Many of you decided to enroll at GW in part because of its location in the nation’s capital, but D.C. is more than monuments and politics – it is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own rich history. Did you know that Foggy Bottom was once home to slave plantations, German and Irish immigrants, D.C.’s largest brewery and gasworks, an orphanage, a convent, the city’s oldest inhabited alley and one of D.C.’s thriving Black communities?
We started the Foggy Bottom Association History Project in January 2021 to create a comprehensive resource center for all who are interested in this neighborhood and to protect its historic character. From the beginning we have sought to partner with GW students, faculty, officials and alumni to uncover, document, collect and communicate the shared history of the University and the neighborhood.
The Foggy Bottom Association History Project offers students the opportunity to enrich their experience in D.C. by learning about – and protecting – our shared community history. After all, GW is a University within and of a community, not a self-isolated urban island of education. As students, you can continue to have an impact on Foggy Bottom. As author James Baldwin once said, “History is literally present in all that we do.”
The neighborhood’s history begins with the Piscataway and Anacostan peoples who occupied the area thousands of years ago. A period of plantations and the town of Hamburg, or Funkstown, founded by German immigrant Jacob Funk, defined Foggy Bottom’s history in the 18th century. The development of industry in the 19th century, including breweries, lime kilns, a glass factory and gasworks – plus natural fog from the Potomac River – gave Foggy Bottom its nickname. The Irish and German immigrants who occupied the narrow brick row houses of the Foggy Bottom Historic District from the 1880s to the 1910s shifted to a Black majority in the 1920s.
Foggy Bottom’s history continues through the 1950s with federal and international organization office construction, urban renewal, high-rise development, highway construction and the expansion of GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus. These shifts resulted in the demolition of historic row houses and family-owned businesses in the area and the displacement of the Black community from the neighborhood. Changes and challenges including gentrification, affordable housing and highways slicing through neighborhoods reflect trends that resonate today both within D.C. and across the country.
Since GW first moved into Foggy Bottom in 1912, it has been an integral part of this community and its history. Now, the GW community can participate in the project in many ways – and your participation will help create a more dynamic Foggy Bottom Association History Project.
To learn more about Foggy Bottom’s history, you can check out our website where you can read our blog and review our presentations about the neighborhood’s history. Follow our in-person and online walking tours of the Foggy Bottom Historic District – which preserved some of the neighborhood’s historic rowhouses – or local murals and sculptures that decorate the neighborhood.
You can learn about GW’s history on the website, including the GW/Old West End Historic District and how the University and the neighborhood have impacted each other. Take advantage of our free guide to historical records and a variety of local libraries, including Gelman Library, as well as online and published resources to support your academic research. Our past experiences working with students on class papers and video projects have been mutually beneficial.
Be a house detective and research a few Foggy Bottom row houses and publish your findings about former residents and their lives on our new House History Map, which will launch this spring. The site profiles residents from oyster sellers in 1885 to the seven lodgers who lived in one small house in 1950 to GW students today.
Record oral histories. Our website contains transcripts of interviews with long-term Foggy Bottom residents and a video of Washington Post columnist Colbert King recalling his childhood years in what was then a majority Black neighborhood in the 1940s. We can help identify current and former neighborhood residents as candidates for additional interviews.
Learn about and advance historical preservation both on and off campus. Join us in urging the University to adopt a “preservation through documentation” policy, which would require officials to record the history of buildings destined for destruction under the 2007 Foggy Bottom Campus Plan, like the recently demolished Waggaman House and Staughton Hall. Gelman will permanently maintain your research, photography and documentation of such buildings.
Take advantage of this opportunity to discover, document and communicate our shared neighborhood history and your part in it. Given your choice of an urban campus in D.C., graduating with a better understanding of its history is extra credit.
This article appeared in the February 13, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.