Tight-Knit Capitol Hill Comes Into Its Own

Posted November 12, 2004 at 9:13am

When the federal government moved in 1800 from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., government personnel numbered 126 people. One wing of the Capitol was complete, and Vice President Thomas Jefferson and many Congressmen took rooms at boarding houses and taverns that dotted the area around Capitol Hill.

The city’s primary designer, Pierre L’Enfant, chose Capitol Hill as the sight for the nation’s seat of power nine years earlier, and he designed the Capitol so the main entrance faced east, expecting the city to grow in that direction, according to an article by the late Hill historian Ruth Ann Overbeck.

Although L’Enfant remained faithful to his blueprint for the city’s development, he resigned before he could carry out his plan in full. Instead of following his vision, the fashionable sections of the city developed to the west of the Capitol toward the White House.

Capitol Hill remained an orphan of sorts for much of the city’s history. In response, residents have formed a tight-knit community with strong neighborhood institutions, said Nancy Metzger, chairwoman of the historic district committee of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. Restoration and renewal in recent decades has transformed the area into a welcoming residential district with thriving commercial corridors.

In the early years, however, the Capitol Hill neighborhood consisted of little more than the boardinghouses immediately surrounding the Capitol. Open spaces outnumbered buildings for much of the 19th century.

A second nucleus of construction began with the development of the Navy Yard in 1799, on a site approved by George Washington. Used primarily for shipbuilding, the Navy Yard attracted laborers who settled in close proximity to their work, according to Overbeck.

Just two years later, Thomas Jefferson chose a site for the Marine Barracks close to the Navy Yard.

The latter part of the 19th century brought the Civil War to Capitol Hill, spurring growth in the neighborhood. In 1862, the city’s first horse-drawn streetcar lines linked the Navy Yard and Georgetown, Overbeck wrote. The bell tower of Christ Church, which still stands at Sixth and G streets Southeast, served as a Union lookout post, and Lincoln Park was used as a hospital site for wounded soldiers.

The years following the war brought increased development throughout the neighborhood. Entrepreneurs and real-estate developers built row houses for middle-income buyers, since the affluent generally moved Northwest.

In the 1870s, the District’s vice president of public works, Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, undertook major public works and development projects throughout the city. While Capitol Hill benefited from the paving of main roads and the construction of Eastern Market, most of the money went to the Northwest quadrant, said Metzger, who has lived on the Hill with her husband for 30 years.

Capitol Hill residents mobilized to complain about the city’s neglect of their neighborhood.

“A lot of it had to do with the feeling that the Northwest neighborhoods were getting more than their fair share,” Metzger explained.

In the first half of the 20th century, the advent of the automobile allowed D.C. residents more mobility. Living close to the Capitol was no longer a necessity for government workers. As mobility increased, Georgetown and other Northwest neighborhoods became even more fashionable, while the Hill’s popularity waned.

Meanwhile, following World War II the Navy Yard, then involved primarily in the manufacture of weapons and munitions, moved its operations to a site outside of the city, dramatically reducing the number of neighborhood jobs available.

At the same time, suburban sprawl lured middle-class residents out of the city, leaving many urban residential buildings vacant. The neighborhood became “tired looking,” Metzger said. The urban decay so familiar to American cities moved into the neighborhood adjacent to the nation’s center of power.

In 1949, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas purchased, renovated and moved into a row house on Capitol Hill. At the time, it was unheard of for politicians and other government workers of stature to live in the neighborhood.

“[Douglas] is credited with giving legitimacy to Capitol Hill as a place to live,” Metzger said. Douglas inspired others to follow, and the restoration of Capitol Hill began.

The Capitol Hill Historic District was established in 1973, preserving many of the buildings in the neighborhood that have stood since the early years of the city.

More recently, revitalization efforts have moved into Capitol Hill’s outskirts, including the Barracks Row/Eighth Street area in Southeast and the H Street corridor in Northeast. Both are part of the city’s Main Street program, which aims to revitalize the city’s business districts.

Barracks Row took the brunt of the deterioration that followed the closing of the Navy Yard. In the early 1990s, business owners formed the Barracks Row Business Alliance and sought out the Main Street program.

The revitalization efforts are obvious, with restaurants and shops lining Eighth Street. A streetscape project, completed in 2003, gave the corridor brick sidewalks, new streetlights and newly planted trees along the street.

The H Street corridor suffered significantly from suburban sprawl. The riots following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. devastated the community.

Recently H Street has become part of the city’s Main Street initiative, bringing economic revitalization to this diverse area. New restaurants and shops line the street, and the renovation of the historic Atlas Theater should be complete in 2005.

In these sections, as well as other parts of Capitol Hill, restaurants and shops abound. A stroll through the neighborhood reveals residents and others enjoying coffee or lunch at sidewalk cafés. Small, quaint shops line the avenues. Neighbors walk their dogs, work in their gardens, or simply chat with each other on quiet, tree-lined residential streets.

The neighborhood developed its own personality despite its inevitable connection with the nation’s government. The residential streets have a safe, small-town air. Most residents cannot even see the Capitol dome from their front yards or gardens.

Still, politics is part of the neighborhood, said Metzger, who remembers her son sledding on the slopes by the Capitol when he was young.

“It seeps into your pores,” she said.