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Washington City: paradise of paradoxes

By John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood


The Washington of April 1861—also commonly known as “Washington City”—was a compact town. Due to the cost of draining marshy land and the lack of reliable omnibus service, development was focused around Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and White House. When the equestrian statue of George Washington was dedicated at Washington Circle in 1860, its location—three-quarters of a mile west of the White House, where Twenty-Third Street intersects Pennsylvania Avenue—was described as out of town. Several blocks north of the White House, at L Street, the land was countryside. “Go there, and you will find yourself not only out of town, away among the fields,” wrote English novelist Anthony Trollope in his travel account, North America, after his 1861 visit, “but you will find yourself beyond the fields, in an uncultivated, undrained wilderness.” A writer for the Atlantic Monthly, writing in January 1861, deemed Washington a “paradise of paradoxes,” foremost because it was both “populous” and “uninhabited” at once. Noting another paradox, he observed that the capital was ‘[d]efenceless, as regards walls, redoubts, moats, or other fortifications”—though the only party to “lay siege” to the city of late were the unyielding onslaught of politicians and office seekers, not soldiers.

Travelers arriving from northern cities caught a glimpse of the city’s grandeur and squalor as their train pulled into the B & O Station at the foot of Capitol Hill. “I looked out and saw a vast mass of white marble towering above us on the left . . . surmounted by an unfinished cupola, from which scaffold and cranes raised their black arms. This was the Capitol,” wrote Times of London correspondent William Russell, who arrived in Washington at the end of March 1861. “To the right was a cleared space of mud, sand, and fields, studded with wooden sheds and huts, beyond which, again, could be seen rudimentary streets of small red brick houses, and some church-spires above them.”

From the B & O Station, most carriages and hacks headed westward down Pennsylvania Avenue, the city’s main artery. The Avenue was the traditional route for grand parades between the Capitol and the White House, and by the mid-nineteenth-century, its north side was the location for the city’s finest hotels and shops. Yet many visitors, particularly those from leading cities like New York or London, were unimpressed by its pretensions to grandeur, and found the cityscape a formless jumble. Pennsylvania Avenue, observed Russell, was “a street of much breadth and length, lined with ailanthus trees . . . and by the most irregularly-built houses [and commercial buildings] in all kinds of materials, from deal plank to marble—of all heights.”

At the corner of Fourteenth Street, one block before Pennsylvania Avenue made its northward turn at the Treasury before continuing west past the White House, stood Willard’s Hotel. The hotel, favored by Republican Party leaders, was the center of Washington’s social and business life under the new administration. Willard’s contained “more scheming, plotting, planning heads, more aching and joyful hearts, than any building of the same size ever held in the world,” according to Russell. Because Willard’s attracted Washington residents and guests at other hotels, every public room was thronged—the “smoking room, the bar, the barber’s, the reception-room, the ladies’ drawing room”—while 2,500 people dined there each day. Nathaniel Hawthorne observed that Willard’s could be “much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department.”

For all the magnificence of the government buildings like the newly enlarged Capitol and the grand private homes north of the White House, Washington was a surprisingly backward city, even by the standards of its day. Unlike Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, Washington lacked an up-to-date municipal water supply and sewer system, and residents were plagued by cholera and yellow fever. Municipal garbage collection was infrequent, so in wet weather streets became a noxious stew of mud, manure, and garbage. In dry weather, the streets were dusty rutted pathways. If there was a wind up, the dust would be blown into people’s faces, clothes, homes, and lungs. The garbage-filled canals, within a few blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House gave off a stench in warm weather, and were the breeding grounds for the flies and mosquitoes already all too common in the marshy landscape. Thus, for many, the capital was at best a pestilential swamp, dotted with signs of a future grandeur that never seemed to take hold—the “City of Magnificent Intentions” of Dickens’s famous description.

John Lockwood is the National Mall Historian and Charles Lockwood is the author of ten books, having written extensively on the subjects of architecture and cities. They are the authors of The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union.

Read their “Disunion” essays for the New York Times:

Confederates at the Gate –   State of Siege –   Letters to New York

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