By Frank Leone
Foggy Bottom is justifiably proud of Snows Court and Hughes Mews and their 1880s-era brick alley houses. See https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/post/funkstown-no-6-introduction-to-foggy-bottom-s-misunderstood-alleys-snows-court-and-hughes-mewes. But other areas of the City also treasure their alleys. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society (https://chrs.org/) recently led an alley tour, which showed off their unique spaces, including Gessford Court, near Lincoln Park and Eastern Market (11th, 12th, A Sts. SE/Independence Ave.).
As with Foggy Bottom, the long alley lots were subdivided after the Civil War to allow for the construction of wood framed alley-facing houses. In 1892, developer Charles Gessford (1831-1894) built eleven brick 12 x 24 foot row houses, and other developers constructed additional houses. Gessford lived in house that he built nearby at 661 South Carolina Avenue, SE. He was one of the best-known builder/ architects on Capitol Hill, and was one of the first to build bay windows topped with triangular pediments.
Soon after the houses were finished, Gessford sold them to investors who rented them to immigrants and African-Americans who worked as laborers, porters, hostellers, domestics, and laundresses, plus a shoemaker and possibly a grocer. Again, as with Foggy Bottom, the houses had two floors and two bays. They had no interior plumbing or electricity. Residents obtained water from a hydrant in the alley courtyard and used back yard privies. They used coal/wood burning stoves and kerosene lamps. Over time residents modified their houses, converting some to garages and one to a blacksmith shop.
The Capitol Hill alleys also housed German-American workers, including those working at nearby breweries. Many Foggy Bottom residents worked at the Heurich Brewery, D.C.’s largest (located at the site that now houses the Kennedy Center). Capitol Hill breweries including National Capitol Brewery (14th & E Streets SE), located near Gessford Court. The brewery, owned by German immigrant Albert Carry, opened in 1891. With the coming of prohibition (to DC) in 1917, it switched to manufacturing “Carry’s Ice Cream” until it was sold in 1925. The building was demolished in 1960 to make room for a Safeway Grocery store. The brewery, however, built a tavern in 1896, and that building still stands at 525 8th St., SE.
Another tour stop was the recently named Adolph Cluss Court, named after the architect of relatively-nearby Eastern Market (12th/13th/C/D Sts). The naming was at the initiative of the family that bought and extensively renovated the 1920s Steuart Co.’s coal and ice warehouse. The renovation kept the footprint and form of the warehouse and the house features solar and geothermal power. It was recognized with an award from the D.C. Preservation League. See https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=10152728470755946
In 2016, the old statute barring alley dwellings was repealed and there is new construction in several Capitol Hill Alleys. Duvall Court (15th/16th/D/E SE Sts.) features new KUBE Architects multifamily dwelling and new mural by Mimi Ton (@Mimithemuralist) honoring outstanding American women (VP Kamala Harris, Astronaut Sally Ride, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg so far, with three more to be added very soon).
Sources: Capitol Hill Restoration Society, “Gessford Court Walking Tour,” 2019, https://chrs.org/gessford-court-walking-tour/; DC Office of Planning, “The DC Historic Alley Buildings Survey,” 2014, https://www.nps.gov/shpo/downloads/dc-alleysurvey2014.pdf; Nina Zafar, “Capitol Hill’s history and ambiance are right up this neighborhood’s alley, Washington Post, Real Estate, June 6, 2019; Garrett Peck, Prohibition in Washington, D.C., The History Press, 2011.