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Come let me lead thee o'er this second Rome ...
This embryo capital, where Fancy sees
Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees;
Which second-sighted seers, ev'n now, adorn,
With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn ...
The shrouding mists have gone, and with them the frogs and the mud turtles, yet their presence still lives on in the name. Foggy Bottom is the area where the western reaches of Washington, D.C., used to meet with the Potomac River to the southeast of Rock Creek. In modern times, it includes the once-infamous Watergate Complex, and its evocative name has survived in a Metro station, south of Washington Circle.
If you were to walk or drive from this Metro, down to the Watergate Complex and on to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, even as far as the western edge of Constitution Avenue, you would be unlikely to discover the reason for the name Foggy Bottom. The drainage engineers, the landfill experts and the architects of the late 19th century have done their work well, turning pestilential mudflats into habitable land.
Foggy Bottom was originally called Hamburg by a Dutch gunmaker named Jacob Funk, who had settled the area in the mid-18th century with grandiose plans for its development. However, Nature proved intractable, and the plans he had drawn up for a township came to nothing of real substance. The place remained almost uninhabited because of its deafening frog choruses and cough-inducing mists:settlers were deterred, and only duck hunters and fishermen found the mudflats of use. Incredibly, when, almost 100 years later, in 1859, a gasworks was built in the area, the few householders of Foggy Bottom were delighted: they imagined that the gas fumes would disinfect the muddy land, and somehow make the fogs kinder on their throats.
Although officially Hamburg, it was called Funkstown by the early residents for a considerable time, yet it was scarcely even a village, and certainly not a town. Only a few wood-frame buildings and even fewer brick houses are recorded at Foggy Bottom, as late as 1800. Surprisingly, a pair of red-brick, two-story houses have survived from this time, to the southwest of George Washington University. These were built originally by John Lenthall (who was in charge of the construction of the U.S. Capitol) on 19th Street. At that time, they must have been near the northern edge of the ancient Foggy Bottom. In the 1970s they were moved, brick by brick, to their present location on 21st Street, and in spite of this enforced reconstruction are sometimes said to be among the oldest surviving dwellings in Washington, D.C.
About 1800, a large glassmaking factory -- essentially for the windows of the new city buildings -- was constructed on the southern edge of Foggy Bottom from bricks kilned in Holland. This factory was located on the square sold as lot 89 in the sales map of 1792 (I have marked this position in black on the map below) which had been drawn up at the behest of George Washington to attract capital and speculators to the new federal district. For a while, the site proved to be an excellent one for a factory, as it faced directly on the Potomac and offered useful wharfage for unloading glassmaking materials.
By one of those curious coincidences with which the history of Washington, D.C., is punctuated, this is exactly the site where, nearly 200 years later, a bronze statue of the mathematical genius Einstein was erected, outside the National Academy of Sciences (plate 1). The great man is shown contemplating a star-spangled marble horoscope for April 22, 1979, which is spread out at his feet: he is casually resting his right foot on the stars of two cosmic giants -- Bo�tes and Hercules. As we shall see, this is probably the largest marble horoscope in the world,
The surprising link forged between Foggy Bottom and the stars does not end with Einstein. Behind his statue, in the National Academy of Sciences building, are 12 signs of the zodiac, along with their corresponding symbols, which have been built into the structure of the metal doors (plate 2). In the adjacent building to the east -- the Federal Reserve Board Building -- are two other zodiacs, cut by the great glass designers Steuben, as decorative flanges for lightbulbs (plate 3 and figure 12). These zodiacs -- the marble floor of the Einstein statue, the metal doors of the Academy and the glass light fixtures of the Federal Reserve -- are just 4 of the 20 or so zodiacs in central Washington, D.C.
At a later point, I shall examine each of these zodiacs more closely, but even at this stage we must stop and ask the obvious question: why do we find zodiacs in the formerly unhealthy stretches of Foggy Bottom, where frogs croaked night and day, and where young boys would hunt for mud turtles?
Today, the air around Einstein is fresh and wholesome, and even the River Potomac has disappeared. The silting of the waters, and the extensive landfills of the late 19th century, explain why the Potomac wharfage has been moved, and why, from the windows of the Academy, one looks onto a greensward extension of the Mall, landscaped with trees and dotted with a variety of war memorials, including that of the Vietnam Veterans. In many ways, this extension of Foggy Bottom, born of the waters of the Potomac, has witnessed greater change than almost any other part of Washington, D.C.
It would be pleasant to think that Einstein would know that behind him there had once been a site called Observatory Hill. Had perhaps the earlier inhabitants -- first the Algonquins, and later the early settlers from Elizabethan England -- studied the stars from this rise? The reality is probably more prosaic...The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital. Copyright � by David Ovason. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.