Washington consists of territory on the Potomac River ceded to the federal government by the states of Maryland and Virginia in 1788 and 1789. Designed by Pierre L'Enfant, Washington became the capital of the United States in 1800. In the War of 1812 it was captured by the British and most of the public buildings were destroyed. The main buildings had to be rebuilt including the White House (1817).
Washington consists of an area of 61.4 square miles and houses a population of 529,000 (1997). It is now the legislative, administrative and judicial centre of the United States.
(1) Carl Schurz first visited Washington in 1854. He described the city in his autobiography published in 1906.
My first impressions of the political capital of the great American Republic were rather dismal. Washington looked at that period like a big, sprawling village, consisting of scattered groups of houses which were overtopped by a few public buildings - the Capitol, only what is now the central part was occupied, as the two great wings in which the Senate and the House of Representatives now sit were still in the process of construction; the Treasury, the two wings of which were still lacking; the White House; and the Patent Office, which also harbored the Department of the Interior. The departments of State, of War, and of the Navy were quartered in small, very insignificant looking houses which might have been the dwelling of some well-to-do shopkeepers. There was not one solidly built-up street in the whole city - scarcely a block without gaps of dreary emptiness.
(2) In 1862 Henry Villard visited Washington. He wrote about the city in his Memoirs: Journalist and Financier (1904)
Washington had changed greatly since I last saw it in August, 1861. Owing to the increase of the regular Givernment officials by many thousands, because of the vast growth of the public business in connection with the war, the population had nearly doubled. At the time of my departure, dozens of stores on the business thoroughfares and hundreds of residences were to rent for a mere song. Now, not a building of either class was unoccupied, and a high rents were asked and readily obtained.
(3) Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960)
We were told that Washington, like New York, is very untypical of American cities. Yet we couldn't help feeling that much of what was best in America was concentrated here in the capital and was represented by this bright, sincere group of liberals. They had little of the automatic cynicism, the inevitable wisecrack come-back of the New Yorkers; at the same time, they were far from being the dreamy-eyed, muddle-headed idealists portrayed by almost all the press. They were
doers of deeds, planners of projects, and above all translators of their country's principles and ideals into real life.
(4) Rosalind Franklin, letter to her parents (August 1954)
It is beautifully laid out, with vast green spaces, trees lining most streets, no skyscrapers, and a high standard of architecture. There is a large district, Georgetown, reminiscent of the best of old Hampstead, with the difference that the buildings are bright and clean, built on a hill above the Potomac river, in a good pinkish-red brick, with white plaster. Immediately outside Washington and even running nearly into the centre, also, are extensive woods in their natural state open to all.