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Since we’re in the midst of Landmark Music Festival madness (which is to benefit the Trust for the National Mall), and we’re feeling pretty generous, anyone who shares this article on Twitter with the the hashtag #BYTLandmark will be entered in a drawing to win tickets to the festival! Now get to tweeting.

The Mall is a curious place. There are cities all over the world where one could find neoclassical corinthian columns dotting the streets. But there are few cities that would have a massive neoclassical temple across the street from a brutalist behemoth, which is next door to a collegiate gothic castle. It’s a rare thing to have that many wildly different kinds of architecture, only acres apart from one another. The scene, half-endearing, and half-incongruous, is an iconic aspect of the District’s history. We have no problem taking the vista for granted, as if it’s been here forever.

Most of the museums and monuments on the Mall are barely a century old. The Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station (the site of the James Garfield assassination) was cleared away for the National Gallery of Art. The Army Medical Museum (a beautiful Adolf Cluss building) was razed for the Hirshhorn. Much of the Mall 150 years ago would be unrecognizable to us now.

Also, Constitution Avenue would have been completely underwater.

In the early years of the District, when James Madison was rebuilding the White House after a defeat we don’t talk about in 8th grade US History, the District opened up a canal that was meant to connect residents on the Anacostia to the Potomac. This canal would have run north from the Navy Yard, around the Capitol building’s South side, then West, joining the Tiber Creek, and ending at the mouth of the creek, which was the White House.

This canal was part of Ellicott’s design for the city, the revised (read: butchered and largely plagiarized) version of L’Enfant’s dream. Connecting the two largest bodies of water that flanked the city by a narrow canal would make the city easily to traverse and ideally bring business to the middle of the District, instead of the port of Georgetown. This is a similar approach to what WMATA envisioned in the mid 1960’s; making neighborhoods more connected, and facilitating the visits of Marylanders and Virginians to the District.


The Washington City Canal was fraught with issues, and only operated as a fully functional canal for a couple of decades until the 1850’s. The canal was so shallow, it could only take boats that drew three feet of water, making it impossible to bring large shipments of goods in or out of the city’s center by canal barge. This also meant that tidal variations in the Eastern Branch would flood the avenues around the canal. The waterway was also so narrow that boat traffic was jammed for days. Imagine being stuck in traffic on Constitution, only, instead of an air-conditioned Uber, it’s a boat. And it’s July. And you’re wearing wool. And your life expectancy is about 50 years. And you’re fighting off malaria. And the threat of Civil War is hanging over your head.

It’s easy to see why the canal fell into decline. By the mid 19th Century, railroads, not canals, quickly became the preferred means of travel and shipment. Railroads, along with the Civil War, and the impossible task of maintaining the waterway, turned the canal into an open storm drain and sewer. Luckily, there was a hero ready to take on the task of fixing the poorly designed canal. And by hero, we’re referring City Boss (actual title) Alexander Robey Shepherd, and by fixing, we mean filling in the canal with dirt.

1870’s DC wasn’t quite the beaux-arts metropolis we know now. Prior to Shepherd’s appointment by Congress, Mayor Sayles J. Bowen had attempted selling off his furniture to pay off the city’s debt. Shepherd led some sweeping reforms through the city, including the installation of streetlights, the establishment of the first public transit system, the planting of 60,000 trees… and the filling of Tiber Creek.

How does the city put an entire body of water underground? Adolf Cluss, (Remember him? The guy that built the museum where the Hirshhorn is now? No? Never mind.) designed a tunnel “wide enough for a bus to drive through to put Tiber Creek underground.” The tunnel stretched from Capitol, all the way down to the Potomac. They packed in dirt around the tunnel, and paved over the dirt to create B Street, now called Constitution Avenue. Much of Federal Triangle sits on the fill-dirt over what used to be the creek, with wooden stilts in the ground, holding up their foundations.

There’s almost nothing left of the Canal from the early years of the District, except for one, tiny, unassuming stone house on the corner of 17th and Constitution. The windows are boarded up, the building hasn’t been used by anyone for the past fifty years, and the walls inside are dotted with wasps’ nests. It looks like something the GSA, National Park Service, or Boss Shepherd forgot to tear down.


But the stone house is the last little relic of the Mall’s pre-Civil War history. The Lockkeeper’s House is the oldest stone structure still standing on the Mall. The house was built almost 200 years ago for the guy in charge of boat traffic, tolls, and lock-changing on the Washington City Canal. In 1837, John Hilton was appointed Lockkeeper, given an annual salary of $50, and moved into the stone house with his family. He and his wife raised 13 children in that house.


Though the creek was put underground, and the city forgot about the canal, the house still stands in the shadow of the towering obelisks and corinthian columns. With a stroke of luck, and a lot of convincing, I was recently granted access to the space by Ms. Nancy Murray of the National Park Service.

When I looked through one of the shuttered ground-floor windows on my tour, in what likely used to be the kitchen that fed 13 children, I discovered fascinating little gem: the light coming through a crack in the shutter created a camera obscura on the window pane. I was getting a very fuzzy image of the world outside, reflected upside-down and backwards onto the pane. I could not help but imagine how much the city has changed since Hilton first moved in; how he must have watched the city grow from these windows.