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Washington: The Nation's Capital
Historical Timeline


The Washington you see today had its birth two centuries ago in a rational yet visionary design unprecedented in its scale Pierre Charles L'Enfant's plan for the city and its core mall area was influenced by urban planning then current in Europe and neoclassical landscape design exemplified by Versailles. Brilliantly adapting those ideas to Washington's terrain, L'Enfant placed the Capitol on Jenkins Hill and the "President's House" on a lower terrace then overlooking the Potomac River. Between them ran Pennsylvania Avenue, to symbolize the connection between the branches of government. The spirit of that plan lives in the city still.

The result of a compromise between northern and southern interests, the Residency Act authorizes President Washington to choose a site for the capital on the Potomac River. Andrew Ellicott, aided by Benjamin Banneker, surreys a ten-mile square encompassing parts of Maryland and Virginia. The core of L'Enfant's 1791 plan is the triangle created by the Capitol, the White House, and the Mall. The plan calls for grand avenues radiating from a number of plazas. The cornerstone for the White House is laid October 13, 1792; it is the oldest federal structure in Washington.

The Senate chamber of the Capitol, designed by Dr. William Thornton, is completed and Congress moves from Philadelphia to Washington. The House chamber is completed in 1807, with a covered walkway between the buildings. President John Adams and Abigail Adams move into the just-completed President's House in 1800.

Work begins on converting Tiber Creek into L'Enfont's planned canal. It follows what is now Constitution Avenue, then turns in front of the Capitol.

After the British burn the Capitol during the War of 1812, Benjamin Latrobe begins rebuilding. William Bulfinch completes the restoration by 1829, sheathing in copper the dome designed by William Thornton.

Robert Mills' winning design for a monument to George Washington calls for a great obelisk with a colonnaded base. His Treasury building, begun the same year, obstructs the line-of-sight L'Enfant had wanted between the Capitol and White House.

The portion of the District of Columbia that had been annexed from Virginia is ceded back to the state.

Construction of the Washington Monument begins. Because of sandy soil where L'Enfant had specified a monument, it is not built at the exact intersection of the axes. Work on the monument ceases in 1854 after the anti-foreign Know-Nothing party seizes the monument to protest the contribution of a memorial stone by Pope Pius IX. Rising sectionalism prevents the resumption of work.

Landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing submits a plan for a "national park" on the mall, calling for a series of natural gardens. Only his plan for the Smithsonian gardens is adopted, although his influence is felt in the Department of Agriculture's garden and other parts of the Mall. Downing's curving paths and varied foliage are quite different from L'Enfant's rational, geometric plan with a "Grand Avenue" lined with imposing residences, although L'Enfant's well-defined axes remain intact.

During the Civil War Washington is transformed from a quiet town into a thriving wartime capital with a booming population. In the decades after the war the city's continuing vitality is evident in ambitious projects that bring new life to the Mall area.

The Washington Canal is filled in. The Baltimore & Potomac Railroad builds a station on the Mall where the canal had run between 6th and 7th streets and lays tracks across the Mall. The National Gallery stands at the site station, which was demolished in 1907 when Union Station was completed.

Frederick Law Olmsted's landscape plan for the Capitol calls for terraces that enhance the building's setting on Capitol Hill.

Work is resumed on the Washington Monument. It is dedicated in 1885.

The mudflats from the Washington Monument to today's Potomac shoreline are reclaimed to form what is now East and West Potomac Parks.

The Senate Park Commission-the "McMillan Commission"-proposes a reflecting pool west of the Washington Monument, a memorial to Lincoln, another major memorial south of the Washington Monument, a bridge between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, government buildings in the area between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall (the "Federal Triangle"), and restoration of the open, geometric quality L'Enfant had wanted for the Mall.

Having used borrowed quarters for 143 years, the Supreme Court finally moves to its own building.

The Mall's World War II temporary structures are removed to make room for Constitution Gardens, completed in time for the Bicentennial.

The National Capital Planning Commission recommends developing North and South Capitol streets, removing railroad tracks and a freeway that divide the city, reinforcing the connection between the Capitol and the Anacostia River, improving the Anacostia waterfront, and linking waterfront areas from Georgetown to the National Arboretum.

Source: Federal Citizen Information Center of the U.S. General Services Administration.

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Updated: June 2003