Explore “Our Neighborhood”

The National Archives History Office has published a new online exhibit, “The History of Our Neighborhood.” Today’s post comes from Rachel Rosenfeld from the National Archives History Office.

The National Archives Building in Washington, DC, sits halfway between the Capitol and the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, but the building wasn’t always there. In fact, the Archives is but one thread of the colorful tapestry of this neighborhood’s history.

Engraving of the “First View of Washington, 1801.” (Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards)

The History of Our Neighborhood” exhibit explores four centuries of our neighborhood’s rich history beginning in the early 1600s, when the Anacostans first established the Nacotchtank village in what is now the District of Columbia.  

Once the English colonized the area, the monarchy established a land grant system for wealthy white proprietors. During the late 18th century, the neighborhood was part of David Burnes’s holdings. After Congress passed the Residence Act calling for the creation of a “district of territory, not exceeding ten square miles . . . on the river Potomac” to serve as the nation’s capital, Burnes bitterly ceded his lands to the Federal Government for the construction of Pennsylvania Avenue.  

Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia, 1800. (Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, National Archives)

President George Washington set aside the land for a DC public market, and in 1801 Center Market opened for business between Seventh and Ninth streets on Pennsylvania Avenue. A market occupied that space for 130 years.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, drastic changes came to the Archives neighborhood. Center Market’s upper floors served as a Union Army morgue, and the neighborhood sat on the edge of “Hooker’s Division” —a red-light district filled with brothels and saloons. 

Parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, ca. 1861-1865. (National Archives Identifier 518225)

Postbellum Washington, DC, focused on modernizing the capital, and Center Market was a key part of improvements. In 1870 Adolph Cluss designed a state-of-the-art brick market building filled with modern amenities like electric lighting and cold-storage vaults. In addition to the 600 vendors that occupied the new Center Market, street vendors and shops like Saks and Company and S. Kann’s Department Store capitalized on the proximity to Washington’s busiest market.

The neighborhood’s commercial success did not satisfy early 20th-century politicians who were eager to build a city that rivaled the grand capitals of Europe. James McMillan formed the Senate Park Commission in 1902 to redesign the city as a “work of civic art” inspired by neoclassical revival architecture.

Front of Center Market taken from the Corner of Seventh Street and Louisiana Avenue NW, 5/23/1914. (National Archives Identifier 7851105)

The Federal Triangle was a key piece of the McMillan Plan, and the Center Market was located on what would become the National Archives site. On January 1, 1931, the market permanently closed, and construction of the Archives was completed in 1937.

When automobile ownership skyrocketed and the middle class moved to Washington’s suburbs, the few businesses remaining in the Archives neighborhood were liquor shops and discount stores. After President John F. Kennedy called the area a “slum,” Congress established the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) to revitalize the area. With the PADC efforts and the opening of the Archives Metro station and the U.S. Navy Memorial, the neighborhood was revitalized and is thriving today. 

U.S. Navy Memorial Dedication Ceremony, October 13, 1987. (National Archives Identifier 6432084)

Learn more about the “History of Our Neighborhood” by visiting the online exhibit.

One thought on “Explore “Our Neighborhood”

  1. My ancestors, the Meier, Ruebsam and Maedel families, lived in the area where most government buildings now stand. Family members were employed at the US Naval Observatory as map engravers, mathematicians for the astronomers, and as clerks.

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