For more than two centuries Washington has to reconcile the lofty ideals of the capital with the quotidian of a contested city. No reveals these tensions more fully than the Federal Triangle.

The U.S. Congress, meeting in its first session in Federal Hall in New York City, passed an act that would relocate the entire government to a wholly new city. The Residence Act authorised “that a district, not exceeding ten miles square to be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomac” was to become the new capital city of the United States. The legislation charged the president to appoint commissioners to survey the new district; empowered the commissioners to purchase land “for the use of the United States” and to provide “suitable buildings for the accommodation of the Congress, and of the President, and for the public offices of the government”; and mandated that all this was to be accomplished within a decade, by the “first Monday in December, in the year one thousand eight hundred,” when the young nation would occupy its new seat of government. The next year Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French engineer who had served alongside during the revolution and who was later the architect of Federal Hall, was appointed to design the capital city.

The reveals much about the political machinations and moral proclivities of the capital city constructed upon an expanse of swampy flats.

The famous plan that L’Enfant created laid out a prospective federal city with far greater ambition, even hubris that would have seemed justified by the fledgling nation-state that was sponsoring it or the upon which it was located. “In the heavily forested river bottom, sparsely settled with modest plantation dwellings,” wrote the Frederick Gutheim, “L’Enfant envisioned a new kind of city suited to the American space and reflecting the conditions of its growth.” Yet from the very beginning, the city’s leaders have to create “a great and glorious city plan, ‘worthy of the nation’,” as Gutheim wrote. Over the course of two centuries and in every era, including our own, Washington has been shaped by the tensions between federal aspirations and prosaic realities, between the grand ideals of the nation and the quotidian of a contested and often corrupt city. There is perhaps no part of the capital that better reveals these tensions than the famous Federal Triangle. Located along the Mall midway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, the dignified ensemble of governmental agencies and institutions might seem to have been part of the plan from the start. Yet it occupies a storied and controversial site that has seen many other, and very different uses; a site whose reveals much about the political machinations and moral proclivities of the capital city that was constructed upon an expanse of swampy flats.


The foundations of what would become the Federal Triangle and much of the Mall rest upon the soil and toil of a slave plantation. The owner of the plantation was David Burnes, a disputatious third-generation Scottish-American who was none too happy about relinquishing his 600 acres of corn to the disruptive ambitions of the fledgling capital city. “I am not minded to give up my farms,” was his terse reply to the representatives sent by President George Washington. He refused to sell his flatlands and hillocks until Washington, who called Burnes “the most obstinate man” he had ever met, personally intervened, threatening to take the plantation by force. As the Frances Carpenter Huntington wrote, “One unreasonable planter could not be allowed to spoil the plans of a whole nation.” At a tavern in Georgetown, Burnes, along with other area landowners traded his acreage in exchange for what would soon become enormously valuable city lots. Later he would deploy his slaves to help down trees and clear land to make way for Pennsylvania Avenue. In retrospect, Burnes was simply the first in a series of opportunistic property developers to profit. Burnes’s daughter Marcia was being hailed as “the heiress of Washington City.” A year later — right on schedule — the U.S. Congress would pack up and move from its temporary quarters in the interim capital of Philadelphia to the new city rising on the banks of the Potomac.