Washington, DC History

It is hard to believe, but the land on which Washington, DC’s elegant National Mall and its stately buildings stand was once a marshy swamp. George Washington created this special district as a federal power hub to avoid the problem of establishing the capital city in any one state.

Its strategic location, with accessibility to the sea via the Potomac River and between the South and the North, made it an attractive site. Originally designed by the French architect Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, Washington is a city of green parks, wide tree-lined streets and very few skyscrapers, all of which give it a European air.

Washington, DC is very much a purpose-built capital with grand buildings (such as the White House and the US Capitol) and impressive monuments (the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, to name but two). Congress and the second President, John Adams, moved to Washington, DC in 1800, but it was a further six decades before it began to look like a true capital. In the interim period, foreign ambassadors considered it a hardship posting.

Now, this political centre stage and capital of the most powerful nation in the world, is the place to be. Washington, DC is always in the international spotlight. Occasionally this attention is not welcome, for example, the world’s largest concentration of spies lurks around the city.

Washington, DC has also had its share of political scandal, such as the Watergate shame, Mayor Marion Barry’s imprisonment for drug offences, the Monica Lewinsky affair, the painful struggle of the 2000 presidential elections and most recently, indictments in the Bush administration for the CIA leak in 2005.

The most tragic of events in the nation’s capital occurred on 11 September 2001, when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. Since that time, barricades, blocked-off streets, police and security checks have given parts of the city a different facade.

Did you know?
• One of the gargoyles on the Washington National Cathedral is actually Darth Vader. It was sculptured and placed on the west tower following a competition in the 1980s.
• The Washington Monument is two different colours. In 1854, the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money, and when the construction was completed in 1884, the government used stone from a different quarry.
• The District of Columbia (DC) is actually named after the explorer Christopher Columbus.

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