Trumping the Triangle

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For more than two centuries Washington has struggled to reconcile the lofty ideals of the national capital with the quotidian dealings of a contested city. No site reveals these tensions more fully than the Federal Triangle.

In July 1790 the U.S. Congress, meeting in its first session in Federal Hall in New York City, passed an act that would relocate the entire government to a wholly new city. The Residence Act authorized “that a district or territory, not exceeding ten miles square to be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomac” was to become the new capital city of the United States. The legislation charged the president to appoint commissioners to survey the new district; empowered the commissioners to purchase land “for the use of the United States” and to provide “suitable buildings for the accommodation of the Congress, and of the President, and for the public offices of the government”; and mandated that all this was to be accomplished within a decade, by the “first Monday in December, in the year one thousand eight hundred,” when the young nation would occupy its new seat of government. The next year Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French engineer who had served alongside American soldiers during the revolution and who was later the architect of Federal Hall, was appointed to design the capital city.

The history of the site reveals much about the political machinations and moral proclivities of the capital city constructed upon an expanse of swampy flats.

The famous plan that L’Enfant created laid out a prospective federal city with far greater ambition, even hubris, than would have seemed justified by the fledgling nation-state that was sponsoring it or the territory upon which it was located. “In the heavily forested river bottom, sparsely settled with modest plantation dwellings,” wrote the historian Frederick Gutheim, “L’Enfant envisioned a new kind of city suited to the American space and reflecting the conditions of its national growth.” Yet from the very beginning, the city’s leaders have struggled to create “a great and glorious city plan, ‘worthy of the nation’,” as Gutheim wrote. 1 Over the course of two centuries and in every era, including our own, Washington has been shaped by the tensions between federal aspirations and prosaic realities, between the grand ideals of the nation and the quotidian dealings of a contested and often corrupt city. There is perhaps no part of the capital that better reveals these tensions than the famous Federal Triangle. Located along the National Mall midway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, the dignified ensemble of governmental agencies and institutions might seem to have been part of the plan from the start. Yet it occupies a storied and controversial site that has seen many other, and very different, uses; a site whose history reveals much about the political machinations and moral proclivities of the capital city that was constructed upon an expanse of swampy flats.

1791: Plantation

The foundations of what would become the Federal Triangle and much of the National Mall rest upon the soil and toil of a slave plantation. The owner of the plantation was David Burnes, a disputatious third-generation Scottish-American who was none too happy about relinquishing his 600 acres of tobacco and corn to the disruptive ambitions of the fledgling capital city. “I am not minded to give up my farms,” was his terse reply to the representatives sent by President George Washington. He refused to sell his flatlands and hillocks until Washington, who called Burnes “the most obstinate man” he had ever met, personally intervened, threatening to take the plantation by force. As the historian Frances Carpenter Huntington wrote, “One unreasonable planter could not be allowed to spoil the plans of a whole nation.” At a tavern in Georgetown, in March 1791, Burnes, along with other area landowners, traded his acreage in exchange for what would soon become enormously valuable city lots. Later he would deploy his slaves to help cut down trees and clear land to make way for Pennsylvania Avenue. In retrospect Burnes was simply the first in a series of opportunistic property developers to profit from the site. By the time of his death, in 1799, Burnes’s daughter Marcia was being hailed as “the heiress of Washington City.” 2 A year later — right on schedule — the U.S. Congress would pack up and move from its temporary quarters in the interim capital of Philadelphia to the new city rising on the banks of the Potomac.

The very siting of the new seat of government was the result of land-based politics.

The very siting of the new seat of government was the result of land-based politics. In June 1790, Thomas Jefferson invited James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to dinner at the house he was renting on Maiden Lane, in New York City, then serving as the (first) temporary national capital as the newly convened Congress evaluated more than a dozen sites for a permanent capital city. Together they negotiated the famous “dinner table bargain” that would produce the Residence Act. (The evening’s negotiations were memorably set to music in Hamilton .) The new law traded northern acquiescence in a Virginia capital site for southern willingness to allow the federal government to assume the revolutionary war debt of the states. This north-south territorial bargain served to bind the union together at the national scale; it also set the stage for countless future land deals that would raise pointed questions about the vested interests of participants. George Washington himself owned more than one thousand Virginia acres within the designated area of the new capital, and his ward (the grandson of his wife) owned the large plantation that later became the site of Arlington National Cemetery. 4 Yet no matter his own financial upside, Washington prioritized the needs of the neophyte nation. The shrewd planter-president guarded against speculators bidding up land prices by keeping local property holders uncertain about the exact location of the new capital and its central districts. Washington urged two trusted associates to secretly buy up as much territory as possible under their own names, “so as to excite no suspicion that they are on behalf of the public.” 5 Then as now, real estate negotiations in the District of Columbia would balance pragmatic and localized self-interest against an idealized realm of democratic aspiration.

