The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts in category history

History


Half a century before Metro, the Washington Post proposed building a downtown subway

Talk of a subway in DC first appeared in the Washington Post way back in 1909. At the time, the idea was just to run a small loop between the Capitol building and the White House.


Image from the Washington Post.

An intriguing but strange Washington Post article, published in 1909, pushed for the subway. There's no author listed and it doesn't say it's from the editorial board, so it's unclear exactly who at the Post was behind the effort.

The proposed subway loop would have run through the basements of government buildings in the heart of downtown. The proposed line also included stations under the Corcoran, Center Market, and four of the city's leading hotels.


Stops along the proposed subway line. Map by the author. Click for an interactive version.

Unlike our modern Metrorail system, the 1909 proposal notably did not have any stations in suburban residential areas for commuters. This is partially because a large suburban population didn't exist yet, and partially because the development that did exist was supported by a robust streetcar network.

The primary purpose of the subway would have been to serve government employees, but as the Post suggested, "The common people might well be permitted to derive some of the advantages and benefits of its use, when those wearing togas and solemn visages do not tax the system to its utmost capacity."

Inspiration for the subway came from the tunnel system built in March of the same year that connected the Russell Senate Office Building with the Capitol. The tunnel boasted a primitive people-mover that ran on tracks set into the floor.


Image from the Architect of the Capitol.

The Washington Post saw the Russell subway as a nucleus that could be expanded "from the Senate Office Building to the Union Station, thence to Treasury corner, the White House, the State, War and Navy Building."

Unlike WMATA's massive standalone stations, the Russell subway was "a narrow gauge affair" that ran back and forth from one building to another. The "stations" were really just basement rooms. The Post didn't provide any clarification on whether these basement stations were supposed to be the model for the larger subway system.

It is incredible to imagine what a subway system that ran through tunnels linking the White House, Capitol, hotels, and markets, with stops in Congressional building basements, would look like today.

The mass transit system pitched by the Washington Post was never built. The District already had reliable streetcar service, and construction of the impractical subway would have been very costly.

But the Post's ideas, which predated WMATA by half a century, was referenced in the 1960's as evidence of the need for more mass transit in Washington.

An expanded version of this post appears on the Architect of the Capital blog.

Architecture


Does DC want boring architecture? Sort of.

DC has a lot of boring architecture, and that's no mistake; a cheap federal government and a bevy of paper pushers keep the District that way. At least that's what a few experts on architecture and development in DC had to say at a panel last week.


Is DC architecture inherently boring? Photo by Bossi on Flickr.

Turncoats, an urbanist debate group, hosted its first DC debate last week on the question of whether or not the District wants boring architecture. The organization works to encourage provocative discussion, fueling everyone—including audience members—with a shot of liquor before things get started and only assigning the panelists sides after they've taken the stage.

Payton Chung of the Urban Land Institute (and a member of Greater Greater Washington's editorial board), Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense, Nooni Reatig of Suzane Reatig Architecture, and Mina Wright of the General Services Administration and National Capital Planning Commission (who was careful to stress that all of her statements were hers alone and not those of her employer) participated in the panel.

Initially, Payton and Nooni were assigned the position that DC does indeed want boring architecture, while Brian and Mina had to argue that isn't the case.

Despite their supposed sides, the panelists coalesced in agreement that DC architecture is boring... they just differed on the reasons why. For example, Payton argued that it is the embodiment of DC's culture of middle-management paper pushers while Mina said it was simply the result of a cheap federal government keen to maximize usable space in its office buildings.

We (Edward and Joanne) attended the panel and discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Edward Russell (ER): It was clear to me that the panelists, whether they took the pro or con position, feel that DC's architecture is boring. I do wish those who argued that DC does in fact want boring architecture had said more about why boring architecture can still be interesting.

Joanne Pierce (JP): I expected the panelists to discuss DC's architecture as it is now, why it appears to be boring, and whether they agree (since boring is relative). "City architecture is boring" is a popular opinion. You can google any city and "boring architecture" and get dozens of articles decrying NYC, Boston, LA, etc., for being filled with boxy, glass buildings.

ER: Exactly. I felt that some were a bit of tongue-and-cheek, especially on the con side—though the two blended together a bit—with Nooni arguing that multiple streets lined with "Soul Cycle, Chipotle and Starbucks" made her feel comfortable, which was clearly a dig at the homogeneity of it all.

