On July 16, 1790, the Residence Act, which stipulated that the president select a site on the Potomac River as the permanent capital of the United States following a ten-year temporary residence in Philadelphia, was signed into law. In a proclamation issued on January 24, 1791, President George Washington announced the permanent location of the new capital, an area of land at the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch (Anacostia) rivers that would eventually become the District of Columbia. Soon after, Washington commissioned French engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant to create a plan for the city.
L’Enfant arrived in Georgetown on March 9, 1791, and submitted his report and plan to the president in August. It is believed that this plan is the one preserved in the Library of Congress.
L’Enfant’s plan was greatly influenced by the traditions of Baroque landscape architecture and his projections of a future city population of 800,000. Its scheme of broad radiating avenues connecting significant focal points, its open spaces, and its grid pattern of streets oriented north, south, east, and west is still the gold standard against which all modern land use proposals for the Nation’s capital are considered.
The glorious vistas and dramatic landscape of today’s Washington are a result of L’Enfant’s careful planning. From the steps of the U.S. Capitol one can gaze down the mall to the Washington Monument and on to the Lincoln Memorial.
- The Library’s online exhibition Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation gives a detailed account of the architectural development of the city and the Capitol building.
- For a wealth of images of our Nation’s Capital, visit the Horydczak Collection. Photographer Theodor Horydczak’s collection includes thousands of photographs documenting the architecture and social life of the Washington metropolitan area from the 1920s through the 1950s.
- Among the most prized items on display in the American Treasures of the Library of Congress exhibition are L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the city of Washington and Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s plan for the transformation of the White House into the symbol of power we know today.
- Search the papers of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at the Library of Congress to find many documents concerning the selection and creation of Washington, D.C. The Jefferson Papers are organized into ten series, including Series 3. District of Columbia Miscellany. 1790-1808. This series contains a wide variety of Jefferson’s letters, drawings, maps, and notes that document the building of Washington, D.C.
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 contains a wide variety of congressional information associated with the early history of Washington, D.C. Search in the 1st Congress using the phrase seat of government to find congressional materials related to the Residence Act.
- Read John Adams’ letter to federal department heads regarding the move from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia. This is included in the Manuscript Division’s collection, United States Commissioners of the City of Washington Records.
- Search the Cities and Towns collection to find hundreds of maps of the District of Columbia throughout its history. Also read a 1793 broadside that provides details about the layout of the city and the plans for various government buildings.
- Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1600 to 1925 comprises first-person narratives, early histories, historical biographies, promotional brochures, and books of photographs, including twenty-eight books about Washington, D.C.