Friday, June 11, 2010

Southwest Waterfront- From Alley Houses to Condos

The Southwest Waterfront area is bounded by Interstate 395 to the north, Washington Channel to the west, the Anacostia River to the south, and South Capitol Street to the east. Southwest is the smallest of Washington's four quadrants, and Southwest Waterfront is one of only two residential neighborhoods in the quadrant; the other being Bellevue. Southwest Waterfront lies in Ward Six and is represented to the D.C. council by Tommy Wells.


Captain John Smith was the first European to explore the Southwest waterfront area, when he sailed up the Potomac in 1608. He encountered Native Americans living on the river. Native Americans chose to live in this area for farming and for easy access to the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Unfortunately the Native Americans were displaced by white settlers, who laid out plantations along the Potomac. White settlers used slaves brought from the Caribbean and Africa to farm. Thomas Addison built a plantation in 1735 called Gisborough, on what is today Bolling Air Force Base. Notley Young had a mansion and 265 slaves by 1791. His home stood near what is today Banneker Circle.[1] One of the few existing examples of architecture from the 18th century in Southwest is the Thomas Law House. The house was built in 1794 and occupied between 1796 and 1800 by the real-estate speculator Thomas Law and his wife, Eliza Parke Custis, granddaughter of Martha Washington. The home was also called the Honeymoon House, as they young couple spent their honeymoon here. The Law House was used to entertain a number of notable guests soon after it was built. Visitors included the king of France Louis Phillippe and the French writer Volney. Today the Law house is part of the Tiber Island Cooperative complex built in 1965. It is pictured below. Joseph Johnson, a Bladensburg Maryland native, built a home on Buzzard Point in 1800.[2]

Southwest Waterfront served as a vital transportation link. Wharves and docks were built along the water to allow for the shipping of freight and passengers. From the 1790s on travelers could book passage on local ferries and ships bound downriver for Alexandria and points beyond. Fishermen brought catches into SW for sale. Unfortunately slaves were brought to the SW docks to be sold.[3] Below is a photograph from 1900-9 of a steamboat docked at Southwest Waterfront 7th Street Wharves.

Early land speculators, such as the Greenleaf Syndicate, tried to take advantage of the newly planned city by buying up land and building brick row houses. For example, Greenleaf built Wheat Row, 1315 to 1321 Fourth Street, around 1794. The row took its name from John Wheat, who once lived in 1315.[4] Wheat Row is still standing today, as it was incorporated into the Harbor Square Complex in the 1960s.[5] Early developments such as Wheat Row were unsuccessful as the city grew slowly, impaired by the swampy land of the Southwest.[6] However in the 1830s and 40s a new group of developers began to construct buildings on the site of what is today Fort McNair.[7] Southwest mainly consisted of small farms and scatterings of row houses. Fourth and Half Street (Now 4th street) served as a commercial corridor. It was lined with saloons, coal yards, and fuel supply warehouses.[8]

After the 1790s Southwest became a neglected and unfashionable area, when development moved to higher ground in Northwest and South East. The Washington Canal was constructed to provide a water route between Georgetown, downtown, and the Eastern branch, cutting Southwest off from desirable parts of the city.[9] The neighborhood became known as “the island” as it was isolated from the rest of Washington.

The Southwest waterfront has a long history of serving as a military site. In L’Enfant’s original plan he called for a military site on the southern tip of Greenleaf’s Point, at what is today Fort McNair. The Washington Arsenal was completed in 1822, and located at the intersection of Fourth and P Street. It was strategically placed to protect the city from potential invasion. Here munitions and arms were manufactured for local military companies.[10] It became a major manufacturing site of munitions and arms during the Civil War. In June 1864, fireworks drying in the sun on the lawn ignited and flew through the window of the main workroom, where 108 women were working making rifle cartridges, killing 21 workers.

The lands of the Washington Arsenal were eventually combined with those of the Washington Penitentiary, which was constructed in 1826 and designed by Charles Bulfinch.[11] The Penitentiary was enlarged in 1831, partially razed and rebuilt between 1867 and 1869, and then partially razed in 1903. It was originally built to accommodate 160 prisoners in confining cells measuring only two and one half feet by seven feet in length. Openings faced alternatively north and south to prevent prisoners from passing items to one another. The prison was expanded in 1831 to accommodate more prisoners, with more cells, kitchens, and a wharf for the arrival of inmates transported from other states.[12] In 1865 it would become the location of the hanging of Lincoln assassination conspirators. In 1903 President Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the National War College, which replaced the old arsenal building. [13]

