White House, Washington, DC

The north side of the White House, seen from Pennsylvania Avenue around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The White House in 2018:

Construction on the White House started in 1792, although it would not be occupied until 1800, when the national capital was moved to Washington and John Adams moved into the house. However, the White House has undergone significant changes since then, and today very little survives from the building that John and Abigail Adams moved into nearly 220 years ago.

The original design for the White House was the work of Irish-born architect James Hoban. He likely modeled the north facade, shown here in this view, after Leinster House in Dublin, and the south facade may have been inspired by Château de Rastignac in France. The north facade also bears a strong resemblance to the Charleston County Courthouse in South Carolina, which had been designed by Hoban several years earlier.

In 1814, the White House was burned by invading British forces, completely gutting the building and leaving only its exterior walls still standing. The White House was soon rebuilt, but most of the walls had to be reconstructed, leaving only a small portion of the original structure in the new building. James Hoban was involved in this reconstruction work, as was Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who also worked to rebuild the Capitol after it was likewise burned.

The new White House was completed in 1817, although without its distinctive porticoes on either side. The curved south portico was constructed in 1824, during James Monroe’s presidency, and the portico here on the north side was added five years later, at the start of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Subsequent presidents would make further changes to the White House, although these generally involved the interior. It would not be until 1902 that the building itself would be expanded, with wings on the east and west sides of the original structure.

The first photo was taken only a few years later, about halfway through the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The wings that he had added – which would later be replaced by the current East and West Wings – are not visible from this angle, but the photo provides a good view of the original section of the building as it appeared at the turn of the 20th century.

By far the most dramatic change to the White House came during the presidency of Harry S. Truman, nearly 50 years after the first photo was taken. By this point, the building was almost 150 years old, and it was beginning to show its age. The various renovations and additions over the years had severely compromised its structural integrity, and by the late 1940s the second floor was in imminent danger of collapse.

As a result, the White House underwent a massive renovation starting in 1949. For the second time in its history, the interior was gutted, leaving nothing but the exterior walls. A new interior was built with a steel frame, and the rooms were reconstructed inside of it, with few changes to the overall layout of the first and second floors. Much of the historic fabric of the interior was salvaged during the demolition process, and some of it was incorporated into the rebuilt White House, although other materials were sold to the public as souvenirs. The project was completed in 1952, with Truman returning to the renovated White House near the end of his second term.

Despite these dramatic changes to the interior, the exterior has not changed much in more than a century since the first photo was taken. One major difference, though, is the level of security at the White House and the surrounding area. The public once had unrestricted access to both the White House and the grounds, but over the years this has been steadily limited due to security concerns. Pennsylvania Avenue, seen in the foreground, has been closed to vehicular traffic since 1995, because of its proximity to the White House. More recently, the street and the south sidewalk have been closed to pedestrians, and today visitors must view it from across the street at Lafayette Square, as shown in the 2018 photo.

Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool, Washington, DC

The view of the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, seen from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in November 1943. Image taken by Esther Bubley, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The first photo was taken in 1943 by Esther Bubley, a noted photographer who was employed by the Office of War Information. Only 22 years old at the time, she spent much of 1943 documenting civilian life on the home front, particularly here in the Washington area. Most of the subjects in her photographs were people, but this is one of the few cityscape photographs in her collection, showing one of Washington’s most iconic views in the midst of World War II. Taken from essentially the same spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. would give his “I Have a Dream” speech 20 years later, the first photo shows the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, with the Washington Monument beyond it in the center of the scene.

This view is easily recognizable today, but upon close examination there were some differences in 1943. On the left side of the scene were the Main Navy and Munitions Buildings, a group of temporary military buildings that were constructed during World War I. They can be seen in a 1922 photo from a previous post, and they were still in use during World War II, and by this point they had been joined by newer temporary buildings, hidden from view on the right side of the scene. These buildings were constructed in order to accommodate the large numbers of government employees needed for the war effort, and the two complexes were joined by pedestrian bridges that spanned the Reflecting Pool, as seen in the first photo.

The bridges were removed soon after the end of the war, but the “temporary” buildings would remain here for several more decades. The ones on the right were finally demolished in 1964, and the ones on the left in 1970. Both sides of the Reflecting Pool became open parkland, with the left side being developed as Constitution Gardens. Otherwise, this scene has not significantly changed in the 76 years since the first photo was taken, and the only noteworthy addition is the World War II Memorial, located at the far end of the Reflecting Pool. This memorial was dedicated in 2004, on what had previously been the site of the Rainbow Pool, and it honors the Americans who were serving in the war around the same time that the first photo was taken.

