Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Washington on the Move

The Architecture of Transportation in the Capitol Region

The eighth biennial symposium on the historic development of

Metropolitan Washington D.C., March 7th and 8th 2009, Society of Architectural Historians

The Adaptive Lives of Washington DC Stables over 150 Years

Stables are architecturally simple yet elegant structures, melding form and function. Because of this simplicity and their “hidden” location in alleys, many DC stables have been blessed with multiple lives over the past 150 years. Originally built to house horses, carriages and hay, their classic features – bollards, square two story configuration, hayloft door and beam, horse head height windows, cupolas and massive doors and hinges – make them readily recognizable today. Some were private and small while others were commercial and large. The occasional stable was born into elegance as part of an estate (such as the Heurich mansion). With the civil war, came a massive demand for D.C. stables that continued throughout the city’s period of reconstruction. However, by 1900 few new stables were being built as the automobile eclipsed the horse and carriage, street car lines developed and demand declined.

Nonetheless, their simple architecture allowed easy conversion of many stables to alley auto repair shops. The transition from stables for horses to auto repair shops was not difficult, for the mechanics of coaches had similarities to the early automobile. The leaf springs for example on a model T Ford as well as the wooden spoke wheels were easy for a blacksmith to repair. For a while, some large stables catered to both automobiles and horses. Eventually however, people either adapted or went out of business. In the peak of the automobile era, 14th Street was an auto showroom corridor. The alley stable auto repair shops served the needs of a poorer community who could barely maintain their cars. Cars were abandoned, stolen and set on fire. The drug and prostitution trade flourished in choked alleys and crime surged. The neighborhoods felt into decline for many years and people were fearful of investing in homes. Today, that is slowly changing.

These were hard lived years for stables. Some were abused but most were neglected. Many were destroyed as alleys began to be abolished by government fiat through a series of alley abolition acts started in the Depression by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1934 with the creation of the Alley Dwelling Authority “to provide the discontinuance of the use as dwellings of the buildings situated in alleys in the District of Columbia.” No alley houses were to be inhabited after July 1st 1944. Ironically a long period of building stagnation in D.C. (after the1968 riots) protected many of the remaining stables. Today, few alley auto repair garages exist but stables are slowly being rediscovered and restored to live adaptive new lives as musician and artist studios, offices or homes.

Unlike the labyrinths of London mews, intact collections of stables are virtually nonexistent in D.C. today. Almost none were built outside of the city as it was defined by turn of the century maps, for a moratorium of building stables was passed. To search for stables within Washington, one only needs to read a city map from 1900 which defined the borders of the city. After 1900, very few stables were built, partly because of the decline in demand and partly because of the inherent fire hazard of stables. They are almost all within the confines of an alley for they served the elegant homes on the street side and it was a way to reduce the noise and smell that accompanied an active stable.

Today, stables have a hard earned right to be protected (two D.C. alleys and their stables were recognized as National Historic Landmarks in 1990) and nurtured so that they can continue to thrive. They uniquely remind us of their struggles and the roles that they have played in the special history of Washington, its alleys, transportation, commerce and the arts. They have a special charm that is timeless.

The stables in Washington D.C. can be classified into several categories: - small and utilitarian private stables, moderate sized stables, large commercial stables (such as the US Parks stables) and elegant “mansion stables” such as the (White House stables). As one walks through the city with a trained eye it become easy to spot stables in the alleys even though many have either been joined to their primary building or been modified almost beyond recognition.

They are all two stories in height for the hayloft occupied the second floor. There is a second story central hayloft door with a beam and pulley. Remnants can still be seen in some stables. The lower level always had a large carriage door for the horses and vehicles with the edges protected by characteristic bollards and an adjacent smaller door for people. The huge stable doors were hinged to the wall, secured with massive plates that extended several brick spans into the wall and the row of bricks above the plate were laid “end on.” Many stables have “horse head height windows” that allowed sun and fresh air inside the stable. Older stables had been poorly ventilated and the toxicity of the ammonia levels and other equine respiratory threats resulted in a high sickness rate amongst the working horses. Occasionally one will glimpse a rein ring on the wall of the stable or the remnants of a cupola to vent the hayloft and control temperature.

It is not widely appreciated that some of the stables in Washington, especially the larger stables were built by well known architects, such as Nicholas T Haller, who also built the Warder Building and the Luzon Apartment building. The quality of his work and that of other architects is evident today, for a number of these stables are intact today.