During the 19th century a diverse community of African Americans and Italian, Jewish, German, and Greek immigrants lived in the Southwest Waterfront. The neighborhood grew rapidly, expanding from 10,000 to 18,000 residents from 1860 to 1870. African Americans had made up ¼ of DC’s population since before its founding, and by 1830 more than ½ of all African Americans were free. One leading African American resident, Anthony Bowen, lived on E street between 9th and 10th street. Bowen established a mission and day school for youth and helped with the Underground Railroad. He met runaways at the sixth street wharf and then assisted their journey northwards.[14] Lewis Jefferson, a leading African American entrepreneur, was based in Southwest Waterfront. He owned excursion steamboats, a shipyard, a fertilizer business, real estate, and an amusement park.[15]

In 1848 a group of Washington slaves attempted unsuccessfully to escape by leaving on the schooner Pearl from the Southwest. The captain of the schooner was Daniel Drayton, and the owner and co-captain was Edwin Sayres. Two local freed African Americans, Thomas Ducket and Daniel Bell, organized the escape of the fugitives. Unfortunately the escape was betrayed, and a steamship was used to re-capture the slaves. The next day a white mob rioted in front of the anti-Slavery Washington Newspaper the National Era. Drayton was found guilty; he was sentenced to twenty years in prison and fined over $10,000. President Millard Fillmore gave Drayton a pardon four years later.[16]

In the 1860s German Jews began emigrating to Southwest Waterfront. Then the 1880s saw a wave of Eastern European Jews arrive, increasing the Jewish population from 30 to 90 families. The Jewish community operated many small businesses along 4 ½ street (now 4th street), such as tailoring, butchery, baking, and dry good shops. They built two synagogues, one of which was the Talmud Torah.[17]

Besides shop keeping, the residents of Southwest Waterfront were employed by farming, governmental jobs such as clerks and janitors, and by the burgeoning dock work on the waterfront. Wealthy occupants lived in large houses, while the poor lived in alleys. Fourth Street acted as a racial barrier between Caucasians and African Americans, but it was also a commercial corridor that welcomed all races to its shops, taverns, and businesses, owned by diverse merchants. The community was home both to the D.C. Morgue and an incineration plant, but it was also the site of fine restaurants and early tourist steamboat travel.[18]
1895 to 1903 was the period of greatest growth for the Southwest Waterfront. In 1905 the population peaked at 35,000. Between 1900 and 1903 more than two dozen houses of worship, a variety of voluntary associations, social agencies, schools, and activities were provided for all. Southwest was like a self-contained small city, providing work, service, and entertainment.[19]

Sadly after 1903 Southwest Waterfront began to decline. Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Engraving and Department of Agriculture spread into residential areas, replacing homes with office buildings. The construction of additional warehouses, markets, and freight yards increased noise and congestion, making the area less desirable to live. Absentee landlords reduced property maintenance, diminishing the quality of low-income housing. The area acquired a reputation for being a shabby, dirty, and crime-ridden slum. The population fell to 32,000 in 1920 and 24,000 in 1930.[20]

The alley houses of the poor truly demonstrated the difficult living conditions of Southwest Waterfront. The houses consisted of compacted rows of buildings sandwiched between streets of better houses. The alley houses were concealed within interiors, shielded from view behind high fences and rickety wooden sheds. Houses were two stories high, made of brick or wood, and were cramped and dark. Most had four small rooms- a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms upstairs. Often two families shared a dwelling. As recently as 1950 more than 20% of the 5,600 alley dwellings had no electricity, and more than 70% had no central heating. Residents used oil lamps for light and woodstoves for warmth; indoor plumbing was rare.[21] However, while the residents were impoverished, the alleys nourished strong protective institutions and rich African American folk traditions.[22]

Godfrey Frankel discovered these alley neighborhoods when he documented them with his camera in the 1940s. A reporter for the Washington Daily News, in his spare time he was a photographer. One day when he was riding his bike around the city he discovered the neighborhood. He saw people coming and going from a narrow passageway between two buildings. He followed them down a path, and when he emerged onto the other side he found a maze of alleys. Frankel recalled, “I was amazed when I first saw these alley houses- monotonous, drab, two-story brick dwellings stretching a block long, and people spilling out of the doorway into the street.”[23] Frankel found the area intriguing. He felt as if he had entered another world “inside someplace and between someplace.” He explained, “There was specialness to it. Because of the physical nature of the place, it carried a different character.”[24] Frankel recognized that despite the harsh conditions it was still a community. Frankel was most drawn to the children who played in the streets. He loved how they used their imaginations to turn an alley, unsightly and strewn with trash, into a castle, fort, or battlefield. He explained, “As I stood and watched them play, I couldn’t help but think of how the innocence of childhood somehow has a way of protecting them from a brutal environment. I felt the dignity and strength of these children, and I tried to show it in my photos.”[25]

