By Frank Leone
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is the Renwick-designed, Tiffany-windowed gem of Foggy Bottom. The historic church (728 23rd St. NW) was founded in 1867 as the first African American congregation of the Episcopal Church in D.C. and the current building was constructed in 1887. But its back yard is historic too. In addition to an 1882 school building, behind the Church were three entities each bearing the name of “St. Mary’s Court” – 19th century alley dwellings, the third public housing project in D.C., and the current affordable apartment community for seniors and persons with accessibility needs.
From the 1870s, St. Mary’s Court was an alley inhabited primarily by lower-income residents, many African American. (A court is an alley with only one major entrance, in this case on 23rd St.) As with Foggy Bottom’s other alleys, many of the houses were overcrowded and lacked inside plumbing and central heating. See Funkstown, Foggy Bottom’s Misunderstood Alleys, https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/post/funkstown-no-6-introduction-to-foggy-bottom-s-misunderstood-alleys-snows-court-and-hughes-mewes. Some of the St. Mary’s Court houses dated from the Civil War and one was reportedly used as a bakery for Union troops. News reports from the 1890s focused on “crime” in the alley, including “profanity,” which earned a $5 fine (the cost of a month of rent).
In January 1938, the D.C, Alley Dwelling Authority (renamed the National Capital Housing Authority in the 1940s) opened St. Mary’s Court – a 24 unit public housing project, which was the third such development in the city. Although the ADA had acquired and demolished many inhabited alleys, most were converted to non-residential uses such as garages and parking spaces (although at least one area was sold to George Washington University). The Evening Star reported that in St. Mary’s, “formerly one of the most squalid alleys in the West End, the houses were demolished to make room for twenty-four 2 to 4 room apartments with modern conveniences.”
Public housing was segregated at the time, and St. Mary’s Court was designated for African American residents. “St. Mary’s Court was a gleaming replacement for the shacks that had been there. And it was a great victory for blacks who wanted to remain in the area over the protests of white realtors who wanted it rented to whites only.” (Meyer & Levy). NCHA desegregated the project in 1953.
By 1972, as property values increased in the Foggy Bottom area, and the NCHA decided to demolish the St. Mary’s buildings and relocate the residents. According to the NCHA, the Court was still “respectable looking” but costs of overhaul of heating plant and replacement of plumbing and electricity were too high. A home for seniors was planned in 1971, but the property was used as a parking lot until the NCHA leased it to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
In 1979, the current St. Mary’s Court opened at 725 24th St. NW. The nine-story, 120 unit brick high rise apartment was initiated by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. St. Mary’s Court serves the community as well as its residents.
Several weeks ago there was a fire at St. Mary’s Court. Click HERE to make a donation to those impacted by the fire.
Sources: St. Mary’s Church website, https://www.stmarysfoggybottom.org/; Evelyn L. Parker, “A Housing Study of Five Blocks in the Foggy Bottom Area of the First Ward, A Progress Report,” Washington Housing Association (Dec., 6, 1944); “Housing Project Open to Colored,” Evening Star (Dec. 24, 1937); Eugene L. Meyer & Claudia Levy, “A Relic Is Doomed in Foggy Bottom”, Washington Post (Mar. 6, 1972); St. Mary’s Court website, https://stmaryscourt.org/; Foggy Bottom Association History Project, https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/history-project.