Mount Vernon, Virginia

The Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, as seen from the west side, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The land that would become the Mount Vernon estate had been in the Washington family since 1674, when John Washington – an English immigrant and great-grandfather of the future president – acquired the property. It was subsequently owned by his son Lawrence, and then Lawrence’s daughter Mildred, before being purchased by Mildred’s brother Augustine Washington in 1726.

Augustine Washington was 31 years old at the time, and had a wife, Jane, and three children. However, Jane died only a few years later, and in 1731 he remarried to Mary Ball, with whom he had six more children. The oldest of these was George Washington, who was born in 1732 at Popes Creek, a plantation further south of here along the Potomac River. The Washington family lived there for several more years, but around 1734 Augustine constructed the earliest portion of the mansion house here at Mount Vernon, which was known as Little Hunting Creek Plantation at the time.

Around 1739, Augustine and his family moved to Fredericksburg, and left Little Hunting Creek to his oldest son, Lawrence. In 1743, Lawrence married Anne Fairfax, and he renamed the plantation Mount Vernon, in honor of his former commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon. The couple had four children here, although none of them survived childhood, and both Lawrence and Anne also died young, in 1752 and 1761, respectively.

In his will, Lawrence left Mount Vernon to his wife for the rest of her life, with his brother George to inherit the property upon her death. In 1754, George Washington began leasing Mount Vernon from Anne, and in 1758 he expanded the original house, likely in preparation for his upcoming marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. The house had been built with only one story, along with a garret above it, but Washington added a full second story, with a garret on the third floor. Following the completion of this project, the house consisted of what is now the central portion of the building.

George Washington acquired the property outright when Anne died in 1761, and in 1774 he began the second major expansion, with two-story additions on either side of the house. The pediment was also added during this time, as was the iconic two-story portico on the east side of the house. The interior work would not be finished until 1787, but the exterior was completed in 1775, the same year that Washington left Mount Vernon to take command of the Continental Army. Washington himself is generally credited with designing the plans for the addition, thus adding architect to his lengthy list of accomplishments.

Although he would spend many years away from Mount Vernon during the American Revolution and during his presidency, the estate would be his home for the rest of his life, until his death here on December 14, 1799. Martha Washington died two and a half years later, and Washington’s nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, subsequently inherited Mount Vernon. After Bushrod’s death in 1829, his nephew, John Augustine Washington II, inherited it, followed by John’s son, John Augustine Washington III.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, though, the various generations of Washingtons struggled to maintain the property. As is often the case with landed aristocrats, they were land rich but cash poor, and Mount Vernon suffered neglect because of the cost of upkeep. Finally, in 1858, John Augustine Washington III sold the mansion and surrounding land to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. This organization subsequently restored the property, making it one of the first historic house museums in the country.

Mount Vernon opened for visitors in 1860, and it has remained a popular tourist attraction ever since. The first photo was taken some 50-60 years later, and it shows the view of the mansion from the west, looking across the bowling green. Today, hardly anything has changed in this scene. The property is still operated by Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which remains an independent nonprofit organization, and it draws an estimated one million visitors each year. Because of its historical significance, Mount Vernon was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, making it one of the first sites in the country to receive this recognition.

George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, VA

George Washington’s tomb, at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The tomb in 2018:

George Washington died on December 14, 1799, here on his Mount Vernon estate. Four days later, his body was interred in the Washington family crypt, which was located just down the hill from his mansion, on the banks of the Potomac River. This was intended to be only a temporary tomb for Washington, as there were several different plans for his final resting place. One proposal was to bury him underneath the Capitol rotunda, and a crypt was even constructed for this purpose. However, a different plan called for Washington to be reinterred in a new, larger tomb at Mount Vernon.

It would ultimately take more than three decades for this question to be resolved, and it was only addressed after a rather bizarre act of vandalism. In 1830, a gardener, who had been recently fired from his job at Mount Vernon, decided to respond by stealing George Washington’s skull. He broke into the tomb, which was filled with the remains of at least 20 members of the family, but he ended up taking the wrong skull. Washington’s body was left undisturbed, and the perpetrator was quickly caught, but the incident highlighted the need for a new tomb that was more fitting for the father of his country

The result was this brick tomb, as shown in these two photos. It was completed in 1831, and George and Martha Washington’s remains were subsequently moved here, along with the remains of the other family members. Then, in 1837, he was placed in a marble sarcophagus, which can be seen just beyond the right side of the gate. In the process, his coffin was opened for the only time, perhaps in order to verify that his head was still in place, and observers noted that his body had been well-preserved over the intervening 38 years.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the tomb had been joined by two obelisks at the front. The one on the right memorializes George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, who had inherited Mount Vernon upon Martha Washington’s death in 1802. He was also an associate justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, serving from 1798 until his death in 1829. The other obelisk is for John Augustine Washington II and his son, John Augustine Washington III. The elder John was a nephew of Bushrod Washington, and inherited Mount Vernon from him. The younger John later inherited the estate from his father, and he was the last member of the Washington family to own it before selling it to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1858.

