When Alexander Graham Bell received his first telephone patent in 1876, the device was still something of a curiosity. Within two years, though, the first telephone exchanges were opening as the device caught on. Bell, newly famous, moved to DC in the winter of 1878.
For his invention of the telephone, the French government named Bell the 1880 winner of the Volta Prize, which came with an award of 50,000 francs. With this money, Bell established the Volta Laboratory, originally based out of a since-demolished building on L Street. In 1885, the laboratory relocated to the carriage house behind Bell’s father’s Georgetown home at 1527 35th Street, NW.
Although the telephone remains Bell’s best-known innovation, he continued to develop new inventions throughout his years in DC. With the Volta Laboratory, Bell developed the photophone, a device that could transmit sound via rays of light in a precursor to today’s fiber-optic telecommunications technologies. He also worked to refine the induction balance, the invention with which he had attempted and failed to save President Garfield’s life in 1881. Bell had tried to use the early metal detector to find the bullet Garfield’s assassin had fired into his body, but the metal springs of Garfield’s bed had distracted the machine and thwarted Bell’s efforts. After Garfield’s death, Bell continued to refine the device. He also developed the audiometer, used to test hearing.
Before turning his attention to inventing, Bell had worked as a teacher for Deaf students, and his passion for Deaf education continued throughout his life. In 1887, the Volta Association sold its various record-related patents, and Bell used his share of the profits to found the Volta Bureau “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf.”
Originally, the Volta Bureau operated out of a smaller office at 1334 Q Street, NW, but as its work increased, the need for a separate space arose. In 1893, Bell built a new Volta Bureau building at 1537 35th Street, NW, opposite his father’s house and the Volta Laboratory. The neoclassical yellow brick and sandstone building was designed by the Boston-based architectural firm Peabody & Stearns. Helen Keller, then 12 years old and a prior acquaintance of Bell's, broke the sod for the new building.
In 1908, the Volta Bureau merged with the American Association for the Promotion of the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (now known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), and Bell dedicated much of his time before his 1922 death to the organization, serving as its president and donating upwards of $300,000. The association still works out of the original Volta Bureau building, although the address is now 3417 Volta Place, NW.
The Volta Laboratory, however, has been converted to a single-family residence. During Bell’s time there, both stories of the L-shaped brick building had featured full length windows topped with segmental arches, as well as a façade with a brick parapet rising above the second story on the street side. The exterior brick of the house has since been covered with stucco and the windows reduced to a third of their original size.
DC Inventory (Volta Laboratory): June 19, 1973 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
DC Inventory (Volta Bureau): March 3, 1979
National Register (Volta Bureau): November 28, 1972
National Historic Landmark (Volta Bureau): November 28, 1972
Within Georgetown Historic District