Discovering Washington: Through the Lens

Discovering Washington: Through the Lens is a 90-minute documentary produced by WETA, which takes a bird’s eye view of the national capital region's sites, from the iconic monuments of the National Mall and the stately splendors of Mount Vernon and the White House, to the majesty of the Potomac River and the breathtaking natural beauty of Great Falls. Learn more about some of the sites and stories mentioned in the program below.

The Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial Dedication Birds Eye

To the average visitor, the Lincoln Memorial appears to be a timeless part of the National Mall. However, this classical commemoration to the sixteenth president was dedicated less than one hundred years ago, in the presence of Civil War veterans, Robert Todd Lincoln, two Presidents and a crowd of thousands. 

Smokey the Bear, 20252

The original Smokey Bear frolicking in a pool at the National Zoological Park. (Photo credit: Francine Schroeder, used for educational purposes according to Smithsonian Archives terms of use.)

“Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Many of us, especially former Boy Scouts like myself, probably associate that statement with campfire safety. Indeed, Smokey the Bear has been around for as long as most of us can remember, reminding us follow safe fire practices in the backcountry. However, Smokey’s message – and even the bear himself – didn’t have much to do with campfires at first. His story actually dates to World War II and has a definite Washington flavor to it.

Matildaville: George Washington’s Ghost Town

Known as Dickey’s Tavern, Inn, and Farmhouse, this 18th century barn was said to be Matildaville’s first and last standing building.

If you’ve ever hiked Great Falls Park, you might have stumbled across the ruins of a long lost town. Matildaville was to be a bustling hub on an expansive trans-national trade route. But today, a spattering of stone ruins and a handful of crumbling locks are all that remain of a town conceived by none other than George Washington.

Baltimore & Pennsylvania Railroad station. (Source: National Gallery of Art archives)

The Short-Lived Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station on the National Mall

It may be hard to picture now, but the National Mall was once home to a lot of commercial and industrial development. Perhaps the most notable -- if also maligned -- site was a railroad station belonging to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad. The station itself embraced a Gothic architectural style, but the train shed that extended from the station was considered an eyesore. It proved to be one (of many) motivations behind the 1901 McMillan plan to beautify and renovate America's front yard.

Plaque describing defunct Washington City Canal. (Photo by Matthew Bisanz used via GNU Free Documentation License)

The Rise and Fall of the Washington City Canal

Just within sight of the Washington Monument is a little stone house not open to the public. Used for National Park Service storage today, this house is the last remnant of one of the biggest mistakes in municipal planning in the District’s history: the Washington City Canal.

The canal was first conceived of by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. He envisioned something grand like, well, the Grand Canal at Versailles. George Washington thought the canal was a good idea because it would increase commerce by bringing goods directly into the city center.

But, right from the beginning, the proposed canal was plagued with problems.

Damaged records from the 1890 census. Most of these records ended up being destroyed. (Image source: National Archives)

Just Stick It in the Basement: Before the Archives

Today, the founding documents of America - the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights - are on display at the Charters of Freedom exhibit in the Rotunda of the National Archives. Tourists from across America and the world make pilgrimages to see the most revered documents in American history. Extensive preservation measures have been put in place. But this wasn’t always the case. For most of our nation’s history, these charters, now considered priceless, were kept with the United States’ other government documents - that is, shoved wherever officials could find space. Before the National Archives was founded in 1934, these documents were stored essentially at random, in basements, on walls, or even piled in hallways.

Cooling Off in the Tidal Basin

Swimmers of all ages enjoy the Tidal Basin Bathing Beach in 1922. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

The National Building Museum’s new indoor beach may be making headlines, but it’s not D.C.’s first seashore. For a period of time between 1918 and 1925, Washingtonians dipped into the Tidal Basin to experience some summertime heat relief. Now I know what you’re thinking: you couldn’t pay me to swim in that water today. But with a serious lack of public pools, and no air conditioning, citizens back then were pretty desperate.

Bread Kneaded on Capitol Hill

Union soldiers billeted at the Capitol practice drills in 1861. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

As congressmen convened for a special session in July of 1861, they were welcomed into the Capitol by the smell of baking bread. Just months into the Civil War, the building had already seen thousands of troops pass through its doors, and now it was the site of one of the largest bakeries the world had ever known. Twenty ovens, each with the capacity of holding hundreds of loaves of bread, were housed in the basement, and multitudes of men spent hours tending yeast and kneading dough. Having been in recess for less than four months, the congressmen were astounded, and some even annoyed, with this new mammoth bakery occupying their space. But a lot had changed for the country – and for the Capitol – in that short period of time.

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