In July 1790 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 authorized “that a district or territory, 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 American soldiers during the revolution and who was later the architect of Federal Hall, was appointed to design the capital city.
The history of the site 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, than would have seemed justified by the fledgling nation-state that was sponsoring it or the territory upon which it was located. “In the heavily forested river bottom, sparsely settled with modest plantation dwellings,” wrote the historian Frederick Gutheim, “L’Enfant envisioned a new kind of city suited to the American space and reflecting the conditions of its national growth.” Yet from the very beginning, the city’s leaders have struggled to create “a great and glorious city plan, ‘worthy of the nation’,” as Gutheim wrote. 1 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 dealings 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 National 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 history 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 National 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 tobacco and 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 historian Frances Carpenter Huntington wrote, “One unreasonable planter could not be allowed to spoil the plans of a whole nation.” At a tavern in Georgetown, in March 1791, 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 cut 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 from the site. By the time of his death, in 1799, Burnes’s daughter Marcia was being hailed as “the heiress of Washington City.” 2 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.
The very siting of the new seat of government was the result of land-based politics.
The very siting of the new seat of government was the result of land-based politics. In June 1790, Thomas Jefferson invited James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to dinner at the house he was renting on Maiden Lane, in New York City, then serving as the (first) temporary national capital as the newly convened Congress evaluated more than a dozen sites for a permanent capital city. Together they negotiated the famous “dinner table bargain” that would produce the Residence Act. (The evening’s negotiations were memorably set to music in Hamilton. 3) The new law traded northern acquiescence in a Virginia capital site for southern willingness to allow the federal government to assume the revolutionary war debt of the states. This north-south territorial bargain served to bind the union together at the national scale; it also set the stage for countless future land deals that would raise pointed questions about the vested interests of participants. George Washington himself owned more than one thousand Virginia acres within the designated area of the new capital, and his ward (the grandson of his wife) owned the large plantation that later became the site of Arlington National Cemetery. 4 Yet no matter his own financial upside, Washington prioritized the needs of the neophyte nation. The shrewd planter-president guarded against speculators bidding up land prices by keeping local property holders uncertain about the exact location of the new capital and its central districts. Washington urged two trusted associates to secretly buy up as much territory as possible under their own names, “so as to excite no suspicion that they are on behalf of the public.” 5 Then as now, real estate negotiations in the District of Columbia would balance pragmatic and localized self-interest against an idealized realm of democratic aspiration.
In 1792 the young federal government, which had by then relocated from New York to Philadelphia, hired the surveyor Andrew Ellicott to rework L’Enfant’s plan for Washington with the goal of straightening many of its lines and preparing the new district for development. L’Enfant had feared land speculation; his successor encouraged it. In his redrawn plan, Ellicott numbered every parcel to facilitate the selling of plots. The numbered parcels created countless properties, all imagined, with considerable optimism, to be highly marketable on the basis of some future prominence. Almost at the center of the city plan was a triangle containing fifteen numerically annotated blocks that lay between the hilly sites reserved for the “President’s House” and the “Congress House,” as these were called on the L’Enfant/Ellicott plan. The avenue that ran along the hypotenuse of the triangle was named “Pennsylvania” — a small yet telling recompense for the state’s brokered loss of the national capital. Forming the base of the triangle, the plan called for one of the Potomac tributaries, Tiber Creek, to be channeled into a “city canal” running parallel and just to the north of what would become the National Mall.
More than a century before the future Federal Triangle would accommodate the Department of Commerce and the Interstate Commerce Commission, it was the site of the district’s most important commercial building. Opened in 1801, the Center Market was designed by architect James Hoban, the Irish immigrant whose most famous project for the rising city was the White House. Jefferson himself, then in his first term, was a frequent early morning shopper, choosing perishables for the presidential larder while also systematically recording the first and last monthly appearances of 37 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Bordering the city canal that was part of L’Enfant’s grand plan, Center Market — dubbed Marsh Market due to its lowland site — grew in size and prominence throughout the 19th century. One corner, just outside Lloyd’s Tavern and the Steamboat Hotel, became infamous as the site of slave auctions, until the Compromise of 1850 banned the practice in the District of Columbia. 6
No matter the commercial vitality of Center Market, by the middle decades of the century, locals and visitors alike were bemoaning the squalid conditions of the marshy tract below Pennsylvania Avenue. By now L’Enfant’s city canal was little more than a pestilential open sewer, filled with garbage from the busy market and waste from nearby buildings. Elsewhere the triangle was littered with derelict coal yards and dilapidated housing. During the Civil War, escaped slaves (termed “contrabands of war”) squatted in shanties along the foul waterway. Gambling houses, brothels, and saloons crowded the streets and saw scenes of such violence that the area became known as Murder Bay. 7 As the Washington Post recalled, decades later, “The houses were for the most part mean and straggling, while the moral atmosphere was almost in accord with the condition of the town itself.”
Thieves and unprincipled men and women, as ready to cut a throat as pick a pocket, flourished and walked the streets in certain sections in open daylight, while at night they frequented the haunts of vice and selected their victims from among the unsophisticated without fear of law or justice. In those sections it was unsafe for any one with the slightest appearance of respectability to enter after nightfall. …. Washington was a wild and weird place. 8
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln charged General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, with protecting the capital. Soon his troops were such rowdy regulars at the bars and brothels across the city that Hooker sought to get a grip on the situation by concentrating houses of prostitution in the blocks between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall; and while historians agree the term was already in use, the double entendre proved irresistible and the area became known as “Hooker’s Division.” More than a century later, on the construction site of the Ronald Reagan Building/International Trade Center, archaeological excavations unearthed the detritus of the domestic trade that once flourished between C and D Streets: remnants of combs and garters; shards of glass bottles that had contained perfume, beer, and liquor; pharmaceutical jars labeled “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Bromo Seltzer, and Valentine’s Meat Juice, said to be a cure for ‘social diseases.’” 9
After the war ended and the soldiers scattered, the precincts of Murder Bay and Hooker’s Division became the target of social improvers and temperance advocates seeking to clean up the capital. As early as 1859 an essay in the influential Harper’s Monthly was expressing the sentiments that would guide the reformers — that the streets and buildings of Washington ought to be radically replanned so as to “render the seat of Government worthy of the nation. … It is due to the national dignity that Washington should be, if not a great city, a great centre of whatever is noble and beautiful in architecture and the fine arts.” 10
Decades before the extensive land clearances that made way for the Federal Triangle, redevelopment pressures were already transforming one particular block along Pennsylvania Avenue. Identified in Ellicott’s survey as “block #323,” this parcel of land is arguably the apotheosis of the uneasy coexistence of the architectural ideal of “national dignity” and the prosaic reality of the workaday city. Back in the late 19th century, block #323 contained dozens of buildings, including modest houses, small shops, lumber and coal yards, two horse rental facilities, a paper box factory, and an auction house. The single largest structure was the Dime Museum. 11 Now largely forgotten, the dime museum was a popular entertainment venue that flourished along the East Coast and in the Midwest from the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century, when it ceded the lowbrow high ground to vaudeville and movies. The typical dime museum featured a lurid and sensational mix of oddities, magic acts, strange objects, and freak shows. “For a low one-time admission charge,” writes historian Andrea Stulman Dennett, “the dime museum dazzled men, women, and children with its dioramas, panoramas, georamas, cosmoramas, paintings, relics, freaks, stuffed animals, menageries, waxworks, and theatrical performances. Nothing quite like it had existed before.” 12
The rise of the dime museum owes much to P.T. Barnum. Long before he founded his successful circus, the enterprising showman was operating Barnum’s American Museum in Lower Manhattan, a wildly popular assemblage of curiosities and novelties — “Siamese twins, fat boys, bearded ladies, rubber men, legless wonders, and an array of midgets.” Catering to the working and middle classes in America’s growing cities, the dime museums were promoted as family entertainment for god-fearing Christians, a decent and even wholesome alternative to the neighborhood saloon. Many dime museums included exhibitions that portrayed the sorry consequences of drunkenness and debauchery; the Western Museum in Cincinnati boasted a chamber of horrors with elaborate depictions of the Hell that awaited sinners. 13
The dime museum featured a lurid and sensational mix of oddities, magic acts, strange objects, and freak shows.
