The Capitol’s giant new cast-iron dome, a wonder of the age, was completed in 1863. A balcony around its perimeter near the top looked out in every direction, and climbing the dome soon became an elevating pastime for tourists, noted in virtually every guidebook. For souvenir hunters, photographers hauled their equipment to the top and captured the city as it transformed from Civil War chaos to Gilded Age glamour.
This 1875 image showed a city that still looked something less than glamorous. Still, Americans loved the views from the dome, and the stereoviews made of them, despite the city’s lack of polish at the time. When Mark Twain climbed the dome, he looked out over Washington with some dismay. The East Front of the Capitol, with its “long terraced ranges of steps, flowing down in white marble waves to the ground,” Twain and co-author Charles Warner later wrote, “merely looks out upon a sorrowful little desert of cheap boarding houses.”
Indeed, it was true that the eastern part of Washington had not grown into the elegant and profitable neighborhood investors hoped for. But the post-Civil War Congress took matters in hand, expanding the campus, and commissioning famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to redesign the grounds. Olmsted began with the threadbare East Front, still dotted with hunks of building stone and worn-down temporary work buildings. When this photograph was taken, the trees and buildings had been swept away, and grand, if raw, drives took their place. First Street was lowered to accommodate Olmsted’s grand plan, so the buildings on the far side found themselves perched on a berm above the street level. Newly-planted saplings offered no more shade than the equally new gas light posts.
Olmsted designed monumental lanterns and planters to frame the central drive. On the left of the image, the planter’s decorative retaining wall and plantings were in place, but on the right, a bare stone tub sat alone and unfinished. The Architect of the Capitol reported that the planters were not quite ready at the end of summer in 1875, but they were completed before the new year rolled around. Thanks to the photographer’s eagerness to capitalize on the popularity of dome views, even before Olmsted’s project was complete, it is possible to pinpoint the date to late 1875.
In the foreground of the stereoview, sculptor Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington sits on the bare plaza with the unfinished Olmsted decorations. Poor Washington in this photograph serves as a taxi stand for shabby horse-drawn cabs. Such carts were a common sight, and visitors remarked on such “broken-down ramshackle hackney-coaches (or hacks, as they are called)” all over the city. Just a few years before this image was made, the President's statue sat in relative grandeur on the grassy pre-Olmsted grounds where he had been since 1843, protected by an iron fence, rather than at a dusty intersection.
At the far end of the central drive, the street railway tracks coming down the center of East Capitol Street skirt to the north of the Capitol Grounds. In fact, the blur at the intersection is the Metropolitan Railroad’s streetcar making the turn. In 1864, the Metropolitan became the first streetcar company to guarantee, on paper at least, that there would be no “excluding any person from any car on account of color.” After noting that existing streetcars frequently refused the same service to Black and white citizens, Congress included the language in Metropolitan’s 1864 charter, and less than a year later banned segregation on all streetcars in Washington.
On the far left of the image, one of Washington’s early buildings peeks into view: the old brick Capitol at 1st and A Streets, N.E. Built for Congress’ use after the British burned the Capitol in 1814, it became a Civil War prison that held some of the war’s most notorious spies. By the time this photograph was taken, developers had purchased and remodeled the building into three Victorian townhouses, whose mansard roofs show above the white painted walls.
To the far right, white buildings continued well past the photographer’s frame. Five rowhouses, built in the early 1800s as housing for Members of Congress, were known as Carroll Row. The leftmost house, visible in this photograph, was the site of President James Monroe’s inaugural ball in 1809. Other parts of Carroll Row became popular hotels and boarding houses for Members of Congress. Abraham Lincoln and his family, for example, lived at Ann Sprigg’s boarding house in Carroll Row during his single term in Congress. These buildings later served as the annex of the Civil War prison in the old brick Capitol.
Just a few years after this stereoview was purchased as a souvenir, the verdant, messy past and the unfinished present of the Capitol’s East Front were memories. Olmsted’s spindly trees grew tall. Grand stone edifices replaced ramshackle wooden houses. And Carroll Row, distinguished though it was, fell to the wrecking ball. The ambitious Library of Congress building took its place, the first of Congress’ many new buildings that grew up around the Capitol over the next century.
Sources: John B. Ellis, The Sights and Secrets of the National Capital: A Work Descriptive of Washington City in All its Various Phases (New York: United States Publishing Company, 1869); The National Capital Explained and Illustrated (Washington: DC Devlin and Company, 1872); De Benneville Randolph Keim, Washington and Its Environs: An Illustrated Descriptive and Historical Hand-Book to the Capital of the United States of America (Washington: Keim, 1874); William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol (Washington: Government Publishing Office, 2001); Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (New York: American Publishing Company, 1880); Edward Clark, Report of the Architect of the Capitol Extension, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess., H. Exdoc. 1 (1874); Edward Clark, Report of the Architect of the Capitol Extension, 44th Cong., 1st sess., H. Exdoc. 1 (1875); Edward Clark, Report of the Architect of the Capitol Extension, 44th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Exdoc. 1 (1876); Edward Dicey, Spectator of America (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989); John DeFerrari, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, D.C. (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015); James Goode, Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003); Kimberly Prothro Williams, The Capitol Hill Historic District (Washington, DC: District of Columbia Government, 2003).Follow @USHouseHistory