The 200-year-old U.S. Botanic Garden in Early Pictures

First given a marshy plot of land on the National Mall in 1820, the U.S. Botanic Garden celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. The delightful conservatory on the Mall and its surrounding gardens have always been a point of pride for the country as well as a practical laboratory for horticultural research. While we are unable to visit in person right now, we can take this opportunity to look back at how the Botanic Garden appeared more than 100 years ago, as captured in historic stereographs and other photos. Click on any of the images to see larger versions.

The idea for a national botanic garden was proposed as early as 1796. George Washington thought it a splendid idea and suggested several prominent sites as possible locations. Like many things in the new capital, it took awhile for anything to happen. In 1820, the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences opened the first botanic garden on five acres at the eastern end of the Mall, below the Capitol. The privately funded institute went out of business in 1837, however, and no images survive to show what its garden on the Mall looked like. The abandoned site soon became an unofficial trash dump.

After next being housed in the 1840s in a greenhouse behind the Patent Office, the U.S. Botanic Garden finally returned in 1850 to the spot on the eastern end of the Mall where it had begun, which was drained and cleaned up, and a small greenhouse was constructed.

The 1850s Botanic Garden conservatory (Source: Library of Congress).
The greenhouse, or conservatory, was designed by an unknown architect in the fashionable Gothic Revival style, with arched Gothic windows, ornamental spires on the rooftop, and even little ledges on the piers between the windows that evoked Gothic buttresses. Surrounding the conservatory were several acres of gardens. As described by the Evening Star in 1859, "Sinuous and gravel walks, tastefully bordered with box, invite the visitor through a labyrinthine garden, where, on all sides, the senses are agreeably saluted by the grateful perfume and variegated colors of rare and beautiful flowers of infinite variety..."

Pleasant as the garden was, it suffered from its proximity to the notorious Washington City Canal. The canal was a key original element of the L'Enfant plan for the city; it was intended to allow commercial boats to traverse the center of the city. Starting at the Potomac, the canal traveled east along what is now Constitution Avenue before jogging to the center of the Mall at about 7th Street and then turning south at 3rd Street, just before reaching the Botanic Garden. Poorly engineered, the canal never had a proper water flow and repeatedly silted up, leaving it as little more than a broad open sewer.

1861 Boschke map excerpt showing the route of the Washington City Canal, from lower left across to center right. Note the Tiber Creek joining the canal on the grounds of the Botanic Garden (Source: Library of Congress).
As the canal turned south at 3rd Street, it was joined by Tiber Creek, which ran down from the area to the north, beyond North Capitol Street. In 1867, Congress appropriated funds to enlarge the Botanic Garden's conservatory and to cover over Tiber Creek so that open, dry land could be reclaimed in front of the Botanic Garden's expanded conservatory.

A Civil War-era view of the Mall. The 1859 Botanic Garden conservatory is at the bottom. At the bottom right, Tiber Creek curves in to connect with the Washington City Canal (Source: Library of Congress).
While one contractor worked on covering over Tiber Creek, another began expanding the conservatory. A large circular pavilion was added on the west side of the original greenhouse, connected to it by an enclosed passageway, or hyphen. Thus the old greenhouse became the east wing of the new conservatory complex.

Construction underway on the new central pavilion of the Botanic Garden's conservatory, circa 1867 (author's collection).

Two men stand on the reclaimed land north of the conservatory where the Tiber Creek has been covered over (author's collection). More than 100,000 cartloads of fill were brought in to level the ground.

The fetid Washington City Canal is at the center of this view, which was taken from further west on the Mall. The unfinished Botanic Garden conservatory is visible in the middle distance (author's collection).

The architect for the new pavilion was Edward Clark, who had taken over the Capitol expansion project when Thomas U. Walter resigned in 1865. Clark designed the large rounded pavilion to be the center of the new conservatory complex, with the old conservatory serving as the east wing and a new, matching west wing to be constructed on the other side. The three parts would be connected by hyphens. The central domed pavilion, made of an iron framework mounted on a marble foundation, was to be filled with tropical plants, while the two wings would contain house plants. At the request of William R. Smith, the Botanic Garden superintendent, the central pavilion featured rounded windows. Smith thought the Gothic arches in the original conservatory did not admit enough light.

The expanded conservatory is seen here with both wings in place, circa 1873. This view is from the south, with northwest Washington visible in the distance (author's collection).
The fully expanded conservatory was not completed until 1873, but proved to be a popular leisure spot for Washingtonians. The central pavilion, known as the Palm House, included a staircase in the center that spiraled around a chimney (for keeping the building warm in the cooler months) and led up to a catwalk on the roof.

View from the west of the 1867-1873 conservatory complex. Note the young trees planted along the allee to the left (author's collection).
View of the Capitol as seen from the catwalk on top of the Botanic Garden conservatory (author's collection).

Here are some interior views of the conservatory from the 1870s to the 1890s:

(Author's collection).

This appears to have been taken in one of the smaller greenhouses that were located to the south of the main conservatory complex (author's collection).
This view inside the Palm House was taken in 1898 (author's collection).
In 1877, at the urging of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., the government purchased an iron fountain that had been part of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia as a permanent addition to the Botanic Garden. French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who would later sculpt the Statue of Liberty, designed the ornate fountain, which was placed in the center of a basin in front of the Botanic Garden conservatory. In 1885, 36 gas lights were added.

Sightseers at the Bartholdi Fountain on the Mall in 1901 (author's collection).
The Botanic Garden became a perennial favorite of many Washingtonians, who enjoyed strolling in the outdoor gardens, admiring the exotic plants in the Palm House, or attending lectures on how to grow better plants at home. But not all observers were sanguine about the garden. The 1897 edition of Rand McNally's Handy Guide to Washington and Its Neighborhood scoffed that the Botanic Garden was "where Congressmen get their button-hole bouquets, and their wives cuttings and seeds for pretty house-plants." Moreover, the garden "long ago outlived its scientific usefulness, and has never attained excellence as a public pleasure-garden or park, while its cost has been extravagant."

In 1901, the Senate Park Commission, known as the McMillan Commission, released its pretentious vision for revamping the Mall in a display of imperial splendor. The commission proposed eradicating the leisurely nature walks and the vast biodiverse assortment of plantings that existed in the Botanic Garden and other gardens across the Mall. In their place, a vast alley of nothingness would extend from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond. Instead of a celebration of nature's beauty at the foot of Capitol Hill, a new memorial to war and military victory—the Ulysses Grant memorial—would rise up to remind people of what the Commission believed made America great. Naturally, there was a massive public outcry at the callous destruction that was being contemplated. The Botanic Garden's conservatory complex would be demolished, and more than 200 trees in the garden around it would be cut down.

Widespread opposition delayed the project for two decades, but in 1933 it was carried out. The Botanic Garden moved to a new, larger facility on the southern edge of the Mall, where it stands today. Fortunately for us all, the garden is as rich in exotic delights as ever and remains a remarkable oasis of natural beauty in the heart of the nation's capital.

* * * * *

Sources for this article included Anne-Catherine Fallen, A Botanic Garden for the Nation (2007); Randolph Keim, Keim's Illustrated Hand-Book of Washington and Its Environs (1876); Karen D. Solit, History of the United States Botanic Garden 1816-1991 (1993); Rand McNally, Handy Guide to Washington and Its Neighborhood (1897); and numerous newspaper articles.

To receive Streets of Washington by email click on this link and choose "Get Streets of Washington delivered by email" from the Subscribe Now! box on the upper right hand side of the page.


Popular Posts