When City Was Young
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, March 18, 1906, [p. 11]
Sixty years ago, when the city of Washington could boast of a permanent population of but thirty odd thousand, there were but few who had an idea of what the unique plan of L'Enfant for the development of the city contemplated. Outside of official circles there were but few who had ever heard of the name, much less having paid attention to his plans, excepting when he was laying off lines. The many places left vacant at the intersections of streets and avenues were regarded as useless waste ground, and in some instances were used as dumping grounds. What are now handsome circular or triangular parks were not dreamed of.
Little had been done by the government with the public grounds of larger dimensions. The Capitol, White House, city hall grounds and the Mall only had received attention and that only in a limited way.
The naval observatory had been erected at "Camp Hill," the south end of 23d street. In the early plans the reservation appeared as University Square, but the name of "Observatory Hill" figured with "Funkstown," as the title of that neighborhood. Lafayette Square was marked on the maps as "President's Square," but "front of the President's house" designated the space which was improved only by a simple wooden fence and a few trees and in whose grass four or five well-worn foot paths afforded short cuts to pedestrians who passed that way.
"South Grounds of the President," with the exception of the portion inclosed within a wall some 200 yards south of the buildings, was a wild waste, on which the Fourth of July fireworks exhibitions were given and had not yet been inclosed by a board fence, which, being whitewashed, gave to the grounds the title of "White Lot."
The Mall had received some attention by the planting of trees and erecting fences which cost a few thousand dollars. The trees had grown with the grass, but the fence was down, and aside from its utility as a playground for boys, the part near 7th and B streets north, was sometimes used by shows and circuses; and near the site of the Smithsonian there were occasional military encampments.
"The City Hall Lot" was the name for Judiciary Square, where the present courthouse and pension building now stand. There were no improvements of the grounds on which were the city hall, where were the corporation offices and the courts; the Washington Infirmary, originally built for a jail, and a new jail called the "Blue Jug." A stream ran through the northern portion from 5th and G streets to 4th and E streets and no attempt had been made at grading the grounds, which were level only about the west end of the city hall. It was not an inviting place.
The guns of the old Columbian Artillery Co., Peter Force's company, were kept in the northwest corner of the city hall, and near the west end of the building the saluting was done on holidays and other occasions.
Capitol Grounds Improved First
Few of the triangular or other spaces made by the lines of avenues and streets were put to other uses than for travel, and where L'Enfant left space for a square or circle there was occasionally found a dump ground. The space made by the lines of 20th and I streets and Pennsylvania avenue had been given up for market purposes, and there were located the West Market and a hall from 1804 to 1852; the Union Fire Company to 1837, with some lodges and societies. The companion space at 21st street was used only at intervals for political gatherings and pole raisings.
The space south of the avenue at 14th street was then the site of the Franklin fire engine house, and the space north at 13th street was used much the same as that at 21st street.
The grounds at 12th street and 10th street, respectively, were virtually in the roadway, while those at 9th and 7th streets then the hub of the city, and that in front of the market afforded all the facilities for the great business mart and markets of the day. There were two banks in the vicinity and the Perseverance fire company located at the angle formed by the south line of Pennsylvania and Louisiana avenues, was the place for the assembling of firemen's conventions. The small hall was used by societies for fairs and festivals.
The selection of a site on the mall for the Smithsonian Institution, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1847, and the location of the Washington national monument on the western portion of the mall, when the cornerstone was laid in 1848, made it necessary to improve the grounds at least to make a beginning.
In a few years thereafter in 1852, in fact, the lines of many of the reservations were set, the late Wm. Forsyth being the engineer employed by the commissioner of public buildings for that purpose. Washington Circle, Lafayette Square and the triangles were included, and in this decade both were considerably improved by inclosing them with railing, laying out walks, the planting of trees, etc., to set off the bronze statues of Washington and Jackson. Then the names of "Round Top" for the first and "North of President's" were superseded by the better names of "Washington Circle" and "Lafayette Square."
Other localities which have since taken names bright in the annals of the nation were then unknown. The large park out East Capitol street bearing the name of Lincoln was, with the streets and squares surround ding it, a mere common, much of which was planted annually in corn or other crops. Generally the location was spoken of as "near Baldwin's." Mr. Tyler Baldwin being one of the few living near by.
Original Name of Dupont Circle
The "Mud House" designated the locality in which Iowa Circle had been laid out, about 13th and P streets, a house of that description having stood for years in a market garden bounded by Vermont and Rhode Island avenues south of P street, it was a wild waste beyond which was then the graveyard of St. John's Episcopal Church.
Sixteenth and N streets, where Scott's statue stands was in wild bush and vine and bore no name. The circle in which the statue of Gen. G.H. Thomas stands, at the intersection of Massachusetts avenue, M and 14th streets, was part of the neighborhood known as "Hills," or "Coltman's." Col. Charles Hill lived at the northwest corner of the space, and Mr. C.L. Coltman [Coltman Vault], a prominent builder, on M street east of the circle. "Gen. Macomb's [R55 S147] neighborhood" embraced much of the territory about I and 17th streets. The statue of Farragut, the work of Vinnie Ream, gives the name to the square east in which it is located. It was then a vacant plain.
The corresponding square, also ornamented by a statue, that of Gen. McPherson, whose name it bears, west of 15th street and north of I street, would have been located as "back of Father Donelan's church," as the then new St. Matthew's Church was known.