A Capital City

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.

Panorama aerial view of Washington, D.C. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, between 1980 and 1990. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division
Plan of the City Intended for the Permanent Seat of the Government…. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, manuscript map on paper. Office, Commissioner of Public Buildings, D.C., 1791. Cities and Towns. Geography & Map Division

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.

View of Washington City. Baltimore: E. Sachse & Co., 1871. Panoramic Maps. Geography & Map Division</figcaption

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

On July 16, 1936, photographer Walker Evans (1903-75) took a leave of absence from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to accept a summer assignment with Fortune magazine. Evans, who had begun working as a photographer in 1928, had developed a modest reputation by the time that he was hired in October 1935 by Roy Stryker, then leader of the FSA photographic section. Stryker agreed to grant him leave for the magazine assignment on the condition that his photographs remained government property.

Walker Evans, profile, hand up to face. Edwin Locke, photographer, Feb. 1937. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

Evans and the writer James Agee spent several weeks among sharecropper families in Hale County, Alabama. The article they produced documented in words and images the lives of poor Southern farmers afflicted by the Great Depression; their work, however, did not meet Fortune‘s expectations and was rejected for publication.

Washstand in the dog run and kitchen of Floyd Burroughs’ cabin, Hale County, Alabama. Walker Evans, photographer, [Summer 1936]. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black- and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division.

Evans’ desire to produce photographs that were “pure record not propaganda” did not harmonize with Stryker’s emphasis on the use of the image to promote social activism. Soon after the Alabama series was completed, Evans returned to New York. There Evans and Agee reworked their material and searched for another publisher. In 1941, the expanded version of their story was published in book form as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, now recognized as a masterpiece of the art of photojournalism.

Walker Evans went on to exhibit and publish his work (he was a staff photographer at Fortune, 1945-65) and to teach at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture. James Agee became one of America’s most influential film critics as well as a poet, novelist, and screenwriter. James Agee died in 1955; Walker Evans died in 1975.

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