Capitol Hill Boasts Wide Diversity of Buildings

Posted October 19, 2011 at 4:52pm

You never know who you’re going to meet when you knock on the door of a Capitol Hill row house.

It’s the sort of neighborhood where you can find a Senator, an electrician, a group house of students and Hill staffers, a welfare recipient, and an artist within the same block.

At first glance, the stately Victorian row houses along Capitol Hill’s broad, tree-lined streets may look similar. But take a closer look and you’ll find that the exteriors of this community are as diverse as its inhabitants.

Capitol Hill began as a small working-class community around the Navy Yard and as a cluster of boarding houses near the Capitol. It is now one of Washington’s oldest and most architecturally rich neighborhoods. From modest frame houses to sprawling mansions, the Capitol Hill Historic District features two centuries of architectural styles within walking distance of one another, reflecting the social diversity of the community and early development of the capital.

Based on the research of the nonprofit Capitol Hill Restoration Society, Roll Call has mapped out a two-mile, hourlong walk that showcases distinctive examples of major architectural styles.

The tour begins and ends at No. 1 Eastern Market Metro Station. From there, walk south on Eighth Street until you reach the Shakespeare Theatre at No. 2 516 Eighth St. SE. The Harmony Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization, built this elegant Second Empire building in 1878. The dramatic mansard roof is the distinguishing feature of this style. (Named for 17th-century architect François Mansart, the roof has enjoyed some fame in recent years as the title of a song by indie rock band Vampire Weekend.) Second Empire is otherwise similar to its stylistic predecessor, Italianate, and both often feature bracketed cornices and narrow arched windows.

Turn right onto G Street, then right at the next block to arrive at No. 3 541 Seventh St. SE. The steeply sloped central gable, decorative trim and oriel window are characteristic of the Carpenter Gothic style, which isn’t common in urban areas. However, city dwellers are likely to recognize it as the backdrop to the stern pitchfork-holding couple featured in Grant Wood’s famous painting, “American Gothic.”

Continue north and turn left at the third intersection. The Georgian mansion at No. 4 619 D St. SE, once known as the Maples, is the oldest private residence on Capitol Hill. The side-gabled roof and symmetrical quality of the original middle section of the house are characteristic of this style. The house was built in 1795 for William Mayne Duncanson, whose notable house guests included George Washington. It was used as a hospital during the War of 1812 and was later owned by Francis Scott Key, of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame, and Emily Edson Briggs, a Washington gossip columnist who became the first woman to receive White House press credentials. The building was owned for seven decades by the Friendship House Association, a nonprofit social services organization, and was purchased by a realty group in 2010.

Continue west on D Street, then turn left on Sixth Street and head to the James Carbery House, the white house on the right at No. 5 423 Sixth St. SE. Built in 1803, this classic Federal house features a gabled roof with protruding side chimneys and fanlight over the door. This style is boxy and symmetrical like the Georgian, but with a flatter roof slope. It often features Palladian windows, oval rooms and arches. The most famous Federal-style house is the White House.

Return north on Sixth Street, then turn left on D Street, then right on Fifth Street. The Tudor Revival buildings at No. 6 310 and 312 Fifth St. SE aren’t typical of Capitol Hill architecture; the style was most commonly seen in suburban homes built in the 1920s. Tudor Revival is a modern take on the late medieval “Shakespeare-style” house, and these urban examples exhibit its defining features: an asymmetrical, steeply pitched roof; decorative half-timbering; and brick or stone elements at the entrance.

A slight detour to the Moorish Revival houses at A 433, 435, 437 and 439 Second St. SE offers the most dramatic example of the exotic revival styles on Capitol Hill. Notice the arched windows over the oriel bay window, stained glass accents and the tracery above the top row of windows. 

If you skip the detour, continue north on Fifth Street, turn left at Seward Square, then turn right onto Fourth Street. Walk about one-fifth of a mile before turning right onto A Street. The clusters of short columns, the semi-circular arches and the rock-faced stone base of the house at No. 7 408 A St. SE are typical of Richardsonian Romanesque.

A block east, the house at No. 8 500 A St. SE is typical of the reductionist take on Greek Revival found on Capitol Hill, with its denticulated cornice, window trim and columns at the entryway. The influence of 18th-century studies of Greek ruins gave rise to this style, which became popular in America in part because it provided a symbolic visual link between ancient and modern democracies. 

Backtrack on A Street to turn right onto Fifth Street, then right on East Capitol Street. The William Penn House at No. 9 515 East Capitol St. SE represents a departure from the red brick and classical motifs of older homes on the Hill. The Beaux Arts building’s light-colored brick, flamboyant mix of classical and Renaissance details and ornamental motifs exemplify the style.

The Penn House was built in 1917 for a family that lived in the top floors and sold coffins from their store on the first floor. In 1966 it was bought by the Friends Meeting of Washington and was turned into a Quaker hostel and program center, which still operate today. 

Just past the Penn House is a grouping of Italianate row houses from No. 10  600 to 606 East Capitol St. SE. Italianate is one of the most common styles on Capitol Hill, and its prominent characteristics include decorative brackets supporting the cornice eaves; decorative window and door hoods; tall, narrow windows; and a low-hipped roof with wide overhanging eaves. Bay windows and one-story porches are also common in Italianate row houses.

Queen Anne row houses are just beyond at No. 11 638 to 642 East Capitol St. SE. Because the homes are adjoined, these don’t have the wraparound porches commonly seen in free-standing Queen Anne houses. The style instead manifests itself in the varied texture of the facade, decorative cornices, corner towers and bay windows. Many Queen Anne row houses also feature stained glass and decorative gingerbread accents.

Return west on East Capitol Street and turn left on Sixth Street. The houses on this tour were chosen because they represent particular styles, but like those along Sixth Street, many houses in the historic district represent a blend of styles. 

Turn left at Pennsylvania Avenue and continue to the Penn Theater at No. 12  650 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, the final stop on the tour. The tiered geometric façade, colorful accents, repeating parallel lines and sunburst motifs are typical of Art Deco. This lavish, decorative style was heavily influenced by Cubism and is thought by some to be a reaction to the austerity imposed by World War I. The original façade is now part of a larger modern building housing medical offices.

To return to Eastern Market Metro Station, continue southeast on Pennsylvania Avenue to Eighth Street.