The following is a guest post by Ryan Brubacher, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division. Ryan joined the reference section in March 2017
As a new arrival to the Library, Washington D.C. and the East Coast in general, there is a lot to take in from all corners as I settle. An overwhelming amount of material in the Prints & Photographs Division, a Metro system to navigate, and a different kind of weather to acclimate to, all present their challenges. With the commuting routine under my belt, some wardrobe additions, a new umbrella, and a few weeks at the Library behind me, I was eager to dive in when a conversation with a researcher led me to look into the L’Enfant Plan. I’d heard of Pierre Charles L’Enfant and understood the design for the plan of D.C. to be unique (and I’d gone up and down the escalators at L’Enfant Plaza to change trains), but I didn’t know any details, or have an idea what our collections might hold.
I anticipated that items designated as maps or plans and textual materials may not be in our collection, so I first searched the Library-wide search system to see which divisions held relevant materials, in addition to books in the general collections.
One of the great treasures of the Geography and Maps Division, I learned, is L’Enfant’s original plan for the capital.
Other parts of the Library also have materials that offer historical insights, including correspondence and other documents in the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and L’Enfant, among others, that are in the Manuscript Division.
A trove of information also awaited me in the Prints & Photographs Division. Among the many results that turned up in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog when I searched for L’Enfant plan was a record for the L’Enfant-McMillan Plan that describes multiple types of related materials. I noted the “HABS/HAER/HALS” designation on the thumbnail icon beside the listing.
After selecting the record, I was struck by how much more information it contained than I was used to seeing.
With encouragement from veteran staff who know the HABS records are rich with information, I delved into a whole new adventure in understanding the vast collection of the Historic American Building Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, and Historic American Landscape Survey, (“HABS/HAER/HALS” for short). Since 1933, ongoing programs of the National Park Service have recorded America’s built environment in these multiformat surveys, and the material is made available through cooperative agreements with the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, and the private sector.
Selecting from the icons for the different formats lined up on the left-hand side of the record, I first explored the photographs in the HABS survey for the L’Enfant McMillan Plan.
And I pored over the drawings.
Anatomy of a HABS record
Photographs: The set of photographs from when the survey was completed – this can include both contemporaneous photographs as well as those collected from other sources during the course of the survey.
Drawings: When relevant, includes plans and schematics, etc.
Data pages: Not as dull as it sounds, this is generally a longer history of the building or project written by HABS historians, including a significant bibliography. The data pages also have administrative information about the survey and who completed the work.
Photo Captions: Most of these are in the records for the individual digitized images, but this pdf includes the captions and extra information about dates and the survey photographers.
My favorite part of this research adventure turned out to be the data pages for the L’Enfant-McMillan Plan, which offer 95 pages of tantalizing district history.
I learned the whole juicy story of L’Enfant and George Washington, his fiery temper and pure vision, his fall to relative obscurity and the issues that plagued the project and District for most of the 19th century. The report details later efforts to uphold or extend the ideals of the original plan, leading up to and including the McMillan Commission and creation of the Commission of Fine Arts. It concludes with a review of 20th century developments and a look to the future. Highlights for me include the origin of the landscaped green space between sidewalk and street in D.C., introduced in the 1870s; the evolution of the height restriction – first set by George Washington, suspended by Monroe, and then made public law in 1910; the ideas of George Burnap differentiating between meandering paths of residential parks versus the need for “passing-through” and “passing-around” parks in the urban center; and the controversy of the Convention Center and other developments in management of the city following the signing of the Home Rule Act by Nixon in 1973.
With all of that background I was much more prepared to understand the order of the various versions of the original L’Enfant plan, as well as the names and roles of people I found in the 200+ year history of the plans. I’m also in a better position to steer researchers who share my curiosity about L’Enfant’s plan, whether to the many nooks and crannies of our Prints and Photographs Division holdings, to intriguing materials in other divisions, or to a nice green space to have a rest and enjoy the vistas of the Capitol’s historic core.
- Explore the HABS documentation for the L’Enfant-McMillan Plan, including the photos, drawings, and content-rich data pages.
- Read more about the original L’Enfant plan in the Library of Congress Geography & Maps: An Illustrated Guide chapter on the division’s special collections and find out what hyperspectral imaging revealed about the plan (Library of Congress Information Bulletin, January/February 2010).
- There are lots of materials in P&P to get you started on your own L’Enfant-inspired investigation into the history of the District of Columbia:
- Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston was based in Washington, D.C., for much of her life and took photographs around the time the McMillan Commission was making its proposal, including this photo of people at work on a McMillan Commission model (right).
- View HABS/HAER/HALS surveys for the District of Columbia, and learn more about the collection. (And if your interests lie beyond the District of Columbia, explore the many other locations documented in the surveys!)
- Have a look at Researching Historic Washington, D.C., Buildings , which guides you through some of the major P&P collections and offers resources and tips for searching.