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Architectural Images from the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection

Washington, D.C.’s iconic buildings— the U.S. Capitol and the White House—are now so familiar to viewers around the globe that they feel inevitable. But nothing is inevitable, especially in Washington. Today’s buildings are the result of many architects’ hands and visions, a war that all but destroyed them, and an expanding federal government with new needs. Foundations for a Nation considers the birth and early development of the Capitol and the White House as seen in the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection. Thirty-two prints, maps, and paintings evoke the competing ideals and architectural fashions of the late 1700s and early 1800s. They also illustrate the many tweaks and revisions the designs would undergo. In the Residence Act of 1790, Congress gave George Washington authority to decide what architectural style was suitable for the new city and where the executive (president), legislative (Congress), and judicial (Supreme Court) branches would operate. Washington would also choose who would design and build these halls of government.

Washington believed that a new nation needed a strong government based in a capital city that would be respected worldwide. Yet he was very sensitive to the new nation’s unpleasant past as subjects of the British monarchy and wanted to avoid undue extravagance or hints of royalty. Other important leaders—notably Thomas Jefferson, his secretary of state—specifically wanted the seat of government to be as simple and humble as possible. Today’s iconic Neoclassical buildings embody a compromise of the founders’ desire to evoke the enduring strength and stability of the United States of America while avoiding ostentation and expressions of privilege. With roots in ancient Greece and Rome, the finished designs reflect the fashions of their eras and also incorporate Americanized decorative flourishes, such as the New World corncobs that adorn some of the Capitol’s interior Corinthian columns. Foundations for a Nation also discusses the workforce of enslaved and free laborers who laid the buildings’ foundations and performed the grueling work of clearing land, cutting stones, and casting statues.

George Washington and Peter L’Enfant chose for the White House a gentle hill overlooking the Tiber Creek that connected to the Potomac River. The President’s House, from the River, based on painting by W.H. Bartlett, 1840. Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection 172.

 large crane built to fit inside the Rotunda hoisted building A materials to construct the new 287-foot tall Capitol dome. Balloon View of Washington, D.C. (detail), 1861. Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection 200A.

German interest in the new nation led to publication of this view of what became the original Capitol, with its floorplan. Oestliche Fronte des Capitols von Washington, [and] Grundriss des capitols, 1828. Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection 260.

Maintenance of the Capitol Dome requires frequent painting. When this illustration was printed, tourists were free to climb to the top. Washington, D.C. – Painting the Dome of the Capitol, 1894. Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection 393.


public programs

The museum is located at the corner of 21st and G streets, NW, four blocks from the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro Station (Blue, Orange, and Silver lines). For directions and parking information, visit

For the most up-to-date list of the museum’s educational programs visit

hours Monday: 11 AM–5 PM Wednesday–Thursday: 11 AM–7 PM Friday: 11 AM–5 PM Saturday: 10 AM–5 PM Sunday: 1–5 PM Closed Tuesdays and university holidays.

admission $8 suggested donation for non-members. Free for museum members, children, and current GW students, faculty, and staff.

accessibility The museum is wheelchair accessible and designated garage parking is available nearby. Visit accessibility for more information.

museum shop Visit the shop for unique jewelry, home décor, books, and gifts from Washington, D.C., and around the world that support the museum’s educational mission.

albert h. small center for national capital area studies The reading room is open by appointment Mon, Wed–Thu 11:30 AM– 4 PM. Email to make an appointment.

front cover Bird’s-Eye View of Capitol Dome and the Mall (detail), by Ronald Thompson, ca. 1970. Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection 167.

exhibition tours Free walk-in tours of the galleries are offered each Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 PM (textile tour) and 2:45 PM (Washingtoniana tour). To schedule a docent-led tour for groups of six to forty people, call 202-994-5578 at least four weeks in advance.

join or donate Support from members and donors is the driving force that allows the museum to continue its work bringing art, history, and culture alive for the GW community and the public. To join or renew a current membership, or to make a donation, visit or call 202-994-5579.

stay in touch Follow the museum online for more information about works on view, programs, and behind-the-scenes activities. @GWTextileMuseum TextileMuseum GWMuseum

The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum 701 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC 20052 202-994-5200 |

Foundations for a Nation: Architectural Images from the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection  

Guide to the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum's exhibition (May 6 through October 15, 2017)

Foundations for a Nation: Architectural Images from the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection  

Guide to the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum's exhibition (May 6 through October 15, 2017)