In the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Foggy Bottom, between 25th and 27th Streets along Virginia Avenue NW and New Hampshire Avenue NW, stands the Watergate. Since the Nixon administration the name of the upper-class hotel complex has become synonymous with the political scandal that led to President Nixon’s resignation. However, few consider the elements that brought such an institution into existence. The complete history of the site since the capital’s founding offers a significant insight into the progression of Foggy Bottom and Washington D.C. over the past two centuries.
Nineteenth century Washington DC, before the middle of the century was known by its many inhabitants as a dark city, more in the literal sense than the theoretical. It wasn’t until December 1840, that the US Capitol Building’s “7,111 pound cut glass chandelier” of oil fueled lanterns fell from atop the capitol dome onto the floor below that the members of the house became convinced that a less precarious means of a lighting system needed to be established (Allen, 2001, p.188). In came James Crutchett and his vision for a future powered by the clean and safe gas light. Crutchett designed a gas lantern measuring six feet in diameter and twenty feet in height, capable of visibility from a distance of over two miles away [SEE FIG. 1]. After passing all regulatory and safety inspections from Clerk of the House B. B. French, The capitol dome experienced its brightest moment in history, lighting from afar for the first time in November 1847 [SEE FIG. 2].
However, no good deed goes unpunished, and in Crutchetts hopes of privatizing the gas industry he profoundly uncovered, Congress had many disagreements with Crutchett’s business plan to supply the Capitol with gas. In addition, the Capital Dome's gas lantern was not without its flaws, including a dangerous means of lighting the apparatus every night, and potential structural damages to the Capitol Building itself. Inspired by Crutchett’s out of pocket gas experiment with the Capitol, B. B. French who initially authorized Crutchett’s plan for the lantern, along with seven other trusted business associates purchased Crutchett's gas patent from him and formed the charter for the Washington Gas Light Company (Hershman, 1948, p.22).
No sooner then 1848, Washington's first official gas plant was constructed in the Federal Triangle. Already fueling the light illuminating much of the national mall and surrounding White House area, DC residents loathed the admirable sight, Commissioner Douglas noting “The iron lamp posts are… much admired by persons of refined taste for their beauty and peculiar adaptability” (Hershman, 1948, p.31). With demand exceeding the company's initial supply of clean burning gas, a second set of fuel tanks was set for construction and completed in Foggy Bottom in 1858, in the current location of the now present Watergate Hotel Complex (Evans, 1996, p.41-42).
These developments caused a dramatic demographic shift in the ensuing years. What was once a small residential community of only a few dozen households expanded along with the rising level of industrialization at the site. The construction of the gas works and other business enterprises brought with it a much greater need for labor in the mid-1800s, most of which came from Europe and the post-Civil War South. German, Irish, and Danish immigrants arrived and became ingratiated in the community by seizing upon the opportunities for skilled and unskilled labor. While the Irish are typically associated with their contributions to the Washington Gas Light Company, most Germans took jobs with the Heurich brewery to the immediate south of the Watergate site (Anderson, 2010, p. 78). Many of these families formed the basis of a growing middle class in Washington and lived immediately north of the gas works on 26th Street [SEE FIG. 5].
Meanwhile, a considerable population of freed blacks found homes on the northern end of Virginia Avenue around where the modern hotel stands. The post-Civil War period saw blacks migrating northward to the district in search of better opportunity and escape from racial oppression (Anderson, 2010, p. 78). The infrastructure around the gas works was surrounded by the homes of many of these families. Their location is a testament to the poor economic situation many black families found themselves in upon their arrival to Foggy Bottom, with the majority of them unable to find labor profitable enough to avoid living under the shadow of the massive gas tanks (Sherwood, 1975, p. 13). Black mothers and fathers found jobs as day laborers and laundresses while their children attended local schools to earn a better future [SEE FIG. 5].
An imaginative depiction of Washington DC as visualized from high above the Library of Congress that details the significant industrial assets of the area [SEE FIG. 7]. Most notably, as discussed previously, the area was home to the Washington Gas Light Company’s massive gas tanks, which defined the skyline of the area as well as the demographics, for decades (Gillete, 1999, p.29; Sherwood, 1978, p.36). Laborers found the cheapest housing options to be right next to the company for which they worked. Thus the economics – as defined by the employment opportunities and the businesses within the area – defined the demographics of this fledgling neighborhood (Sherwood, 1978, p.40). Entrenched within the deeply segregated neighborhood, Olsen’s map demonstrates the unique multiplicity of a booming industrial complex and an impoverished community coexisting within the same space (Morales-Vasquez, 1999, p.19). This community found itself nestled on both the private and public land – a dichotomy often repeated within the District.
On the eastern front of what would become the Watergate was the old Naval Hospital – less than 100 meters from where the hotel and residence stands today (Weber, 1926, p.11). In 1922, the facility was closed to the public – it’s use restricted to those in the military. The hospital stood out as a hallmark of government power; a curious symbol of the abrasive dichotomy between the private interests of the monolithic military living shoulder-to-shoulder with the economic interests of the public capital (Herman, 1996, p.41; Pancham, 2004, p. 29). Furthermore, the Naval Hospital helps to contextualize and ground the history of the area; with a military institution so close to its core, military movements become part of the fabric of the community, growing in strength from the Civil War and continuing through the first world war.
In 1887, G.W. Baist & Company created a map of the Foggy Bottom to sketch the industrial, commercial and residential areas of the neighborhood that existed alongside the military identity (SEE FIG.3). At the time, the Watergate space was occupied by the West Station Works of the Washington Gas Light Company (Hershman et. al,1948,p.49). During this time period, the map shows the re-emergence of the city during the Reconstruction Era as it firmly established itself as the capital of the United States (Sherwood, 1978, p.20). The West Station Works included production, support,and storage buildings that collectively formed the eight property sites which are shown as site numbers 2, 3, 7-10, and 18 on the Baist map (Carrier, 1999, p.115). The facility powered the industrial capacity of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood by providing energy to the local factories and serving as a place of employment for the growing number of European immigrants who were moving to the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in search of work (Sherwood, 1978, p.21). The West Station Works continued to power the neighborhood until the 1940’s when the Washington Gas Light Company relocated the facility outside of the city (Sherwood, 1978, p.36).
In March 1960, the Italian firm Società Generale Immobiliare (SGI) purchased the land from the Washington Gas Light Company and announced their plans for redeveloping the site in October of 1960 (SEE FIG. 12). It was not until 1962 that Luigi Moretti, chief architect and Milton Fischer, associate architect revealed their designs for the Watergate complex: “The plan called for four curvilinear-shaped buildings containing apartments, offices, and a luxury hotel” (Sherwood, 1978, p. 55). Several controversies over the design and construction erupted before approval was granted. The most prominent concern from these agencies was the height of the Watergate Complex, fearing it would disrupt the Washington skyline. Compromises were made by the various commissions regarding building height.
The design of these five buildings became a reality when construction went underway in August 1963 and was completed in 1971. The combination of brilliant architecture and the scandal propelled the entire complex to become a historical landmark in the District of Columbia Inventory of Historical Sites. It was later added to the National Register of Historical Places (SEE FIG. 12). The contributions that the site of the Watergate Complex has made and continues to make to its residents, the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, and the District of Columbia truly make it a historical and vital location.
Original research, analysis and text by Amber Drew, Ryan Jones, Madeline Beecher, and Kyle Kelly. Revised by Patrick McCormic, Stephen Costello, Sean Bird, and Alexander Reed.
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