The History of our Neighborhood

By U.S. National Archives

The National Archives Building (2019)U.S. National Archives

For centuries, the ebbs and flows of Washington history have continually shaped the geographical and cultural landscapes of what is now the National Archives neighborhood. This exhibit explores the complex evolution of the neighborhood throughout four centuries of American history.

First View of Washington (1801) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Part I

Communities Before Washington, DC 

Map of Virginia (1624) by Geography and Map Division, Library of CongressU.S. National Archives

The Anacostans' establishment of the Nacotchtank village during the 17th century marks the beginning of human settlement in what is now Washington, DC. Their tribal name is derived from “anaquashatanik,” meaning “a town of traders.” The Anacostans along with the Piscatways thrived as tradesmen at the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

Nacotchtank Village (1624) by Geography and Map Division, Library of CongressU.S. National Archives

In 1608, Captain John Smith was among the first European colonists to meet these Algonquian people, and they quickly developed trade relationships. However, decades of war fractured established trade networks, and disease ravaged the Native populations. By the turn of the 18th century, English colonists forcefully removed these Native Americans from their ancestral lands, which caused the surviving Piscataways to merge with the Anacostans and seek refuge in Pennsylvania.

L'Enfant's Sketch of Washington (1893) by Geography and Map Division, Library of CongressU.S. National Archives

Once the colonists expelled Native Americans, the English monarchy managed the area by granting wealthy proprietors exclusive ownership to estates over 1,000 acres. Nineteen proprietors controlled the majority of Washington’s farmlands, and they accumulated wealth by forcing enslaved Africans to grow tobacco.

A Scottish proprietor named David Burnes owned over 225 acres of this land, including the future site of the National Archives. The majority of his holdings were at the epicenter of the future downtown DC and bordered Tiber Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River.

Federal Census with David Burne's entry highlighted (1790) by Records of the United States Census BureauU.S. National Archives

Burnes lived in a small cottage near today’s Constitution Avenue, but his family did not live alone on their tobacco plantation. He owned “a goodly number of slaves,” ranging from 8 to 22 at any given time. The 1790 census indicated “David Burns” oversaw a household of 16 people. 12 of his household were enslaved individuals, and unfortunately little else is documented about their lives.

City of Washington (1852) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Part II

Building the Capital City 

The Residence Act (1790-05-31) by Records of the U.S. SenateU.S. National Archives

Throughout the early months of 1790, Congress was in a deadlock over where to place the nation’s capital. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison eventually brokered a deal with Alexander Hamilton, which led directly to the passage of the Residence Act of 1790. By 1800, a “district of territory, not exceeding ten square miles... on the river Potomac” would become the “permanent seat of the government.” Philadelphia served as the temporary capital during the District’s decade of development.

Alexander Hamilton (1792) by Records of Commissions of the Legislative BranchU.S. National Archives

While Hamilton viewed the Residence Act of 1790 as a victory for the Federalist Party, there were enduring ramifications to his compromise with Democratic-Republicans. Southerners feared an urban northern capital city would undermine the backbone of their livelihood—slavery. Therefore, the creation of the new capital in a firmly established southern plantation society elated southerners bent on maintaining America’s racial hierarchy.

Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia (1800) by Records of the Coast and Geodetic SurveyU.S. National Archives

In 1791, President George Washington hired Frenchman Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design Washington, DC. L’Enfant’s elaborate plan was inspired by the vast boulevards of Versailles, Philadelphia’s compass-oriented grid, and the simplicity of classical Greek architecture.

Jefferson to Washington detailing the federal government's plan for paying proprietors for land. (April 10, 1791) by Records of the Department of StateU.S. National Archives

To build Washington, DC, the Federal Government planned on purchasing private lands for £25, but not compensating proprietors for land acquired for public use such as alleys, streets, and public buildings.

Letter from David Burnes to President George Washington (February 12, 1793) by Records of the Department of StateU.S. National Archives

David Burnes possessed “no other Lands than those in the Center of the City,” and the government intended to absorb the majority of his lands without compensation. He did not want his lands “all cut up and rendered useless for farming,” and Burnes fought with the DC Commissioners for seven years. In 1798, Burnes finally sold his remaining lots to investors.

Philadelphia's New Market (1799) by Records of the Department of CommerceU.S. National Archives

Public markets were the epicenters of business in early American cities like Washington, DC. A variety of country farmers, city vendors, and local shoppers coalesced at the markets to satisfy their daily needs. Washington’s first outdoor market was located in Lafayette Square, and citizens complained about the “unsightly” market’s proximity to the White House. On March 2, 1797, President Washington set aside land in the heart of Washington City for a new public market.

