History Unmade: Physical Space Reimagined in Washington D.C.

Historians place emphasis on revealing a part of the past by showing not only what was, but also what could have been. In particular, many focus on how different groups had agency in their situations and the possibility to shape outcomes very different than what actually occurred. What if we bring this notion of agency to the history of the built environment? Few people realize how different the world around them could have been had one building design been chosen over another. These decisions are often contested battlegrounds and the history of Washington, D.C.’s design is no different.

A Very Different Capital City

The designers of D.C. itself made it as a monumental city to represent America to the world. The decisions made about where and what was built were each scrutinized tremendously and the structures that came out of these decisions have become the iconic symbols associated with this country. Notwithstanding their current greatness, wouldn’t it be cool if this was the Lincoln Memorial sitting at the end of the mall?

John Russell Pope’s Competition Proposal for a Pyramid with Porticoes Style Monument to Abraham Lincoln. Credit: National Archives

The Library of Congress has highlighted some of these designs and their history in the book, Capital Drawings: Architectural Designs for Washington, D.C., from the Library of Congress. While this book does a good job of explaining the context of these drawings in history, I think that placing them in the context of the space they would have occupied through the visualization on a map is much more powerful. The Center for History and New Media has created a great interactive map site called Histories of the National Mall where users can interact and learn the history of the mall as they walk around. While this site is excellent for actual histories that have taken place, it still leaves room for the histories of the imagined spaces on the mall that never were.


Similar to HistoryPin and PhilaPlace,  by using the Google My Maps application, I will create an interactive map, placing designs never built into the landscape, using images from the Library of Congress, National Archives, Maryland Historical Society, among others. I will start with the monuments and public buildings surrounding the national mall, and expanding to other locations should time and resources permit. Building off the map, I will create an exhibit site for this topic using the Omeka content management system and embed the map on it. The images used on the map will be placed on this site as well, making them browsable and usable in online exhibits on each building. Through the exhibit pages, I will provide the context of each design’s history, found in Capital Drawings and other books on the subject.

Current Status of Omeka Site


So there will be a map and website, but who will use it? This idea percolated in my mind for a while and oddly enough, at the beginning of February, the History Channel website posted an article called The Lincoln Memorial’s Bizarre Rejected Designs. This article received 24,000 likes and 8,500 recommends on Facebook. Clearly, there is a sizable audience for this topic in the wider community of amateur history buffs, local Washington, D.C. residents, or even the general populace that has grown up with the iconic monuments. Scholars of architecture, historic preservation, and history would also be interested in examining and learning about the possibilities of a cityscape that does not exist in reality today.


To gain interest in the project, I will contact the repositories whose collections I am utilizing, in hopes that they would advertise it on their website, social media, and to patrons. Furthermore, the Center of History and New Media is a good partner to spread the word, as their Histories of the National Mall Site is closely connected and they know the constituents who would be interested in this type of project. Beyond these routes, I will contact local media outlets and use personal social media accounts to publicize.


Once the site is active, I will solicit feedback from users on the user experience and content of the site. Suggestions for future places would be useful to both have new material to post as well as tailoring the website to what the users want. Ultimately, there is no way to know if the users learn from the site, only that it has reached them through usage numbers. Hopefully, this site will give users an understanding that the space they inhabit is not static and encourage them to imagine what can be.