In the center of our nation’s capital, Barton & Logan’s Dime Museum was a worthy exemplar of the genre, at once capitalizing on our fascination with the abnormal while affirming the self-worth of the “normal”; at the same time, it aimed to foster patriotism and further dreams of prosperity. 14 At its peak the place was so popular that crowds started to line up in the morning, well before the one o’clock opening; they were serenaded by a four-piece band on a balcony above the doorway. Once inside, the races were largely self-segregated, with white patrons likelier to pay the extra five cents for a ground floor seat and blacks predominating on the balcony. Years later one visitor reminisced about the “intense, soul-afflating bliss of it all. … We’d find ourselves in the awe-inspiring presence of Big Winnie, the mammoth fat lady, and Jo-Jo, the Dog-faced Boy, and the sad-looking skeleton … who was always gloomily stroking his emaciated mustache.” 15
Before long the Dime Museum was presenting all too tempting parallels to the national political scene, at least for the cartoonist Bernhard Gillam, who worked for Puck, the leading humor magazine of the day. As the presidential election of 1884 approached, the various candidates were duly depicted as playing roles in what Gillam characterized as the “National Dime-Museum” of U.S. politics. The Republican nominee for president, James Blaine, was satirized as the “tattooed man,” a jibe at his notorious reputation for corruption; the sitting president Chester Arthur was shown as a “Snake Charmer,” playing a horn labeled “patronage.” 16 The eventual winner, Grover Cleveland, a Democrat widely seen as a reform candidate, was not in the cartoon; perhaps he was considered too clean to be a pleasurable target of satire.
The Dime Museum would prove a fleeting phenomenon and, by the early 1890s, the reformist zeal was extending to block #323. In those years municipal and federal leaders in Washington who were seeking to improve the “worthiness” of the capital district did so by displacing all residents and businesses and razing the entire block in order to construct an imposing new post office. Ten-cent entertainment would give way to the penny postcard.
The fitful transition from the rowdiness of Hooker’s Division, Murder Bay, and the Dime Museum to the sober environs of federal bureaucrats began in earnest around the turn of the 20th century. Constructed on block #323 and completed in 1899, the Federal Post Office was distinguished by an imposing clock tower taller than either the Washington Cathedral or the U.S. Capitol. 17 In a city where leaders had long struggled to negotiate the tension between federal and local, it seemed especially promising that the new building at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, designed by a government architect in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, housed both municipal and national postal functions. Even before the new furniture had been delivered, however, the building was the scene of tragedy: an ailing James P. Willett, who had just completed a highly successful term as postmaster, stumbled into an open elevator shaft and plunged to his death. 18 This could be seen as an omen that the history of the block would remain tumultuous.
The new post office enjoyed a prominent site and boasted an impressive flag-draped atrium, yet it proved quickly obsolete, both architecturally and practically. Even before it opened, the building was criticized for its “ugly design” by the president of the American Institute of Architects 19; and it was never truly large enough to support the postal services of both nation and city. By 1914 the city services had relocated to a neoclassical building on Massachusetts Avenue; the federal post office remained at the Pennsylvania Avenue building until 1934, by which time construction of the Federal Triangle was well underway.
The influential McMillan Commission pursued not only aesthetic improvement but also social cleansing and ethnic sorting.
