By Frank Leone
An excellent new book, The Row House in Washington DC – A History (U.Va. Press 2023) provides fascinating information on row houses in Foggy Bottom and other sections of the city. Row houses are the most common building type in D.C. and provided “housing for the broad middle class.” These “speculative” houses were built en masse (as opposed to custom built), pursuant to similar plans, especially between 1880 and 1920. Other row houses (including the modest but stylish houses of Foggy Bottom) were built for the working class. By the 1920s, the row house had fallen out of favor and was associated with poorer residents. Numerous houses were demolished during the 1950s urban renewal period, although some were replaced with more expensive new row houses. The style experienced a resurgence in the 1960s, and the preservation movement saved some existing houses.
The book profiles Foggy Bottom through the selection of Square 28 (boarded by I, 25th, K, and 24th Streets) as one of four blocks subject to special attention. “[A] few row houses survive to tell the story of a working-class row-house neighborhood, and the square contains one of the largest surviving collections of nineteenth century alley dwellings in the city” [Snows Court]. She notes the demographic changes in Square 28 from mixed (late 1800s), to 97% African American in 1940 and 1950, to 80% white in 1960 and 2010. In 1897, for example, Square 28 had 242 whites, all living on the street and 420 blacks, 249 living in Snows Court. The 1950s brought Colonial Revival construction and renovations, as well as high rise apartments to Foggy Bottom.
When History Project Co-Chair Denise Vogt and I met with the author, she mentioned she uncovered history on the owners and the families who lived in Square 28. “A lot of their stories are included in my footnotes,” Ms. Hoagland said, because their narratives were too interesting to leave out.
The Foggy Bottom section provides additional details about residents of houses familiar to us through the FBA History Project’s House History Pages, including the developers who built the houses, their architectural details, and their primarily Irish and other white and African American worker residents. In addition to the remaining brick row houses, the neighborhood had wood frame houses and stores, stables, and greenhouses. The information is sourced primarily from D.C. building permits, general assessment tax books, census data, City Directories, and the Evening Star newspaper.
Other interesting information about D.C.’s row houses:
- Hoagland details the six basic designs of row houses and discusses the migration of kitchens and bathrooms from the backyards to the interior of the houses.
- Washington’s founders wanted to build brick or stone row houses in the new Capital city.
- One of D.C.’s first row houses (1790s), Wheat Row, still stands at 1315-21 Fourth St. SW.
- D.C.’s housing regulations impacted row houses, including allowance of bay windows and other projections and banning of new and removal of existing alley houses.
- Row house families accommodated boarders (with meals) and lodgers (without meals).
- D.C. experienced increased segregation in the early1900s, imposition of racial covenants (especially in new developments) in the 1920s, followed by redlining, and displacement of African Americans during urban renewal.
- By 1920, D.C. had 39,000 row houses (which accommodated 71% of the city’s population), compared to 39,000 detached/semi-detached, 7,500 flats and 830 apartment buildings.
- When row houses fell out of favor in the 1920s, the term “town house” became preferred (“a town house is a row house with class”).
- Many row houses (including in Foggy Bottom and Georgetown) were renovated (and new row houses built) in Colonial Revival style in the mid-20th century, although the houses were built long after the Federal period.
There’s much more – purchase the book here or at your favorite book store. Learn more about Foggy Bottom at the FBA History Project and our Resources page which identifies books and other materials about Foggy Bottom and D.C. history.
About the Author: Prof. Alison (Kim) Hoagland is professor emerita at Michigan Technological University, where she taught history and historic preservation for 15 years. Previously, she served as the senior historian at the Historic American Buildings Survey of the National Park Service. She received her M.A. from George Washington University, volunteered for Don’t Tear It Down (now the DC Preservation League), and is a trustee of the DC History Center. Her other books include Mine Towns and The Log Cabin: An American Icon.