Throughout Western society in the century after 1850, the expansion of the state created unprecedented demands in capital cities for office space, infrastructure, and housing. State-sponsored embellishment programs, most famously the Second Empire transformation of Paris, showed the potential of capital cities to display the majesty and ingenuity of the state and to reinforce national identity. For reasons of both practical need and symbolic politics, therefore, Western society entered an age of capital building that manifested itself from Buenos Aires to Istanbul, and even in colonial administrative centers from Algiers to Manila.
Berlin and Washington offer significant instances of this capital-building trend. The main subject of this chapter is the U.S. government's role in Washington's transformation into a major city. The chapter also outlines features of Berlin's development and governance during the dramatic decades following unification in 1871. While politics and the state were central to Berlin's rise in the nineteenth century and disaster in the twentieth, Washington in fact offers a more straightforward example of the nation-state as capital-builder. Residenzstadt of a kingdom long before it became Hauptstadt of an empire, Berlin remained a Prussian city even as it exploded into a European metropolis. The Berliner Dom, the Reichstag, and other massive new buildings proclaimed the presence of Germany’s ambitious new government. Still, day-to-day matters such as planning, public services, and public order remained divided between the state of Prussia and Berlin’s municipal government. This division of authority helped to make Berlin a maze of overlapping jurisdictions and vested interests. On the other hand, Washington, first of the modern, purpose-built capitals, was placed from its founding in a federal district outside the jurisdiction of any state. Municipal government remained circumscribed by powers that Congress – which under the Constitution exercises “exclusive legislation” in the capital – retained over finances and services. In 1878, after a decade of quarrels that mingled issues of finance and development with those of race and Reconstruction, Congress abolished home rule altogether and provided instead for a board of commissioners appointed by the president. As part of a deal under which the United States committed to paying half the District of Columbia’s expenses, Congress took over supervision of the capital’s budget, an authority that it exercises to this day. Washington thus became the only major capital in Western Europe or the Americas where local control disappeared for a lengthy period and the nation-state acquired unimpeded jurisdiction.