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Surveyor, soldier, civil engineer and visionary government reformer, Henry B. Looker helped shape modern Washington DC. More than a century later he still guides DC surveyors every day . . . but most of them don’t know it. A West Pointer who unexpectedly became official District of Columbia Surveyor, Henry B. Looker transformed land practices in the Nation’s Capital, and brought Washington DC out of the 1800s into the roaring 20th Century. His many insightful improvements are still followed to this day. Amidst it all, he volunteered to fight for his country . . . which cost him his life–but not from a bullet.
Henry Brigham Looker was born in 1858 near Cincinnati, to an accomplished family that had fought in every American war. His grandfather, a soldier in Washington’s Army, became Ohio’s fifth governor. And his naval officer father, decorated in the Civil War, was a rear admiral. Today their Ohio homestead is a historic park.
Teenage Henry came to DC in 1876 when his father–Admiral Looker–was posted to Washington. The admiral moved his large family to a handsome 1868 Victorian home in Georgetown, District of Columbia.
Naturally gifted at math and `problem solving,’ Henry Looker attended two top engineering schools. He excelled first at Maryland Agricultural College (today’s University of Maryland,) then the US Military Academy at West Point NY, finest engineering school on earth. But with only four months left before graduation, he resigned from West Point due to illness. 17th in his class, he never graduated.
Instead, at 23–son of an admiral, grandson of a governor, with highest family expectations–he was a college dropout with no degree and no military commission.
But he had one thing . . . the best education in surveying, math, military sciences and civil engineering obtainable in America.
For seven years he bounced around various engineering and surveying jobs–canals, railroads, tunnels, suspension bridges, teaching–all good early experience.
In 1887 he returned to Washington and got a job as `assistant engineer’ with Herman K. Vielé, who ran a busy civil design firm in downtown DC. Henry B. Looker’s name now began to appear for the first time on subdivision plats in and around Washington DC–"Glen Echo Heights," "Kalorama," "Kensington"–all supervised by Vielé, but largely done by Looker.
Those plats were the first of thousands to come, bearing Looker’s name.
Three years later in 1890, Vielé retired. Henry went into business on his own. At Washington’s famed "National Union Building," he `put out his shingle’ as a new Topographical Engineer. So many civil firms shared that building it was the unofficial "Surveyors & Engineers Club" of DC.
There followed the most prolific few years of private practice any surveyor or engineer has probably ever experienced.
Looker’s new business flourished. Developers loved him. There was nothing in engineering or surveying he couldn’t handle. In 1890 he teamed with Henry W. Brewer, renowned surveyor of western DC, to subdivide "Palisades of the Potomac," one of Washington’s most scenic regions.
Then came "Brightwood Park" in DC, done entirely by Looker, followed by subdivisions in Maryland so numerous they can’t all be listed . . . "Burgundy Park," "High Point," "Takoma Park," "West Kensington," "Glen Echo Heights," "Chevy Chase," "Chapel Point" and others.
Wherever one goes today around the Washington area, quaint historic neighborhoods from the 1890s are Looker’s. His math `closes,’ his points check. Houses and fences line up–silent testimonial to the man who placed them.
One memorable drawing gained prominence–"National Chautauqua of Glen Echo" (an `enlightenment’ center in the 1890s.) Looker’s exquisite plat of Washington’s Chautauqua site–Glen Echo Park today–is a surveyor’s work of art.
A busy few years went by for surveyorengineer Henry Looker. Projects flew from his drafting tables. Along with plenty of business, he gained a wide reputation for skill and integrity.
One day in 1894 he received some unexpected visitors–a delegation of Washington’s top government and business leaders.
They were on a recruiting mission. They’d come to implore him to do the very last thing he’d ever considered–close his booming private practice and join the District of Columbia’s Surveyors Office.
In those days `DCSO’ was the key agency for all land development in the Nation’s Capital, combining today’s functions of planning, zoning, permitting and subdivisions. William Forsyth, its highly-regarded but elderly surveyor in charge, had directed the office since before the Civil War. New developments had overwhelmed his small hard-working staff. Urgently a skilled young surveyor was needed . . . and the person they wanted was Henry B. Looker.
It took considerable `persuasion,’ but in the end Looker agreed.
DC Surveyors Office
Henry B. Looker joined the DC Surveyors Office in January 1895, as Assistant Surveyor to William Forsyth, at the princely salary of $1800 a year (about $50K today.) With Forsyth’s blessing, he immediately started making big improvements.
