The Capitol Hill Historic District, which encompasses approximately 8,000 contributing buildings, grew from a small boarding house community for members of Congress to an area of more than 150 squares spread out over several different neighborhoods.
The first Capitol Hill neighborhood was a small community of residences, inhabited mostly by government workers. With DC the new seat of the federal government, many Congressmen found themselves needing to get to work but unwilling to establish permanent homes in the capital city. Many opted to stay in boarding houses close to the Capitol instead, and by 1801, most Congressmen resided on Capitol Hill. Within a few decades, more than 2,000 people were living on the Hill and building homes in the growing community there.
Several of these earliest houses still stand. The oldest is The Maples, also known as Friendship House, a grand Late Georgian-style estate built between 1795 and 1797 for the wealthy merchant William Mayne Duncanson. Several houses that reflect the Federal style popular on Capitol Hill in the early 19th century also remain, including the George Watterston House, a rowhouse built between 1802 and 1819 by an early Librarian of Congress, and the Mountjoy Bayly House, built in 1822 for the second Sergeant at Arms of the Senate. These structures mix a Federal style with design elements characteristic of Georgian architecture, as well as later styles from the 19th and 20th centuries.
In addition to the growing Congressional boarding house community, the construction of the Navy Yard and the Marine Barracks attracted many workers and businesses to the area. Few buildings from this early neighborhood remain standing. The Gothic Revival-style Christ Church (built between 1806 and 1807), although altered significantly over the past two centuries, still stands as a reminder of the early Navy Yard community. Another significant religious institution was the Little Ebenezer Church, built by Capitol Hill’s earliest African American congregation in 1838. The original frame structure no longer stands, but the congregation continues to own the site, where they built a new church in 1897.
The neighborhoods around the Capitol building and the Navy Yard had been growing slowly but gradually for the first half of the 19th century, but construction slowed significantly during the Civil War. The Italianate and Greek Revival-style Old Naval Hospital, originally the Temporary Home for Veterans of All Wars is one of the only structures built during this period that remains.
In the 1870s, the leadership of Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd led to a period of rapid construction and civic improvement throughout the city, renewing the growth of Capitol Hill. It was during this time that the Capitol Hill area became a predominantly middle-class neighborhood, as Shepherd’s public works projects established Northwest DC as the city’s most fashionable quadrant, leading wealthier residents to abandon the Southeast.
As a result, the last decades of the 19th century in Capitol Hill saw the construction of many of the modest row houses now considered characteristic of the historic district. As the federal workforce expanded, many of these homes were purchased by middle-class government workers. The neighborhood became more and more of a federal center as new government buildings went up nearby: the Library of Congress in 1897, Union Station in 1907, and Russell Senate Office Building and Cannon House Office Building in 1909. Eastern Market, built in 1873 and expanded in 1908, represents one of the commercial centers constructed to support the increasing number of Capitol Hill residents.
As the early 20th century saw significant population growth citywide, developers had to adapt to the influx of new residents arriving in DC. While Capitol Hill had for years been dominated by single-family residences, more than 100 apartment buildings were constructed within the historic district between 1900 and 1930, including George Santmyers’ Lexington Apartments at 1114 F Street, NE, built in 1928. And as the Great Depression devastated much of the country, DC saw little slowdown in comparison, with New Deal programs drawing even more government workers to the city and to Capitol Hill.
Instead, Capitol Hill’s slowdown occurred in the aftermath of World War II. While the Navy Yard had drawn many workers to the neighborhood during the wars, it declined dramatically after 1945. Production slowed, work was contracted out to private agencies, and technological advances rendered the Navy Yard’s operations largely obsolete. What had once been a workforce of tens of thousands shrank to just a few thousand. At the same time, increasing numbers of middle-class residents were giving up Capitol Hill for the suburbs. Many of the Victorian-era row houses they had occupied were subsequently divided up into apartments, which ushered in a new population, lower-income and more transient than the previous set.
Social reform and urban renewal efforts of the mid-20th century also altered the landscape of the neighborhood. New construction, often following the destruction of historic buildings, invited new residents, especially people with lower incomes looking for affordable housing. Unfortunately, in the past four decades, there has been little effort to ensure these residents can remain in their homes as wealthy residents move in, resulting in widespread displacement, particularly for African American residents.
Also destroyed in the 20th century were alley dwellings like Navy Place SE, which had been home to many poor African Americans until its eradication in 1941. The construction of the Southeast-Southwest Freeway in the 1960s was another of the major mid-century changes to the neighborhood’s fabric, separating Capitol Hill from the Navy Yard and destroying a number of Federal and Greek Revival-style houses as it did.
It was also around this time that efforts to preserve the district’s historic architecture began. At a time when most wealthy government officials were still living in Northwest DC, Justice William O. Douglas’ 1949 decision to purchase, renovate, and restore a 19th-century row house near the Capitol inspired more of the wealthy elite to do the same. This led to the preservation of many of the historic row houses that had once faced decline and destruction.
DC Inventory: June 19, 1973 (primary identification November 8, 1964); boundary expansions January 20, 1976 and February 7, 2002; period of significance extended February 27, 2003
National Register: August 27, 1976; boundary expansion and period of significance extended July 3, 2003; boundary expansion 2015