

Photograph of Daniel Carroll of Duddington's house

It takes a lot of talent to design a city, especially one with such sweeping vistas and wide, radial streets as our Nation’s Capital.  It’s hard not to admire the vision of Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the engineer behind Washington, D.C. But everybody makes mistakes—even visionaries— and L’Enfant was certainly no exception.

His biggest blunder was probably tearing down the house of his boss’s nephew. 

Benjamin Banneker's Capital Contributions

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was already a practiced mathematician and astronomer when he was approached in February 1791 by his friend Andrew Ellicott to survey the land staked out for the new United States capital. A free black who grew up in Maryland as a farmer, Banneker was more than a laborer. Though his formal education ended at an early age, he continued to study science and physics and would later write a series of best-selling almanacs. He designed and built a striking clock at age 22 that kept perfect time for forty years until it was destroyed in a fire. But, perhaps him most long lasting mark was the unique role he played in the development of the nation's capital — a job that went far beyond what Ellicott orginally had in mind.