Frankel saw the alleys as studios. He learned where light emanated from at different times of the day, and how the late afternoon sun modeled the brick pavement and house fronts. Frankel had minimal equipment, just a medium format camera and a few extra rolls of film. Frankel was not concerned with “making art” but rather revealing the drama of everyday life. Working informally, Frankel did not set up shots. Instead he would wait patiently for the right moment. Often he would stand in the background while children played around him. He explained, “Sometimes you just come upon the right picture. It’s there! And you shoot without waiting. You shoot again, and you just know you have it. Everything is right- light, subject, mood, composition.”[26] Frankel grew close to his subjects, and the kids looked forward to his visits. He described how, “When I missed a week, they would say, we were looking for you. They greeted me when I came into the alley. Even their parents would ask, ‘Where are you? The kids have missed you.’”[27] The relationships Frankel forged with subjects give his photos a sense of intimacy. As Frankel eloquently put it, “Art and beauty can be everywhere.”[28]

Southwest Waterfront underwent a massive transformation in the 1950s and 1960s. Federal and local officials became concerned about the living conditions of the neighborhood. The area was labeled as an ugly and dangerous eyesore, unseemly as it was so close to the capitol. Federal officials decided that something had to be done, and Southwest was chosen as a laboratory for new theories of urban renewal. In 1946 Congress chartered a new city office, the Redevelopment Land Agency, or RLA. It was given ample powers to condemn, redesign, and rebuild whole neighborhoods. With the National Housing Act of 1949 Congress offered subsidies for slum clearance. More than 2/3rds of Southwest residents were African American, with little political clout. They were unable to stop the RLA when it decided to raze the entire Southwest Waterfront neighborhood.[29] These displaced residents lost their homes and livelihoods. Businesses, commercial structures, and a majority of the religious houses of worship were all destroyed. The commercial corridor Four-and-a-half Street was razed and replaced with the Waterside Mall.[30] Federal officials saw this widespread destruction as an opportunity to rebuild the community on a clean slate, using modern materials and concepts to provide housing for a massive urban population. Private developers saw the potential for an economic boom, as they were able to buy land acquired through eminent domain well below market rate in exchange for promises to build. Sadly most of the poor had to move permanently from Southwest, as they could not afford the new housing.[31]

Special Attractions

Banneker Circle and Banneker Park are located at the end of L’Enfant Promenade, immediately south of 395. The circle and park are named after Benjamin Banneker, a freed black slave. Banneker was an expert astronomer and mathematician. Banneker helped Major Andrew Elliott survey the land that would become Washington, D.C. in 1791. Banneker was also the author of a 1795 almanac for the region, the cover of which is pictured to the right. A champion of African American rights, Banneker wrote to Thomas Jefferson voicing his concerns about racial equality in the emerging republic.
The Maine Avenue Fish Market, also known as the Fish Warf, is one of DC’s historic attractions. It has been in continuous use in various forms since the early 1800s. Beginning in 1815 and lasting into the 1900s, steamboats bringing people up and down the Potomac made stops at what is now the fish market near 1100 Maine Avenue, Southwest. The waterfront never managed to become a bustling port because tidal fluctuations made the stretch of river passable only for small boats. However, merchants were able to take advantage of its dependable foot traffic. After the Civil War, local fisherman and farmers set up makeshift shops and booths and began to sell fresh local seafood and produce from the farms of Maryland and Virginia. In the early 1900s the area was a popular shopping destination for Washingtonians from all over the city. In 1916 the city constructed a new indoor market space that would replace an unsanitary row of individual fish markets. The new market space was designed by the architect Snowden Ashford and located on Maine Avenue, between 11th and 12th streets. Called the Municipal Fish Market and opened in 1918, it included 24 merchant stalls and office space for the Department of Weights, Measures, and Markets. Unfortunately, the city planners of the 1960s and 70s destroyed the Municipal Fish Market building. The developers wanted to push the fish market out of Southwest completely, but the vendors found a loophole in their contract, which said they were entitled to space in the market for 99 years. Since the developers couldn’t completely destroy the market they pushed it as far west of the waterfront as they could, which was directly underneath the I-395 overpass. A new outdoor market was constructed as a cluster of floating barges moored to a concrete pier.[32]
Despite the developers’ best efforts, the Fish Market is still thriving today. The 200 year old market is open 365 days a year, through hurricanes and blizzards. Clayton Taylor, whose family owns Jessie Taylor, has been working at the market since he was 15. His father and two uncles, natives of Smith Island, Maryland, began the business sixty years ago. Taylor explains, “Thirty years ago, everything they did in D.C. was a flop. This is the only thing that got left alone.” Now, “people, they come around taking those tour buses, they discover this place by accident, but they say this is the best thing they’ve seen.” [33] A picture of the fish market can be seen below.

