Circa 1832, Washington DC was very different from the city you will see today. Today,
Washington DC is filled with monuments of varying provenance (Egyptian obelisks and Greek and Roman temples litter the Mall), statues to pretty much everyone, unprepossessing but solid office buildings (for example, pretty much every federal office building in existence), impressive boulevards (
Pennsylvania Avenue), reassuringly regular streets set down in grids, and spaces like the National Mall for gathering and making your voice heard. Like the nation itself, though, the capital city took a few centuries to mature.
It’s easy to miss the history in this city. Those who visit for the monuments and museums see almost exclusively the modern city that was built up from almost nothing. Most of the remnants of the older city are tucked away in Georgetown or between those mid-century modern office buildings.
The Lockkeeper’s House at first blush looks like a rather sad shack in the shadow of the Washington Monument and just off the southwest corner of the White House grounds. It stands at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. On a bright, cold winter’s day last week, I walked down on my break to take a look. It’s a small stone building, measuring thirty by eighteen feet (more or less—precise measurements weren’t a “thing” in the early 19th century). It sits about four feet back from the broad avenue that, even in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, roared with traffic. The stoplight at the corner out front brings the cars to a brief pause before they hurtle onwards, either east towards the Capital or west towards
the Roosevelt Bridge and Virginia. The little house has one door and four windows (two of them gabled) facing the street. The windows and door are boarded, and it looks a little woebegone, especially with construction fences hemming it in from behind. Around the other side of the house—the side facing what is now the National Mall, and which is currently a construction site—there are four more windows and one more door. They, too, are boarded up.
Joggers and sightseers on Segways zoom by as I wait on the opposite side of the road for a momentary gap in the traffic so I can take a picture. The sun is glaring from behind the roof. I snap a few quick pictures, hoping I took a good one because it’s too bright to see the digital image on my screen. I look around and wonder if I’m the only one who even notices that little, old house.
The house is owned by the National Park Service, and there are some helpful information plaques that I assume some people might read as they pass by. Most, I think, don’t even notice the house.
When this house was built, circa 1832, the land behind the house, which is now the National Mall, was water. Or, to be a bit more precise, it was swamp. Until the turn of the last century, the Potomac River extended as far north and east as the White House. Tiber Creek, turned into Tiber Canal (and little better than an open sewer), emptied into the Potomac at the bottom of the White House lawn. It flowed between the White House and the Washington Monument, then continued east to the foot of the Capitol before turning south.
Also at the point where Tiber Canal emptied into the Potomac, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal began. The canal was one of George Washington’s ideas and was meant to facilitate the flow of goods from the interior (e.g., Ohio) to places like Washington City. But almost as soon as the canal was dug, it was obsolete. Railroads quickly overtook canals as the best mode of transportation. As a result, little remains of the canal. Some sections of it still exist in Georgetown.
And there is also, within spitting distance of the White House, this small stone house. This was where the lockkeeper lived, as the name makes clear. He would have been on call day and night to let boats and ships pass into the canal and on their way up or down the Potomac (the city was placed at the highest navigable point of the river).
In the hundred and eighty odd years since the house was built, pretty much everything has changed. The Capitol now has a much larger, grander dome. The Washington Monument was completed (in 1832, it was a half-built stub). The White House grew. Tiber Canal was buried under the city. Instead of water, now traffic flows along its path (or, depending on the time of day, it might not flow). On the other side of the lockkeeper’s house, where there was once marshy land all the way up to the base of the Washington Monument, there is now the great open space of the Mall, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Tidal Basin. And as mentioned, the canal disappeared (making the lockkeeper’s house pointless).
So, the poor little lockkeeper’s house became stranded like a beached whale. There was no canal to keep watch over; there was no water at all. The city grew around it, and it was no longer needed. The building once housed squatters, then was used as a holding cell by police. Today it sits there, basically vacant and mostly unloved though it is looked after by the NPS. I wish it got more attention. There’s nothing impressive about it, except it’s a rare reminder of how far this city has come. Not too long ago, it was a city of which Charles Dickens said, “It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions, [with] spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament.”
Washington DC grew up with the nation. It began as literally nothing; was rent by the Civil War but ultimately came out of the war a more prosperous, bustling place; grew, modernized, and industrialized; and became a great symbol of a great nation. No longer a city of magnificent intentions, it became in fact a city of magnificent distances. It’s crucial to have reminders like the lockkeeper’s house hidden in plain sight, just as it’s crucial to know why they’re there and what they symbolize. Our past is just as important as our present.
Here is some info via the Library of Congress: