Capitol Hill: The Capitol is Just Up the Street
By Ruth Ann Overbeck
Capitol Hill—the very words conjure up a lofty seat of government. In Washington, D.C., however, the words mean not only the heights crowned by the nation’s Capitol but also the adjoining neighborhood that occupies the broad expanse east of the Capitol building. Some say the Hill’s boundaries have never extended past the three or four blocks nearest the Capitol, but documents dated as early as 1870 tagged privately owned buildings a mile east of the Capitol as "Capitol Hill." Other sources declare that the community encompasses all the land east of the Capitol, from the shoreline arc of the Anacostia River to the end of the Hill’s northern descent—almost four square miles.
The neighborhood’s close relationship with the nation’s seat of power has continued in various forms throughout its almost 200-year history. Its residents have ranged from the workmen who built the Capitol to Thomas Jefferson, from congressmen to Navy Yard craftsmen. Many residents have had no association at all with the federal government, except for living with the Capitol as a backdrop for their daily lives. Although federal activities on the Hill have expanded to claim some of its oldest buildings, the neighborhood has survived its proximity to power. Its largely nineteenth-century buildings remain intact to house a varied population in a comfortable residential neighborhood just steps from the Capitol of the nation.
When it was selected as the location of the Capitol building in 1791, Capitol Hill was farmland. Descendants of the Rozier-Young-Carroll family had owned much of the area for almost a century. The family had farmed the land with slaves, but beginning in 1770 had attempted to attract developers to it. Daniel Carroll "of Duddington," as he was known, stood to profit most from the arrival of the federal government. Pierre L’Enfant, the Frenchman credited with the federal city’s design, called a sharp rise on Carroll’s land "a pedestal awaiting a monument" and reserved if for the Capitol. His plan faced the Capitol eastward, toward the pedestal’s broad top. Consequently, land speculators such as George Walker, a Scottish merchant who lived in Philadelphia, assumed that much of the city’s residential and commercial development would occur on the hilltop and invested accordingly.
The Capitol was slow to rise, however, and the community around it lagged as well. There was little money available, and there were too few skilled men and laborers in the District to build the Capitol, much less a whole city. Maryland and Virginia supplied many of the construction workers for the Capitol, native and foreign-born whites, free and enslaved blacks. Others came from the Northern states and from Europe. These men, with or without their families, joined the old rural population to constitute the Hill’s first community. Most newcomers chose to live within walking distance of their work; some lived right on the Capitol grounds in wooden barracks. Others moved into private houses that were little better than shanties. The houses of master craftsmen, supervisors, and surveyors usually were more solid, most often two-story frame buildings with steep gable roofs. Whether frame or brick, the buildings tended to look alike, with multipaned windows flanked by shutters, rectangularly paneled wooded doors, and shingled roofs.
In keeping with his prominence as one of the capital city’s original landowners, Carroll built Capitol Hill’s first mansion, named Duddington. While Duddington was under construction, L’Enfant discovered that it projected onto the street line of his proposed New Jersey Avenue. He ordered it removed, but Carroll resisted. L’Enfant’s decision to raze the building himself, in one of a series of disputes with the District commissioners, contributed to his being fired as the city’s chief engineer. Carroll rebuilt the Georgian-style brick mansion nearby, and it became a gathering place for a fledgling Washington society. Within two decades, however, Carroll was disillusioned by the City’s failure to live up to his expectations and spent the rest of his life as an embittered recluse.
Only a handful of other Hill residents could afford mansions like Carroll’s. These Englishmen, who had amassed fortunes in the East India trade, established wharves along the Eastern Branch (now the Anacostia River) to develop a new, Washington-based East India trade. Most faded into obscurity before they could give substance to their plans, but two of them, Thomas Law and William Mayne Duncanson, made their mark in the new city. Law married one of George Washington’s step-granddaughters, lived on the Hill, and erected at least 10 of its buildings. Law had three young Anglo-Indian sons who came with him from India, the first Hill residents known to descend from ancestors who were neither western Europeans nor Africans. Their Indian mother remains a mystery.
Duncanson enjoyed such enormous wealth when he arrived in the federal city that his servants wore full livery and his wine cellar reputedly rivaled that of his friend Thomas Jefferson. By 1800, however, his ill-fated real estate investments led to bankruptcy. He died a few years later, almost a pauper. Today only The Maples (now Friendship House), Duncanson’s mansion built in 1795-1797 six blocks southeast of the Capitol, remains as physical evidence of the East India group’s presence on the Hill.
