Some call it “the District,” “the Beltway” or “the Nation’s Capital.” These facts about Washington, D.C. are just the starting point for a place that is considered neither a state nor a city (another Washington fun fact) despite it being the seat of federal power and lawmaking for an entire country. Since its founding on the east bank of the Potomac River on July 9, 1790, in a location selected by the first U.S. President George Washington, Washington, D.C.’s historical facts have been as in flux as the district itself. From the outset, when George Washington tapped French-born architect and city planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the new capital, and his subsequent dismissal shortly after, change was a constant force that this nascent republic had to expect and contend with. From the burning of the White House by British forces in 1812 to the curious history of Arlington National Cemetery (one you can experience firsthand with an expertly guided Arlington National Cemetery tour), Washington’s historical facts are forever evolving with the passage of time. The following is a list of facts about Washington that will hopefully inspire a visit to the area in the near future.
Some Important Historical Facts About Washington, D.C.
Washington Fun Fact #1 – D.C. Was Not Actually Built on a Swamp
While Chicago and New Orleans can lay claim to being built on a swamp, this does not rank as a Washington fact. Urban historians have debunked this myth by showing that, despite it being built on a riverside, the area George Washington chose was well-drained, and only 2% of the total landmass could even be considered a swamp.
Washington Fun Fact #2 – The Washington Monument Was Technically a Failed Project
Standing at 555 feet, the Washington Monument obelisk is not only the tallest structure in Washington, D.C. but the tallest stone structure in the entire world. Construction on the monument to commemorate the first American president began in 1848, but from 1854 to 1877, construction was halted due to a litany of issues, such as lack of funding, entities competing to maintain control of the monument and the outbreak of the Civil War. The project was finally completed in 1884, but the finishing touches were not completed until four years later. Because of the gaps between the build, the marble sourced initially is noticeably different in color.
Washington Fun Fact #3 – The White House Wasn’t Always Called the White House
This is a Washington historical fact that very few are aware of. The term “White House” was used infrequently in print during the 19th century, with most journalists and common citizens referring to it as either the “President’s House” or the “Executive Mansion.” Due to the lime-based whitewash that was applied to the exterior of the building to prevent cracks during the extreme cold of the winter months, the name “White House” stuck. The name was made official during the presidential term of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.
Washington Fun Fact #4 – Football Huddles Began in D.C. at Gallaudet University
Fans of the gridiron will appreciate this fact about Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University still stands as a private college for the deaf and hard of hearing. Back in 1892, the quarterback of the Gallaudet Bison, Paul Hubbard, devised a way to communicate with his players using sign language while preventing the competition from stealing this information. Players would form a tight circle, blocking the signal-caller from view, and thus was born the huddle.
Washington Fun Fact #5 – Two American Presidents Kept Alligators at the White House
This one might be better listed as Washington lore and not so much as a historical Washington fact. It has long been alleged that John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover kept alligators as pets on White House grounds. French soldier and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette is said to have gifted, or regifted, a live alligator to President John Quincy Adams that he promptly dispatched to the bathtub in the East Room of the White House.
Washington Fun Fact #6 – Washington, D.C. Citizens Love Their Wine
Sour grapes aren’t the only type of grapes associated with politics in the nation’s capital. This Washington, D.C. fact may come as a surprise to residents of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, but the citizens of Washington, D.C. consume more wine per capita than any other state in the Union. President Woodrow Wilson had to ask for a special dispensation from Congress to move his sizable wine collection from the White House to his private home when his presidency ended with the advent of Prohibition.
Washington Fun Fact #7 – Its Statehood Was Prohibited by the Constitution
This remains a rather odd Washington, D.C. historical fact with plenty of contrasting opinions on the matter. Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution empowered Congress to establish a federal capital district “not exceeding ten miles square,” where it would “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever.” The Framers, however, were shortsighted in anticipating the district’s population growth. Since it’s not considered a state, the people that comprise the District of Columbia have no representation in Congress. Statehood was almost granted to D.C. in 1979, but not enough states ratified the measure.
Washington Fun Fact #8 – There Are Marble Bathtubs in the Capitol Building
Once upon a time, there was a beautifully appointed Senate bathing facility in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, complete with tubs carved out of exquisite Italian marble. Today, this area is a maintenance closet and a meeting place where both parties’ caucuses can have private, closed-door strategy sessions.
Washington Fun Fact #9 – There Are Underground Tunnels Beneath the Capitol
Ready for some more subterranean facts about Washington, D.C.? Though substantially smaller than its counterparts in cities such as New York or London, the Capitol has its own fully functioning subway system built exclusively for members of Congress. There is also a system of tunnels that connect to the Library of Congress, where the 2,300 maintenance employees assigned to the Capitol Building can be found hard at work.