Washington, D.C., 1953

A Road Map of the Past

Spread before me is a “Road Map and Visitor’s Guide” to Washington, D.C., and vicinity, published by Esso Standard Oil Company in 1953. Esso and its competitors provided such maps free of charge to travelers who stopped at their gas stations throughout the United States. I bought the map at an antique shop.

In 1953 World War II was only eight years in the past. The Korean War had just ended in a truce. The official launch of the interstate highway system was still three years away. Over the preceding few decades, the city of Washington had grown dramatically as the federal government expanded in response to two world wars and the Great Depression. This map captures that moment in time.

One side of the map shows the entire District of Columbia and surrounding Maryland and Virginia:

The tangle of roads and routes in and around Washington looks quite familiar to me. It took me a moment to realize the key thing missing: the Capital Beltway circling the city. Nor is there an I-95, the main north-south interstate on the East Coast. The Baltimore-Washington Parkway linking those two cities is a double dashed line, a future intention.

No I-66 bisects the neighborhoods of Arlington and Falls Church, Virginia. The future I-395, which angles toward the southeast, is labeled Route 350, Shirley Memorial Highway. The parkway that now extends along the Potomac River north from Mount Vernon and past Washington to the Beltway ends, in 1953, just beyond the Key Bridge near Georgetown.

While there are many other subtle differences between 1953 and now, enough has stayed the same that you could still manage to navigate around the region’s secondary roads today using this map.

The opposite side shows a close-up of the central part of Washington and nearby Virginia:

I immediately notice that the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, one of the major links between Virginia and D.C., is absent. (So too is the footbridge that allows you to walk out to nearby Theodore Roosevelt Island.) Constitution Avenue dead-ends at the Potomac River, where today it leads onto the Roosevelt Bridge. The Arlington Memorial Bridge, designed as a drawbridge, is graphically shown with its center draw span lifted. The draw span was closed for good in 1961.

Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac in Virginia, was much smaller, and the nearby Marine Corps Memorial, featuring its iconic sculpture of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, was yet to be built. Washington National Airport is represented by its original terminal, about which the map text notes, “Visitors observe operations at huge air terminal from glass-enclosed lounge.” Nearby, angling toward the airport for a landing, is a graphic image of a Lockheed Constellation, an iconic passenger airplane from the 1950s.

The focus of the Washington map is the National Mall, the long rectangle of parkland extending from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol. Here the differences between then and now are many.

Immediately obvious is the dual set of buildings—the largest buildings aside from the Pentagon depicted on the map—just north of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, an area now occupied by Constitution Gardens. Built during World War I for use by the Navy and the War Department, these “temporary” buildings remained in use until they were demolished in 1970. The only war memorial on this section of the Mall is the small one commemorating the citizens of the District of Columbia who served in the First World War. The World War II, Korean, and (obviously) Vietnam war memorials have yet to be built.

There are indications of many more “temporary government buildings” dating as far back as World War I shown on the map. They are denoted only by letters—and then numbers when the mapmakers ran out of letters. They dot the Mall from one end to the other.

In 1953 you could still drive on roads circling the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument. Today these roads are closed to traffic.

Today, between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, resides the greatest single concentration of museums in the world, most of them part of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1953 the institution’s presence here consisted only of four buildings: the original Smithsonian Castle; the “Old National Museum,” now the Arts and Industries Building; the “New National Museum,” now the National Museum of Natural History; and the Freer Gallery of Art. Also here is the original National Gallery of Art building, completed in 1941. Eight more museums would be built on this section of the National Mall in the coming decades.

Today, only two streets run the length of the Mall here, Madison and Jefferson drives. Between them lies a broad swath of greenery and a grid of walkways. In 1953 those walkways were streets, including Washington and Adams drives. When these streets were turned into walkways decades later, the pavement was graveled over rather than removed, which is why many of the Mall walkways have such poor drainage and are pocked with puddles after it rains.

Way up 6th Street, NW, near Howard University, is Griffith Stadium, where the American Baseball League’s Washington Senators played. Up Massachusetts Avenue is the Naval Observatory, still open to the public during regular hours in 1953, not yet the residence of the vice president. Farther up Mass Ave at the highest point in the city is Washington Cathedral. Now known as Washington National Cathedral, its cornerstone-laying ceremony was presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. President George H. W. Bush presided over the mounting of its final stone in 1990, an event I attended.

By then, I had lived in the Washington area for seven years. I first visited Washington with my father in 1969, but that’s another story, one I’ll tell next.

David Romanowski, 2017


About David R

For more about me, check out my blog "Bike Walk Drive" at https://bikewalkdrive.wordpress.com/.
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