Washington DC's skyline is no chance of fate. Originally planned by French architect Pierre L'Enfant in 1791 and enhanced by the work of the McMillan Commission in 1901, city building restrictions limit structures to 160 feet in height, thus ensuring that the city's Baroque steeples, monuments and memorials, and classical domes create a visual statement.
DC was selected by then-President George Washington in 1790 as the site of the nation's capital, probably because of its proximity to his home Mount Vernon across the Potomac. While that's the short story on how the city site was selected, there was a lot more involved than Washington's decree: his selection was the culmination of years of political haggling while Congress discussed just where the new nation's capital city should go. Once the critical need for a permanent home for Congress was established (Congress had been operating in a nomadic fashion until that time, meeting across several different cities and even states), the general area around the Potomac River was chosen by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Maryland and Virginia agreed to cede the land to be a special federal district that was not part of any state but instead under federal ownership. The District of Columbia was established in 1891 and was ten miles square.
Washington then commissioned L'Enfant, a Revolutionary War soldier who served with Washington, to develop the city's design and to oversee its construction. Although L'Enfant's tenure on the job did not last long, much of his initial vision was retained and implemented, and the Washington DC of today is remarkably similar to L'Enfant's original sketch: the Capitol would be established at the center, from which would extend grand avenues radiating out into the city, originating from both the White House and house of Congress, known later as the Capitol Building. L'Enfant stressed the importance of open public spaces, space for monuments, fountains, and broad avenues lined with trees.
Unfortunately, L'Enfant's grand vision coupled with a haughty demeanor contributed to his demise: when a prominent landowner built a new manor house that obstructed one of L'Enfant's planned vistas, he demanded that it be demolished, and when the landowner refused, L'Enfant tore it down himself.
Washington reluctantly fired L'Enfant, and a map was then produced to record L'Enfant's plan. Construction proceeded slowly, and Congress and President John Adams officially moved from Philadelphia to DC in 1800. But the War of 1812 forced the federal government to flee the city, and in 1814, British forces burned the capital including the Presidential Mansion (not yet called the White House), the U.S. Capitol, the Arsenal, the Navy Yard, the Treasury Building, the War Office, and the bridge across the Potomac. It wasn't until 1819 that the buildings were restored, and Congress and then President James Monroe were able to move back in.
DC grew slowly in population over the next few decades until the Civil War when the federal government, its agencies, and military expanded to meet the challenges of the war, and the city doubled in population from 60,000 to 120,000. Interestingly, DC abolished slavery on April 16, 1862, a full eight months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Just before the war's end, President Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, the first president in the nation's history to be assassinated.
The post Civil War years saw a boom in the growth the city and public works. In the early 1880s, the old Washington Canal, which had served as a major transport artery, was filled in, no longer needed because of the expansion of railroads. In 1988, the Washington Monument was completed, the tallest structure in the world at that time. By the early 1900s, a new urban plan, the McMillan Commission, informed three decades of city renovation and beautification, including a return of the National Mall to L'Enfant's original plan of a broad, tree-lined avenue and landscaped public space, as well as the construction of the Lincoln Memorial, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court building.
A century after L'Enfant's original vision, Washington DC was finally becoming a grand capital city. The two world wars again resulted in a population explosion, as government and military grew, and the New Deal program was established during the Great Depression. By 1950, the population peaked at 800,000, after which the suburb population began a dramatic increase. By 1980, the metropolitan area had doubled, from 1.5 million in 1950 to more than three million.
Because DC is not a state, its municipality operates in stark contrast to every city in the U.S., but finally in 1961, the 23rd Constitutional Amendment gave District residents the right to vote in a presidential election. By 1970, they had a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, and in 1973, residents could finally elect local officials – a first in over 100 years.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the capital city has experienced its share of poverty and urban decay, along with other U.S. cities. In the past two decades, however, several neighborhoods have benefited from a wide range of public and privately-funded restoration projects. Once-seedy areas are now attracting new residents, businesses, and retail establishments.