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Maps: Sites of Liberty

  Introduction | Boston | Philadelphia | District of Columbia

District of Columbia

Map of District of Columbia The city of Washington, in the District of Columbia, is created as the new nation's capital. It will be named after Revolutionary hero and first president George Washington in 1791, during his first term in office. East bank of the Potomac River Georgetown President's House site U.S. Capitol site President's House

John Adams is not involved in the construction details, as are Virginians Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yet Adams will become the first Chief Executive to live there.

East bank of the Potomac River
July 1790

Choosing the Nation's Capital

Site of Washington, D.C., seen from Georgetown.

View of the Potomac River, 1801.
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In fall 1789, Congress debates where to locate the permanent capital. Many try to claim the prize for their state, arguing that it should be near the nation's center of population, or the center of wealth, or the center of the territory.

In July 1790 the Residence Act becomes law. The government will meet in Philadelphia until December 1800. Then it will move to the new federal city, located within a district "on the River Potowmack" at the Virginia/Maryland border.

We are about founding a City which will be one of the first in the World, and We are governed by local and partial Motives.
-- John Adams, September 23, 1789

Read more on the Massachusetts Historical Society Web site.

March 9, 1791

The L'Enfant Plan

L'Enfant's dotted line survey map of the federal city, 1791.

L'Enfant's plan in an early stage, before August 1791.
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Frenchman Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a friend of George Washington, offers to design the Federal City. He envisions that one day 800,000 people will live and work on the unpromising swampland. He produces a majestic urban plan with tree-lined avenues, a regular street grid, and open space for parks, monuments, and fountains.

By March 1792, L'Enfant will be off the job, after conflict with the three District commissioners, who want to start selling the land.

Having the beauty, and regularity of your Plan only in view, you pursue it as if every person, and thing was obliged to yield to it; whereas the Commissioners have many circumstances to attend to, some of which, perhaps, may be unknown to you...
-- George Washington, in a letter to L'Enfant, December 2, 1791

Read more on the Massachusetts Historical Society Web site.

President's House site

Designing the President's House

Architectural plan of the President's House, 1807.

Latrobe's White House plan, 1807.
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Irish-born architect James Hoban wins a 1792 competition to design the president's house. Its site is just 16 miles from President George Washington's Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon.

The builders use local stone: hard, metamorphic rock from Maryland for the foundation, and Virginia sandstone for the rest. The grayish sandstone is coated with whitewash. In 1807, architect Benjamin Latrobe will design improvements for the mansion.

The President and Presidentess always send their Regards to you. Madam invites you to come next Summer to Mount Vernon and visit the Federal City.
-- John Adams in a letter to Abigail Adams, December 28, 1795

Read more on the Massachusetts Historical Society Web site.

U.S. Capitol site

Thornton's Capitol

Watercolor view of the U.S. Capitol, 1806.

The U.S. Capitol, c. 1806.
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L'Enfant reserves a prime spot, Jenkins Hill, for the federal legislature. No winner is chosen in a 1792 Capitol design competition. Instead, George Washington picks a late offering from self-taught architect William Thornton.

Some, including architect Stephen Hallet, criticize Thornton's design as expensive and impractical. Washington asks Hallet to revise the plan and start construction. The famous iron dome will not be added until the Civil War era.

[Thornton] should... be informed of all the objections to, and observations on [his plan]. ...He will readily see the propriety of a change which will bring the Building within the compass of our means and time.
-- George Washington to James Hoban and Stephen Hallet, July 1, 1793

Read more on the Massachusetts Historical Society Web site.

President's House
November 1800

First Resident President

Print showing President John Adams.

Drawing of President John Adams, 1799.
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John Adams and his wife Abigail become the first First Couple to live in the President's House, which soon will be nicknamed the "White House" (although it will not get that name officially until 1901).

Adams will live on Pennsylvania Avenue for just three months, until his rival, Thomas Jefferson, takes office as the nation's third president in March 1801.

I like the Seat of Government very well and shall Sleep, or lie awake next Winter in the Presidents house.
-- John Adams, June 13, 1800

Read more on the Massachusetts Historical Society Web site.

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