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Several views showing Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C.


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A compact and beautiful city on the Potomac River

Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. The District of Columbia (D.C.) was created largely out of wilderness to be the seat of the federal government, which moved from Philadelphia to the unfinished city of Washington in 1800. Today, Washington is best known as a spacious, handsome city of stately public buildings, imposing monuments, and wide, tree-lined thoroughfares. Over the years the city of Washington became coextensive with the District of Columbia, a federal territory set aside in 1791 as the site of the new capital.

Washington is the home of hundreds of thousands of people and is the central city of a metropolitan area that includes parts of the states of Maryland and Virginia. Washington, D.C., has an area of 68 square miles (177 sq km). However, the original cession of land from the states of Maryland and Virginia was 100 square miles (259 sq km), or 10 miles square. The original shape was that of a diamond, with the top point of the diamond forming the northern corner of the district. Washington is one of the few planned cities in the United States.

Named for George Washington, it is in a very real sense his child. After Congress authorized the acquisition of a ten-mile square on the Potomac River for the federal district, the first president is said to have ridden on horseback in selecting the specific site, which lay only a few miles upstream from his own estate at Mount Vernon. The site included the towns of Georgetown and Alexandria and a small settlement in what later became the city of Washington. Thus, the original district included the cities of Georgetown, Alexandria, and Washington and two rural areas: the county of Washington, adjacent to the city of Washington on the Maryland side of the Potomac, and the county of Alexandria, adjacent to the city of Alexandria on the Virginia side of the river.

President Washington chose Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a French military engineer who had served in the American Revolution, to lay out the new federal city. In 1791 L'Enfant, focusing on one section of the city of Washington, drew great ceremonial open spaces, later to be identified as the east-west axis and the lesser north-south axis, and thus set focal points that created magnificent vistas.

L'Enfant superimposed on a grid pattern of streets several broad diagonal avenues intersecting the streets and other avenues at squares and circles. L'Enfant provided no planning for the large tracts of land beyond the "monument core" and the layout of avenues and streets, circles and squaresžthat is, no planning for the county of Washington and the Virginia portion of the district. In fact, L'Enfant was dismissed in 1793, and the completion of his original design fell to Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker (the grandson of a freed slave).

Since L'Enfant's day, Congress, the president, and various citizens having responsibilities for the nation's capital have altered and added to his original design; since 1924 a major responsibility has been assigned to the National Capital Planning Commission.