JP: There were lots of zingers, which were fun and spirited. I think everyone truly enjoys living in DC, and they can still poke fun at its stodgy reputation. That was an interesting comment on the sameness of our streets, which Mina echoed with her comment about Federal Triangle being lovely, but "you don't want to live in a city of Federal Triangles." I appreciated that comment because Federal Triangle happens to be that prime example of DC federal building run amok. It's just federal building after federal building. But it can be lovely!


Federal Triangle. Photo by Irakil on Flickr.

ER: It can be lovely. There is certainly a grandeur of the federal DC, with the ordered avenues and the neo-classical buildings.

JP: I'm a little biased because I work in the Ronald Reagan Building.

ER: One thing that surprised me was how the height limit only came up once, and it was an audience member saying they didn't think that is the issue holding back DC architecture. I expected it to be discussed more.

JP: I did, too. I think that's owing to the structure, where the panelists didn't bring it up, except to say that we don't need skyscrapers. The discussion seemed to be more about the overall uniformity that exists in DC. I was also surprised that the discussion focused mostly on public or semi-public buildings, and not much at all on residences.

ER: Yes, I think that was the result of, as Payton put it, the fact that DC is a city of "middle class, paper-pushing bureaucrats." A lot of the speakers built off that. I agree that the federal government has had an outsize impact on DC architecture for decades—centuries even—but the panelists took it a step further and argued that we're a city of bureaucrats who ultimately want an unadorned box (or row house) rather than some limit-pushing designed residence, whether in a tower or a house.

JP: There's some historical connection with that comment. Lots of our boxy tan buildings are brutalist, and a lot of those came about because of the federal government. For instance, the Weaver building, which is where Housing and Urban Development is now, was built according to President Kennedy's architectural initatives. So if we think the Weaver's big, boxy (it's actually kind of curved) look is unattractive, it is because Kennedy wanted it to represent the strength of America.


The Weaver Building. Photo by Kjetil Ree on Flickr.

ER: Like Brian said: "DC has lots of cutting edge architecture, it's just from 100 years ago." Or 50 years ago in the case of President Kennedy.

JP: Concrete is wonderful! You'll see! Going back to your comment about wanting unadorned, big boxes—I'm no architect, but it seems like when your primary need is space to house many people (for housing or for work) your most logical shape is a square or rectangle, not a curve or a triangle. It seems like there should be a way to combine the two, but then you sometimes get the 20 Fenchurch building, which was Brian's example of ugly design.


20 Fenchurch Street in London. Photo by Matt Buck on Flickr.

ER: Yes, that is something DC architecture does well—maximizing the amount of space available for workers or for residents, within the limits that exist for buildings (height limit, plot size, whatever). As Mina put it, "I think the Feds are at fault. Why? They're cheap."

JP: The cheapness of government makes a lot of sense but I think it's more of a cultural cheapness. Maybe for a long time, we just didn't want to stand out. Or at least, the people in power who made the decisions didn't think the city needed to stand out. Except with The National Mall.

ER: Did you agree with the general conclusion that so much generally mediocre architecture will make the unique, interesting buildings in DC stand out? I agree with the premise but wonder how we get to the point where we have unique buildings to stand out from the crowd. Like Atlantic Plumbing (2112 8th Street NW), I do like it, it's more industrial then we generally have here, but at the same time it is still a steel and glass rectangular box.


Atlantic Plumbing. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: I think that the question of what is boring should be reframed. Are we boring, or are we just not a place where we have singular, instantly recognizable buildings. Things that show up in magazines, like Brian pointed out, and things that wow people as they drive by. Is that what we consider to be the most important?

ER: We have a few remarkable buildings, but I'd say they're iconic more due to their historical significance than their architecture (the White House, the Capitol).

JP: Certainly, we have the White House and the Capitol and the monuments. But beyond that, when we talk about iconic buildings that aren't Federal... I think the premise of whether our uniformity allows the interesting buildings to stand out is totally right. The African American history museum stands out because it's brown and not in the same architectural style as many others.

ER: It certainly does, whether you like the design or not.

JP: Sometimes, you just need one bold idea to start things off.

History


Was your neighborhood "obsolete" in 1950?

The National Capital Park and Planning Commission, forerunner to today's NCPC, declared most of Shaw, Mount Vernon Square and Triangle, Capitol Hill, Southwest, Buena Vista and other neighborhoods "obsolete" in 1950. Yes, amazingly, they really used that term.


"Problem areas" and "obsolete characteristics" according to NCPPC, 1950.

That's some of the astounding information in the 1950 document Washington, Present and Future from NCPPC. ShawNeighborhood listserv participant RayM scanned a number of pages showing plans to radically remove multi-family dwellings from historic neighborhoods and force the kind of low-density, single-use, less walkable pattern of development that permanently destroyed many urban areas.