City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia (1800) by Records of the Coast and Geodetic SurveyU.S. National Archives

Center Market opened in December 1801 and was located between “seventh and ninth streets” on Pennsylvania Avenue—the future location of the National Archives. Early Washingtonians often referred to the market’s chaotic ramshackle of wooden sheds as the “Marsh Market,” because of the proximity to Tiber Creek. By 1815, the Washington Canal was created to clean up the creek’s unsanitary, murky waters that were a “health menace and an eyesore.”

A Slave Coffle Passing the Capitol (1876-1881) by Prints and Photographs, Library of CongressU.S. National Archives

During the early 1800s, America's new capital developed a burgeoning free black population. Washington, DC, also became the center of the American slave trade by 1830. White politicians hypocritically exercised freedom in Congress as thousands of enslaved people were sold just outside the Capitol.

Slave House of J.W. Neal & Co. (1836) by Prints and Photographs, Library of CongressU.S. National Archives

White Washingtonians incorporated slavery into every aspect of daily life, including their dealings at the Center Market. Until the abolition of the DC slave trade in 1850, slave traders conducted business inside the market. Slave-holding pens and auction blocks also cropped up around Center Market in the hopes of attracting market customers.

Pennsylvania Avenue During the Civil War (1862) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Part III

The Neighborhood Adapts to the Civil War 

Balloon View of Washington (1861) by Records of the Commission of Fine ArtsU.S. National Archives

America’s debate over slavery led to civil war in 1861. The Confederacy hoped to end the war quickly by capturing the District, but the North maintained control. Washington’s geographic and demographic landscapes drastically changed under the control of the Union Army.

Parade on Pennsylvania Avenue (1865) by Records of the Commission of Fine ArtsU.S. National Archives

Throughout the war, Washington, DC was the Army of the Potomac’s “grand depot of supplies” and mobilization headquarters for the Eastern Theatre. To meet Union demands, the District housed thousands of soldiers, fugitive slaves in contraband camps, and Federal employees in addition to locals. By 1865, the capital’s population tripled in size to 200,000 residents.

Carver Hospital, Washington, DC, by Mathew Brady (1861-1865) by Records of the War DepartmentU.S. National Archives

Wartime population influxes took a large toll on DC’s infrastructure and produced a public health crisis. The Washington Canal became an open sewer, which in turn led to the rampant spread of diseases like smallpox. Hundreds of makeshift and open-air hospitals were scattered across the city to treat wounded and sick soldiers. Center Market served as a temporary facility during the war, and newspapers reported “the upper floors of Center Market became a morgue for fallen soldiers.”

Center Market During the Civil War (1865) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Throughout the war, thousands of Union troops encamped along Center Market and frequented brothels and saloons in “Hooker’s Division” on Pennsylvania Avenue—a popular red-light district. Even though some condemned the area as a “plague spot of Washington, a center of vice,” there were still a handful of reputable businesses around like Gilman’s Drugstore and Brown’s Marble Hotel.

Mathew Brady and Brady's Studio by Records of the War Department and Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Mathew Brady was a notable businessman who resided in the National Archives neighborhood during the Civil War. In 1858, Brady opened his Washington portrait studio above Gilman’s Drugstore at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue. While he achieved fame by documenting the battlefronts, Brady primarily earned his living by selling calling cards of soldiers. Business slowly declined after the Civil War, and a debt-ridden Brady eventually closed up shop in 1881.

Washington, DC (1873) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Part IV

Rebuilding the Neighborhood in Postbellum Washington, DC 

Bridge Across the Eastern Branch, Washington, D.C. (1860-1865) by Records of the office of the Chief Signal officerU.S. National Archives

The Civil War ended in 1865, but the years of conflict took a dramatic toll on the District’s residents and infrastructure. Washingtonians hoped to transform their city at the same time that Reconstruction aimed to rebuild the United States. The neighborhood that would house the National Archives experienced significant modernization and expansion during this time.

Washington Market Company's Plan for Center Market (1869) by Records of the U.S. SenateU.S. National Archives

In 1870, Alexander “Boss” Shepherd led the DC Board of Public Works. He wanted to improve the city’s infrastructure through a $6.25 million public works program that nearly bankrupted the District. Replacement of the Center Market’s dilapidated shops and the closure of the Washington Canal were central parts of Shepherd’s plan for downtown DC.

Shepherd filled the sewage-ridden Washington Canal and created B Street NW in 1873, present-day Constitution Avenue. During the canal filling, he also helped form the Washington Market Company, which proposed a complete redesign of Center Market. Architect Adolph Cluss spearheaded the project, and he proposed a 300-foot long, red-brick building with state-of-the-art electric lighting, draining, cold-storage vaults, and ventilated skylights.