1792: Parcel

In 1792 the young federal government, which had by then relocated from New York to Philadelphia, hired the surveyor Andrew Ellicott to rework L’Enfant’s plan for Washington with the goal of straightening many of its lines and preparing the new district for development. L’Enfant had feared land speculation; his successor encouraged it. In his redrawn plan, Ellicott numbered every parcel to facilitate the selling of plots. The numbered parcels created countless properties, all imagined, with considerable optimism, to be highly marketable on the basis of some future prominence. Almost at the center of the city plan was a triangle containing fifteen numerically annotated blocks that lay between the hilly sites reserved for the “President’s House” and the “Congress House,” as these were called on the L’Enfant/Ellicott plan. The avenue that ran along the hypotenuse of the triangle was named “Pennsylvania” — a small yet telling recompense for the state’s brokered loss of the national capital. Forming the base of the triangle, the plan called for one of the Potomac tributaries, Tiber Creek, to be channeled into a “city canal” running parallel and just to the north of what would become the National Mall.

1802: Market

More than a century before the future Federal Triangle would accommodate the Department of Commerce and the Interstate Commerce Commission, it was the site of the district’s most important commercial building. Opened in 1801, the Center Market was designed by architect James Hoban, the Irish immigrant whose most famous project for the rising city was the White House. Jefferson himself, then in his first term, was a frequent early morning shopper, choosing perishables for the presidential larder while also systematically recording the first and last monthly appearances of 37 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Bordering the city canal that was part of L’Enfant’s grand plan, Center Market — dubbed Marsh Market due to its lowland site — grew in size and prominence throughout the 19th century. One corner, just outside Lloyd’s Tavern and the Steamboat Hotel, became infamous as the site of slave auctions, until the Compromise of 1850 banned the practice in the District of Columbia. 6

No matter the commercial vitality of Center Market, by the middle decades of the century, locals and visitors alike were bemoaning the squalid conditions of the marshy tract below Pennsylvania Avenue. By now L’Enfant’s city canal was little more than a pestilential open sewer, filled with garbage from the busy market and waste from nearby buildings. Elsewhere the triangle was littered with derelict coal yards and dilapidated housing. During the Civil War, escaped slaves (termed “contrabands of war”) squatted in shanties along the foul waterway. Gambling houses, brothels, and saloons crowded the streets and saw scenes of such violence that the area became known as Murder Bay. 7 As the Washington Post recalled, decades later, “The houses were for the most part mean and straggling, while the moral atmosphere was almost in accord with the condition of the town itself.”

Thieves and unprincipled men and women, as ready to cut a throat as pick a pocket, flourished and walked the streets in certain sections in open daylight, while at night they frequented the haunts of vice and selected their victims from among the unsophisticated without fear of law or justice. In those sections it was unsafe for any one with the slightest appearance of respectability to enter after nightfall. …. Washington was a wild and weird place.

1863: Hooker

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln charged General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, with protecting the capital. Soon his troops were such rowdy regulars at the bars and brothels across the city that Hooker sought to get a grip on the situation by concentrating houses of prostitution in the blocks between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall; and while historians agree the term was already in use, the double entendre proved irresistible and the area became known as “Hooker’s Division.” More than a century later, on the construction site of the Ronald Reagan Building/International Trade Center, archaeological excavations unearthed the detritus of the domestic trade that once flourished between C and D Streets: remnants of combs and garters; shards of glass bottles that had contained perfume, beer, and liquor; pharmaceutical jars labeled “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Bromo Seltzer, and Valentine’s Meat Juice, said to be a cure for ‘social diseases.’”

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