What was wrong? People lived in neighborhoods with alley dwellings, some of which were less well maintained. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs talked about how planners in Boston declared the North End a similar "slum" simply because people lived at a certain population density per acre, and the view at the time was that government had to force people to live more spread out.

There are certainly reasons to believe race played a part as well; these neighborhoods were predominantly African-American. The solution, people thought at the time, was to tear down the old neighborhoods and build new ones in the "towers in the park" style of the housing projects we all know and loathe today. Here is their plan for Shaw:

Fortunately for Shaw, a thriving neighborhood with beautiful old row houses and some of DC's best-preserved carriage homes, most of this plan never came to pass. It largely did, however, in Southwest:

Besides wholesale demolition of neighborhoods, planners tried to push people out of so-called "blighted" neighborhoods with zoning. On Capitol Hill, for instance, the zoning plan wanted to take the fabric of different size buildings coexisting and declare that illegal. Instead, all commerce in the NE quadrant of the Hill would be restricted to H Street, Massachusetts, and a 2-block stretch of 8th, and all multifamily to Maryland Avenue.

They also wanted to widen 11th Street and demolish everything for 2 blocks on either side of East Capitol to create a new extended Mall. (This is the reason that the street between A and C NE is Constitution, not B, and likewise in SE is Independence, even though the original L'Enfant plan called them B Street).

Many of these decisions were efforts to segregate

It's important to recognize that some characteristics of the District today come directly out of explicit "social engineering" decisions that planners pushed on the District when the 1958 zoning code was written. Rules against accessory dwellings and corner stores, parking minimums and single-use zoning were all efforts to zone many of the people, mostly African-American, out of the neighborhoods.

That's just one reason to be pleased that last January, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6th, doing away with the code that came from this era.

This post originally ran in 2012, but since the history hasn't changed and the new zoning code goes into effect soon, we wanted to share it again!

History


Worldwide links: The most meaningful gold medal?

A US Olympic swimmer's gold medal feels like a triumph over the country's racist past, a Palo Alto planning commission member says she's leaving because it's too expensive to live there, and the guy who built Las Vegas' downtown housing should have gone up earlier in the process. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Länsmuseet Gävleborg on Flickr.

More than just a gold medal: Last night, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic swimming gold medal. Manuel's win is obviously impressive on its own, but it carries even more gravity given that swimming pools in the United States have long been bastions of racism and segregation. "If you know how Jim Crow metastasized in America's pools, you know how significant Simone Manuel's gold medal is," tweeted Post columnist and Maryland professor Kevin Blackistone. (Vox)

Restrictively high rents in Palo Alto: A member of the Palo Alto planning commission resigned, saying she's leaving the city because housing there is too expensive. Kate Vershov Downing, whose family was paying half the $6,200 rent for a house, says that zoning policies that ban 2-story apartments and otherwise restrict density are to blame for the city only being affordable to "Joe Millionaires." (Curbed SF)

Build housing earlier: In order to create a go-to destination away from the well-known Vegas Strip, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has pumped $350 million into downtown Las Vegas. Some businesses have come and gone, and Hsieh says that if he had it to do all over again, he'd have built housing sooner so more people would have been around to create foot traffic in the area. (CNBC)

Cincy subway, interrupted: Cincinnati built a subway in the early 1900s, but political battles scuttled the project and the trains never actually carried passengers. Today, some of the tunnels house water mains, and people are exploring other ways to use them. But Cincinnati really missed a chance to change the face of the city in the first half of the 20th century. (The Verge)

First electricity, then internet: Also in the early 1900s, people in rural areas in the United States had to form cooperatives in order to get electricity. Now, the laws and statutes that allowed those cooperatives are allowing electric companies to serve those very same areas with broadband internet that major companies deemed too expensive to provide. (New York Times)

The straddle bus on the struggle bus: Testing has been postponed for China's "straddle bus" (which is actually a train) that's supposed to straddle the road and drive over cars. The people who built it have billed it as a solution to busy streets , but the Chinese media is now wondering whether the entire thing is a scam. (Shanghaiist)

Quote of the Week

"In helmetsplaining, people who clearly do not ride bikes and do not know that there is a difference between racing down a mountain at maximum speed on a bike and going to the store for a quart of milk consider themselves experts in bicycle safety and lecture everyone else."

Lloyd Alter at Treehugger on the Olympic sport of "Helmetsplaining"

Architecture


How DC's central and outer neighborhoods differ, in 3 maps

Some of DC's residential neighborhoods feel a lot more like a city than others—just compare Capitol Hill's small row houses and the mid-century homes in upper Forest Hills, for example. These maps show the big divide between DC's inner and outer sections when it comes to house type, year built, and lot size.