Clearly, the lives of the stables in Washington D.C. paralleled the evolving story of transportation. In 1828 when the C and O canal was completed, goods were transported from the Town of George to Washington D.C. by horse. There is still evidence of a mule stable in Georgetown by the canal today. By 1835 canal traffic slowed with the completion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway into Washington. By 1862 the first horse car service began, connecting the Capitol to the State Department and an experimental electric trolley began in 1888. By 1890, a cable car operation commenced. All of these advances significantly affected Washington residents’ abilities to move goods and themselves around the city and the need for horses diminished rapidly. While the horse car operation ended in 1898 car barns at either end of the streetcar run still exist and have been adaptively reused as residences. In 1897 the first automobiles drove along Washington streets signally the finality of the horse driven era of transportation.

The 14th Street corridor car showroom era too has passed, for today there is only one remaining dealership within the city. Despite the rapidly fading past and new demands of the future, many stables have managed to survive and adapt to other lives.

The value of the contribution of the stables to the ebb and flow of city commerce and transportation is often lost in the quest to develop new businesses and residences. Even in circumstances where it is impossible to save a stable there is still the opportunity to at the very least archive its dimensions and structural features and even explore the site archeologically. This was done with the White House stables as reported in a 2004 Washington Post article “Below Ground, Washington’s Lost History.” The White House stables had been razed to the ground by Taft in 1912 to make room for his new motorcar.

There are many impediments to salvaging stables in addition to the government alley abolition acts. For example, it is still not legal to have a residence that faces a 15 foot wide alley. Stables cannot be easily separated from the rest of the property on which they reside so cannot be bought as individual entities. The wear and tear of many years of abuse and neglect have taken such a toll on many structures, that there is little incentive to properly repair and restore the building.

The art of brick and pointing repair was lost for many years and eclipsed by the ease of use of Portland cement which ultimately destroyed the very structure it was trying to save. Bricks became stress points through this rigid mortar and lost the limestone “give and take” that has allowed European buildings to stand for centuries. A welcome resurgence of interest in the value of limestone mortar is occurring today.

In one alley the Save Our Stables (S.O.S.) initiative was created this fall to spawn an awareness of the historic nature of the Washington alleys and the lives of the buildings within them. Despite protection through the National Register of Historic Landmarks, Blagden Alley and Naylor Court alley structures continue to be torn down and replaced with modern buildings. “The greenest building is one that already exists.”


  1. Alley Life in Washington – Family, Community, Religion and Folklife in the City, 1850 – 1970 by James Borchert, University of Illinois Press, 1980
  2. The Secret City – A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital by Constance McLaughlin Green, Princeton University Press, 1967
  3. The Mews of London – A guide to the hidden byways of London’s past, by Barbara Rosen and Wolfgang Zuckerman, 1982
  4. The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander, Oxford University Press, 1979
  5. Memories of the Buggy Days, by Henry W. Meyer, Brinker Printing Company, 1965
  6. American Stables – an architectural tour by Julius Trousdale Sadler Jr. and Jacquelin D.J. Sadler, New York Graphic Society Boston, 1981
  7. Saving America’s Treasures, National Geographic, National Trust for Historic Preservation 2001
  8. Preservation and Conservation – principles and practices, Proceedings of the North American International Regional Conference, Williamsburg, Virginia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Sept 10 – 16, 1972, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976
  9. Neglected Neighbors by Weller, The John C Winston Company, 1909
  10. Coach Houses of Toronto – by Margo Salnek, Boston Mills Press, 2005
  11. Loft Living – recycling warehouse space for residential use by Kingsley C. Fairbridge and Harvey-Jane Kowal, Saturday Review Press/E.P. Dutton and Co. Inc, 1976
  12. Making the Case: Historic Preservation as Sustainable Development by Patrice Frey, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2007
  13. A Timeline of Washington DC History:

Monday, March 2, 2009

Reaffirmation of Blagden Alley Naylor Court historic designation.

Yesterday the Historic Preservation Office of the DC Government released their updated inventory of Washington Historic properties and sites. The alley community needs to keep this designation in the forefront of their minds whenever any thought of development within the Naylor Court Alley is raised for discussion. It’s very simple - these properties are protected by law.

The destruction of the 1863 stable and its 1868 home that was allowed to occur over the past July 4th 2008 weekend must not happen again. The community cannot be apathetic; neither can it relax its sense of vigilance. The information about alley protection is in the public domain and needs to become learned as community knowledge. The historic alleys no longer pose the urban threat to the city that they once did. The old mindset of government, architects and urban planners is hard to influence, but 50 years from now, others will be grateful that some in the past could see far enough ahead into the future to fight for a dream that they themselves will not live to see realized.