Capitol Hill Restoration Society

Preservation Cafe: Historic Waterfront of Washington, DC

Posted on March 19th, 2014

Capitol Hill author John R. Wennersten discussed his new book, The Historic Waterfront of Washington, DC at the April Preservation Cafe. 


John R. Wennersten, Capitol Hill resident and author, was the April 2014 Preservation café speaker. He has written a new book, “The Historic Waterfront of Washington, D.C.” and shared it with a large and attentive audience. The attendees included the usual Hill denizens but also neighbors living on the Southwest Waterfront.As Wennersten describes it, the waterfront extends from Georgetown up to Bladensburg and includes Alexandria and areas not always thought of as “waterfront” – Rock Creek Park, for example. There’s only so much he could cover in a half-hour presentation –  you’ll just have to buy the book – but here are a few teasers to get you interested:

Georgetown was the original waterfront and was the center of the world beaver trade in the seventeenth century.  Later, the cycle of commerce turned to tobacco and smoked and salted fish after that.

The Navy Yard was the second waterfront to be developed. Originally considered for Baltimore, which was a more obvious choice as a port, it was established at its present location at Thomas Jefferson’s insistence.  Instead of coffee breaks, workers once enjoyed whiskey breaks with a whiskey wagon servicing this need to keep the men on site and out of the bars.

What is now the Mall area of the City once included a series of internal canals, laid out by Pierre L’Enfant.  Water came from the aquifer (Tiber Creek) near Florida Ave.  An early design included an enormous waterfall cascade flowing from the top of the Capitol to the bottom of the hill.

Then Mayor Marion Barry was an early proponent of efforts to establish the modern, non-commercial, recreational use of the District’s waterfront.

Wennersten views Anacostia Park in Southeast as a resource that is particularly under-used and undervalued. He described it as nearly barren, “nothing there, not even trees”.  Another area needing attention, in his view, is Rock Creek, which suffers from neglected maintenance of the sewer pipes running along both banks.

If you were unable to attend the April Preservation Café, you have an opportunity to see what you missed; Wennersten will reprise his talk at the Politics and Prose bookstore on Saturday, June 28 at 3:30 p.m. His book can be purchased at Barnes and Noble, Politics and Prose, and Riverby Books; copies are also available at his Capitol Hill home; he can be reached at 547-7971.