In 1799 Capitol Hill gained a second nucleus: the Navy Yard. George Washington personally approved its site on the Eastern Branch’s west bank, almost two miles above the river’s confluence with the Potomac. Sheltered from the view of ships coming up the Potomac, the site was presumed to provide U.S. warships the element of surprise necessary to defend the federal city against invasion by sea. The yard’s other purpose was to build those warships, and it quickly earned the reputation as one of the town’s most reliable employers. Because it hired whoever had the needed skills, many black and immigrant craftsmen and laborers achieved financial independence working there.
When the federal government moved to the District of Columbia in 1800, only one wing of the Capitol had been built. A Connecticut congressman described it as a shining object in dismal contrast to its surroundings. Congressmen and Vice President Thomas Jefferson took rooms at the few boardinghouses and taverns scattered in the "dismal" blocks nearest the Capitol. Later, as president, Jefferson located the U.S. Marine Barracks near the Navy Yard and then added to the Hill’s ethnic diversity by sending to Italy for musicians to be members of "the President’s Own"—the U.S. Marine Band.
By 1810 gabled-roofed houses, shops, smithies, a farmers’ market, the Masonic Naval Lodge (#4), and Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist congregations were flourishing on the Hill. They dotted a crescent of development that swept generally southeast from the Capitol to the Navy Yard and Marine Barracks. The heaviest concentration of buildings surrounded the Navy Yard, because of its year-round employment opportunities. A mile farther east, the public alms house and Congressional Cemetery took shape. Private schools for white children, including one sponsored by the Masons, opened near the Navy Yard. In 1807 three former slaves—George Bell, a carpenter, and Moses Liverpool and Nicholas Franklin, caulkers at the Navy Yard—established a school for black children. And in 1808 the city established Eastern Academy for impoverished white children living east of the Capitol. Despite a growing population, empty blocks far outnumbered those with even one building on them. This open land was available to anyone, regardless of race, color, or creed, who had the money to buy or lease it.
Congress’ cyclical sitting, after fall harvest and before spring planting, punctuated time for the Hill. In August 1814 the British almost ended these cycles. When they invaded Washington by land instead of by sea, the British soldiers’ first stop was Capitol Hill. They burned and looted the Capitol and camped on its grounds. The commandant of the U.S. Navy, acting on orders, set fire to the yard and the ships being built there. Most civilians either fled the city or added to the chaos. Some who lived near the Navy Yard became so angry with the failure of the government to protect their lives, their homes, and their jobs that they looted the few buildings within the yard that had escaped the flames.
Washington’s failure to defend itself rankled Americans everywhere. Congress met in September and immediately proposed moving the Capital from Washington City to some "more convenient and less dishonored place," as Congressman Charles J. Ingersoll later wrote. Thirty-eight local citizens, including Daniel Carroll and Thomas Law, acted quickly. Using their own funds, they created a large brick building on the site now occupied by the Supreme Court and offered it to Congress. The federal government decided to stay, and Congress used the "Brick Capitol" until it moved back to the U.S. Capitol across the street in 1819.
Capitol Hill spent the years from 1820 to 1850 in relative quiet. Its population grew; residents formed a Roman Catholic church and the Methodists split into two congregations, one white, one black. East Capitol Street, however, the street that led straight east from the Capitol’s principal door, remained so undeveloped that part of it was used for horse races. Numerous families augmented their incomes by selling vegetables raised on nearby empty lots at local markets. The Eastern Branch proved too shallow for the new ship designs, so the Washington Navy Yard turned increasingly to armament design and manufacturing. The remodeled Brick Capitol joined the boardinghouses that served the Congress in its seasonal sittings.
Newcomers to the Hill in this period included both white and black Americans as well as a wave of German, Irish, and southern European immigrants, all of whom came to seek a new life in the capital. Many were talented building artisans and craftsmen who worked on the Capitol’s expansion in the 1850s and 1860s. Some found jobs elsewhere or went into business for themselves. Antonio Sousa of Portugal chose the Marines. He and his Bavarian-born wife, Elizabeth, gave Capitol Hill a citizen of the world: their son John Philip Sousa, the "March King," wrote "Stars and Stripes Forever" and many other internationally known compositions.
With the advent of the Civil War, the Union Army commandeered every public building, including the Capitol, and many private ones as well. The government built a temporary hospital on East Capitol Street near today’s Lincoln Park. The old Brick Capitol became a prison for southern soldiers, contrabands, spies, cashiered Union officers, and as many as 200 political prisoners at a time. Wartime needs also led to Washington’s first horse-drawn streetcar lines in 1862, one of the three linking the Navy Yard, the Capitol, and the White House.
