The end of summer will soon be upon us, but before that comes let’s take a look back at another sunny summer day in Washington, D.C. some 88 years ago.
This summer day was captured in a short film called Dawn Strikes the Capitol Dome. This film was produced by Sydney MacKean, the head of the Motion Picture Records Division of the Works Progress Administration in 1935, but was not released to the public at the time because the division was dissolved before its release. The WPA was created during the Roosevelt administration to deal with the Great Depression that had been afflicting the nation for more than half a decade at that point.
Dawn Strikes the Capitol Dome is an artful depiction of the city of Washington D.C. that captures images of daily life throughout the city, giving us a portrait of the capitol and its residents in the mid 1930’s. With its rhythmic editing, a sweeping musical score and almost poetic narration, the film seems to be less about the specific activities of the WPA and more of a call to arms against the Depression itself.
Stills from Dawn Strikes the Capitol Dome.
As a motion picture, Dawn Strikes the Capitol Dome is an example of the “City Symphony” style of documentary. City Symphony films seek to present a portrait of a city, focusing heavily on the lives and activities of the ‘ordinary citizens’ who live and work there. These films generally eschew narrative and are shot and edited in the style of a symphony, often using more ‘avant-garde’ film techniques.
Another aspect of “City Symphony” films is that since they capture a moment in the life of a city, these films can often be a filmed historical record of parts of the city that may no longer exist. Another prominent example of the City Symphony documentary, Walter Ruttmann’s 1928 film ‘Berlin, Symphony of a Great City’, features many parts of the city of Berlin that would not survive the coming World War.
In the case of Dawn Strikes the Capitol Dome, we see a number of things that haven’t been seen in the city of Washington D.C. for decades. For example, trolley cars are positively ubiquitous in the film, but they disappeared from the streets of D.C. in 1963 (until their recent, modest revival in 2017). The film also shows a segregated swimming pool that used to be on the National Mall underneath the Washington Monument, as well as a golf course that was just south of the current Korean War Memorial site.
D.C. residents should feel free to share any other sites in the film that catch their attention, either sites that are no longer there or sites that still exist today.
Unfortunately there are no credits for the film, so it is not currently known who else worked on the film. Some information on the film can be found in Jennifer Zwarich’s dissertation Federal Films: Bureaucratic Activism and the U.S. Government Motion Picture Initiative, 1901-1941. But the film also stands on its own as a valuable record of life in the nation’s capital in the 1930’s.
You may watch the complete film below:
 Jennifer Zwarich, “Federal Films: Bureaucratic Activism and the U.S. Government Motion Picture Initiative, 1901-1941.” (PhD diss.,New York University, 2014), 288.