Visualizing Early Washington, D.c. (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Visualizing Early Washington, D.C.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:39:44
I'm Rebecca Sheir and you're listening to "Metro Connection." As we continue our exploration of roots today, let's talk about the physical roots of Washington, as in its geographic roots, its topographic roots, if you will. I mean, sure, we all know what the city looks like now. But how did it appear to Pierre Charles L'Enfant as he rode around on horseback deciding how to design the new nations capitol? Well, a group at the University of Maryland, Baltimore College, is trying to find out.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:40:12
Filmmaker and animator Dan Bailey heads UMBC's imagine research center where they're digitally recreating Washington, D.C. in its early years, 1790 to 1820. The project is called, "Visualizing Early Washington, D.C." And I recently met Dan in Benjamin Banneker Park, named for the free African-American mathematician and astronomer who helped survey the future site of the city. Right now, Dan and his team are focusing on the area around the park, which actually used to be the site of a plantation owned by a man named, Notley Young. To kick things off, I asked Dan how visualizing early Washington, D.C. came to be.

MR. DAN BAILEY

13:40:51
We were approached by a group that wanted to do a PBS style documentary on Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a major player in designing the capitol and getting the capitol constructed. And he came to us to show what Washington, D.C. looked around Capitol Hill in the early 1800s when Latrobe would've been there. And this is my ah-ha moment. I went to the library to get a couple of coffee table books on what Washington, D.C. looked like and there wasn't anything there.

MR. DAN BAILEY

13:41:17
And then I started going online and looking around. And there is very little visual information on what this area looked like at that time. For obvious reasons, photographer was not invented yet. And this was not a city. This was out in the country. And there was no reason for artists to be here documenting how the landscape looked. The other interesting thing is, the documentation that was done is not always accurate. People were making the landscape look possibly more romantic or idyllic than it really was. And the buildings were a little taller and bluffs were a little higher.

MR. DAN BAILEY

13:41:56
And the river was a little bluer. So it's very difficult, it's fun to sort through all that stuff and try to figure out what really was here 200 years ago.

SHEIR

13:42:07
So you've kind of become this accidental historian, slash, detective, in a way?

BAILEY

13:42:13
That's a great title. Can I quote you on that?

SHEIR

13:42:15
You'll put it on your business card.

BAILEY

13:42:16
I'll put it on my business card. Accidental is a great term. It really describes how I got into this.

SHEIR

13:42:23
I'm curious to hear about some of the major differences between the D.C. of today and the D.C. of back then that maybe surprised you as you came across them or you thought, really? That was there, really?

BAILEY

13:42:32
I say that every day, really. Really, it was really that way. I say that every day. The one that historians and D.C. buffs would know is that the river has filled in through natural causes and through a lot of dredging and fill work. The national mall wall Tiber Creek. You could sail your boat, little tiny boat, but you could sail it up to the White House lawn. The whole area beyond Banneker Circle that we're looking at right here, all the way over to Reagan Airport was just river.

BAILEY

13:43:02
And Capitol Hill is only 80, 90 feet above the river, but it was very steep and full of brush and rugged and the original gullies and nooks and crannies are gone. And it would be interesting to see those.

SHEIR

13:43:19
So basically if L'Enfant were riding his horse around today, would he not recognize anything?

BAILEY

13:43:24
I don't think he would recognize very much at all because it's really hard to see the horizon line. And the river is dramatically different. But I think that is -- what myself and a number of other map makers and historians would really like to do, is to try to return this landscape in a computer, digitally, and we're beginning to try to give some of that online. Where people can actually begin to see and imagine what it possibly would have been like 200 years ago.

SHEIR

13:43:50
What is your estimated date of completion?

BAILEY

13:43:52
There is no estimation of completion. This has been an unfunded project. I work on it, the research center lead at UMBC, whenever we have some downtime, we might put somebody working on it. I have a modeler, a great 3D modeler now working on Nutley Young's plantation. But the next step is, we do need the funding. It's one thing to be Hollywood special effects and be able to design something and build it in a computer. But the larger step and the more critical step is, what are we supposed to be building and what is it supposed to look like?

BAILEY

13:44:25
There's very little information and so, what we thought was really sort of a production process, a modeling process and a rendering process to make these digital pictures, has turned into a huge research effort trying to find the information. And I didn't grow up in D.C., it's really -- I'm always curious as to why I got really bit by this bug, but I think it is the story of watching this country grow in the late 1700s and early 1800s. And, I think, the city really is a manifestation. How it grew, how it was designed, how it was built, it was really a manifestation of the whole country and unto itself.

SHEIR

13:45:04
Dan Bailey directs the imaging research center at UMBC where they're hard at work on visualizing early Washington, D.C. To watch a short video about the project and see how the Nutley Young plantation research is coming along, check out our website metroconnection.org.
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