Many Washingtonians sympathized with the South. When the Episcopal bishop of Washington ordered his clergymen to read a prayer of thanksgiving for the District’s deliverance from the Confederates’ blockade and siege in 1861, some flatly refused. Perhaps the most ironic refusal came from the Reverend J. Morsell of Christ Church near the Navy Yard—then the official congregation of the Marine Barracks. Nonetheless, throughout the war Christ Church’s bell tower served as a Union lookout post.
At the Navy Yard the men manufactured armaments and refitted and repaired ships as they docked. The submarine U.S.S. Monitor thrilled the Navy Yard and the entire neighborhood when it arrived on October 2, 1862, for alterations and repairs. William F. Keeler, the submarine’s paymaster, wrote, "The ‘Monitor’ and her officers are the lions of the day…no caravan or circus ever collected such a crowd."
Washington’s wartime prosperity and population boom brought new investors to the Hill. Wealthy Philadelphia tugboat manufacturer and speculator Stephen Flanagan built a row of 16 attached houses a block off East Capitol Street and a mile east of the Capitol. Called Philadelphia Row, the buildings had flat fronts of innovative machine-made "pressed" bricks. The bricks’ smooth surfaces and crisp edges contrasted visibly with the coarser texture of older ones and would replace them in most construction on the Hill, and across the city, after the war. Flat roofs invisible from the streets, modest brackets at the cornice line, four-panel doors, and larger windowpanes further distinguished Philadelphia Row from its Hill forebears. The row’s location, well outside the old crescent, anticipated by at least 30 years a new center of population for the Hill.
During the early 1870s the city government provided funds for a new public market and placed it equidistant from the Capitol and the Navy Yard but outside the original crescent of development. German immigrant Adolph Cluss was selected to design it. The handsome red-brick Eastern Market stood almost alone at first, but new buildings filled countless lots by 1900. Many were the first ever built on their site; some replaced earlier structures.
Many of the new buildings were two-or three-story single-family residences for Washington’s growing middle class, a signal that the same forces that shaped Washington’s post-Civil War suburbs also changed Capitol Hill. The city was growing rapidly as the federal government increased in importance and required more workers. At the same time new public transportation networks allowed some people new options in choosing a residence; they no longer had to live within walking distance of their work. In Washington as in other American cities at this time, residential areas began to separate by race and by class, and neighborhoods became more uniform. Northwest Washington increasingly attracted the most affluent. Capitol Hill appealed to the middle-income home buyer, a growing category of people in Washington ever since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 ended the whims of the spoils system and made government employment more secure.
Thus the men who built the Capitol Hill houses during this era, most Hill residents themselves, tended to aim their projects at the white middleclass market. The neighborhood’s established black families, such as George Bell’s descendants, persisted in their pre-Civil War houses or in new ones they built on individual lots. Most of the post-Civil War developers’ long rows, however, were closed to them for at least half a century.
Between 1875 and 1895, Charles Gessford, one of the city’s prolific builders, built more houses on the Hill than anyone else. A Maryland native, Gessford began his building career in Washington as a carpenter’s apprentice, then made the transition from carpenter to builder and speculator. He excelled at building marketable rowhouses. Once he found a house "formula" that worked, he repeated it over and over, usually with a square-cornered projecting bay that stretched from ground to sky, always in red pressed brick, and often with stone trim. Gessford further enhanced his most expensive house with stained-glass windows and door transoms and slate roofs.
While residences accounted for most of the Hill’s new buildings, for about 30 years the Hill sprouted churches, one every third block or so. German Catholics led the way in 1868 with St. Joseph’s, two blocks from the Capitol. In 1882 Calvin Brent, Washington’s first black architect, designed Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church for a black congregation whose members resided primarily in the old crescent between the Capitol and the Navy Yard. Black members of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, who had been excluded from full participation in the church, were granted their own parish, St. Cyprian’s, in 1893. Most churches in the neighborhood and in the city had separated into black and white congregations long before.
Although most of the Hill’s nationally known, nineteenth-century residents were men, journalist Emily Edson Briggs was an exception. After moving from Iowa to Washington in 1861 with her husband, she wrote an anonymous letter to the Washington Cronicle protesting the newspaper’s allegations that women government clerks were inefficient. That letter led to a newspaper career that lasted for 40 years and included hundreds of nationally published columns written under the pen name "Olivia." When she became a widow in 1872, Briggs bought Duncanson’s old mansion, The Maples, and resided there until she died, in 1910.
