Think you know the National Mall? Think again. For much of the 20th century, the historic corridor was all but unrecognizable. The Jefferson Memorial was only completed in 1943, and until the late ‘70s, some sections of the Mall were essentially glorified parking lots. And in the 19th century, areas of the green space were underwater thanks to the new nation’s growing canal system.
That dynamic history is encapsulated in an unassuming brick house on the corner of 17th Street NW and Constitution Avenue—the oldest building on the Mall. Known as the Lockkeeper’s House, the structure was constructed for the canal system that once crisscrossed the area. After a long and checkered history of its own, the house is now open to the public.
Per a statement by the Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service (NPS), the house finally opened its doors on April 23 after sitting “untouched and neglected for more than 40 years.” Per the Trust’s website, the nonprofit raised $6 million in private funds to restore the building, and the NPS invested $1 million to create interactive exhibits and multimedia programming there.
“The hope is that visitors will use the house as a gateway—a visitor’s center, if you will—before touring the rest of the National Mall,” reports Washingtonian Magazine’s Sherri Dalphonse.
Long ago, the structure served as a gateway of another kind. Constructed in 1837, it stood at the intersection of the Chesapeake & Ohio and Washington Canals and housed a series of canal workers and their families. The home was also a workplace that allowed the intersection-minder to be on-call 24/7, should the need arise to control traffic or collect tolls.
The capital's canal system began with George Washington, who, as president both of the United States and the Patowmack Canal Company, had a vested interest in using the Potomac River to build his new nation’s economic might. In 1784, he helped found the company to build what he described as a “smooth way for the produce of [this] Country to pass to [the] Markets.”
Per the NPS, Washington’s goal was to connect the East Coast to the Ohio River—then the nation’s western frontier—and link state economies along the way. There was another reason to establish essential canals in the swampland of the young nation’s new capital: to establish the District of Columbia as a place of federal supremacy in the minds of the previously independent states.
One of those canals—the C&O—was completed in 1850 and still exists today. The other canal—the Washington Canal—connected the Potomac to the Anacostia River. It was completed in 1815 and ran through parts of the area that today makes up the National Mall.
Though it opened with fanfare, WAMU’s Rebecca Sheir reports, its glory days were few: The Washington Canal was too shallow, often overflowed, and became a sewer. The canal, and the lockkeeper’s house, swiftly became obsolete. Both were abandoned in 1855, and when the waterway closed for public health purposes in 1871, it was quickly filled in. There are still traces of the canal beneath D.C.: As Washingtonian notes, some of its waters flow through underground tunnels, including under Constitution Avenue.
The canal was no more, but the Lockkeeper’s House remained. Over the years, it became a tool shed for NPS workers and even a temporary holding cell for Park Police. Eventually, it fell into disrepair and was neglected from the 1980s on.
Restorative work on the structure began in 2017 and included moving the house roughly 36 feet south and 35 feet west to set it back from the street and make room for an outdoor plaza. NPS spokesman Mike Litterst tells the Washington Post’s Jasmine Hilton that the result is “a nice orientation spot for visitors to be able to go in [and] learn a little bit about the history of the Mall as they’re going in to see the monuments and memorials.”
Per the Trust for the National Mall’s website, visitors can enter the “small but mighty” house between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day to watch an “innovative and immersive” six-minute video orientation. Projected onto a screen with accompanying images projected onto the interior walls, the Post reports, the presentation takes viewers through the site’s lifetime, from the original Native Americans who dwelled on the lands that now make up Washington through the modern day.
Restoring the house is “…one of the most important contributions that could be made to the Mall in terms of having people understand what our history is,” Davis Buckley, who oversaw the house’s move, told Smithsonian magazine’s Jackie Mansky in 2017. “It is evocative of a time and history and place when the city first was evolving.”