Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Robert Kapsch – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of a New Federal City, 1790-1840”

Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of a New Federal City, 1790-1840

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018


1. Tell us about the book.

Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of a New Federal City, 1790-1840, tells the story of how, after mobilizing a rebellion, winning a war and uniting the colonies under a constitutional republic, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson once again beat the odds – in this case constructing a city from the ground up.  The subplot is that this apparently impossible building project also marked the beginning of civil engineering in America – a consequence that would bring America to the forefront in the Industrial Age that followed.

2. What’s your thesis? Story arc?

      The concept of the city of Washington as the capital of the new nation was not just a handsome plan by L’Enfant or a political strategy to integrate the northern and southern interests.  It was realized as a fully functional city with all the trimmings – forts, roads, bridges, canals, docks, government structures, shops, stables, homes, parks, lighting, statuary – built by laborers and artisans – both enslaved and free – with much of the design and engineering being developed on the spot.  And then when the British forces burned the brand-new city down, they built it again, better than ever.

3. What are the most important influences?

      The project came at a time when the Age of Enlightenment had included a golden era of architecture and as the world was placing ever greater value on scientific progress and industrial innovation.  Both Washington and Jefferson avidly believed in the contributions to humanity of the classical world – Roman and Greek – while recognizing the importance of the innovations that were being developed during their lifetimes.  Progressive thinkers such as Benjamin Latrobe, Thomas Moore and James Hoban were key to the successful building of the city and all its accoutrements.

4. What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject?

      The most prevalent myth was that the city was built on a swamp.  The only swamp was where the upstream settlements had increased sedimentation and created the tidal flats near present-day Haines Point. The rest of the city was built on the hills and broad fields that are still the topography of the city.

      William Thornton’s contributions to the design of the Capitol are also doubtful given his impractical proposals and the extensive modifications to his design.

      The total lack of financial support by Congress for the construction and the speed with which construction had to be completed seem to surprise readers.

      The whole story of the slave, free laborers and skilled artisans mix to build the new city is often misrepresented.  Slaves worked alongside indentured servants and free whites.  Skilled workers were recruited from Europe, then ravaged by the Napoleonic wars.  This labor mix evolved into what we would consider the modern form of construction work. 

      Given the importance of the business of government to present day Washington, the original plan that the city would be an important port with a careful balance between commerce, government and industry seems to have been lost over the years.

      That part of the reason for locating the city halfway between the southern and northern states and not in New York or Philadelphia was that a number of the northern interests were vociferously in favor of seceding may have been crowded out of history books by what was to follow.

5. What are the classics in field (if any)? 

      The gold standard for accuracy and scholarship on the history of the U. S. Capitol is:

Allen, William C., History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction and Politics, Senate Doc. 106-29, 106th Cong., 2d sess., (Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 2001).

      With total lack of modesty, I would say this book and an earlier book I wrote about the history of the Potomac Canal aspire to be in this category.  The Potomac Canal book, The Potomac Canal: George Washington and the Waterway to the West (West Virginia University Press, 2007), is in a number of ways a prequel to the current book in that it tells the story of George Washington’s early fascination with the Potomac River and its potential as a passage to the western territories.

6. What challenges did you face in this research?

       Well, books about civil engineering are not generally in great demand.  That there was a compelling story buried in all the freestone and mortar was not all that apparent.  And when the book was written by someone who never met a footnote he didn’t like, getting it published may have been an act of faith by Johns Hopkins.

      The challenge was the sheer volume of documentation. The District of Columbia Commissioners, Records of the District of Columbia Commissioners and of the Offices Concerned With Public Proceedings, 1797-1867 include thousands of records.  These are augmented by numerous government reports, records of the personnel involved and similar material.

      Numerous histories have been written on the building of Washington that tend to be based on secondary and frequently erroneous sources. Culling through these only to find that the authors had not bothered the systematic detective work of digging into and analyzing existing records slowed things down considerably.

7. What were the most important resources you found (and where)?

      Whenever possible I used the primary sources I’ve listed in thebibliography included in the book. The most important in that they provide a vivid picture of the struggle to build the city within the time limit and without funds or known building technology are:

District of Columbia Commissioners, Records of the District of Columbia Commissioners and of the Offices Concerned With Public Proceedings, 1797-1867, Twenty-seven microfilm rolls; National Archives Microfilm Publications Microcopy M-371, (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1964). Reproduces most of Record Group 42 in the National Archives. This includes letters sent, letters received, proceedings and indexes. Proceedings for the period July 31, 1795 to October 24, 1796 are not included as they have been missing since 1889 and probably since 1864.

______, Records of the Commissioners – Day Books, 1791-1793 and 1796-1800, Part of Record Group 42 but not microfilmed as part of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-371, National Archives.

U. S. Senate, “Papers Relating to the City of Washington: Printed for the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia,” (Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1900).

      Because Benjamin Henry Latrobe was so central to the construction of many of these building efforts and because his papers, notes, drawings and related material are so extensive, scholarly compilations of his work are essential to Building Washington, including:

Van Horne, John C. and Lee W. Formwalt (eds.), The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, vol. 1, 1784-1804, (New Haven: Yale University Press for the Maryland Historical Society, 1984).

