David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Cartography: Neighborhood Reconstruction

When I was leading tours at my previous job at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, I tried–through description and photographs–to give visitors a sense of what the late 19th-century neighborhood (today Judiciary Square and Chinatown) surrounding the original Adas Israel synagogue looked like. It was a neighborhood of low-rise rowhouses with some stores and small office buildings, compared with the large office buildings that predominate today–not to mention the Verizon Center.

So although I recently switched jobs, the first thing that came to mind for the neighborhood reconstruction project was a slice of this particular neighborhood. I used a 9-block area of an 1888 Sanborn map from the Library of Congress. I chose these particular 9 blocks (E to H Streets, Fifth to Eighth Streets, NW) because they contained the original Adas Israel (at Sixth and G, NW), plus the commercial Seventh Street and two large federal buildings–the Patent Office (today the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery) and the Post Office (today the Hotel Monaco). This does not cover the entire area of the walking tour–but dealing with these 9 blocks was more than enough…

I faced a lot of options with this map. I could choose to represent a realistic idea of what the buildings looked like, cladding them in brick (since many were brick by 1888) and adding windows, etc. Between what I was choosing to show and, admittedly, time, I instead chose two variables to represent: building use and height. The map would give a sense of what was in the neighborhood–the commercial corridor, largely residential areas, some federal buildings, and stores interspersed here and there. It also would present the sense of a low-rise neighborhood–even if the rowhouses and stores are mere representations, they show the proportions.

The Sanborn map, thankfully, had some indication of building use. It labeled stores with an S, and indicated offices, federal buildings, livery stables, and even the National Roller Rink (who knew?!). The buildings it didn’t label I assumed were residential, but I’m not completely sure.

So my first step was tracing the buildings and assigning a color scheme. I found a document (PDF) that indicated traditional mapping colors for indicating land use. I adapted those to building use and ended up with this scheme:

  • Dark red: Commercial
  • Light red: Office
  • Green: Government
  • Light green: Recreation
  • Dark blue: Religious
  • Light blue: Livery (not a building use so prevalent in downtown Washington today…)
  • Yellow: Individual and boarding houses
  • Brown: Buildings listed as tenements

I then proceeded to outline each building and assign it a color–a more tedious process than I initially imagined. I also outlined parts of buildings because the map indicated that they had different heights–for example, the back of the building was often lower than the front portion. Here’s what it looked like from an overhead view:

Overhead view of the nine blocks, showing building uses.

Overhead view of the nine blocks, showing building uses.

Once I had done that–a process that took hours–I proceeded to add elevation to each building. This proved more difficult than I expected. For many buildings the maps only indicated number of floors, so I arbitrarily chose nine feet as the height of each floor. I also learned that SketchUp limits the drawing of building height to the height of the next building until you stretch it again.

So, here is the end result:

View from the corner of Fifth and F Streets, NW, home today to the National Academies.

View from the corner of Fifth and F Streets, NW, home today to the National Academies.

This map makes some things apparent. Indeed, one can see the concentrations of residential areas (yellow) and commercial (dark red) with some offices (light red) and religious buildings (blue). One can also see the lower building heights in the residential areas. Finally, one can also see the alley dwellings that were typical of Washington in this period (and well into the 20th century). So, I hope it accomplished my goal of giving some sense of the late 19th century neighborhood. As others have noted, it helped me to look more closely at the map and really get a strong sense of each building and how they fit together. I was happy to finally learn SketchUp. I’d like to do more with this map in the future–perhaps plot out more of the neighborhood, or give a gift to my former employer in the form of a walkthrough of the walking tour route. But that will be a project for when I have more spare time…

In the meanwhile, here are some more scenes:

Looking down Seventh Street, NW, a more commercial street.

Looking down Seventh Street, NW, a more commercial street.

Looking down Sixth Street, NW--a more residential street.

Looking down Sixth Street, NW–a more residential street.

The former Adas Israel synagogue at its original location.

The former Adas Israel synagogue at its original location.

For comparison, the real life view depicted above, circa 1905. From the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

And, finally, for your viewing (dis)pleasure, an animated flythrough and walkthrough of the map:

1 Comment

  1. Incredible work, David. The combination of analysis of built environment with spatial relationships with differentiating land-use and then the animated fly-over all represents a significant achievement in 3D re-creation and interpretation. Bravo! Thanks for including the many links to resources and for showing the various angles and aspects. One question as to your process. How did you determine relative height of buildings? I would also like to learn more about the process for animation. Any tips?

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