#Archives80s: DC in the 80s

On August 8, 2018, the numbers will align for a totally epic 80s-themed #ArchivesHashtagParty! We’ll be celebrating all things 80s—the 1780s, 1880s, and 1980s—that is! We’ll be using the hashtag #Archives80s on Twitter and Instagram to feature highlights from the National Archives from the 1780s, the 1880s, and the 1980s. Join the party and share some of your favorite people, places, or things from the 80s of any century that are in your collection!

This project got me thinking of how different the birthplace of the National Archives—the District of Columbia, a.k.a. Washington, DC—was in those three decades.

In the 1780s Washington wasn’t even a city yet. In 1783, the United States signed the treaty ending the Revolutionary War with Great Britain, and its citizens spent most of the decade under the failed Articles of Confederation. In 1789 Congress met for the first time under the new Constitution, and the following year passed legislation establishing a seat of Federal government somewhere along the Potomac River.

Map of the United States of America with the British Possessions of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland Divided with the French, also the Spanish Territories of Louisiana and Florida According to the Preliminary Articles of Peace Signed at Versailles the 20th of January 1783. (National Archives Identifier 2450016)

Once they decided the new capital would be on the Potomac, Congress allowed President George Washington to select the exact location. Washington lived nearby at Mount Vernon, and his boyhood home was near Fredericksburg, VA, so he knew the area quite well. The diamond-shaped district he chose, on the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, was carved out of parts of Maryland and Virginia, and in 1800 the Federal Government moved in.

By the time the 1880s rolled around, DC was a bustling metropolis. Its population according to the 1880 census was 177,624. It was no longer a diamond, thoughin 1846 the portion from Virginia was retroceded back to the state, and the Federal district started to take on the shape we have today.

By the 1880s, familiar structures like the U.S. Capitol, White House (President’s House), Smithsonian Castle, and many others had all been constructed.

SEN63A-F5-00213-A1-081 LL Scans
Bird’s-eye view of the city of Washington and suburbs, ca. 1886. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

The Washington Monument had just been finished in 1880 after a 25-year construction hiatus. It was located on the edge of the city—next to tidal wetlands. The land where the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials as well as West and East Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin with all its cherry blossom trees didn’t exist yet—the land was created during the 1880s from a project to prevent the Potomac from flooding.

A few other things had yet to be changed. There was still Boundary Street—which marked the northern boundary of L’Enfant’s plan for the city. Residents complained the name brought down their property values, so the Commissioners of DC changed the name to Florida Avenue in 1890. Georgia Avenue was still in Southeast (later renamed Potomac Avenue), not the major thoroughfare running north and south as we know today. And near Center Market—which stood where the National Archives is now located—ran Louisiana Avenue, which has been renamed Indiana Avenue east of 7th Street and no longer exists on the west, and B Street, renamed Constitution in 1931.

Then we have DC in the 1980s. In 1980 the population was 638,333, having dropped from an all time high of over 800,000 residents in the 1950s. This photo has a view of Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest showing the Federal Triangle area, including the National Archives, at the beginning of the decade.

A view of Pennsylvania Avenue from 6th St. NW to 13th St. NW, Washington, DC, January 19, 1981. (National Archives Identifier 6368446)

While the 1980s doesn’t seem that long ago, there are some noticeable differences from today. During that time the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor was undergoing a major redevelopment. Several of the buildings on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue east of the FBI building have been demolished, or just their facade remains.

You can also see that Eighth street went all the way down to the National Archives, through the area where the Navy Memorial now stands (it was dedicated in 1987). And the FDR Memorial stone was on its own triangle of land rather than connected to the grounds of the National Archives like it is today. 

So much changed from the 1780s to the 1880s to the 1980s—from a uninhabited marshland to a major metropolitan area. What’s your 80s story? Tell us about each—or all—of the decades on Twitter using #Archives80s.

We’re teaming up with an awesome group of co-hosts for our 80s party across the centuries!

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