Iris Miller knows her way around Washington. In fact, the 64-year-old director of landscape studies at Catholic University says she has looked at more than 1,000 maps and drawings of the District since the beginning of her career in architecture, in the late ’70s.
About a tenth of those are reproduced in Miller’s newly published Washington in Maps, a 176-page history of the city told through a wide array of maps and accompanying texts. The idea for the book sprang from Miller’s exasperation at the difficulty of locating a single repository for D.C. cartography. “I thought it was ridiculous to have to run all over the city to get maps,” she says.
So about 20 years ago, Miller began securing maps from an exhaustive number of area institutions—including the D.C. Surveyor’s Office, the National Capital Planning Commission, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.—and private collections, as well as from museums in New York and Chicago.
“Also,” she notes, “if you’re doing the background information, arguing about the precedents that Pierre L’Enfant used to design Washington, you have to go to French sources.” So, with the aid of a grant from the French government, Miller made the necessary trips to France.
In the book, Miller argues that
L’Enfant derived his plan for Washington from a combination of studying French cities and carefully examining the local landscape. However, because L’Enfant had difficulties publishing his design and was dismissed from his position as city planner after just a year on the job, it was Andrew Ellicott whose name appeared on the first officially published plan of the city in 1792.
“It is assumed that L’Enfant’s drawings were stolen by Andrew Ellicott’s brother, Benjamin,” says Miller. Though the L’Enfant and Ellicott plans are similar, Miller believes there are important differences, especially in how much some diagonal streets were allowed to follow the natural terrain. “L’Enfant understood how you can make small moves to heighten the excitement in the terrain,” she says. “I feel we lost a certain flexibility in the design of Washington because Ellicott straightened the streets.”
Nonetheless, Washington in Maps shows a city that has developed substantially over the past two centuries. Miller presents maps that detail the Potomac River reclamation project that began in the 1880s, the 1901 expansion of the National Mall, and the circa-1902 proposal to enclose Rock Creek in a culvert and create a road above it. But Miller also uncovered maps that show how little Washington has really changed: Some, such as one from 1926 that divides local schools into “colored” and “white,” detail how segregation has, she says, “happened over and over in this city as it has grown.”
Miller presents these documents of ugly realities alongside others of magnificent beauty, such as Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the U.S. Capitol grounds. “I had always admired the plan,” recalls Miller. When she arrived at the U.S. Capitol archives to view it, she had seen the map only in old transparencies. When the archivist showed her another transparency, and then a print, Miller says, “I told him, ‘You know, I’d really like to see the original.’” After some persuasion, the archivist relented. “I was in tears,” she says. “It was so gorgeous, one of the most beautiful drawings I’d ever seen.” —Matthew Summers