Today, almost nothing has changed in this scene in nearly 120 years since the first photo was taken. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association continues to own the property, which includes the mansion, its many outbuildings, the surrounding grounds, and the tomb. The estate was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, exactly a hundred years after it opened to the public as a museum, and today it remains a popular tourist attraction, with around one million visitors each year.

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.

Arlington House, Arlington, Virginia

The Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2018:

This house was built over a period of 15 years between 1803 and 1818, and it was originally the home of George Washington Parke Custis. Born in 1781, Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington, from her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. His father, John Parke “Jacky” Custis, had died when George Washington Parke Custis was only a few months old, and George and Martha subsequently raised him as their adopted son. George Washington died in 1799, and Martha in 1802, leaving Custis a significant inheritance. Also in 1802, Custis turned 21, thus inheriting a fortune in money and land from his late father.

Among his father’s land holdings was an 1,100-acre estate on the Potomac River, overlooking the newly-established national capital of Washington. He named the property Arlington, and soon began construction on a mansion, which would become known as Arlington House. For the design, he hired George Hadfield, a noted architect who was responsible for several important buildings in Washington. The exterior of the house featured a very early example of Greek Revival architecture, with its most distinctive feature being the eight large columns here on the front portico. Although it appears to be built of sandstone and marble, the exterior is actually stucco-covered brick, which was intended to give it the appearance of stone.

The War of 1812 delayed construction of the house, but it was completed in 1818. Custis and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, would go on to live here for the rest of their lives, until her death in 1853 and his in 1857. They had four children, although only one, Mary Anna Randolph Curtis, lived to adulthood. In 1831, at the age of 23, she married 24-year-old army officer Robert E. Lee, in a ceremony that was held here at Arlington House. It would be their home for the next 30 years, during which time Lee steadily rose in rank from a lieutenant to a colonel in the United States Army. He served in the Mexican-American War, and more than a decade later he led the group of soldiers that suppressed John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

Lee’s wife Mary inherited Arlington House after her father’s death in 1857, but the family did not get to enjoy the property for much longer. On April 16, 1861, four days after the attack on Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the main Union army. However, Virginia declared its secession the following day, and Lee declined the offer. Instead, he resigned his commission in the the United States Army and joined the Confederate States Army, where he would command the Army of Northern Virginia for most of the war.

In the meantime, Arlington House quickly became a target for Union forces who were defending Washington. Because of its prominent location overlooking the city, it was imperative that it not fall into Confederate hands. The house was seized on May 24, 1861, and it subsequently became the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. Despite this occupation, though, the Lee family formally continued to own the house until 1864, when it was taken by the federal government for nonpayment of taxes.

Later in 1864, with the Union needing more space to bury soldiers killed in the war, the property became Arlington National Cemetery. Part of the intention behind this move was to forever deprive Lee of the use of the estate, and to that end many of the early burials were right near the house. The first interment occurred on May 13, and thousands more would follow in the remaining 11 months of the war. These included the remains of 2,111 unidentified Union and Confederate soldiers, whose remains were collected from various battlefields. They were buried in a vault behind and to the left of the house, and the spot is marked by the Civil War Unknowns Monument.

Following the war, neither Robert E. Lee nor Mary Lee ever attempted to reclaim the title of the estate, although their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, successfully sued for its return. However, not interested in living in the middle of a cemetery, he then sold the property back to the federal government in 1883 for $150,000. In the ensuing years, though, the government directed most of its attention to the cemetery itself, with little concern for the mansion. By the time the first photo was taken around 1900, the house was largely unused, and the immediate grounds had been heavily altered from their prewar appearance.

The mansion was finally restored in the late 1920s, although the original focus was on the Custis family, as opposed to the Lees. However, in 1955 the house was renamed the Custis-Lee Mansion, and then in 1972 it became Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, thus placing a greater emphasis on Lee’s connection to the house. It has remained in use as a museum since then, although it was closed for renovations in early 2018, a few months before the first photo was taken. As part of this project, the house will be restored to its 1860 appearance, and the slave quarters and surrounding grounds will also be restored. The work will cost an estimated $12.35 million, and it is scheduled to be completed in January 2020.

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.