A Trek Into the Past, Step by Step

Posted January 9, 2009 at 4:42pm

It’s nearly impossible to take a step on Capitol Hill without coming across spots that were significant in the development of the city and the people who made it the place it is today. One of the lesser-known areas is Barracks Row. But there’s an easy way to learn more: All you have to do is put on a comfortable pair of walking shoes and hit the Barracks Row Heritage Trail.

The trail winds through the Navy Yard and Marine Barracks sections of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, beginning at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast and ending at Eastern Market.

The trail is sponsored by Cultural Tourism DC as part of a larger plan to bring to life the people who made this portion of Capitol Hill a cultural and commercial center.

There are 16 stopping points on the trail, showcasing sites such as a church where former President Thomas Jefferson worshiped, an old hospital that served injured Civil War soldiers and a house that once was the unofficial Marine Corps headquarters.

The first stop on the trail is near the entrance of the Eastern Market Metro station on Seventh Street. This building at the corner of Seventh and D streets is a private residence that was once an ordinary corner grocery store for the laborers, residents and lawmakers.

This stop offers an introduction to a neighborhood that had been planned as a commercial center because of its proximity to the Anacostia River. Pierre L’Enfant, the city’s designer, planned this southern section of the town to be a focal point for commercial and financial activity.

However, Jefferson had other plans and informed the Marines that they would build their military housing and operations there.

Cutting through Seventh Street is the city’s well-known Pennsylvania Avenue. It is the famed main route from the presidential residence to the Capitol, but on this side of town, it was the dirt road that connected the river ferry from Georgetown to the Capitol.

The next stop is Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The pale blue building that now serves as an office building and home to Dunkin’ Donuts used to be a department store that was built and managed by Elizabeth A. Haines.

The building was constructed in 1882 as a neighborhood department store for the many extended families who lived in the area. Haines advertised it as “the largest store in the world” selling food, clothes and other goods to workers involved in the manufacture of ammunition and other weaponry for the Navy.

One person who shows up on various trail stops is John Philip Sousa. A Washington, D.C., native, Sousa is widely known as the composer of the national march, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” but he is more of the neighborhood superstar in this neck of the woods.

Sousa grew up in the Navy Yard/Marine Barracks neighborhood and took music lessons at the home of John Esputa (stop No. 3 on the walking trail). The site currently houses the Shakespeare Theatre’s rehearsal hall.

Just one block over stands the Old Naval Hospital on Pennsylvania Avenue and Ninth and E streets.

The hospital did not open until 1866 — one year after the Civil War ended. It opened with 50 beds for injured soldiers. The original carriage house remains today.

A black Civil War seaman was the hospital’s first patient. Benjamin Drummond, 24 at the time, was admitted to the hospital with a gunshot wound to his leg after escaping from a Confederate prison in Texas.

The hospital was most recently on a short list of possible places for an official residence for the D.C. mayor during former Mayor Anthony Williams’ term, but that lost out to another spot in an Upper Northwest neighborhood. The hospital was considered too small to house the mayor and his family, entertain guests and hold office space.

Another stop along the walking trail is the Marine Barracks on Ninth and G streets. This group of stately colonial buildings houses the enlisted men and women of the Marines. It is the oldest continuously manned post in the Marines.

The Marines were initially placed in Georgetown, but Jefferson decided to move the Marines to the current location in 1801 because of its proximity to the Navy Yard, the White House and Capitol.

The Commandant’s House, a stately colonial home with 23 rooms, sits at Eighth and G streets.

There is a guest bedroom with two twin beds named after Sousa. The bedspreads and wallpaper are red, the same color as the Marine Band’s uniform jackets.

The 12th stop along the way is Christ Church at 620 G St. SE.

A charming church with a Gothic revival facade and red doors, it is the first Episcopal church established in the city.

The walls are painted a lavender pink, a color that is reminiscent of the 18th century, according to the interim rector, the Rev. Martha Wallace.

The church was founded in 1794 and dedicated by Bishop Thomas J. Clagget in 1809. Presidents Jefferson and John Quincy Adams attended services there.

Wallace said Jefferson attended church services there because “he thought it was a good place where he could hear good preaching.”

“This is a beautiful church with rich history, dating back to the early stages of this country,” Wallace said.

Those interested in history can take a short detour from the trail and move farther down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Hill East section of Capitol Hill. The Congressional Cemetery is where notable national and city figures are buried, including 19 Senators, 71 Representatives, Sousa and the man who designed the Capitol, William Thornton. The “national burying ground”was founded in 1807.

From the church, the trail takes you to the F Street Terrace — one of few remaining inhabited alleys in the District. Most inhabited alleys were done away with because they attracted crime and forced residents to live in subpar living conditions.

The last stop on the trail brings walkers back around to Eastern Market. The market opened its doors at a different site in 1805 but eventually moved to its current location in 1872.

As the trail takes about a half-hour, the market will provide a much-needed break to enjoy the fresh food and other goods that vendors sell as part of a century-old tradition.