The large residential area located on the hill directly east of the United States Capitol and grounds is known as the Capitol Hill Historic District [†]. This area, one of the oldest residential communities in Washington, has grown from a small, boarding house community for members of Congress to an area of more than 150 squares embracing a number of separate neighborhoods which in the twentieth century have come to be known as Capitol Hill.
Capitol Hill is the largest residential historic district in the District of Columbia. Almost every street is composed of rowhouses of different varieties and periods forming a continuous wall broken only by street intersections. Side by side exists early nineteenth century manor houses, Federal townhouses, small frame dwellings, ornate Italianate bracketed houses, and the late 19th century press brick rowhouses with their often whimsical decorative elements combining Richardsonian Romanesque, Queen Anne and Eastlakian motifs. These houses are mostly two or three bays wide and two or three stories tall, although a feeling of verticality arises from the mansarded and gabled roofs topped by finials and from the conical patterned slate roofs on the towers rounding many of the corners.
The street pattern in the Historic District has remained faithful to the original 1791 L'Enfant Plan for the Federal City, a plan which called for grand diagonal avenues super imposed over a standard grid pattern. The tree-shaded front yards along East Capitol and other major avenues are actually publicly owned but privately maintained open space. There are more grand 160 foot wide avenues in the Capitol Hill area than elsewhere in the city, and these avenues lend a stately and monumental dignity to the Historic District. The juxtaposition of these avenues with their wide setbacks and frequently imposing architecture effects a subtle contrast to the narrower but tree-lined grid streets.
The Historic District is characterized by its many uninterrupted rows of townhouses containing excellent examples of architectural styles fashionable throughout the nineteenth century. The sympathetic contrast in scale and style from the simple, unadorned frame structures to elaborate ornamental press brick facades creates both a neighborhood and a Historic District unique to Washington. The predominate character of the Historic District is exemplified in the Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque styles popular in the late nineteenth century. During this period, small contractors and developers both filled in open space in existing rows and subdivided new squares. This new development frequently consisted of the construction of five or six houses at one time, allowing the slight dis parity of cornice line and facade which contributes to the charm of the Capitol Hill area.
Although Capitol Hill is one of the oldest continuous residential communities of the Federal City, the area which today comprises the Historic District is a composite of neighborhoods, not necessarily sequential, which have experienced a twentieth century renascence in the form of restoration activity and have come to be known collectively as Capitol Hill.
The Capitol Hill Historic District is significant for both its architectural and its historical contributions to the District of Columbia. An examination of the history and development of this particular Historic District shows that the historical nature and the architectural character of Capitol Hill are mutually interdependent.
The Capitol Hill Historic District takes its name from the hill which rises in the center of the Federal City and extends eastward. This hill, which in 1790 was called Jenkins Hill oorJenkins Heights, was the site chosen by Pierre L'Enfant for the placement of the "Congress House" a site which L'Enfant characterized as "a pedestal waiting for a super structure." In accordance with the 1791 L'Enfant Plan for the Federal City, the United States Capitol Building was situated upon the crest of the hill facing the city. Stretch ing easterly behind the Capitol building along the wide avenues and around the squares of the L'Enfant Plan lies the residential area which is today called "Capitol Hill."
The Capitol Hill area developed along the streets and wide 160 foot avenues punctuated at intervals by squares and parks much as L'Enfant intended. East Capitol Street, a monu mental avenue running east from the Capitol to the banks of the Eastern Branch or Anacostia River, still provides a major focus for the area and serves as the division between the northeast and southeast sectors of the city. L'Enfant, in a notation on his |J91 plan, envisioned the development of this avenue as follows: "Avenue from the two bridges to the Federal House, the pavements on each side will pass under an arched way, under whose cover, Shops will be conveniently and agreeably situated. This street is about 160 feet in breadth and a mile long." East Capitol Street, however, did not develop in a commercial manner, but rather became a prominent residential street. Other non-residential areas which L'Enfant proposed for Capitol Hill did not develop either. To the east and south of the Capitol was to be located a commercial area, a large plaza in the area now known as Garfield Park. It has been speculated that the area presently occupied by the Capitol Powerhouse was planned by L'Enfant as a city hall or civic center.
† Joint District of Columbia/National Capitol Planning Commission Historic Preservation Office, Capitol Hill Historic District,1976, nomination doument, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C., accessed March, 2022.
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