Maps by the author.

In each map, there's an almost-identical area of light shading across the area that stretches from Capitol Hill to Georgetown and from Shaw up to Petworth. Generally, houses closer to DC's core are almost all older row houses built on smaller lots, while those closer to the edges tend to be newer single or semi-detached houses on larger pieces of land.



The divide becomes more distinct when looking at the data by ward. Here are DC's wards:


DC's wards. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Below, you can see the median year a home was built, the median lot size, and the percent of homes that are not row houses. Wards 1, 2 and 6, which make up the inner part of the city, are all grouped together on the left.

Ward 2 has, on median, the oldest homes. The true median may even be older than 1900; that year is often used as default for building year when one cannot be determined. Homes in Wards 7 and 8 are the newest.

A peculiar vestige of the L'Enfant Plan—the fact that homeowners in the old city do not own their front yardsmay slightly downplay lot size within the inner city, so I didn't include front yards in lot size.

Ward 3 is by far the least residentially dense ward, with a median lot size of 5,100 square feet, three times that of Ward 6. Ward 3 also has the fewest row houses. In the inner wards, more than 80% of all homes are row houses.

A version of this post originally ran at DataLensDC.

History


The Red Line could have had amazing views over Rock Creek

Between Dupont Circle and Woodley Park, the Metro Red Line runs in a very deep tunnel to get under Rock Creek. But early plans would have put it inside the bridge that carries Connecticut Avenue across the ravine.


Drawing by Weese & Associates.

The blog Architect of the Capital chronicles the history of many battles between WMATA and the National Park Service. NPS vetoed a track through the structure of Connecticut Avenue's Taft Bridge and another, later plan to actually use the bridge for a station:

A station would not have been a very good idea, as much of the half mile "walkshed" would have been wasted on parts of Rock Creek instead of maximizing the number of residents, businesses, and other destinations near the station.

As Zachary Schrag explains in The Great Society Subway, WMATA ended up using a deep tunnel to get under Rock Creek; that is the reason the Dupont Circle and Woodley Park stations are so deep.

Links


National links: How do bikes work? We don't really know...

Physicists disagree on what exactly makes bikes work. Kansas City opened a streetcar line earlier this year, and it's doing really well. A number of US companies are moving parts of their businesses into downtowns but keeping other parts in less urban places. Check out what's happening around the country (and beyond) in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Étienne F on Flickr.

Bicycles. They're a mystery: Even though bicycles have been around over 100 years, we still aren't sure about the physics of why they work. Two competing theories, the gyroscopic and caster, are still being debated. A new research lab could solve the mystery once and for all. (Fast Company Design)

A successful streetcar: Given the poor ridership numbers for a lot of new streetcar projects around the country, it might surprise you to hear that Kansas City's new streetcar line has exceeded expectations. It's averaging over 6,600 riders a day even though it's a relatively short line, it's free to ride and goes through an up and coming district, and there are extensions on the way. (Slate)

Moving downtown... kind of: Many US corporations have long preferred suburban headquarters, but a number of CEOs are moving their offices downtown in hopes of attracting high-skill workers. At the same time, some are keeping lower wage jobs in suburbs and smaller cities, leading to questions of equity. (New York Times)

Where are all the great urban spaces?: In the last fifty years, the US has slowed down on building small streets with human scale buildings, and there's been an explosion of sprawl. If city administrators want great urban places, they need to focus on non-auto transportation and streets that put stores, schools, homes, and churches within walkable distances. (Governing Magazine)

A home to grow old in: Universal design is a way of designing places for people of all ages and abilities. Having a gradual slope instead of steps so that wheelchairs can access a room is one example of the practice. Designers don't always apply the practice to housing, especially those building in bulk, but with so many people aging, it's becoming more necessary to create dwellings that accommodate people through all stages of life. A Seattle company that makes prefabricated housing is focusing on universal design. (Fast Company Design)

Redevelopment in London: For a long time, the area around King's Cross rail station in London was a mixture of banged up and dangerous. But over the last few decades, redevelopment around the district's old rail lines and canals have formed the centerpiece of a great urban place. (Travel and Leisure)

Quote of the Week

"Hoover's zoning program, however, was created specifically to facilitate master-planned suburbs on virgin land. It was never designed to work in existing, built-out areas. So it should come as no surprise that today's city planners struggle to shoehorn urban diversity into suburban zoning schemes that assume car-dominated mobility and a neat separation of uses."

