Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, the District, or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States, founded on July 16, 1790. The City of Washington was originally a separate municipality within the Territory of Columbia until an act of Congress in 1871 effectively merged the City and the Territory into a single entity called the District of Columbia. It is for this reason that the city, while legally named the District of Columbia, is known as Washington, D.C. The city is located on the north bank of the Potomac River and is bordered by the states of Virginia to the southwest and Maryland to the other sides. The District has a resident population of 591,833; however, because of commuters from the surrounding suburbs, its population rises to over one million during the workweek. The Washington Metropolitan Area, of which the District is a part, has a population of 5.3 million, the eighth-largest metropolitan area in the country.
Article One of the United States Constitution provides for a federal district, distinct from the states, to serve as the permanent national capital. The centers of all three branches of the federal government of the United States are located in the District, as are many of the nation”s monuments and museums. Washington, D.C., hosts 173 foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The headquarters of other institutions such as trade unions, lobbying groups, and professional associations are also located in the District.
The United States Congress has supreme authority over Washington, D.C.; residents of the city therefore have less self-governance than residents of the states. The District has a non-voting at-large Congressional delegate, but no senators. D.C. residents could not vote in presidential elections until the ratification of the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1961. If Washington, D.C. were a state, it would rank last in area (behind Rhode Island), second-to-last in population (ahead of Wyoming), first in population density, 35th in gross state product, and first in percentage of African Americans, which would make Washington, D.C., a minority-majority state.
An Algonquian people known as the Nacotchtank inhabited the area around the Anacostia River where Washington now lies when the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century; however, Native American people had largely relocated from the area by the early 18th century. Georgetown was chartered by the Province of Maryland on the north bank of the Potomac River in 1751. The town would be included within the new federal territory established nearly 40 years later. The City of Alexandria, Virginia, founded in 1749, was also originally included within the District.
James Madison expounded the need for a federal district on January 23, 1788, in his “Federalist No. 43”, arguing that the national capital needed to be distinct from the states in order to provide for its own maintenance and safety. An attack on the Congress at Philadelphia by a mob of angry soldiers, known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, had emphasized the need for the government to see to its own security. Therefore, the authority to establish a federal capital was provided in Article One, Section Eight, of the United States Constitution, which permits a “District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States”. The Constitution does not, however, specify a location for the new capital. In what later became known as the Compromise of 1790, Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson came to an agreement that the federal government would assume war debt carried by the states, on the condition that the new national capital would be located in the South.
On July 16, 1790, the Residence Act provided for a new permanent capital to be located on the Potomac River, the exact area to be selected by President Washington. As permitted by the U.S. Constitution, the initial shape of the federal district was a square, measuring 10 miles (16 km) on each side, totaling 100 square miles (260 km2). During 1791–92, Andrew Ellicott and several assistants, including Benjamin Banneker, surveyed the border of the District with both Maryland and Virginia, placing boundary stones at every mile point; many of the stones are still standing. A new “federal city” was then constructed on the north bank of the Potomac, to the east of the established settlement at Georgetown. On September 9, 1791, the federal city was named in honor of George Washington, and the district was named the Territory of Columbia, Columbia being a poetic name for the United States in use at that time. Congress held its first session in Washington on November 17, 1800.
The Organic Act of 1801 officially organized the District of Columbia and placed the entire federal territory, including the cities of Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria, under the exclusive control of Congress. Further, the unincorporated territory within the District was organized into two counties: the County of Washington to the east of the Potomac and the County of Alexandria to the west. Following this Act, citizens located in the District were no longer considered residents of Maryland or Virginia, thus ending their representation in Congress.
On August 24–25, 1814, in a raid known as the Burning of Washington, British forces invaded the capital during the War of 1812, in retaliation for the sacking and burning of York (modern-day Toronto). The Capitol, Treasury, and White House were burned and gutted during the attack. Most government buildings were quickly repaired, but the Capitol, which was at the time largely under construction, would not be completed until 1868.
Since 1800, the District”s residents have protested their lack of voting representation in Congress. To correct this, various proposals have been offered to return the land ceded to form the District back to Maryland and Virginia. This process is known as retrocession. However, such efforts failed to earn enough support until the 1830s when the District”s southern county of Alexandria went into economic decline due to neglect by Congress. Alexandria was also a major market in the American slave trade, and rumors circulated that abolitionists in Congress were attempting to end slavery in the District; such an action would have further depressed Alexandria’s economy. Unhappy with Congressional authority over Alexandria, in 1840 the people began to petition for the retrocession of the District”s southern territory back to Virginia. The state legislature complied in February 1846, partly because the return of Alexandria provided two additional pro-slavery delegates to the Virginia General Assembly. On July 9, 1846, Congress agreed to return all the District”s territory south of the Potomac River back to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Confirming the fears of pro-slavery Alexandrians, the Compromise of 1850 outlawed the slave trade in the District, though not slavery itself. By 1860, approximately 80% of the city’s African American residents were free blacks. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 led to notable growth in the District’s population due to the expansion of the federal government and a large influx of freed slaves. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which ended slavery in the District of Columbia and freed about 3,100 enslaved persons, nine months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1870, the District’s population had grown to nearly 132,000. Despite the city’s growth, Washington still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation; the situation was so bad that some members of Congress proposed moving the capital elsewhere.
With the Organic Act of 1871, Congress created a new government for the entire federal territory. This Act effectively combined the City of Washington, Georgetown, and Washington County into a single municipality officially named the District of Columbia. Even though the City of Washington legally ceased to exist after 1871, the name continued in use and the whole city became commonly known as Washington, D.C. In the same Organic Act, Congress also appointed a Board of Public Works charged with modernizing the city. In 1873, President Grant appointed the board’s most influential member, Alexander Shepherd, to the new post of governor. That year, Shepherd spent $20 million on public works ($357 million in 2007), which modernized Washington but also bankrupted the city. In 1874, Congress abolished Shepherd’s office in favor of direct rule. Additional projects to renovate the city would not be executed until the McMillan Plan in 1901.
The District’s population remained relatively stable until the Great Depression in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation expanded the bureaucracy in Washington. World War II further increased government activity, adding to the number of federal employees in the capital; by 1950, the District”s population had reached a peak of 802,178 residents. The Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1961, granting the District three votes in the Electoral College.
After the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, riots broke out in the District, primarily in the U Street, 14th Street, 7th Street, and H Street corridors, centers of black residential and commercial areas. The riots raged for three days until over 13,000 federal and national guard troops managed to quell the violence. Many stores and other buildings were burned; rebuilding was not complete until the late 1990s.
In 1973, Congress enacted the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, providing for an elected mayor and city council for the District. In 1975, Walter Washington became the first elected and first black mayor of the District. However, during the later 1980s and 1990s, city administrations were criticized for mismanagement and waste. In 1995, Congress created the District of Columbia Financial Control Board to oversee all municipal spending and rehabilitate the city government. The District regained control over its finances in September 2001 and the oversight board’s operations were suspended.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and deliberately crashed the plane into the Pentagon in nearby Arlington, Virginia. United Airlines Flight 93, destined for Washington, D.C., crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers tried to recover control of the plane from hijackers.
Washington, D.C., is a planned city. The design for the City of Washington was largely the work of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French-born architect, engineer, and city planner who first arrived in the colonies as a military engineer with Major General Lafayette during the American Revolutionary War. In 1791, President Washington commissioned L’Enfant to plan the layout of the new capital city. L’Enfant’s plan was modeled in the Baroque style, which incorporated broad avenues radiating out from rectangles and circles, providing for open space and landscaping. In March 1792, President Washington dismissed L’Enfant due to his insistence on micromanaging the city’s planning, which had resulted in conflicts with the three commissioners appointed by Washington to supervise the capital’s construction. Andrew Ellicott, who had worked with L’Enfant surveying the city, was then commissioned to complete the plans. Though Ellicott made revisions to the original plans, including changes to some street patterns, L’Enfant is still credited with the overall design of the city. The City of Washington was bounded by what is now Florida Avenue to the north, Rock Creek to the west, and the Anacostia River to the east.
By the start of the 20th century, L’Enfant’s vision of a capital with open parks and grand national monuments had become marred by slums and randomly placed buildings, including a railroad station on the National Mall. In 1900, Congress formed a joint committee, headed by Senator James McMillan, charged with beautifying Washington”s ceremonial core. What became known as the McMillan Plan was finalized in 1901. It included the re-landscaping of the Capitol grounds and the Mall, constructing new Federal buildings and monuments, clearing slums, and establishing a new citywide park system. Architects recruited by the committee kept the city”s original layout, and their work is thought to be the grand completion of L”Enfant”s intended design.
After the construction of the twelve-story Cairo Apartment Building in 1899, Congress passed the Heights of Buildings Act, which declared that no building could be taller than the Capitol. The Act was amended in 1910 to restrict building height to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet (6.1 m). Today the skyline remains low and sprawling, in keeping with Thomas Jefferson’s wishes to make Washington an “American Paris” with “low and convenient” buildings on “light and airy” streets. As a result, the Washington Monument remains the District”s tallest structure. However, Washington’s height restriction has been assailed as a primary reason why the city has limited affordable housing and traffic problems as a result of urban sprawl. To escape the District”s height restriction, taller buildings close to downtown are often constructed across the Potomac River in Rosslyn, Virginia.
