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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: Washington D.C.

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

View of early Washington DC by Edward Sachse
Photo Credit: View of Washington DC is a painting by Edward Sachse

On July 16th, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, authorizing the establishment of a federal district as the permanent seat of the United States government. This decision laid the foundation for the eventual creation of Washington D.C., the iconic capital of the United States.

The idea of a distinct federal district for the nation's capital had been a topic of debate and contention among the Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, were key figures in the conflict over the location of the capital. Hamilton, a proponent of a strong central government, advocated for a northern location such as Philadelphia or New York City. Jefferson, on the other hand, favored a southern location, specifically Georgetown. Ultimately, a compromise was reached, with Jefferson agreeing to support Hamilton's financial plan and in turn, Hamilton supporting Jefferson's desired location further south, with the site along the Potomac River eventually chosen.

Early plans for Washington DC
Photo Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica / Early Plan by L'Enfant

(photo credit: Encyclopedia Britannica)

French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant was commissioned to design the city. L'Enfant envisioned a grand capital with wide avenues, public squares, and iconic buildings that would reflect the ideals of the young nation. His design incorporated grand vistas and symbolic features, including the Capitol building and the President's House, which would later become known as the White House. The city's unique layout, with its wide boulevards and neoclassical architecture, continues to be a symbol of American power and democracy.

Construction of the city began in 1791, with President Washington laying the cornerstone of the United States Capitol. The city's name, Washington D.C., honored George Washington, the first President of the United States. The decision to name the capital after Washington was not without controversy. Some argued that it was inappropriate to name the city after a living person, while others believed that the capital should be named after prominent figures from American history. Despite objections, the name Washington prevailed, honoring the man who played a pivotal role in the birth of the nation.

Benjamin Banneker, African American involved in design and surveying of early Washington DC
Photo Credit: Farmer's Almanac / Benjamin Banneker

For historical reference and accuracy, it is important to note that many enslaved African Americans were forced to work on various projects in the construction of our nation's capital, including the construction of public buildings, private residences, and infrastructure such as roads and canals. However, it is also worthy of note the contributions of Benjamin Banneker, an African American mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor. Banneker was deeply involved in the surveying of the boundaries of the federal district, working alongside French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant. His expertise and knowledge were instrumental in the accurate mapping and layout of the city.

In 1800, the federal government officially relocated to Washington D.C. from Philadelphia, marking a significant milestone in the city's history. The city grew rapidly in the following years, but faced numerous challenges, including financial constraints and logistical difficulties. The outbreak of the War of 1812 further disrupted the development of the city. In August 1814, during the war, British forces invaded Washington D.C., setting fire to several government buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. The destruction caused by the British troops left a lasting impact on the city, and it took several years to rebuild and restore the damaged structures.

Washington D.C. is home to many significant landmarks and institutions, some with an interesting back story:

Joseph Henry, instrumental in both the development of the Smithsonian and the invention of the telegraph
Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery / Joseph Henry

The Smithsonian Institution, a renowned complex of museums and research centers, owes its establishment to the efforts of Joseph Henry, who served as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Joseph Henry was an American scientist who made significant contributions to the fields of electromagnetism and physics, including his collaboration with Samuel Morse in the development of the telegraph. While Samuel Morse is widely credited with the invention of telegraph, without Henry's contribution, it may never have happened.

Another noteworthy figure tied to the city is Jefferson Davis, who later became the President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. Before his involvement in the Confederate government, Davis served as the Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. During his tenure, he oversaw the expansion and renovation of the United States Capitol building, leaving an indelible mark on the iconic structure that stands as a symbol of American democracy.

MLK's "I have a dream" speech on the National Mall in DC
Photo Credit: / MLK "I have a dream" speech

L'Enfant's plan included a long, open stretch of land between the Capitol building and the Potomac River, which would serve as a grand promenade and ceremonial avenue. This area would become the National Mall, a monumental open space that would connect the various branches of government and serve as a platform for national events, celebrations, gatherings, and even protests by a young nation's population. March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was one of the most iconic protests in American history, the civil rights demonstration organized by a coalition of civil rights, labor, and religious groups. It was during this event that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, advocating for racial equality and justice.

The Washington Monument remains unfinished on the inside due to a lack of funds and design disputes. But the challenges run much deeper. The Monument's construction began in 1848 but faced numerous challenges along the way, including the outbreak of the Civil War. However, an unexpected controversy arose during the late 19th century that threatened to derail the project completely. A fringe political group known as the Know-Nothing Party, which opposed immigration and was hostile towards Catholicism, gained prominence and influence. They saw the Washington Monument as a symbol of internationalism and sought to halt its construction. In 1854, members of the Know-Nothing Party took control of the Washington National Monument Society and attempted to block further funding for the monument and spread negative sentiments about its construction. The Know-Nothings even went as far as to suggest converting the unfinished structure into a church or demolishing it altogether. Eventually, the Washington National Monument Society managed to regain control of the project, and construction resumed in 1876.

Burning of the White House by the British in 1814
Photo Credit:

The White House was not an official designation from its inception but gradually gained popularity and became the commonly used name for the presidential mansion. The building was initially referred to by various names, such as the "President's House," the "Executive Mansion," or simply the "President's Palace." The choice of a specific name for the residence was not a formal decision but rather evolved over time. The building was constructed using a pale-colored sandstone, and over the years, it acquired a weathered and whitish appearance. In 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces set fire to the White House, causing extensive damage. Following the reconstruction, the exterior was painted white as part of the restoration process, which further enhanced its distinctive appearance. The association of the building with the color white led to the adoption of the name "White House" to describe the President's residence.

The city's iconic landmarks, such as the Washington Monument and the Capitol, bear witness to the vision and determination of the individuals who shaped the nation. Perceptions of Washington D.C. have varied throughout history. It has been seen as both a symbol of democracy and a hotbed of political intrigue. President John F. Kennedy famously described it as a "city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm," capturing the mixed opinions about the city's character. The intricate tapestry of stories and figures associated with these landmarks adds depth and intrigue to the capital's narrative.

Arial view of modern day Washington DC
Photo Credit: BBC Travel

Did you know?

  • The French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who designed the layout of Washington D.C., faced payment disputes and was ultimately resigned from his position with the support of Thomas Jefferson? Despite not receiving full compensation for his work, L'Enfant's vision and design for the city have endured and continue to shape its character.

  • In 1901, the Senate formed the McMillan Commission, a team of architects and planners who updated the capital based largely on L'Enfant's original framework. They planned an extensive park system, and the Mall was cleared and straightened. Reclaimed land dredged from the river expanded the park to the west and south, making room for the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. The Commission's work finally created the famous green center and plentiful monuments of today's Washington.

  • The city's street layout was designed in a unique way. The lettered streets are reserved for diagonal avenues named after states, while the numbered streets run north-south. This distinctive grid-like pattern contributes to the city's recognizable layout.

  • The city's famous cherry blossom trees were a gift from Japan in 1912 as a symbol of friendship. Every spring, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is held to celebrate the blooming of these beautiful trees.

  • Washington D.C. is home to the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress. It holds more than 170 million items, including books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, and recordings.


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