Saturday, June 4, 2011

Visualizing Early Washington, DC

Don Alexander Hawkins's map overlaid with the L'Enfant/Ellicott plan.

Check out this amazing video: Visualizing Early Washington: A Digital Reconstruction of the Capitol circa 1814, by the Imaging Research Center, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). 
Using current and archival USGS maps, other historic map documents, sketches and paintings, architectural plans, ecological data, and computer simulations, the swampy, extremely rural nature of Washington DC in 1814 is brought to life.  It took four years and over 5,000 hours of labor to produce the fleshed-out recreation of how Washington, DC looked nearly 200 years ago, when the national capital city was in its infancy.  It’s incredible how the city’s actual landforms have changed so significantly, despite their seeming permanence and solidity to us today: The National Mall, for instance, was built on top of what used to be a creek that extended to the Potomac River. Half of the mall is in what used to be the River! The Potomac was so much wider than it is today, about 3/4 of a mile wider, in fact.  For a quick look at the transformation, see some before and after map images (1791 - 2008) at:
This reconstruction represents a serious amount of painstaking detective work, cartographic skills, archival research, perseverance, and infinite patience.  A different version of the story and video appeared on May 31, 2011, on the Open Culture website at
The Imaging Research Center is currently involved in many other interesting projects, such as “re-creating a tour through the ancient cities of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, a visualization of architect Louis Kahn's unbuilt Hurva Synagogue, a digital puppet of President Bush for real-time editorial cartooning, and a virtual stroll at eye level through the adjacent apartments of sisters Etta and Claribel Cone in Baltimore's Marlborough building, where until 1950 one of the world's most impressive private collections of Matisses, Picassos, Cezannes, van Goghs and Renoirs hung on the walls. Bailey's students are also working on a digital representation of Sherman's march and a complex multiplayer video game, based loosely on psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which relies on cognitive teamwork to rebuild a post-apocalyptic world,”  by Scott Berg, The Washington Post, August 31, 2008. 
I am definitely going to check some of these out to see if they are completed yet, especially the Chaco Canyon one, since that is one of my favorite places. Here is the link to the IRC website, so you can check out some of their on-going visualization projects:

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