Thursday, October 17, 2013
This is what we used to be:
Let's date this photo to 1879. What are we looking at? This is a photo probably taken from the top of the Smithsonian Castle (begun 1847, completed 1855). You can see the curve of yet-to-be-named Jefferson Drive SW at center-bottom. The view is looking west. The tree-lined road across the bottom of the photo is 12th Street SW.
The building to the left is the original Department of Agriculture building, begun August 2, 1867, and completed September 1, 1868. The brick building was designed by legendary D.C. architect Adolph Cluss (the "Red Architect", for both his socialist political views and his love of red brick). The circular structure and white pathways to the right (north) of the Agriculture building are its botanical gardens, built from 1867 to 1879.
The tree-lined roadway just visible mid-photo is 14th Street SW.
Beyond that is the unfinished Washington Monument. Since the botanical gardens are complete, the earliest this image could have been taken is 1879. Construction is clearly going on at the Monument, on which construction also began (again) in 1879 after nearly a half-century hiatus. But since only a little work has been done, it must be very early in the construction process. This allows us to date the work to 1879 (possibly 1880, but no later surely).
Beyond the Monument is the Potomac River. Yes, kiddies, that's the original shoreline. Nothing of the National Mall existed west of the Monument or south of Constitution Avenue (then known as B Street).
The big pond-like body of water to the right (north) of the Monument is the outlet of Tiber Creek. The creek once ran roughly from Union Station southwest to Constitution Avenue, and then along Constitution Avenue to this big tidal inlet. (B Street at the time was about half as wide as it is today. You can see the narrow, tree-lined road running diagonally on the right side of the photograph and terminating at 17th Street. It wouldn't be widened and extended until they built Arlington Memorial Bridge, and it was completed about 1933.)
Notice how a construction causeway has been built across Tiber Creek's inlet.
Beyond that is the Potomac. We know that this photo had to be taken prior to 1881, because that's the year the Corps of Engineers began filling in the Tiber Creek tidal inlet and extending the shoreline west and south to form the land we have today. (All this land is somewhat hilly. On purpose: It forms a levee so that the Potomac can't flood downtown any more.)