Old Post Office, Washington, DC

The Old Post Office, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street NW in Washington, DC, around 1909-1923. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2018, now the Trump International Hotel:

This massive Romanesque-style building was constructed between 1892 and 1899, and it was built to house the Washington, D.C. post office. It was the work of architect Willoughby J. Edbrooke, and it consisted of a granite exterior with a steel frame supporting the interior. Its northern facade, seen here facing Pennsylvania Avenue, had a symmetrical design that included a 315-foot clock tower, which made it the second-tallest structure in the city after the Washington Monument.

Although Romanesque-style architecture had been popular for public buildings in the 1880s, it had begun to fall out of fashion in the 1890s. By the time the post office was completed in 1899, architectural trends had shifted away from these medieval castle-like buildings, and its design was essentially obsolete even before the last stone was laid. As a result, the building’s architecture drew heavy criticism, but this was not the only problem with the building. Despite the building’s size, the post office facilities quickly became overcrowded, and much of the workmanship proved to be of poor quality. This was highlighted by an early tragedy that occurred on September 30, 1899, when former postmaster James P. Willett was killed after falling 90 feet down an open elevator shaft that had been insufficiently secured.

As it turned out, the Post Office would only use this building for 15 years before relocating to a new facility near Union Station in 1914. The older building became offices for other government agencies, but by the late 1920s it was in danger of being demolished as part of the Federal Triangle redevelopment project. This plan called for the wholesale demolition of the buildings in the blocks bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, Constitution Avenue to the south, and 15th Street to the west. They were to be replaced by new federal office buildings, and the plan originally included the demolition of the Old Post Office, which stood in the midst of the site. However, the Old Post Office ultimately survived – perhaps because of the perceived folly of tearing down a comparatively new building – and it remained in use as newer federal buildings rose up around it in the 1930s.

The Old Post Office was again threatened by demolition in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but local preservation activists managed to save the building. It was subsequently leased to a private company, which completed a major renovation project in 1983. The former government office building became a mix of retail and office tenants, but the property was never particularly profitable, and it finally closed by the early 2000s.

The building has since undergone another renovation, though, in order to convert it into a hotel. In 2013, the General Services Administration leased the property to Donald Trump, and three years later it reopened as the Trump International Hotel Washington DC. Although he was not yet a presidential candidate when he signed the 60-year lease, Trump’s ownership of the hotel has become a source of controversy. These include conflict of interest concerns over a government official benefiting from a government lease, along with questions about whether it is a violation of the emoluments clause if foreign dignitaries stay at the hotel.

Overall, the Old Post Office has generated many different kinds of controversy in the 120 years since its completion. However, despite criticism of its architecture and workmanship, proposals for various redevelopment projects, and recent questions about presidential ethics, the building has remained a landmark here on Pennsylvania Avenue. The interior has seen many changes over the years, but the exterior has remained remarkably well-preserved since the first photo was taken. Along with the other surrounding buildings, it is now a contributing property in the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site, which was designated in 1965, encompassing the section of Washington between the Capitol and the White House.

US Capitol, Washington, DC

The dome of the United States Capitol, seen from the southwest side of the building, around 1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The history of the United States Capitol dates back to 1793, when George Washington laid the cornerstone of the building. It was first used by Congress in 1800, when the south wing was completed, and the north wing followed in 1807. However, the Capitol was burned by British forces during the invasion of Washington in 1814, and it would not ultimately be completed until 1826. At the time, though, the building looked very different from its current appearance. As shown in this earlier post, it consisted of only rotunda, topped by a low dome, and a small wing on either side of it.

It was not until the 1850s that the Capitol began to take on its current exterior appearance. As the nation grew, so did the size of Congress, and this required the construction of new legislative chambers here in the Capitol. This led to new, larger wings next to the old chambers, along with a larger dome to better suit the scale of the expanded building. The new House and Senate chambers were completed in 1857 and 1859, respectively, but the dome would take longer. As discussed in another previous post, it was still very much unfinished at the outbreak of the Civil War, but it was ultimately completed in 1866.

This dome would become the most distinctive part of the Capitol, serving as a symbol for both Congress and the federal government as a whole. Unlike the rest of the building, the dome is made of cast iron, and at 288 feet it is the tallest cast iron dome in the world. It was the work of architect Thomas U. Walter, who based his design on notable European domes, such as those of the Pantheon and St. Paul’s Cathedral. At the top of the dome is the Statue of Freedom, a 19.5-foot, 15,000-pound bronze statue that was designed by sculptor Thomas Crawford and installed in 1863.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the Capitol had largely assumed its modern-day appearance. Aside from a late 1950s expansion of the east front, on the opposite side of the building, nearly all of the work done to the building since then has involved conservation and restoration. Today, more than 115 years after the first photo was taken, this particular scene has remained virtually unchanged. However, perhaps the only difference is the level of security at the Capitol. The first photo shows a group of five people descending the steps, but today these steps are closed, and the only public access to the Capitol is through the Capitol Visitor Center, located on the opposite side of the building.

Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington, DC

The National Statuary Hall, formerly the U.S. House of Representatives chamber in the Capitol, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2018:

This room in the United States Capitol was constructed between 1815 and 1819 as the House of Representatives chamber. However, the House had actually met here at this site since 1801, when a temporary structure was built here while the Capitol was still under construction. This was replaced by a permanent House chamber in 1807, but this was subsequently burned during the British invasion of Washington in 1814. It was soon rebuilt, though, with designs by architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch.

The room is semicircular, and shaped like an ancient amphitheater. It is surrounded on all sides by locally-quarried marble columns, which are topped by white marble Corinthian capitals that were imported from Italy. The original design of the room also included two statues, both of which are still here. One is located directly behind where this photo was taken from, and the other, Liberty and the Eagle, is visible above the columns in the center of the room. It was the work of sculptor Enrico Causici, and it features a female depiction of Liberty, holding the Constitution in her outstretched right hand. To her right is an eagle, and to the left is a snake on a column.

Several years after its completion, the House chamber became the subject of an 1823 painting by Samuel F. B. Morse, who had a successful career as a painter before turning his attention to telegraphy. His painting, included below, shows the view of the room from the left side, at approximately a right angle from where these two photos were taken. It is now on display a few blocks away from here at the National Gallery of Art, providing a rare glimpse into this room during the years that it was used by the House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives met here until 1857, when the present House chamber was completed. During this time, this room was the site of many important events. In the years before presidential inaugurations were consistently held outdoors, several such ceremonies were held here, including James Monroe (1821), John Quincy Adams (1825), Andrew Jackson (1833), and Millard Fillmore (1850). Both of James Madison’s inaugurations (1809 and 1813) were also held here, although these occurred before the postwar reconstruction of the chamber. In addition to being inaugurated here, this chamber was also the site of John Quincy Adams’s election to the presidency. None of the four candidates in the 1824 election had received a majority of the electoral votes, so it was left to the House to choose the president here.

Adams’s association with this room would ultimately go far beyond his highly-contested presidential election. Two years after his defeat for re-election in 1828, he became the only ex-president to be elected to the House of Representatives, and he would go on to serve here for nearly 17 years. It was also here that, in 1836, the House instituted the Gag Rule, which blocked discussion of any anti-slavery petitions. This was designed to silence northern abolitionists, particularly Adams, who became perhaps the most vocal opponent of the rule. It would eventually be repealed in 1844, thanks in large part to his efforts, and Adams continued to be be one of the most outspoken abolitionists in the House until his death in 1848. On February 21 of that year, he suffered a stroke while at his desk here in the House chamber, and he died two days later in the adjacent speaker’s room.

Among those present in the chamber when Adams collapsed was Abraham Lincoln, a freshman representative from Illinois. Although they had only been colleagues in the House for a year, Lincoln was selected to serve as a pallbearer at Adams’s funeral, which was also held here in the House chamber. This would prove to be a fitting selection, as Lincoln would eventually accomplish Adams’s lifelong goal of abolishing slavery. Today, plaques on the floor of this room mark the locations of both Lincoln’s desk – located in the rear of the room on the far right side of this scene – and Adams’s desk, which was also on the right, but near the front of the room.

Overall, this room was the site of some of the most important debates and acts of legislation during the antebellum period of American history. The Missouri Compromise was introduced and debated here in 1820, only a year after the room was completed, and it set the policy for the admission of new states for more than three decades. However, in 1854, only a few years before the House relocated to its current chamber, the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law was hotly debated here on the floor of the House before eventually passing by a narrow margin, and it would prove to be one of the major controversies that ultimately led to the start of the Civil War.

The admission of new states was a considerable source of strife within the House of Representatives throughout the first half of the 19th century, but it also posed a more logistical problem for the House. When this room was completed in 1819, the country had 22 states, with a total of 187 representatives serving here. However, by 1857 there were 31 states, with plenty more potential states on the horizon, and the House had grown to 237 representatives. This overcrowding, combined with notoriously poor acoustics in the room, led Congress to expand the Capitol in the 1850s. On the exterior, the most noticeable changes were the addition of two new wings for new legislative chambers, and a new, larger dome in the center of the building. The current House chamber – located through the doors in the distant center of this scene – was completed in 1857, and the current Senate chamber was completed in 1859 on the opposite end of the building.