As the Southwest Waterfront again undergoes redevelopment, plans include tearing down parts of the market. However, developer PN Hoffman promises, "Washington’s historic Fish Market will be preserved and renovated and the maritime heritage of the site promoted.”[34] We can only hope that they stay true to their word.
Arena Stage has long been a vital component of the Southwest Waterfront. Founded in 1950 by Zelda Fichandler, Thomas Fichandler and Edward Mangum, Arena Stage was one of the nation’s original resident theaters, and not-for-profit theatres. It was first located in the Hippodrame Theatre, a former movie theatre. In 1956, Arena Stage moved to the gymnasium of the old Heurich Brewery in Foggy Bottom, but this building was demolished to make way for the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and the Kennedy Center. The theatre moved to its current location in 1960, located at 1101 Sixth Street, SW. Arena Stage is currently undergoing a major expansion project, costing $125 million. Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver, British Columbia Canada are the designers for the project. Plans include demolishing the theatres connecting structures, including lobbies and offices. The two remaining stages are currently being surrounded by a glass curtain wall and incorporated into a larger building. A new “black box theatre” called “The Cradle” is also being added to the theatre, and will serve as a venue for debuting experimental pieces. The new complex will be named “The Arena Stage Mead Center for American Theatre in honor of supporters Gilbert and Jaylee Mead.[35]
Another interesting site in the Southwest Waterfront is the Titanic Memorial. The Titanic Memorial was sculpted in 1929 by Whitney Gertrude Vanderbilt and sponsored by the Women’s Titanic Memorial Association. The memorial is located on P Street SW next to the Washington Channel near Fort Lesley J. McNair. The sculpture is of a male figure, representing Self Sacrifice, standing with both arms outstretched to the side in the symbolic form of a cross. A garment is draped over his arms, back and side. His head is slightly raised and his eyes are closed. The inscription reads, “TO THE BRAVE MEN/WHO PERISHED/IN THE WRECK/OF THE TITANIC/APRIL 15 1912/THEY GAVE THEIR/LIVES THAT WOMEN/AND CHILDREN/MIGHT BE SAVED/ERECTED BY THE WOMEN OF AMERICA (Back center of base:) TO THE YOUNG AND THE OLD/THE RICH AND THE POOR/THE IGNORANT AND THE LEARNED/ALL/WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES NOBLY/TO SAVE WOMEN AND CHILDREN”.[36] It is pictured below.

[1] Williams, 11.
[2] Williams, 14-15.
[3] Keith Melder. “Southwest Washington where History Stopped.” Washington at Home. Kathryn Schneider Smith, ed. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010): 88-90.
[4] Williams, 12.
[5] Williams, 126.
[6] Williams, 9.
[7] Williams, 9.
[8] Williams, 9.
[9] Melder, 90.
[10] Williams, 23.
[11] Williams, 25.
[12] Williams, 26.
[13] Williams, 23.
[14] Melder, 90.
[15] Melder, 94.
[16] Williams, 19.
[17] Melder, 91.
[18] Williams, 69.
[19] Melder, 94.
[20] Melder, 95.
[21] Laura Goldstein. In the Alleys: Kids in the Shadow of the Capitol (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995): 9.
[22] Melder, 91.
[23] Goldstein, 4.
[24] Goldstein, 9.
[25] Goldstein, 15-18.
[26] Goldstein, 22.
[27] Goldstein, 23.
[28] Goldstein, 23.
[29] Melder, 96-7.
[30] Williams, 127.
[31] Williams, 111.
[32] "What's With the Fish Market?". Washingtonian Magazine. October 30, 2008.
[33] Tara Bahrampour. “On D.C. Waterfront, a Feast for the Senses.” Washington Post: 2005.
[34] Taken from PN Hoffman website-
[35] Taken from Arena Stage website-
[36] Smithsonian American Art Museum Inventory of American Painting and Sculpture Database,!siartinventories&uri=full=3100001~!317632~!0#focus


  1. It strikes me that one of the lessons learned from this history is that razing communities is a failed model for development. It led to the segregation and isolation in Southwest in the 1970s and in the 1950s, and it sounds like the re-development by PN Hoffman could be a repeating of these historical mistakes. Let's hope it's not just the fish market that is preserved, but also the affordable housing and unique communities that make this neighborhood so special!

    The history might also want to make mention that the Gangplank Marina in the SW waterfront is home to the Eastern Seaboard's largest community of liveaboard boaters.

  2. Eve- thank you for your thoughtful comment. It is quite sad that a whole community was destroyed by the "redevelopment" of the 1950s and onwards. You point about the Gangplank Marina is definitely true, I recently visited the Waterfront and was impressed by all of the boat homes.

  3. Nice blog you have. Thanks for the great read.

    Paula M