In March 1895, in a single far-seeing reform, Looker earned the undying gratitude of every generation to follow. He began recording official Plats of Survey. This practice, common in western `Public Lands’ states, seldom occurs today in the eastern US.
DC had always recorded its Subdivisions showing `record’ dimensions. But the city also kept an unpublished treasure-trove of field surveys, showing `real-world’ dimensions that differed from official plats. To the anguish of surveyors like Looker, this `measured’ information was restricted to government use.
Looker quickly changed all that. He began the Survey Books of Washington DC, which today number over 200 large volumes. They show actual field measurements on official recorded Plats of Survey, available to everyone. DC today still records Survey Plats in large numbers.
Why is this so important? Because DC lacks both property monuments and a coordinate-based control network. Most of the city’s long-ago boundary markers are gone. No coordinates were ever run. How can surveyors retrace property lines?
Ah . . . in a city devoid of markers and control, DC law recognizes official Survey Plats as high-order boundary evidence. They’re `held’ by surveyors doing property lines today. That makes Looker’s Survey Books solid gold. Surveyors couldn’t be right without them.
Surveyor of DC
In August 1897, citing age and illness, respected old William Forsyth resigned after 40 years as Surveyor of DC. He’d worked miracles since 1857.
President McKinley appointed Henry B. Looker to the top spot–new official Surveyor of the District of Columbia. His pay rose to $3000 (about $90K today.) The change made front page headlines August 17, 1897.
Another story also made news that day . . . Cuba.
A Spanish colony for centuries, Cuba had rebelled against Spain. Fighting raged. On August 17, 1897–same day Looker was appointed–the US announced support for the insurgents (infuriating Spain.)
Relations quickly worsened. USS Maine detonated at Havana, killing 300 Americans. "Spanish Treachery!" screamed the press. William McKinley mobilized the entire US military and called up the National Guard. A quarter-million American men readied for war. Spain did likewise.
War was declared April 25, 1898. DC’s National Guard regiment was the first unit called. Because there was some legal question whether National Guard troops could be sent overseas, Congress authorized the raising of 16 special regiments of United States Volunteers–the famed "U.S.V." of the Spanish-American War. Every soldier volunteered for foreign combat.
To a man, DC’s National Guard unit stepped forward and became U.S.V. infantry. And Henry Looker resigned as Surveyor of DC and joined them.
His West Point training made him an officer . . . Captain Henry B. Looker, commanding Company H, 1st District of Columbia Volunteer Infantry, U.S.V.
Whooping and waving, DC’s young men departed for war. They joined the American army at Florida, to conquer the Caribbean.
At Florida an inquiry came around from the general . . . Were there any trained engineers among the men? All eyes turned to Looker.
Because of his engineering prowess, Looker and Company H were detached and formed into an engineers battalion–worried they’d `miss all the fighting.’
Everybody knows about Teddy Roosevelt and Cuba’s San Juan Hill. But another Caribbean island was also invaded in that war . . . Puerto Rico.
Secretly from Florida a large American convoy sailed. Among the thousands of troops aboard were Captain Henry B. Looker and his engineers. Another fleet left Cuba. Silently, before dawn July 25, the two forces made rendezvous in darkness off Guánica in southern Puerto Rico.
At dawn, with battleships thundering, the invasion stormed ashore.
In with the first wave went Captain Henry B. Looker and Company H, combatengineers assigned to clear obstacles. They captured the first enemy prisoners and battle flag in Puerto Rico.
One of DC’s earliest recorded Plats of Survey, by Henry B. Looker in 1895, shows party walls built 5 to 9 feet out of position. Constant layout errors by builders soon led Looker to require official `Wall Tests’ of all new structures, a practice still followed by Washington DC.
Looker and his `fighting engineers’ distinguished themselves throughout the Puerto Rican campaign. Often under fire at the front, they repaired bridges, felled trees, built earthworks and carved roads for the army–fighting alongside infantry.
Shooting ceased August 13. Disease was the real killer in that war. Looker fell with malaria–too weak to walk. But American doctors were skilled. Looker was tough. After some time he returned to his greatlyrelieved men.
The unit arrived home September 17. At a gala awards dinner attended by 8,000 people, William McKinley personally decorated Henry Looker and Company H. They’d seen more fighting, and rendered more valuable service, than almost any other unit in the army. Every man received a medal.
Looker and his men brought back an unconquerable spirit of victory, which they never lost. It sustained them through every future challenge. No matter how daunting, nothing ever intimidated them again.
