Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of  a New Federal City: 1790-1840 Latrobe Chapter Lecture by Robert Kapsch - May 14, 2019

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Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of  a New Federal City: 1790-1840

Latrobe Chapter Lecture by Robert Kapsch, Ph.D., M.ASCE, Hon., AIA
Tuesday, May 14, 2019 at 6:30 p.m.

Lecture by Robert J. Kapsch, Ph.D., M.ASCE, Hon., AIA. This lecture is based on his latest book, Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of a New Federal City, 1790-1840 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

In 1790, the United States was a new nation, with a new constitution, a new president, George Washington, and a new secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson.  Dedicated to the success of their new government, both Washington and Jefferson were determined to realize the daunting task of building from bare earth a new capital city that would be the focal point visually, politically, and commercially.

Most European and other historic capitals had evolved over hundreds, sometime thousands of years. Washington and Jefferson planned to construct a government center in only ten years (it in fact took fifty).  Furthermore, they planned to do so without a Congressional appropriation and on a site of their choosing; along the banks of the Potomac River halfway geographically – and in some respects politically and economically - between the northern and southern states.

Washington and Jefferson intended the new city to be not only a government center, but also a great commercial nexus for the receipt and transshipment of the agricultural and mineral riches they expected to pour down the Potomac Canal (that was then under construction) from the Northern Territory.

The area south of Georgetown, Maryland and across the Potomac River from Alexandria, Virginian that was selected for the new Federal city was semi inhabited with few resources, few inhabitants, and few amenities.  Everything needed to build this monumental enterprise—plans, tools, shelter, supplies, building materials, skilled workers, architects, and engineers—would have to be brought in from the surrounding states or from overseas.

For the scholar who seeks to study the early history of Washington, D.C., there is an abundance of material—government records, period newspapers, personal papers, drawings, and other primary sources.  From these records have come numerous books on the architecture and planning of the new capital city that became Washington, D.C.  Missing were studies of its engineering and construction history—a notable omission as architecture and planning cannot be accomplished without engineering and construction. 

Dr. Kapsch began the search through this wealth of information to write his second Ph.D. dissertation, this one on the labor history of the construction of the White House.  His research begun twenty-five years ago would continue and emerge as Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of a New Federal City, 1790-1840.

ROBERT J. KAPSCH received his BS in Engineering from Rutgers University; an MS in Management and an MA in American Studies, both from George Washington University; a PhD in Architecture and Engineering from Catholic University, and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Maryland. He is a researcher and an author at the Center for Historic Engineering and Architecture in Poolesville, MD.  For more information on Dr. Kapsch's professional and academic background, visit our website here.

The First Congregational United Church of Christ
945 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20001 (second floor)
6:30 pm – reception, 7:00 pm – lecture

Reservations are not required. $10.00 for Latrobe Chapter members, student members (full time) free with ID, $15.00 for non-members.

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The Latrobe Chapter launched a new website in fall 2018.  Please take a moment to explore our new website, including the online membership renewal feature, here.

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