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Houses of Government

This is a post by Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

225 years ago this month, on October 13, 1792, the cornerstone of what we now call the White House was laid. The term “White House,” although not its official name, was commonly used to refer to the President’s House or Executive Mansion. President Theodore Roosevelt formally adopted the term “White House” in 1901.

So how did the White House and the United States Capital come to be located along the banks of the Potomac River? It is an interesting story which, of course, is best illustrated with maps.

In July, 1790, the First United States Congress, then sitting in New York, passed the Residence Act, which formally established Philadelphia as the Nation’s Capital from 1790 to 1799 and, beginning in 1800, a site along the Potomac River was to be fixed as the new and permanent seat of government.

This new site, at the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch (or Anacostia) rivers, was chosen by then President George Washington. The site was approximately fourteen miles upstream from Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington, and only 7 miles upstream from Alexandria, the city that Washington helped to establish in 1749.

A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven. Map by George Washington, 1749. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

“A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven.” George Washington, 1749. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Once the new site was chosen, things started to move quickly. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington’s Secretary of State, prepared a design for the future city in 1791, as seen below.

"Proclamation of Federal District with Map." Thomas Jefferson, 1791. Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“Proclamation of Federal District with Map.” Thomas Jefferson, 1791. Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

At nearly the same time, Washington and Jefferson engaged the services of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French born city planner and architect, to survey the site and prepare a plan of the city. L’Enfant arrived in Georgetown in March 1791 and, over the course of a year, produced a remarkable city plan that rivaled the great cities of Europe. Along the way, however, L’Enfant’s irascible nature angered powerful city officials and President Washington was forced to fire him in 1792.

"Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States." Pierre Charles L'Enfant. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. [Image optimized for readability]

“Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States.” Pierre Charles L’Enfant, 1791. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. [Image optimized for readability]

The work of finishing the city plan fell to Andrew Ellicott  who produced the  the map seen below which was published in Philadelphia in 1792.  The map’s main purpose was to identify lots for purchase in order to promote settlement.

"Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia." Andrew Ellicott, 1792. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

“Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia.” Andrew Ellicott, 1792. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

L’Enfant’s original design for the city set the location for the two most important buildings in the new city: the “President’s House” and the “Congress House.” Additionally, L’Enfant included a canal in the original city plan that ran from the Potomac River to the “Congress House” and then south to the Navy Yard. The canal was instrumental in moving goods, including stone to build the government buildings, into the new city. Following L’Enfant’s dismissal, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson made alterations to the original plan, which were brought to light in a detailed examination of the original plan in 1990. A few of these changes included changing the spelling of “Potowmac” to “Potomac” and changing the name of the “Congress House” to the “Capitol,” which can be seen in the computer-assisted reproduction of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s map below.

"Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States." Computer-assisted reproduction of L'Enfant's 1791 manuscript plan for the city of Washington. Library of Congress, 1991. Geography and Map Division.

“Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States.” Computer-assisted reproduction of L’Enfant’s 1791 manuscript plan for the city of Washington. Library of Congress, 1991. Geography and Map Division.

In November, 1800, by the time the new Congress opened its first session in the new Capital, the White House and the United States Capitol Building, as well as other government offices were well under construction.

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