Transforming DC Surveying
After seven months away, Looker resumed his old job as DC Surveyor. He began tackling and solving problems in the District’s land systems with an ease and speed that are wondrous today.
In 1899 he invented a new method for tracking the city’s thousands of `Tax Lots’– irregular remnants of property that DC couldn’t sort. Looker gave them a unique numbering system and platted them all. After that, "A&T Lots" were easy to find. DC still uses his system.
Similarly, Looker organized DC’s undeveloped farmland. He gave each tract its own `Parcel Number’ and created four large books of maps, replotting the entire rural half of DC and correcting overlaps, gaps and conflicts. Those books still exist, as does his Parcel system.
DC was still using tattered original records from the days of George Washington. Looker decided to make fresh copies. At the War Department a second set of those same records existed, in better shape. Looker borrowed them. To his horror he discovered they contained different dimensions. Looker put the two sets side-by-side and solved every discrepancy. The result was DC’s "Original Records of Squares"–large books of plats bearing his careful notes and corrections. These became the accepted `Official Record,’ still used today.
In 1902, exasperated at constant survey mistakes by builders, he began requiring official `Wall Tests`–checks of all new construction–done by the DC Surveyors Office.
Stake-out errors by builders and private surveyors were going undetected until too late. Looker forbade construction higher than one-foot until everything had been "Wall Tested" by his people and found correct.
Buildings began `flunking’ every week. They got torn down and moved until they were right. Looker’s Wall Tests solved chronic problems. They `tightened up’ private surveying, and caught blunders in time.
But they did much more than that.
Over decades, they created a world-class archive of `building locations,’ showing measurements of structures, tied to property lines, done during original construction by impartial government experts. In a city without marked boundaries, surveyors today use this information, along with Looker’s recorded Plats of Survey, to "back in" property lines.
Like his recorded surveys, Looker’s Wall Tests are of incalculable value today–his second greatest `gift’ for solving boundaries. Surveyors in DC should thank their lucky stars that Henry B. Looker came along. Without him, they wouldn’t have anything.
In 1902 Congress passed a new Code of Law for DC. One section required use of Proration for distributing land ‘equitably’ throughout subdivided blocks. Written by Looker with great expertise, it specified `remnant rule’ distribution for colonial Georgetown and mathematical proration (much like Section Corners) for the rest of DC. This gave the District of Columbia something fairly unique–a detailed Act of Congress requiring surveyors to prorate, and telling them how to do it.
Henry B. Looker’s 1902 Proration Statute is still in effect. Its importance today cannot be overstated. It forms the fundamental legal basis for all land surveying in the District of Columbia.
He continued to innovate as long as he lived–drawing plats in color, adding control lines, finding better ways. He began showing discrepancies between `Record’ and ‘Measured’ distances. In this, he was six decades ahead of his time. Not until 1962 did ALTA require the same. Every one of Looker’s techniques is still used by Washington DC.
On December 1, 1904 Henry B. Looker signed his last drawing. It was an ordinary little survey showing two houses with fences. (Naturally, the fences encroached.)
Next day, suddenly "feeling ill," he went home early. He never saw his workplace again.
His old malaria from the war came roaring back–fever, delirium, chills, and convulsions. In those days people didn’t go to hospitals, doctors came to you. Treatment in 1904 was quinine. Ice for the fever. Nothing helped. His condition grew hopeless.
He died at home January 3, 1905–a final casualty of the Spanish American War.
They laid him to rest with full military honors. 380 attended his funeral. Pallbearers were brigadier generals, DC commissioners, professional colleagues and grieving comrades from Company H. He was 46.
When Henry B. Looker died, the everflowing torrent of new ideas and solutions died with him. Nothing changed further for years. He’d have gone the next step, running control coordinates throughout DC. No successor did.
Looker in his life signed at least 5000 drawings. But today his `signature’ is across more than old surveys. It’s everywhere in the Washington area. His elegant subdivisions, countless innovations, and even DC’s government itself, all reflect him still.
For generations, surveyors around Washington have asked, "Why is DC so different?"
No other place in the region records surveys. Or has mandatory proration by law. Or requires government wall checks. Or keeps `record’ and `measured’ separate. Or uses old buildings for monuments. Or follows Public Land practices.
The answer is Henry B. Looker.
Professional land surveyor Chas Langelan practiced more than 40 years in Maryland and the District of Columbia, operating a busy survey office on Capitol Hill before retiring in 2008.
A 7.417Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE