Today, DC's West End neighborhood is known for pricey condos, trendy restaurants, seemingly ceaseless construction, a concentration of hotels (many of which seem to be under the impression that they’re located in Georgetown), and one very famous, very presidential office tenant.
Like most developing DC neighborhoods, then, the present-day West End has evolved from a more humble character to become quite trendy. To say that the West End of 2017 is not the West End of 1917 or 1967 is true...but somewhat uniquely in this case, in that that the statement extends to geography as well as the built environment and neighborhood profile.
Last week, Jonathan Neeley took a look at the District’s various neighborhoods along with the deeply-felt opinions that exist with practically all of them when it comes to defining their boundaries. (Spoiler alert: Georgetown does not extend across Rock Creek!)
On this map, the blue area is modern day West End and the orange is Foggy Bottom. The purple is the Old West End Historic District and the green is the Foggy Bottom Historic District:
In the case of the West End, one might assume that such a generic name was a relatively recent product of a branding effort – perhaps led by enterprising realtors, developers, or a District government anxious to boost the value of a neighborhood close-in to downtown. This supposition would be partially correct: The modern day “West End” is largely a product of a series of efforts initiated by the Office of Planning, which culminated in a 1973 report entitled “New Town for the West End.”
Back then, the present-day “West End” was a fairly underdeveloped section consisting largely of light industry (including auto body shops), surface parking lots, and rowhouses – many in a state of disrepair. It was home to a longstanding African-American community, anchored by Stevens Elementary on 21st Street and Francis Junior High School on N Street. Luminaries like Roberta Flack, Charles Drew, and Duke Ellington were either born in this area or went to school here.
Talk to former residents of that community, like Washington Post columnist Colbert King – whose childhood home was on the site of the once-and-future West End Library – and you will hear of a close-knit community the remnants of which are few-and-far between, but that are best symbolized by St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year at its beautiful sanctuary on 23rd Street south of Washington Circle.
You will also hear the area more often than not referred to as “Foggy Bottom,” which over many years came to be known as largely consisting of African-American sections of the community west of 23rd Street on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The "Old" West End
But the “West End” name was not a 1970s creation by any means. It was very much a part of this era, and though its exact boundaries are a bit more amorphous, it was generally thought to be located in areas south of Pennsylvania Avenue and east of 23rd Street – which today consists largely of George Washington University’s main campus.
A look at the building stock that survives from the early-to-mid 20th century tells the tale of two neighborhoods: The art deco apartment houses and Victorian rowhomes east of 23rd Street are ornate, and would not be out of place in Dupont Circle. These were the homes of diplomats and other high-ranking government officials, many of whom wanted to be close to their place of employment – perhaps in the old State, War, and Navy building (today’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building).
Representative examples of many of these buildings can be found in the “George Washington University/Old West End Historic District” – recently created as part of a nomination process mandated under GWU’s current campus plan, and with the adjective “old” appended to the historic district’s name in order to distinguish it from the present-day West End.
West of 23rd Street in “Foggy Bottom,” meanwhile, the housing stock from the same era is much more humble. The people on this side of the neighborhood also settled here to be close to work, but their places of employment weren’t ornate government office buildings. They worked in places like neighborhood retail stores, the former gas works at Virginia and New Hampshire Avenues, and the old Heurich Brewery at the site of today’s Kennedy Center. The Foggy Bottom Historic District – created in the 1980s – preserves what remains of their housing stock, which consisted largely of small rowhomes and some of the District’s most notable remaining alley dwellings.
In time, the “Foggy Bottom” and “West End” of yesteryear became lost to the sweep of history. Foggy Bottom, in particular, fell victim to urban renewal schemes and highway construction more than perhaps any other neighborhood in the District this side of Southwest. What the highwaymen and master builders didn’t get, the federal government, international institutions, and George Washington University did.
Ironically, though its campus development reduced the permanent residential population east of 23rd Street drastically, GWU’s presence in the area probably ensured the survival of much of the area’s building stock. A more deep-pocketed institution probably would have torn down even more of these buildings than GWU did, in the era before historic preservation protections. Instead, for most of the 20th century the university largely adapted the existing building stock for its various uses.
Unfortunately, the historic preservation successes of today cannot conjure up the character of yesterday. The forces of change eliminated vast swaths of the neighborhood’s housing stock and the industries that provided a source of employment for the local population.
Changing neighborhood, changing boundaries
At the same time, what was left of the neighborhood became “trendy”; largely upper-class professionals started moving to the neighborhood for the same reason that their predecessors had: to be close to work. Professors at GWU, economists at the IMF, Foreign Service officers...these are just some of the professionals who were drawn to the neighborhood for its convenience. This increased demand pushed up property values and started a cycle of gentrification that would be not-unfamiliar to those who have witnessed changes in neighborhoods such as Shaw and Petworth over the past 20 years.
The only element of old “Foggy Bottom” that survived – and even thrived, through expanded use, expanded boundaries, and increased prominence – was the name itself. In this era, Foggy Bottom came to refer to everything on both sides of 23rd Street, encompassing an area bounded by the White House, the Mall, the Potomac River and Pennsylvania Avenue. The State Department’s arrival and expansion popularized the neighborhood name as a metonym, as did GWU’s increasing prominence as an institution of higher learning. The arrival of the Kennedy Center and the Watergate in the 1960s and 70s lent the name further cachet.
Today's West End
The "West End" name, meanwhile, fell into disuse until it was resurrected and applied – with DC government endorsement – to the area roughly bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, N Street, and Rock Creek.
The 1973 plan that created today’s West End was in many aspects remarkably forward-looking: It attempted to accommodate the burgeoning demand for office space that was pushing the boundaries of the District’s Central Business District west, while at the same time trying to ensure an orderly transition from the office monoliths of downtown to the more longstanding and traditional residential areas of Foggy Bottom and Georgetown.
To do this, it envisioned a mixed-use district comprised of relatively high-density residential and office development – and required a degree of parity in office and residential square footage to enforce the mixed-use vision. Major area landowners, like U.S. News and World Report, were key stakeholders in laying out this vision. Some early buildings in the area even had a mix of office and residential within the same building, very unique for DC at the time.
Unfortunately, the District made a decision at the time to allow for hotel uses to qualify as “residential” under the terms of the plan, incentivizing the construction of a large number of hotels in the area and leading to the concentration that exists today. Some truly residential multi-family construction took place, but only starting in the late 1990s did it amount to a significant amount of new construction in the area.
In today’s West End, it is the most in-demand segment of the real estate market. Multiple office buildings in the West End are even undergoing conversion to residential use. With a new fire station and library opening this year as part of a public-private partnership delivering even more residential units to the area, today’s West End is more than ever fulfilling the mixed-use vision of that 1973 plan. Just don’t call it your grandfather’s West End.
You on the history of Foggy Bottom and the "old" West End to the 1970s here.