The Only Constant in the Nation’s Capital is Change!

If you have ever visited Washington, D.C., one of the most striking features of the city is the National Mall and the area surrounding it.  If you stand in the middle of the mall and look due east, you will find yourself facing the stately white dome of the Capitol Building.  From there, if you spin slowly to your right, your gaze will pass over the fluid lines of the National Museum of the American Indian, and on to the glass-enclosed National Air and Space Museum.   Keep turning and you will find yourself admiring the timeless elegance of the Smithsonian Castle, the Washington Monument, and the newest addition to the National Mall, National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Next on this visual tour is the Museum of American History, the familiar green dome of the Museum of Natural History, the twin buildings that make up the National Galleries of Art, and finally back around to the Capital Building.  On a spring day, with the cherries in bloom, it is a breathtaking sight, and, one that we might be tempted to think has looked that way forever.

But, has it really looked that way forever?

When you work day in, day out with maps as I do, you can sometimes find yourself playing a sort of compare and contrast game with chronological series of maps.  What appears on a given map from the 1940s that wasn’t there in the last one from the 1930s?  What do you mean that this major thoroughfare (or intersection) is a new addition?  Hasn’t it always been like that?  Surely that building has been right there for as long as anyone can remember?  Hasn’t it?  And certainly a place as iconic as the National Mall has always looked mostly like it does now?

In short, the answer is “no”.  The oldest of the buildings previously mentioned is the United States Capitol Building which began construction in 1793, with the dome being finished in 1866.  The next oldest building mentioned is the Smithsonian Castle (1855), followed by the Washington Monument (1884).  And, if we fast forward, the most recent addition to the mall is the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016).

A look at three maps that can be found in the holdings of the Cartographic Branch located at Archive II, reveal that the years spanning 1863 to 1941 saw quite a bit of change to the layout of the familiar area surrounding the Mall.   How many differences can you spot in the three maps?

The first, and oldest of the maps, “Map of Washington, DC, 1863”, comes from RG 23: Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1806-1981 (NAID 7369036).  Notably absent from this map are both Constitution and Independence Avenues and notice how close to the Washington Monument the Potomac River Flows.  Also of note on this map, the structure currently known as the “White House” is here named the “President’s House” and the National Mall area has no designation at all.

RG 23: Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1806-1981 (NAID 7369036). Map of Washington, DC, 1863.

 

The second map, “New Map of Washington, District of Columbia, 1909” takes us forward a bit in time.  Nestled within RG 77: War Department Map Collection, 1789-1999 (NAID 103396603), this map of Washington D.C., begins to look a tiny bit more familiar, though we are not yet to the Mall that we recognize today.  The two avenues previously mentioned are still missing, but the area that will eventually come to be known as “The National Mall” has now been broken into three separate areas, with three separate names!  Once again, the future White House as a new name and the flow of the Potomac has been visibly altered.

RG 77: War Department Map Collection, 1789-1999 (NAID 103396603). New Map of Washington, District of Columbia, 1909.

Our final map, “Proposed Plan for the Development of Central Washington, DC West and East of the Capitol, 1941” comes from RG 328: Records of the National Capitol and Planning Commission, 1900-2000 (NAID 5928303).  Now, we have a map is that recognizable and, admittedly, quite colorful!

RG 328: Records of the National Capitol and Planning Commission, 1900-2000 (NAID 5928303). Proposed Plan for the Development of Central Washington, DC West and East of the Capitol, 1941.

If you liked these maps, take some time and browse the National Archives catalog for other maps related to Washington D.C.  Be sure to look in RG 92: Post and Reservation Maps, 1820 – 1905 or, if you like aerial photography, check out RG 328: Aerial Photography of Washington, D.C., 1930 – 1930!

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