After the House moved out, there were several different proposals for re-using this room, including as an art gallery, as space for the Library of Congress, or dividing it into two floors of conference rooms. It would remain vacant for several years, though, with Congress likely being more preoccupied by the Civil War than by redesigning rooms in the Capitol. However, in 1864 this room was designated as the National Statuary Hall, and each state was invited to send two statues of prominent individuals from their history.

The first statue arrived here in 1870, but it would take another century before every state was represented by at least one statue, and it was not until 2005 that each state had two statues here. When the first photo was taken around the turn of the 20th century, the collection included about two dozen statues, eleven of which are visible in this photo. From left to right, these include Roger Sherman (CT), Jonathan Trumbull (CT), Peter Muhlenberg (PA), Ethan Allen (VT), Lewis Cass (MI), James Garfield (OH), William Allen (OH), Jacob Collamer (VT), Robert Fulton (PA), Nathaniel Greene (RI), and Roger Williams (RI).

Over time, as the collection of statues grew, this room became too overcrowded. The dozens of heavy statues also raised structural concerns, so many of them were ultimately relocated to other parts of the Capitol. Today, there are 38 here in Statuary Hall, although only three of the ones visible in the first photo are still here in this room. Of these, only Lewis Cass is still visible from this angle, with his statue standing between the two columns on the left, only a few feet from where it stood a century earlier in the first photo. One of the statues from the first photo, William Allen, has been entirely removed from the Capitol; his statue was replaced in 2016 by one of Thomas Edison.

Overall, aside from rearranged statues, the Statuary Hall has not seen too many changes since the first photo was taken over a century ago. However, in 1976 it was partially restored to its early 19th century appearance, using Morse’s painting as a guide. This included the addition of curtains behind the curtains, along with a replica of the original chandelier in the center of the room. As a result, the present-day appearance of Statuary Hall actually bears a better resemblance to the old House chamber than it did when the first photo was taken.

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The Great Hall in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, around 1900-1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2018:

The Library of Congress is said to be the largest library in the world, with over 168 items in its collections. These are housed in four different buildings in and near Washington, D.C., but the oldest of these is the main building, located directly across the street from the Capitol. Completed in 1897, and later named in honor of Thomas Jefferson in 1980, this building includes the main reading room, along with smaller specialized reading rooms and a variety of galleries.

Along with its massive collection of books, though, the Library of Congress also features outstanding Beaux-Arts architecture, on both the interior and exterior. Aside from the main reading room itself, perhaps the single most impressive interior space is here in the great hall, where the main staircase is located. As these photos show, the space is lavishly decorated, and it includes a wide variety of works by some of the leading American painters and sculptors of the late 19th century.

This particular view shows the northeastern corner of the great hall. In the lower part of the scene is the staircase, which features carved images of young boys. Known as putti – but often conflated with cherubs – many of these figures represent different occupations, such as a printer, physician, musician, and electrician. Two others sit on opposite sides of a globe, representing Europe and Asia, and several others represent the fine arts. These were all carved by noted sculptor Philip Martiny, whose other works here included the carvings in the corner of the ceiling.

On the far right side of the scene is the arch that leads to the main reading room. It was designed by sculptor Olin L. Warner, and it features a pair of figures, one young and one old, representing knowledge. Directly above the arch is an inscription that recognizes the architects and engineers involved in constructing the library, and the inscription is flanked by a pair of eagles.

Further up in the great hall, the upper portions of the walls are painted with a variety of designs. On the left side of the scene, just to the left of the round windows, are three paintings that feature allegorical depictions of women. From left to right, they represent Understanding, Knowledge, and Philosophy. A fourth figure, just out of view to the left, represents Wisdom. Above these paintings, and around the ceiling of the second level, are a number of printers’ marks, which served as early forms of trademarks beginning in the Renaissance era.

The other noteworthy feature of the great hall is its ceiling. Although only partially visible in these views, it is decorated with murals done by artist Frederic C. Martin, in addition to the corner figures carved by Philip Martiny. Each of these carvings has two winged figures, and in between them is an image of a book and a torch, which represent learning. In the middle of the ceiling are six square skylights, with designs that match the floor of the great hall.

Today, nearly 120 years after the first photo was taken, remarkably little has changed here in the great hall. The building is popular among visitors to Washington, who are able to admire the architecture, explore the nearby exhibits, and view the library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which is located on the first floor, just out of view beyond the lower right corner of the scene. Overall, the only readily visible change between these two photos is the bust of Thomas Jefferson, which now sits in what had originally been an empty niche beneath the staircase.