The largely neoclassical collection of governmental buildings that we now call the Federal Triangle — 75 acres formed by the intersection of Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues with 15th Street — would start rising in the late 1920s and early ’30s. But it had its origins in the workings of the influential McMillan Commission — as it was known for the Michigan senator who was its chair — established in 1901 by the U.S. Congress “for the development and improvement of the entire park system of the District of Columbia.” 20 With a roster of stellar appointees — including Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Charles McKim, and Augustus Saint Gaudens — the Commission applied the principles and practices of the emerging City Beautiful movement to the national capital. But their aims were not simply aesthetic improvement; in line with the era’s reformist zeal, the commission pursued the goals of social cleansing and ethnic sorting. “People will no longer continue to endure gross violations of landscape art than they will the disgusting and disorderly in domestic and municipal environment,” declared Burnham in his 1902 essay, “White City and Capital City.” 21 Little wonder that the commission’s plan for the benighted triangle would seek to replace all that was “disgusting and disorderly” with stately bastions of governmental authority. As the historian James Borchert has observed, the City Beautiful movement “thrived on order, separation, and segregation of functions and people.” 22
Indeed, by the time the federal bulldozers began clearing the land to begin construction in the late 1920s, wholesale clearances had already displaced the working-class communities of Italian and Chinese immigrants who were the last vestiges of the “domestic and municipal” in the triangle. 23 As the old Center Market was being razed to make way for the National Archives, an editorial in the Washington Post was commemorating the loss of a “community commercial enterprise established by no less a figure than George Washington himself.” 24 An editorial in the Sunday Star was equally wistful:
The great focus of interest, the one-time social center, place of endless entertainment, is gone and can never be restored. … Buildings will rise, capital-like in outlines and dimensions, the buildings the Government needs, of which Washington will always be proud. … Another generation will have no concept of the significance of the site on which they stand. 25
Although increasingly assailed as an unfashionable pile amidst the neoclassical austerity of the Triangle, the Old Post Office survived numerous calls for its demolition. Starting in the 1930s, the building was used for decades as an all-purpose federal back office, housing the overflow from the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Labor, Interior, and Justice, as well as the General Accounting Office, Interstate Commerce Commission, Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Information Agency. But its chief tenant was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which occupied the increasingly shabby building from the 1930s through the mid ’70s.
In the mid 20th century, the building became the FBI’s ‘wiretapping central.’
In those years various FBI functions, including training and personnel, crowded the worn old spaces. Most notoriously the building became the Bureau’s “wiretapping central.” The agency’s clandestine surveillance operations, which included monitoring the conversations of antiwar activists and civil rights leaders, came to light in the aftermath of Watergate amidst accusations that the Nixon administration had illegally spied on government officials, leading journalists, and even a Supreme Court justice. In a deposition taken in the early 1970s, FBI agent Ernest Belter, who “from 1962 to 1973 personally installed nearly 90 percent of all national security wiretaps,” described the scene: “Scores of ‘investigative clerks’ sit before modified switchboards at library tables, headphones clamped over their ears, reference books at their sides to help identify names, waiting to listen in on conversations picked up on what some consider the nation’s most sensitive domestic wiretaps.” 26
In 1975 the FBI moved its operations, tape recorders and all, into the massive new J. Edgar Hoover Building across Pennsylvania Avenue; and once again the Old Post Office would be given new purpose. In those years preservationists lobbied successfully to list the building on the National Register. Ten massive cast-iron bells — replicas of those in Westminster Abbey, given to the United States by a British foundation during the bicentennial and used to signal the opening and closing of Congress — were installed in the clock tower. The tired old spaces — littered with “debris from departing bureaucrats” as one reporter wrote — were extensively renovated to accommodate a new program which mixed national service with middlebrow retail.
Designed by Arthur Cotton Moore, one of the city’s leading architects, the renovations restored the glass-roofed nine-story atrium and created venues for the assorted restaurants and “specialty impulse retail” shops that together would comprise “The Pavilion at the Old Post Office” — a version of the then-popular festival marketplace. The offices on the upper floors were occupied by the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. 28 For the first time since the demise of the Dime Museum, the former block #323 was again a place for public gathering and live performances. Visitors could dine in an international food court (“Embassy Row”) or an American counterpart (“Main Street USA”). At the opening of the Pavilion, in September 1983, Mayor Marion Barry arrived on horseback to deliver the dedication, accompanied by Pony Express riders, brass bands, and 6,000 balloons. Later that year a crowd of 25,000 gathered outside the Old Post Office to attend the city’s official new year’s celebration. As the Washington Post reported, “at the stroke of midnight, as bells in the Post Office tower chimed, and a giant depiction of the U.S. Postal Service’s new ‘Love’ stamp finished its drop from the top of the clock tower, the people shouted, kissed and broke into a chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’” 29
The era of civic festivity did not last long.