Photograph of a birds-eye view of a part of the fruit and vegetable section of Center Market by Records of the Bureau of Agricultural EconomicsU.S. National Archives

The newly renovated Center Market opened for business in 1872. Streetcar lines across DC converged at this ornate Victorian marketplace, and thousands of daily customers flocked to Center Market six days a week.

Photograph of the 7th Street Entrance to Center Market (1922-10) by Records of the Department of AgricultureU.S. National Archives

Over 600 vendors created elaborate displays for their quality products like baked goods, fresh produce, and cured meats. Hundreds of street vendors, or “hucksters,” also lined the curbs of Center Market to sell their goods directly to shoppers.

Pennsylvania Avenue Shops (1885) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Throughout the mid-19th century, a slew of shops on Pennsylvania Avenue capitalized on their proximity to the busiest and largest market in Washington. The Avenue House on Market Space and 7th Street was a Greek Revival commercial building whose upper levels were a hotel and whose ground floor was the William B. Moses’s furniture store. Metzerott Hall on 925 Pennsylvania Avenue housed a variety of businesses and hosted public meetings for 34 years.

A. Saks & Company (1886/1900) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Brothers Isadore and Andrew Saks demolished the Avenue House in 1885 and built their first clothing store—Saks and Company. Their widespread success allowed them to open a chain of stores, including the iconic Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City.

S. Kann's Department Store by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

In 1886, Sigmund, Solomon, and Louis Kann cofounded S. Kann’s Department Store at 909 Pennsylvania Avenue. Four distinctive commercial buildings were incorporated into the store, including the first Woodward & Lothrop Department Store as well as Saks and Company.

Temperance Fountain by Records of the Department of the InteriorU.S. National Archives

Reform movements swept across postbellum America, and temperance crusaders like Henry Cogswell aimed to push out the saloons lining “America’s Main Street.” In 1882, Cogswell funded the construction of a temperance fountain for the intersection of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The words “temperance, hope, and charity” decorate the fountain and encourage passersby to drink water instead of alcohol.

General Winfield Scott Hancock Statue (2019) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

A statue of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock was built for the intersection of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in 1896. Hancock's distinguished military victory at the Battle of Gettysburg made him an ideal statue candidate.

The Capitol (1900) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Part V

Twentieth-Century Changes to the Neighborhood

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial (2019) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

Similar to the Hancock statue, the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial carries on the legacy of the Civil War. It was erected in 1909 at Seventh and C Streets to honor Union veterans. Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson of the 14th Illinois Infantry is depicted in the centerpiece of this obelisk memorial because he was the founder of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization for retired Union soldiers.

Architectural Drawing of the Archives Building (1935) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

At the turn of the 20th century, politicians were eager to fulfill L’Enfant’s vision of Washington, DC, as a “work of civic art.” James McMillan formed the Senate Park Commission in 1902 and charged its members to redesign downtown Washington and the District’s parks system. The commission embraced the Beaux-Arts style of the Chicago 1893 Columbian Exposition as well as the “City Beautiful Movement.” This architectural movement believed monumental, neoclassical buildings would improve the quality of the city and foster civic virtue in Washingtonians.

Photograph of Aerial View of U.S. Capitol and Federal Triangle (1936-06-15) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

A key piece of the McMillan Plan was the majestic Federal Triangle, a triangular grouping of government buildings bounded by 15th and 6th Streets, B Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue. Each building houses a different government agency and is united through their shared white exteriors and neoclassical revival architecture.

Map of DC showing the number of schools and saloons along Pennsylvania Avenue (1913) by Records of the U.S. House of RepresentativesU.S. National Archives

Implementing the McMillan Plan and “cleaning up” Washington, DC, came with severe consequences. Over 1,500 predominantly black and Irish Washingtonians were abruptly evicted from their “alley dwellings” to create the National Mall. Center Market also stood in the way of the McMillan Plan because it was located in Federal Triangle. The Federal Government gave little to no assistance to these displaced families and businesses.

Newspaper article about the Center Market passing into history (1931-01-04) by The Washington PostU.S. National Archives

Center Market closed for good on January 1, 1931, and ground-breaking for the Archives commenced on September 5 of that year. Countless Washingtonians mourned “the passing of probably the most picturesque and significant manifestation of the old, slow-going, red-brick Washington.”

Construction of the National Archives (1934-02-03) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

The National Archives Building is the most ornate building on the Federal Triangle, and it is strategically located halfway between the Capitol and White House at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue. Architect John Russell Pope designed this building, which safeguards American records that previous generations mishandled or neglected. On February 20, 1933, President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone for “this temple of our history.” The National Archives Building was completed in 1937.

