DC History


Washington, D.C. is referred to as “The Capital of the Free World,” and “The Most Powerful City in the World.” The District was selected as the permanent site for the American seat of government by an Act of Congress in 1790, and President George Washington was given the authority to choose the precise spot for the federal district: a 10-square-mile area on the Potomac on land donated by Maryland and Virginia. By 1793, the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol was laid on Jenkins Hill, which overlooked a secondary hill on which the White House would be built.

Click here for a Map of DC (1835)

In 1800, President John Adams moved from Princeton, N.J., to the unfinished city of Washington. The Capitol was unfinished, and there were no proper sidewalks, lights, or sanitation facilities. And in what would be a sign of things to come, the Tidal Basin was flooded, meaning that early presidents had to take rowboats traveling from the White House to Jenkins Hill, which would be renamed Capitol Hill.

Bicyclist among cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin

Bicyclist among cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin. Photo provided by Jill Vanderweit, D36

The War of 1812 altered the look and feel of the city. In 1814 the British arrived in Chesapeake Bay, made their way to the Capitol, and burned it. President Madison were forced to flee, and the city took nearly eight years to be reconstituted to its prewar population of roughly 15,000.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that sidewalks and sewer systems were laid and streetlights installed. During “Boss” Shepherd’s term as the city’s mayor, the original plans of Pierre L’Enfant were finally realized. Streets were improved and paved, trees were planted. In 1901, a committee was appointed to improve on the original concept. Its main focus was development of the Mall, but plans were laid for government buildings, bridges, and monuments.

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, at 1st St and Independence Ave SE. Photo provided by BLM, D36

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, at 1st St and Independence Ave SE. Photo provided by BLM, D36

The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought an influx of wealthy immigrants and the benefits of their talents and economic resources. A building for the Library of Congress and Union Station were constructed, and the Mall was laid out; its present-day form closely resembles the original. The latter half of the 20th century brought still more politicians and bureaucrats to town as the United States government expanded to be one of the biggest employers in the American economy.

As the nation’s capital, Washington hosts an international array of visitors, new residents, and, of course, Toastmasters conventioneers. This infusion of cultures means that today’s restaurant — both in the District and in the suburbs — is getting better and more diverse. You can find almost any type of food here, from Thai to Ethiopian, Spanish tapas to Vietnamese Phở.

The city offers so much in the way of history, culture, and scenery that your visit almost certainly will be exhilarating and educational. The city’s primary tourist area is in Southwest D.C. That includes the Smithsonian Institution buildings, the national monuments, the Tidal Basin, the National Mall, and the grounds and gardens that surround these attractions. Admission for most of these is free.

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian exterior

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian exterior. Photo provided by Jill Vanderweit, D36


The District of Columbia is divided into four quadrants (NE, NW, SE, SW), which meet at the Capitol at the center of the grid.

Lettered streets run from east to west, and numbered streets run north to south.

Both increase sequentially as you get further from the Capitol; the lettered streets run from A through W (there are no J, X, Y, or Z streets), then alphabetically becoming two-word names (Harvard, Irving), then three-syllable names (Fessenden, Whittier).

Marriott Marquis exterior at 9th & L Sts NW. The DC Convention Center is reflected in the glass.

Marriott Marquis exterior at 9th & L Sts NW. The DC Convention Center is reflected in the glass. Photo provided by BLM, D36

As the town was designed by Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant, based on the city of Paris, there are a number of diagonal streets that cut across the grid and meet at various traffic circles. Most of these diagonal streets are named for American states, and were originally named for their rough location as to where they were in relationship to the United States at the time the grid was originally laid out at the beginning of the 19th Century.

As more states were added, however, some of the placements of the state-named streets were curious (South Dakota Avenue being east of New Jersey Avenue, for example). Regardless, if you are going to an address in the District of Columbia, make sure to check the quadrant — addresses can be identical except for the NW, NE, SW, and SE at the end.

The Marriott Marquis is located in the Northwest (NW) quadrant of D.C., where many historic monuments, shopping, and the White House are located.