By the turn of the millennium, the Pavilion at the Post Office had proved to be a financial failure. As the Washington Post reported, business was so bad that “the government has stopped charging rent for use of the retail space, which is just as well, because in the seventeen years that the Pavilion has been open, it has never once turned a profit.” 30 The problem was rooted in urban design: the retail complex, with its shops and restaurants organized around the interior atrium, lacked the sort of street-facing enticements that had made block #323 so bustling and busy back in the days of the Dime Museum. Soon the General Services Administration, which has long operated the building, was fielding proposals for new uses. In the mid-aughts the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff attempted to lease the property on behalf of a Native American tribe; the ensuing bribery and corruption scandal would lead to the convictions of Abramoff and numerous cronies, including the chief of staff of the GSA. 32 Around the same time a consortium of women’s groups sought, unsuccessfully, to persuade the government to lease space to the fledgling Women’s National History Museum; proponents even envisioned that the atrium would become the “Glass Ceiling Café.” 31
Eventually, in 2011, the GSA issued a formal request for proposals, which attracted redevelopment schemes ranging from a National Museum of the Jewish People to assorted luxury hotel projects. 32 It was from among the hoteliers that the GSA selected Trump Old Post Office LLC as the winning bid. Although seasoned developers like Hyatt and Hilton had fielded proposals, the less experienced Trump Organization — whose checkered history included six hotel bankruptcies — prevailed largely because of it promised to employ Arthur Cotton Moore as the preservation architect and to partner with Colony Capital, a real estate investment firm with, according to BuzzFeed News, “a rock-solid financial reputation.” 33 The Trump team quickly abandoned both promises, along with commitments to adhere to preservation design standards that required developers to respect the “original fabric” of the national landmark. By the time of its opening in fall 2016, shortly before the presidential election, the Old Post Office carried the unmistakable stamp of Trump; from the 4,000-square-foot Presidential Suite with the bathroom tiled in Calacatta Gold marble to the gold-leaf finishes of the 13,200-square-foot Presidential Ballroom, mere elegance is everywhere outmuscled by garish abundance. 34
Yet the GSA still offered the Trumps a 60-year lease — an arrangement that puts the First Family in the unorthodox position of being both landlord and tenant on one of the most prominent sites in the capital. And which in the past couple of years has made the property almost as notorious as its owner. The hotel has courted and received the patronage of foreign governments and countless lobbyists eager to find favor with the developer-president, and it’s become a prime spot for government employees to do business over meals that are reimbursed at taxpayer expense. 35 The hotel is now the focus of several high-profile lawsuits charging that Trump-the-brand is causing conflicts of interest with Trump-the-president and thus leading to numerous violations of the once-obscure “emoluments” clause of the Constitution.
The hotel has been patronized by foreign governments and lobbyists eager to curry favor with the developer-president.
The lobby of the Trump International Hotel sits exactly on the site of the old Dime Museum even as the anti-Trump lobby mobilizes just outside. In the spring of 2017, as the president’s legal challenges began to intensify, the multimedia artist Robin Bell, born and raised in D.C., began beaming video projections onto the hotel’s 12th Street entrance. In the spirit of Bernhard Gillam’s satirical cartoons for Puck, Bell and his team have been annotating the façade with pointed provocations. From a truck parked across the street or from a wheeled projector, they’ve cast a variety of digitized aspersions. EMOLUMENTS WELCOME: OPEN 24 HOURS. PAY TRUMP BRIBES HERE. US FOREIGN POLICY BOUGHT AND SOLD HERE. THIS PLACE IS A SHITHOLE. And for passersby unfamiliar with Article I of the U.S. Constitution, Bell helpfully provided the full text of the emoluments clause:
NO TITLE OF NOBILITY SHALL BE GRANTED BY THE UNITED STATES: AND NO PERSON HOLDING ANY OFFICE OF PROFIT OR TRUST UNDER THEM, SHALL, WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE CONGRESS, ACCEPT OF ANY PRESENT, EMOLUMENT, OFFICE, OR TITLE, OF ANY KIND WHATEVER, FROM ANY KING, PRINCE, OR FOREIGN STATE.
Bell’s incisive and insistent projections transformed Trump’s hotel into a vehicle for discomfiting truths about Trump’s presidency. Not surprisingly, by the fall of 2018, federal agencies were proposing new limits on political protests in iconic Washington locales, including the Pennsylvania Avenue frontage of Trump’s hotel; equally unsurprisingly, the proposed new rules provoked new protest. 36 In the tense standoff between the pursuit of “worthy” grandeur and the counterclaims of corrupt self-dealing, the Trump International Hotel is an all too fitting successor to more than two centuries of contested practices in the heart of the American capital.