By 1898 the Navy Yard had become the world’s largest ordnance production and engineering-research center. It remained one of the city’s largest employers for almost 50 years. Its demand for unskilled labor helped a new immigrant group establish an American foothold; the old buildings outside its walls provided affordable housing. Capitol Hill’s new eastern European Jewish population sold kosher food, opened haberdashery stores, and formed the Southeast Hebrew congregation, all within four blocks of the Navy Yard’s main gate.
Construction fell off dramatically during the depression of 1893. When it began to pick up momentum in the first decades of the twentieth century, developers concentrated on empty land north and east of the older sections. At first, red brick was still the material of choice, but the bayfront facades were swept almost clean of ornamentation. Front doors contained a single expansive pane of beveled-edge glass, and concrete steps took the place of iron. By World War I fashion dictated flat fronts, often with a roofed porch jutting from the front of each house. New materials came with the new styles: rough-surfaced bricks in pale shades of yellow and gray, topped with red tiled roofs.
The Hill’s population swelled to the bursting point from the onset of World War I through World War II. Although the area gained a few new shops and apartments in this period, many of the Hill’s streets retained their first buildings. Some dramatic changes took place, however, near the Capitol. From the 1870s the Hill had suffered some attrition of its earliest buildings, most of it at the behest of the federal government. Thomas Law’s and Daniel Carroll’s buildings near the Capitol fell to make room for congressional office buildings and the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court occupied the site of the old Brick Capitol. Also, one of the Hill’s oldest remaining residences, The Maples, underwent major alterations in 1937 to become the headquarters of Friendship House. The agency had originated elsewhere in 1904 to provide social services to the Navy Yard area’s working poor "latchkey" children, and to non-English-speaking immigrants.
Most of the Hill’s late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century buildings remained unchanged, however, and began to catch the eye of the early restoration movement after World War II. By 1949, for example, Justice William O. Douglas had bought one of the Capitol Hill’s historic houses. Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill were the first of Washington’s neighborhoods to follow in the footsteps of the earlier preservation movement in Georgetown.
Early restoration took place within a mile east of the Capitol and coincided with major changes in the demography of the Hill in its largest definition. Its middle-class population, black and white, began to move away, lured by suburbia, VA loans, and newer housing in neighborhoods farther from the center of the city, some newly opened to blacks by the 1948 Supreme Court ruling declaring housing covenants unconstitutional. Many of these people had held blue-collar jobs with good wages at the Navy Yard, but these jobs became less plentiful when the yard stopped manufacturing weapons after the war. At the same time, low-income families, mostly black, who had been displaced by the Southwest Urban Renewal project, moved into the Hill’s older run-down houses or into public housing on the Hill’s fringes. Adding to the mix were the young families, and singles, mostly white and upwardly mobile, who began to invest in and restore the houses between the Capitol and Lincoln Park. By 1960 the economic and racial mix had tipped to one that was less middle-class black and white to one that included more low-income black and middle-to upper-income white.
By the 1970s the Hill had acquired a reputation for civic activism, as new residents, dedicated to urban living, organized to shape their community. Their achievements were legion. Successes included defeat of federal projects to turn East Capitol Street into a boulevard of federal offices and to split the community with a freeway. Persistence integrated some public schools, revitalized Eastern Market and the police station, and defeated plans to construct the tallest high rise in the city at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street. Residents also established annual events such as the House and Garden Tour, begun in 1957 by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, the City’s longest continuous tour. Church banners have led the annual Easter parade sponsored by the Capitol Hill Group Ministry for more than 20 years, and some 55,000 people annually attend Market Day, sponsored by Friendship House, and the Octoberfest, organized by The Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals. In 1976 residents gained historic district status for a large portion of the neighborhood nearest the Capitol, one of the largest districts in the nation with more than 8,000 primary buildings.
Capitol Hill today continues its history of diversity. It has single-family houses, condominiums, and group homes. It has shops, places of worship, and institutions. Although the area of the Hill behind the Capitol has become increasingly white and middle-to upper-middle-class, the residents of the entire neighborhood represent every race and almost every nation. It is still a place where a U.S. senator, a former national president of the Young Republicans, three generations of welfare recipients, a retired letter carrier, an electrician, an artist, attorneys, journalists, and Hill staffers all live on one block. It is a rare mixture of people with very local, as well a national and international, concerns. It is in some ways an urban neighborhood like any other—except that the Capitol is just up the street.
Photo: Wymer Collection, Historial Society of Washington, D.C. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck