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Washington, D.C. Past and Present: A Visual Tour

Northern Liberty Market - Convention Hall - City Vista in Washington DC

Washington, DC is one of the nation’s most historic cities — but it has also undergone significant and striking transformations as its diverse neighborhoods have modernized throughout the twentieth century. These then-and-now images showcase the development of some of the city’s most iconic streets and structures, giving you a glimpse into Washington’s past and present.

1. National Press Building

An imposing building poised on the corner of 14th and F Streets NW, the National Press Building is a business center and professional hub for journalists and those in the communications, government information, and news industries. Built in 1925 on the site of the historic Ebbitt House Hotel (pictured, 1880), the building was initially envisioned “as a haven for Washington reporters to relax, enjoy a drink and play cards”. President Calvin Coolidge laid the cornerstone for the 14-story building – the largest private office building in Washington at the time – which opened in 1927 with a spacious Club on the top two floors.

It underwent renovations in the mid-1980s and now includes a variety of shops, restaurants, workspaces, and event facilities – including a 25,775-square-foot Marshall’s – with the world-renowned National Press Club still occupying the top two floors. And one more note of trivia: similar to the White House, the National Press Building city block has its own zip code – 20045.

The iconic building changed hands in May 2016 for $155.5 million. NJ-based Normandy Real Estate Partners purchased the 491,000-square-foot property from Quadrangle Development Co. and AEW Capital Management.



Photo Credit 1880: Library of Congress; Photo Credit 2014: Google Maps

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2. Masonic Temple Building

The 130-foot tall Masonic Temple on the corner of 9th and F Streets NW was completed in 1870 and was the city’s first large-scale, private architectural project built after the Civil War. It was designed to serve as the headquarters and meeting space for the area’s Grand Lodge of Freemasons, and President Andrew Johnson (a Master Mason) joined in the celebration of the laying of its cornerstone in 1868. The Great Hall of the elaborate temple could accommodate 1,000 people, making it the largest social gathering space in the city at that time. After the Masons outgrew the building, it was repurposed as a furniture retail store and a branch of Strayer University, and later became the first major DC property to be successfully preserved by the city’s Historic District Protection Act of 1978. With much of its original elegance and intrigue intact, the Masonic Temple is now home to corporate office space and a restaurant.



Photo Credit 1900: Library of CongressPhoto Credit 2016: Google Maps

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3. Portland Apartments

From 1880 to 1962, this structure just off Thomas Circle was The Portland: Washington, DC’s first luxury apartment complex. In its heyday, The Portland was known for its extravagance and Victorian flair and appealed to the District’s most affluent and socially powerful residents. Today, the building maintains the narrow, Flatiron-esque architecture of its predecessor, but houses a Marriott Residence Inn and a CVS pharmacy, staples of modern convenience. Though the architects and supporters of The Portland were correct in their early beliefs that upscale apartment living would take off in DC, it ironically did not survive at the site where it got its start.



Photo Credit 1916: Library of Congress; Photo Credit 2014: Google Maps

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4. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal runs for 184.5 miles along the Potomac River’s northern bank between Washington, DC, and Cumberland, Maryland. The canal was operational for nearly a century following its construction between 1828 and 1850, allowing for the passage of coal, lumber, and agricultural products. Though most of the canal has now been drained of water, it was designated as a National Historic Park in 1971 and its towpath remains popular among resident and visiting runners, cyclists, and hikers alike.



Photo Credit 1910: Library of Congress; Photo Credit 2014: Google Maps

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5. National Saving & Trust Building

Located on the corner of New York Avenue and 15th Street NW, the National Saving and Trust Company building looks today much like it did when it was built in 1888. Its distinctive red brick exterior with copper and terra cotta detailing and the classic large clock face on its corner tower have made the building a standout in downtown Washington through the modern day. In 1972, the building was designated on the National Register of Historic Places, and today it is occupied by a branch of SunTrust Banks.



Photo Credit 1913: Library of CongressPhoto Credit 2014: Google Maps

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6. Washington Loan & Trust

In 1891, this imposing nine-story Romanesque style building was erected to house the oldest and largest trust company in the city at the time, the Washington Loan & Trust. Distinctive for its extravagant exterior finishes, including arched windows and ornate cornices, the building retains much of the style and elegance from its earlier days, though it became significantly wider after renovations in 1927 and now has a more boxlike shape. It is presently occupied by a Marriott Hotel and a first-floor restaurant occupies the space where the main banking room once was.



Photo Credit 1907: Library of Congress; Photo Credit 2015: Google Maps

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7. The Arcade / DC USA

A century ago, The Arcade on 14th Street in Columbia Heights was one of the city’s premier multipurpose entertainment complexes, complete with a movie theater, pool room, bowling alley, and rooftop pavilion for dancing. The original structure was torn down in 1948, and the surrounding area later struggled to recover from the 1968 Washington riots, which hit the block where The Arcade once stood particularly hard. Forty years later, vitality and commerce returned to the very spot in Columbia Heights where The Arcade had been with the opening of the largest retail development in the city, the DC USA retail complex, in 2008.



Photo Credit 1925: Library of CongressPhoto Credit 2015: Google Maps

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8. Northern Liberty Market – Convention Hall / City Vista

DC’s first major convention center was the Northern Liberty Market, built in 1875 in what is now Mount Vernon Triangle in northwest Washington. The original market house was a long, arched red-brick shed building featuring a grand open hall inside. It attracted only modest commercial development, but flourished under new ownership that capitalized on its unique space by adding a second floor that could be rented for events. The capacity of the building — 6,000 guests seated or 10,000 standing — rivaled New York’s famed Madison Square Garden, and it quickly became the venue of choice for a variety of public and social events including concerts, religious revivals, political debates, labor rallies, school graduations, and even Washington’s first auto show. In 1946, a powerful fire destroyed the upper level of the Northern Liberty Market building, leaving just the original market space. It struggled to regain its footing and was ultimately shut down in 1963, then demolished in 1985. Today, City Vista, a luxury residential property with 685 units and 17,000 square feet of street-level retail space, occupies the former site of the Northern Liberty Market.



Photo Credit 1915: Library of CongressPhoto Credit 2015: Google Maps

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9. Verizon Center

Located in the Chinatown neighborhood, the Verizon Center occupies the full block of F Street NW between 6th and 7th Streets. The massive sport and concert arena is owned by Monumental Sports & Entertainment. It was built in the 1990s using private financing and sits on a piece of land leased from the District of Columbia. With a seating capacity of over 20,000 for basketball games and over 18,000 for ice hockey games, the Verizon Center is home to the city’s prominent professional and collegiate sports teams: the Washington Wizards (NBA), Washington Mystics (WNBA), Washington Capitals (NHL), and the Georgetown University men’s basketball team. The Verizon Center is widely regarded as a success for the District of Columbia and recognized as a contributor to Chinatown’s gentrification and commercialization process over the past three decades. In the 1920s, the site was occupied by a large Federal House and a series of shops, restaurants, and commercial offices. The Barrister Building was built in 1910 to house offices for patent attorneys and it remained on F Street until the block was cleared of buildings in the 1980s.



Photo Credit 1910: Library of CongressPhoto Credit 2014: Google Maps

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10. Pennsylvania Avenue

This view, looking down Pennsylvania Avenue facing the U.S. Capitol, is one of the most iconic in Washington — and boasts some of the most prestigious addresses in the country. The Ford Motor Company Building once stood in this spot (and the Reuters Hotel before that); designed by Albert Kahn Associates, one of the nation’s leading architectural planners of the turn of the century, the building was in many ways representative the large-scale development that transformed Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1900s. The building was sold to the District of Columbia in 1931 and later demolished in 1979. The land was then purchased by Canada, and the Canadian Embassy in the United States was opened on the site in 1989.



Photo Credit 1921: Library of CongressPhoto Credit 2014: Google Maps

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11. The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress was relocated to Washington, DC, in 1800, having previously been housed in New York and Philadelphia, which had each served as temporary capitals of the early United States of America. It is the research library serving the U.S. Congress as well as the national library of the United States, and it holds over 23 million volumes in its collection, making it the world’s largest library. The structure as it stands today was erected between 1888 and 1894, following the 1851 fire that destroyed 35,000 of the Library’s books (two-thirds of its holdings at that time), including much of Thomas Jefferson’s donated collection. The main building, also known as the Thomas Jefferson Building, continue to stand tall today in this spot, facing the Capitol building on 1st Street SE between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street.



Photo Credit 1898: Library of CongressPhoto Credit 2014: Google Maps

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To learn more about living in this storied yet increasingly modern city, visit to explore rental listings in Washington, D.C.

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About the author

Ama Otet

Ama Otet is an online content developer and creative writer for RENTCafé. She loves all things real estate and strives to live beautifully, one green step at a time. You can connect with Ama on Twitter or via email.

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