Mott Smith and Mark Vallianatos in the Los Angeles Times, discussing why we need to stop zoning and planning in cities as if they were suburbs.

History


Check out hidden transportation gems in our region

Just about everyone knows about the Washington Metro and Beltway, but those well-known structures only scratch the surface of interesting infrastructure in our region. Here is a list of some fascinating, but oft-forgotten, pieces of Washingtonia. Each link provides additional information, including pictures:


Photo by tormol on Flickr.

The Capitol Subway: Metrorail isn't the only subway system in Washington. Under Capitol Hill three subway lines emanate like rays out from the Capitol building, carrying Congresspeople and their staff members to and from the various Congressional office buildings.

The first line, to the Russell Building, opened in 1909, with lines going to the Hart, Dirksen, and Rayburn buildings opening between 1960 and 1982. The secret subway isn't really a secret, and although it's not open to the public, visitors can catch a ride if they arrange one with their Congressperson.

The Aqueduct Bridge: Non sequitur though it may be, there was indeed once a bridge that carried boats over the Potomac.

It opened in 1843 and was called the Aqueduct Bridge. It ran from the C&O Canal in Georgetown across the river to Rosslyn, where it met a canal going from there to Alexandria. Canal boats of the day were too fragile to survive the river, so a bridge was needed.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Although the main span of the aqueduct was torn down when the Key Bridge was built in 1923, the old abutments remain on both the DC and Virginia sides. In fact, visitors to Georgetown can walk right up onto the ruins, to be greeted by some of the city's loveliest views.

The Montgomery/Loudoun ferry: Since 1817 there has been ferry service across the Potomac between Montgomery and Loudoun Counties. White's Ferry, as it is currently known, is a floating slab of concrete that runs along a cable connected to both sides of the river. It carries cars, pedestrians and bicyclists commuting between Maryland and Northern Virginia every day of the week.


Photo by chriggy1 on Flickr.

Trolley remnants: Trolleys were once the bread and butter of urban transportation. As whole towns are now built around cars, whole towns were once built around streetcars. Although it's been 49 years since the last trolley rolled down a Washington street, there remains a plenitude of vintage trolley infrastructure.

The most famous cases are the abandoned trolley subway station under Dupont Circle and the trolley tracks visible on P Street in Georgetown, but those examples aren't alone. There are least four old trolley station depots still standing, at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, on Colorado Avenue, on Calvert Street, and on Connecticut Avenue (though that last may have only served buses).


From left to right, the Connecticut Avenue terminal in Chevy Chase,
the 14th & Colorodo NW terminal, the Calvert Street terminal.

Car barns, where trolley vehicles were stored when not in use, remain standing and converted to other purposes in several neighborhoods across the city. Even the light poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge are remnants of trolleys; they're twice as tall as the lights they hold because decades ago they also strung trolley wires.Washington is a fascinating city a long and diverse history. What other little-known pieces of the city can you name?

This post originally ran in 2011, but since the history hasn't changed, we're sharing it with you again!

Architecture


Google Maps gives DC the 3D treatment

For a number of years now, Google Maps has let you check out the buildings and topography of most medium to large cities, and increasingly even smaller towns, in 3D—but not DC. Now, nearly all of the District and parts of Arlington come in three dimensions.


Image from Google Maps.

Initially, Google Maps only showed prominent landmarks in 3D, as models had to be crowded-sourced and created by hand with Google Sketchup, the company's modeling software. Then in 2012, Maps rolled out a way of automating 3D generation through a process known as stereophotogrammetry.

Nearly all of DC is now included in the feature, as well as Rosslyn and National Airport.

Though the automated modeling process isn't perfect, it really makes the city pop when you turn the feature on. To check it out, go to Google Maps, turn on satellite mode, and click the "3D" button in the bottom right. Be sure to rotate the view to get the full experience! Holding the control key will allow you to click-and-drag the camera angle.

Some of my favorite spots to view with the new feature are Woodley Park and the National Cathedral, Columbia Heights, the National Arboretum, and upper Georgia Avenue.


The National Cathedral in 3D.

There has been speculation that the reason DC was excluded from 3D display was for security reasons. The areas that were excluded from rendering seem to confirm that might have been the case: in DC, the areas around the National Mall, the White House, Federal Center SW, and Foggy Bottom are conspicuously absent from the feature.


Image from Google Maps.

While you can now see the Rosslyn skyline from your computer, the rest of Northern Virginia and Maryland haven't been included, though they may be added later.

Let us know what interesting things you find with the 3D feature!

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC