Take a close look at this “Bird’s-eye View” stereoview. The photographer pointed his camera northwest from the Capitol dome toward Indiana Avenue and clicked. The result shows a city exploding into being in the 1870s and 1880s. Graceful plantings face railroad sheds for storing freight. Piles of lumber and coal perch next to fancy hotels. Although it is faded, this photograph still shows individual elements that made up the scene in a busy slice of burgeoning downtown Washington.
A map of Washington shows the narrow width of the city the photographer captured from the Capitol dome. Stereoview photographers were more interested in seeing far into the distance, to show off the 3-D technology of stereoviews. The grandness of Pennsylvania Avenue, the railroad stations, and the National Mall are missing from the view. Nonetheless, even this little wedge illustrates enormous changes wrought around the Capitol in the 1870s.
Close to the Capitol building, the curving paths designed by Frederick Law Olmsted provide sophisticated surroundings for the Capitol. The low walls and shrubs highlight the gleaming white building. Before the realization of Olmsted’s design in the 1870s, roaming cattle and piles of construction rubble marred the park, and overgrown trees on the west side obscured the building. Now, tidy walkways and terraces give the Capitol an air of sophistication, as long as visitors do not look across B Street to the railroad yard with its huffing trains carrying hundreds of freight cars and thousands of passengers each week.
Over on 2nd Street, this panoply of cheap sheds, halfway between the B&O and the B&P train depots, makes clear that industry values the railroad’s proximity to the Capitol at least as much as congressional travelers do. A light snowfall covers stone building blocks piled up on the frozen ground in this image, while the rude buildings presumably shelter less sturdy material, like lumber and coal. In 1885, the United States Electric Lighting Company, Thomas Edison’s competitor in the race to put electricity in America’s homes, took over these buildings for their power generators.
William M. Galt’s thriving flour business sits at the corner of Indiana Avenue and 1st Street, taking advantage of an old government warehouse near the railroad. Galt was typical—if more stupendously successful—among the new Washington merchants whose businesses were displacing old homes near the Capitol. He came to the city as a youth and turned his hand to several businesses, from dry goods to coal delivery, before landing on flour milling. Eventually he expanded to other grains, including the horse feed he supplied to the House of Representatives. His big white warehouse and mill were part of the neighborhood well into the 20th century, and the mansion he built in fashionable Dupont Circle was the envy of the city.
From atop the Capitol dome, Trinity Episcopal Church shows its back to the camera, but it is still recognizable by its octagonal cupola and twin spires. Its towers are so striking that almost every bird’s-eye print of the Capitol shows them rising above the neighborhood’s cluster of construction. From the entrance on 3rd Street, the church presented an opulent Gothic facade to the fashionable Washingtonians who attended services in the 1850s. It was one of many churches built in the neighborhood in the first half of the 19th century. During and after the Civil War, lumber, coal yards, and all the commercial hubbub of the booming city drove residential development north and west. Trinity’s attendance declined, and in the 1930s, developers pulled down the church and put up a parking lot.
At the far left of the image, Old City Hall’s gleaming facade is a bright spot along Indiana Avenue. Considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the city, its restrained lines gave it an air of permanence in the bustling city. It was already on its way to being the “old” City Hall when this photograph was taken. The local government offices took up less space in the building than the judicial branch. In 1863, after years of renting, the federal government purchased it for use as the supreme court of the District of Columbia, and its city government tenants left entirely at the turn of the 20th century.
Sources: House of Representatives, Annual Report of James Kerr Clerk of the House of Representatives, Showing the Receipts and Disbursements of the House of Representatives from December 8, 1891, to June 30, 1892 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1892); C. Melvin Sharpe, “Brief Outline of the History of Electric Illumination in the District of Columbia,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 48/49 (1946); W.H. Boyd, Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia, 1878 (Washington, DC: Boyd’s Directories, 1877); W.H. Boyd, Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia, 1879 (Washington, DC: Boyd’s Directories, 1878); W.H. Boyd, Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia, 1880 (Washington, DC: Boyd’s Directories, 1879); DC Preservation League, “Proposed Judiciary Square Historic District Nomination - Case 19-05,” Washington, DC, Office of Planning, 12 February 2019, https://planning.dc.gov/publication/proposed-judiciary-square-historic-district; “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia,” Sanborn Map Company, 1888, www.loc.gov/item/sanborn01227_001/.Follow @USHouseHistory