S. Kann's Department Store (ca. 1961) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

From the 1880s to the 1920s, downtown shops like S. Kann’s Department Store thrived. Yet, the commercial center of the city suffered as automobile ownership increased in the 1920s. Cars allowed thousands of Washingtonians, particularly white families, to relocate to the suburbs, and they brought many businesses with them. By 1961, Kann's Department Store covered its beautiful brick exterior with an aluminum skin to modernize the business. This change was widely unsuccessful at attracting customers back to the store.

Pennsylvania Avenue (1962) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Discount stores and bars replaced traditional retail shops. By 1963, an architectural journal grimly concluded Washington’s downtown was “unworthy of the nation’s capital.”

Apex Liquor Store (1945/1984) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

In the Archives neighborhood, Mathew Brady's former studio, then Gilman’s Drugstore, was replaced by the Apex Liquor Store. It ironically stood behind the Temperance Fountain until 1984.

John F. Kennedy Inaugural Parade (1961-01-20) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

By the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy’s administration expanded Federal offices on Pennsylvania Avenue because the majority of established businesses had already abandoned the area for the suburbs.

Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (1972) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Kennedy expressed discontent over the “slum” he encountered on Pennsylvania Avenue during his 1961 inaugural parade. He appointed a commission to study the shabby road, and in 1972, Congress established the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) to officially redevelop the avenue. This independent agency effectively acquired, rehabilitated, and sold property. However, PADC struggled at times to equitably develop downtown without destroying historic DC and displacing Washingtonians.

Freeway Plan for the National Capital Region (1958) by Geography and Map Division, Library of CongressU.S. National Archives

A key part of city planners' redevelopment of DC was a vast network of freeways. While highway construction benefited suburban commuters, it threatened to destroy 5,400 DC homes and displace over 20,000 predominantly poor and black Washingtonians. Interracial grassroots activists like the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis and Great Society Liberals called for investment in public transportation instead of highways in order to benefit area residents of all classes and races.

View from the roof of the National Archives Building of the Archives Metro Station construction (1974-09) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

A 1967 interstate compact created the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to provide rapid transit to the District-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area. Americans realized the revival of downtown DC depended heavily on the success of the Metro. If public transit could easily transport people around the DMV, then retail would prosper, historic buildings and residential homes would be preserved, and DC would decrease automobile traffic and pollution.

Archives Metro Station (2019) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

Delays continually plagued Metro construction, but the Red Line finally began service on March 27, 1976. Pedestrians and businesses slowly returned to the District, and the Metro was instrumental in the successful redevelopment of this neighborhood. The National Archives rests on the edge of old downtown, and its neighborhood changed dramatically in the decades following the completion of Archives station on April 30, 1983.

S. Kann's Department Store (1979) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Among the neighborhood changes of the 1970s/1980s was the shocking destruction of S. Kann's Department Store through a suspicious fire on March 31, 1979.

Proposal for Navy Memorial (1985) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Shortly after the S. Kann's Department Store was demolished, the United States Navy Memorial Foundation received congressional permission to construct a memorial on the site.

U.S. Navy Memorial Dedication Ceremony (1987-10-13) by Records of the Department of DefenseU.S. National Archives

L’Enfant’s Plan originally included a navy memorial, but DC did not build a US Navy Memorial until the Navy’s 212th anniversary in 1987. Sculptor Stanley Blyfield’s iconic Lone Sailor statue honors every soldier since the American Revolution, and he is surrounded by fountains with water from the seven seas.

Model of Market Square (1990) by Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and BoardsU.S. National Archives

Market Square’s name is one of the only remnants of the Center Market history in the National Archives neighborhood today. This 698,000 square feet mixed-used complex was created in 1990, and its classical architecture aligns with the McMillan Plan. It houses the U.S. Navy Memorial Visitor Center on its ground floor as well as luxury apartments and offices on its upper floors.

The National Archives Building (2019) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

Part VI

The Neighborhood Today 

The National Archives today.

Chinatown (2012-11-29) by Records of the Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentU.S. National Archives

The greater National Archives neighborhood continues to grow today. Chinatown is a key piece of the neighborhood, but Washington’s original Chinatown was located along Pennsylvania Avenue. The Federal Triangle development of the 1930s displaced hundreds of Chinese merchants immigrants to modern-day Chinatown.

Capital One Arena is at the heart of Chinatown. It was originally built as the MCI Center in 1997, and its construction led directly to the array of restaurants, stores, and entertainment in Chinatown and the Penn Quarter today. There are still over a dozen Chinese restaurants that celebrate the neighborhood’s historic roots.

The National Archives Building (2019) by Records of the National ArchivesU.S. National Archives

A diverse array of people and events left indelible marks on the National Archives neighborhood and Americans will continue to do so for years to come.

Credits: Story

Curator: Rachel Rosenfeld
Project Manager: Jessie Kratz
Editor: Mary Ryan
Special thanks to: Theodore Chaffman, Jeff Reed, Nick Natanson, and Meredith Doviak​

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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