A painting of the relatively new, still rustic city of Washington.
City of Washington from Beyond Navy Yard by George Cooke (1833).

The Washington, D.C. we know today is a diverse metropolis that serves not only as the nation’s capital but as a hub for innovation, tourism, and the arts. However, it wasn’t always like that. In fact, by the time The National Theatre opened in December of 1835, the city was still relatively underdeveloped, even downright rustic. Perhaps this isn’t surprising: after all, it was less than 50 years old, having been established by the Constitution to serve as the capital on July 16th, 1790. Of course, the land historically belonged to the Anacostia (or Nacotchtank people), who were decimated by settler colonialism and later absorbed into the Piscataway Conoy tribe, one of many still residing in the area. The name “Piscataway” actually means “the people where the rivers blend,” and it is that point where the Potomac and the Anacostia combine that eventually proved attractive to the new nation’s leadership. You can learn more about Native lands and a significant visit to The National by a delegate of Native leaders at National Theatre, National Politics.

The capital found its place as part of a political exchange that saw the Virginians keep the seat of power close to home while the federal government agreed to take on states’ debts following the Revolutionary War (the hit song “The Room Where it Happens” from Hamilton describes this exact deal). French planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the man whose name graces D.C.’s L’Enflant Plaza, was elected to draw up the plans for the capital. His grand vision, influenced in part by his hometown of Paris, formed the blueprint upon which the District was built, though his plans were significantly revised by Andrew Ellicott ahead of construction. While construction was largely successful, the damp, marshy soil made the work hard. And despite being the seat of power for the new United States, life was note all that stable. Even in its relatively short life before the establishment of The National, the city became a major target of British forces during the War of 1812. The British even managed to burn down the newly constructed White House, along with the Library of Congress.

A black and white engraving of Andrew Ellicto
Andrew Ellicott’s modified version of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s “Plan of the City of Washington,” engraved in Boston in 1792.

Thankfully, the city rebuilt and soon began to lay down its artistic and cultural foundations. The first purpose-built theatre was the aptly named Washington Theatre. Though hardly an elite stop compared to the venues in more established cities such as New York and Philadelphia, it was an important breakthrough for the nation’s capital. Like many 19th century buildings, it burned down in 1820, only to be rebuilt at a different location in 1822. Other great venues have come and gone, though some, such as Ford’s Theatre, have kept their doors open nearly (nearly) as long as The National. Theatrical activity continued even through the Civil War, with soldiers sometimes setting up little “theatres” of their own to entertain themselves between battles. Today, The National sits just a few blocks away from some of the city’s leading companies, including the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which has its two homes in Sydney Harman Hall and the Michael R. Klein Theatre. All in all, Washington, D.C. boasts one of the most vibrant and diverse theatre communities in the country.

D.C. has undergone a number of broader changes since 1835. It eventually expanded well beyond the initial plans offered by L’Enfant and revised by Ellicott, taking in Georgetown and acres of rural land in Maryland and Virginia. Pennsylvania Avenue was heavily revitalized in the 1970s and 80s, a process that threatened the life of The National Theatre but eventually came to include it as a vital part of D.C. history and culture. The city has also passed a number of major milestones ahead of the rest of the country; this includes the abolition of the slave trade within the District months before the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the legalization of same-sex marriage five years before the Supreme Court’s nationwide ruling. Challenges such as income inequality, gentrification, and the District’s lack of voice in national government remain prominent, and D.C. is still the center of American politics and all its old problems. Nevertheless, the people of Washington persist and so does the city itself.

Consider This…

Chances are you’re not quite as old as The National Theatre, but if you’ve spent your life in and around Washington, D.C. then you’ve seen it change, too. Think about some of the major transformations you’ve witnessed in your time here and what might be coming next. Here are some things to ponder:

  1. Have you experienced a major event in the life of Washington, D.C.? Perhaps you caught a glimpse of a presidential inauguration, or celebrated major victories by the Capitals, the Mystics, or the Nationals.
  2. What do you know about the history of your favorite D.C. neighborhood? The D.C. Public Library has a great series of research guides on the D.C. neighborhoods, all broken down by quadrant. Click here to check them out.
  3. Do you think statehood might be the next big step for the District of Columbia? Learn more about the District’s efforts to become the 51st state by visiting the D.C. government’s official statehood website.

Have something to share? Put it in the comment box below!


“Culture.” Piscataway Conoy Tribe Online. Piscataway Conoy Tribe, accessed 28 July, 2021, http://www.piscatawayconoytribe.com/history.html.

“Indigenous Tribes of Washington, D.C.” American Library Association Online. American Library Association, access July 28, 2021, https://www.ala.org/aboutala/indigenous-tribes-washington-dc.

Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.

“Neighborhood Research in the People’s Archive.” DC Public Library Online. DC Public Library, accessed 28 July, 2021, https://www.dclibrary.org/node/35516.

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