The District is divided into four quadrants of unequal area: Northwest (NW), Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), and Southwest (SW). The axes bounding the quadrants radiate from the U.S. Capitol building. All road names include the quadrant abbreviation to indicate their location. In most of the city, the streets are set out in a grid pattern with east–west streets named with letters (e.g., C Street SW) and north–south streets with numbers (e.g., 4th Street NW). The avenues radiating from the traffic circles are primarily named after states; all 50 states are represented, as well as Puerto Rico and the District itself. Some Washington streets are particularly noteworthy, such as Pennsylvania Avenue, which connects the White House with the U.S. Capitol, and K Street, which houses the offices of many lobbying groups. Washington hosts 173 foreign embassies, 57 of which are located on a section of Massachusetts Avenue informally known as Embassy Row.
The architecture of Washington varies greatly. Six of the top 10 buildings in the American Institute of Architects” 2007 ranking of “America”s Favorite Architecture” are located in the District of Columbia, including: the White House; the Washington National Cathedral; the Thomas Jefferson Memorial; the United States Capitol; the Lincoln Memorial; and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The neoclassical, Georgian, gothic, and modern architectural styles are all reflected among those six structures and many other prominent edifices in Washington. Notable exceptions include buildings constructed in the French Second Empire style such as the Old Executive Office Building and Library of Congress.
Outside downtown Washington, architectural styles are even more varied. Historic buildings are designed primarily in the Queen Anne, Châteauesque, Richardsonian Romanesque, Georgian revival, Beaux-Arts, and a variety of Victorian styles. Rowhouses are especially prominent in areas developed after the Civil War and typically follow Federalist and late Victorian designs. Since Georgetown was established before the city of Washington, the neighborhood features the District’s oldest architecture. Georgetown’s Old Stone House was built in 1765, making it the oldest standing building in the city. The majority of current homes in the neighborhood, however, were not built until the 1870s and reflect late Victorian designs of the period. Founded in 1789, Georgetown University is more distinct from the neighborhood and features a mix of Romanesque and Gothic Revival architecture. The Ronald Reagan Building is the largest building in the District with a total area of approximately 3.1 million square feet (288,000 m2).
Historic sites and museums
The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004.
The National Mall is a large, open park area in the center of the city. Located in the center of the Mall is the Washington Monument. Also located on the mall are the Lincoln Memorial, the National World War II Memorial at the east end of the reflecting pool, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Albert Einstein Memorial. The National Archives houses thousands of documents important to American history including the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Located directly south of the mall, the Tidal Basin features rows of Japanese cherry blossom trees that were presented as gifts from the nation of Japan. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and the District of Columbia War Memorial are located around the Tidal Basin.
The Smithsonian Institution is an educational foundation chartered by Congress in 1846 that maintains most of the nation’s official museums and galleries in Washington, D.C. The U.S. government partially funds the Smithsonian, thus making its collections open to the public free of charge. The most visited of the Smithsonian museums in 2007 was the National Museum of Natural History located on the National Mall. Other Smithsonian Institution museums and galleries located on the mall are: the National Air and Space Museum; the National Museum of African Art; the National Museum of American History; the National Museum of the American Indian; the Sackler and Freer galleries, which both focus on Asian art and culture; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the Arts and Industries Building; the S. Dillon Ripley Center; and the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as “The Castle”), which serves as the institution”s headquarters.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (formerly known as the National Museum of American Art) and the National Portrait Gallery are located in the same building, the Donald W. Reynolds Center, near Washington”s Chinatown. The Reynolds Center is also known as the Old Patent Office Building. The Renwick Gallery is officially part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum but is located in a separate building near the White House. Other Smithsonian museums and galleries include: the Anacostia Community Museum in Southeast Washington; the National Postal Museum near Union Station; and the National Zoo in Woodley Park.
The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall near the Capitol, but is not a part of the Smithsonian Institution. It is instead wholly owned by the U.S. government; thus admission to the gallery is free. The gallery”s west wing features the nation”s collection of American and European art through the 19th century. The east wing, designed by architect I. M. Pei, features works of modern art. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are often confused with the National Gallery of Art when they are in fact entirely separate institutions. The National Building Museum, located near Judiciary Square, was chartered by Congress and hosts temporary and traveling exhibits.
There are many private art museums in the District of Columbia, which house major collections and exhibits open to the public such as: the National Museum of Women in the Arts; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the largest private museum in Washington; and The Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle, the first museum of modern art in the United States. Other private museums in Washington include the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, the National Geographic Society museum, and the Marian Koshland Science Museum. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum located near the National Mall maintains exhibits, documentation, and artifacts related to the Holocaust.
Washington, D.C. has ten official sister city agreements. Paris is a “Partner City” due to the one Sister City policy of that commune.