Washingtonian staff solicited numerous people about vital titles for understanding Washington. No one's complete list would have been included. However: Here is the list I submitted to the folks at Washingtonian.
Best books on Washington DC
- Key Book—Great Society Subway (2006) by Zachary Schrag. Metro has been such a key element in the development of Washington and the greater Washington region. Schrag details the challenges in planning and creating Metro. Great background for puzzling over its current disfunctions.
- New work: Historic Capital: Preservation, Race, and Real Estate in Washington, D.C. by Cameron Logan. (2017) Logan explores the city-wide and neighborhood politics of the creation of Washington’s earliest historic districts.
- A classic but unread: A chorographical and statistical description of the District of Columbia: the seat of the general government of the United States by David Baillie Warden (1817). Key book to understanding what the District was like in its earliest days and why President Washington chose the area (it was not a “swamp”).
- New and worthy of note is Lost Farms and Estates of Washington, D.C. by Kim Prothro Williams (2018) to understand Washington’s agricultural past.
- This was Potomac by Frederick Tilp (1978) covers aspects of the river and the cities along it.
- Key biography: Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation's Capital by John P. Richardson (2016). The first and only biography of a key figure in Washington, D.C. history--the second governor. Shepherd accomplished the transformation of the city lading to what we have today. He is a difficult subject for a biography—he was a man focused on accomplishment and not introspective.
- Classic memoir: The first forty years of Washington society, portrayed by the family letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard) from the collection of her grandson, J. Henley Smith; edited by Gaillard Hunt. 1906. This is the go-to book for an insider, personal view of the early years of Washington DC.
- Best photographic book: Washington seen: a photographic history, 1875-1965 by Fredric M. Miller and Howard Gillette, Jr. 1995.
- Overall description of Washington: Washington, city and capital. By Federal writers' project. 1937. Original edition is a huge doorstop of a book but prefer it over the much-reduced later edition.
- The City of Washington: an illustrated history by the Junior League of Washington, 1992 illustrates the city’s history with many rare and otherwise unpublished images.
- Overlooked classic: The District of Columbia, its government and administration, by Laurence F. Schmeckebier, 1928. This might sound yawn-inducing but packed in its nearly 1,000 pages is an unequalled detail on the intricacies District government of the day and how it got to that point, including a history of every department.
- Overlooked history: Washington during Civil War and Reconstruction by Robert Harrison. Best book on Civil War and Reconstruction Washington—overlooked because it was published posthumously and has never received its due publicity.
- Washington odyssey: a multicultural history of the nation's capital, 2003 is the only book about Washington’s ethnic communities over time.
- Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. Scott W. Berg (2008). Key book on L’Enfant and the design of Washington.
- Civic Art: a centennial history of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts—pair this with the National Capital Planning Commission’s Worthy of the Nation (2nd edition) and add Between justice and beauty: race, planning, and the failure of urban policy in Washington, D.C. by Howard Gillette, Jr. (1995) to understand the agencies responsible for much of the urban planning in Washington through the 20th century.
- Washington by Constance McLaughlin Green (2 volumes-- Washington, Village and Capital, 1800–1878 and Washington: Capital City, 1879-1950) Still the only detailed history of Washington from its beginnings. [-- but it should be read in conjunction wih several others: A History of the National Capital from Its Foundation Through the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act by Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan; Origin and Government of the District of Columbia by William Tindall; Washington, past and present; a history (1930) -- added since-Ed.]