Old D.C. from Above

Taken from hot-air balloons, airplanes, kites, blimps, and tall buildings, early aerial views brought a futuristic new perspective of Washington, D.C., to the public. Now, these photographs, stereoviews, and engravings show us the changing history of the area around the Capitol.

The map below shows views around the Capitol from above, arranged by date. The location on the map is based on the approximate vantage point of the image.



Bird’s-eye views have been around since before airplanes, spaceships, or photography. One engraving in the House Collection shows the Capitol dome, from the air, under construction in 1861 (map image one). Harper’s Weekly published the image as “Balloon View of Washington, D.C.,” emphasizing the popular aeronautic technology of the time. This balloon-view engraving was created by an artist, not a photographer. Although photography had been around since the 1820s, the first photograph taken from a hot-air balloon was created by the French photographer Nadar in 1858.

Facing West from the Capitol/tiles/non-collection/1/1-4-photo-aerial-2016_021_002.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives In this ca. 1870 stereoview, taken from the Capitol, the Smithsonian Institution’s first building, now known as the Smithsonian Castle, is visible at the top (map image three). The stubby Washington Monument, under construction, can be seen faintly to the right of the Smithsonian.
Photographers also captured views from above by looking down from the tallest buildings. Several images in the House Collection appear to be taken from the high vantage point of the Capitol (map images two, three, five and seven). One stereoview taken from the Capitol around 1875 shows the White House in the upper left corner of each photographic image (map image five). Another stereoview, created in the 1870s from atop another high perch, at the building now known as the Smithsonian Castle, looks across to the Capitol (map image four).

The Capitol Facing North/tiles/non-collection/1/1-4-photo-aerial-Eddy-kite-NASM.xml Image courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution William A. Eddy produced this 1897 view of the Capitol, using nine tandem kites to hoist a camera more than 500 feet above ground (map image six).
In the 1890s, photographer William A. Eddy developed a contraption that hoisted a camera hundreds of feet in the air, supported by tandem kites. Eddy stayed on the ground and opened the shutter with a string. He arrived in Washington in September 1897 to capture the Capitol and Library of Congress and their grounds. The Superintendent of the Capitol granted Eddy permission to raise his nine tandem kites over the House wing, 500 to 600 feet above ground. Despite contrary winds, the Washington Post reported, Eddy’s negatives displayed “some superb views of the Capitol, the grounds surrounding it, and the Library building.” One image he produced shows the dome, the roof of the House wing, and the dramatic shadows cast by the edifice on a sunny day (map image six).

During the 20th century, the airplane surpassed balloons and kites to become the most common source of aerial views. One postcard from 1932, titled “U.S. Capitol, Library and House Office Building from an Aeroplane, Washington, D.C.,” shows a view of the buildings from the East Front of the Capitol (map image eight). The mention of an “aeroplane” in the postcard’s title indicates that airplane images were still noteworthy. “Everyone who has paid more than passing attention to the subjects of aerial photographs must have noticed how much more beautiful and dignified certain familiar city scenes in particular appear when . . . taken from airplanes,” a reporter wrote in 1920, noting that from above, the Capitol was seen “at an advantage unknown to the eye at the ground level.”

Capitol Hill, Facing North/tiles/non-collection/1/1-4-photo-aerial-PA2017_07_0052.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Labeled buildings in this 1937 photograph (map image nine) are: the Capitol, Senate wing (A) and House wing (B), the New House Office Building, now the Longworth House Office Building (1), the Old House Office Building, now the Cannon House Office Building (2), the Library of Congress Jefferson Building (3), the annex to the Library of Congress, now the Adams Building (4), the Supreme Court Building (5), and the Senate Office Building, now the Russell Senate Office Building (6).
Soon, images of Capitol Hill taken from an airplane became more common. A 1937 photograph includes the House Office Buildings, Capitol, Senate Office Building, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress Buildings (map image nine). Visible in the image are the stands for the second inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Four years later, a photograph showed three federal buildings, including what is now the Ford House Office Building, as well as the National Gallery of Art and National Archives Building (map image ten). In 1947, the New and Old House Office Buildings, now respectively known as the Longworth and Cannon House Office Buildings, and the Capitol are visible in an image taken from a different kind of aeronautic vehicle—a Goodyear Blimp (map image eleven).

From an artist’s hot-air balloon rendering of the unfinished Capitol dome to photographic kites flying above the East Front, imagination and new perspectives filled early views of Washington from above. These images not only chart the technological transformations of aeronautical and photographic technology, but also the landscape of Washington. Although aerial views have become commonplace, these historic views significantly document the layout of a changing city.

Sources: Beaumont Newhall, Airborne Camera: The World from the Air and Outer Space (New York: Hastings House, 1969); Washington Post, September 6 and 16, 1897; Louisville Courier Journal, October 26, 1920.

This is part of a monthly series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.