Van Horne, John C. (ed.), Jeffrey A. Cohen, Darwin H. Stapleton and Lee W. Formwalt

(assoc. eds.), William B. Forbush III and Tina H. Sheller (asst. eds.), The Correspondence

 and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, vol. 2, 1805-1810, (New Haven:

 Yale University Press for the Maryland Historical Society, 1986).

Van Horne, John C. (ed.), Jeffrey A. Cohen and Darwin H. Stapleton (assoc. eds.), William B. Forbush III and Tina H. Sheller (asst. eds.), The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, vol. 3, 1811-1820, (New Haven: Yale University Press for the Maryland Historical Society, 1988).

8. Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?

      The papers of James Hoban, the architect/builder of the President’s House and sometime supervisor for the construction of the Capitol would have been extremely valuable.  Unfortunately the Office of the Curator of the White House reported that his papers were destroyed when his house in Bladensburg, Maryland, burned. If anyone in Bladensburg has them tucked away in an attic, I would really like to see them.

9. Who’s your audience?

      Wider than I expected.  History buffs of course.  My relatives including my English cousin whom I used to take to Yorktown (site of the defeat of the British in 1781) to remind him the colonials did a few things right. It seems there is a general fascination with how much more there is to the construction history of this magnificent city than the swamp myth and L’Enfant’s elegant plan. I also hear from a lot of architects, planners and especially engineers who, as I am, are caught up in the minutiae of the projects – both the building and re-building of the city.

10. Tell us about you.

      The history of civil engineering, working on and sorting out how engineering problems are solved, have always fascinated me. I received my B.S. in engineering from Rutgers University; a M.S. in management and a M.A. in American Studies, both from the George Washington University; a Ph.D. in architecture and engineering from Catholic University and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland. Perhaps my favorite time in a career full of interesting engineering challenges was as the Chief of the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER), part of the National Park Service, where we doubled the size of the collections in the Library of Congress. This was followed by five years as project engineer for the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park that included rehabilitation of the Monocacy Aqueduct about which I co-authored a book with my wife, Elizabeth Perry Kapsch. I authored articles and other publications related to National Park Service projects and since retiring from the government I write full-time.  Building Washington is my sixth book.  My current project is about Roman Engineering.

11. What inspired you to write this book? 

      Cities and urban areas usually develop gradually over many centuries. The enormity of attempting to instantaneously build a complete city, like Washington, in a barren area was brought home to me when, in 1965 at age 22, I was assigned to the Department of Defense task force to establish bases, airfields, docks, roads, bridges, depots, hospitals, water and sanitary facilities and other necessary facilities for the 400,000 troop build-up in Viet Nam.  These facilities were to be developed in areas devoid of existing facilities with supplies arriving from 6,000 miles away.  After participating in the planning of this massive build-up, I was assigned to build Air Force hospitals, casualty staging units and dispensaries at newly created air bases throughout Viet Nam.  After Viet Nam I went to graduate school at George Washington University.  There, Professor Frederick Gutheim’s lectures on the early development of Washington, D.C. convinced me that the problems experienced in the massive Viet Nam build-up were very similar to those problems that Washington and Jefferson faced in creating a brand new city in an area also devoid of population, natural resources or existing facilities.  The lack of adequate building supplies, trained work force and experienced architect-engineers that plagued the Viet Nam build-up of 1965-1966 also plagued the early years of construction of Washington, D.C.My dissertation on the construction of the White House allowed me to explore early labor history issues and the difficult subject of slavery.

12. What’s unique about your perspective? 

      There are numerous books on the architectural and planning history of early Washington, D.C.  Unfortunately these books tend to ignore or undervalue the engineering and construction history of the city and its principal buildings.  Building Washington is intended to right this disparity.  A book about civil engineering would not necessarily make one’s heart race until one reads about it in the contemporaneous accounts when funding was non-existent, the technology unproven and the outcome uncertain. And if you are an engineer, you might like to know a little something about the profession’s early days.     

13. What’s your favorite DC history book? 

      My favorite book is the one I mentioned earlier by William C. Allen, for many years Architectural Historian of the Capitol. Notable for its accuracy and attention to detail, it is a compelling book about the U. S. Capitol’s design, construction and politics and a great read about the early history of Washington,

      Another good history of the region is the 1949 classic, The Potomac, by Frederick Gutheim from the Rivers of America series.

14. What’s next for you? What are you working on?

      With civil engineering such an important part of American history, I hope to trace its lineage a few thousand years back in time and am working on a book on Roman engineering. 

      As project engineer on National Park Service projects like the rehabilitation of the 516 foot long Monocacy Aqueduct of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, I was struck how close American and European 18th and early 19th century building practices adhered to Roman practices developed two thousand years ago.  Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s Ten Books on Architecture (De architectura), written in the first century B.C. has survived in seventy-eight complete and partially complete manuscripts laboriously copied during the medieval era. None of the originals have survived in their original hand. Why did medieval copyists spend so much time copying the originals? Undoubtedly because the material contained within was useful to medieval builders. Likewise, the builders of the Alexandria Canal’s Potomac Aqueduct would have completely understood the building techniques used by Apolloduras of Damascus in the bridge he built across the Danube in 103 A.D. as part of Emperor Trajan’s war on Dacia (present-day Romania).

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