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FUNKSTOWN – The Highway that Ate Foggy Bottom

by Frank Leone

The area stretching from the Foggy Bottom Historic District west to the Potomac River is a maze of expressways, ramps, overpasses, underpasses, fenced-in vacant lots, and encampments. It wasn’t supposed to be this way – it was supposed to be worse. Prior to 1960, the neighborhood was similar to what became the Historic District – 19th century rowhouses, churches, stores, a school and as well as industries on the waterfront. That community was wiped out by highway construction. By the end of the 1960s, urban expressway construction was abandoned and funds were transferred to Metro, leaving Foggy Bottom with its current highway stub. The good news is that the DC Office of Planning is evaluating ways to improve access to that now desolate space. See “Reclaiming the Foggy Bottom Waterfront” post 12.3.2022.

Overview of the Potomac River Freeway Area, 1960s (DDOT Historic Collections)

The highway construction displaced over 270 families. Buildings were demolished from the west side of 26th Street to Rock Creek and the Potomac. Demolished buildings included: The Briggs-Montgomery Elementary School (an African American school named for African American educators, see Funkstown - Martha B. Briggs and her Lost Schools), the Morning Star, Sharon, and Greater St. Paul Baptist Churches (26th and 27th Streets), and Green’s Court, including recently renovated homes. Whitehurst Freeway construction had earlier demolished the Robert Peter House at 27th and K Streets, where George Washington actually slept on last visit to D.C. (August 5, 1799). The area is also rich in archeological remains, including a Native American burial site dating from around 700 AD. See Funkstown - Original Inhabitants - DC Native Americans in Foggy Bottom.

The existing Potomac River Freeway was part of planned 18-mile Inner Loop beltway. The road was intended to circle inner D.C. to bring suburbanites to the downtown shopping district, facilitate “slum clearance,” and intercept cross town traffic, alleviating congestion on inner city roads. The Southwest Expressway ( I-395) was built (destroying nearly every building in southwest and displacing 22,000 mostly African American residents), but biracial community opposition was able to stop further Inner Loop construction in the north and western parts of the D.C.


Part of the Foggy Bottom section, however, had already been constructed. From the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge (b. 1964), the highway branches off to the E Street Expressway, and the eight lane Potomac River Freeway (I-66), which separates and makes the Kennedy Center inaccessible from the City. (Plans to create pedestrian bridges from Columbia Plaza to the Kennedy Center or deck over the Freeway have yet to be implemented.) The Potomac Freeway now stops at K St., with exit ramps to 27th Street L Street and the Whitehurst Freeway. Prior to November 1958, there were plans to run the freeway up 23rd Street or 25th Street (which would have destroyed even more of the Historic District). After protests from the community, developers, and George Washington University, the Freeway was relocated to the west. From there it was to connect to the north leg of the Inner Loop and to the Whitehurst Freeway and the never built Three Sisters Bridge.


All that remains of the early FB residential neighborhood are three isolated row houses (2635, 2637, 2639 I St.) located on the I-66 east exit ramp. The houses were built in the late 1870s, and the first two were constructed by noted Irish immigrant builder Peter McCartney. The houses were included in the original ANC/FBA proposal for the Foggy Bottom Historic District, but the HPRB excluded them from the final designation, so they lack historic protection.


These three houses (2600 block of I St.) are all that remain of the neighborhood. (DDOT Historic Collections)

Sources : FBA Historic District Walking Tour, “Highway Overlook - Lost Foggy Bottom,” https://theclio.com/tour/2098/9; Potomac River Freeway, Historic Overview, http://www.dcroads.net/roads/potomac-river/; Luther P. Jackson, “Highway Projects Doom Homes in Foggy Bottom,” Washington Post, Jan. 1, 1962; Wolf Von Eckardt, “Real Divided Plaza Is in Prospect for Wider Virginia Ave.” Washington Post, May 23, 1965; “Inner Loop Held School Threat; Hearing Sought,” Evening Star, June 14, 1957; FBA History Project, https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/history-project

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