Historical and Architectural Overview of Foggy Bottom

From GW Encyclopedia



As Antoinette Lee noted in Buildings of the District of Columbia, Foggy Bottom's origin can be traced to the 18th century, when in 1765 Jacob Funk, a German immigrant, purchased a 30-acre tract of land and laid out the town of Hamburg.(1) While little came of Hamburg, the area went through a series of significant transformations in the 19th and 20th centuries that resulted in a wide array of building types and architectural expressions applied to residential, commercial, industrial, and educational land uses.

Today, the Foggy Bottom area refers to a mixed-use district bordered generally by 17th Street to the east, Georgetown to the west, Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, and the Potomac River to the south. Within these boundaries are located the George Washington University, an historic residential district, several embassies, numerous apartment buildings, associations, hospitals, and businesses of all sizes. Because of the broad range of land uses, it is understandable that conflicts have developed from time to time among these diverse groups over land use and the somewhat eclectic group of buildings. Over the past three decades, in particular, concerns have been voiced primarily by area residents who have expressed concern that their neighborhood is being eroded as a result of overall neighborhood redevelopment. (2) Likewise, George Washington University also has concerns about development of its campus within this broader neighborhood, guided by its Master Plan, which embodies a commitment to provide the best possible facilities for its students to carry out the university's expanding educational mission. Still other intermittent users of the area, who reach Foggy Bottom daily on one of the freeways that cut through the area, are also concerned about the future of this important area of the city.

Of primary concern to these interest groups are the residential district and the University campus, both of which have rich histories firmly rooted in their contiguous and sometimes overlapping geographic location. These two concerns have grown up separately, but will mature together to take the Foggy Bottom and University areas into the next century.

The residential neighborhood is formally recognized as the Foggy Bottom Historic District, which was listed in 1986 as a District of Columbia landmark, (3) and entered in the National Register of Historic Places, the nation's list of properties significant in American history and culture, one year later. (4) The residences in the western end of Foggy Bottom are representative of this area's 19th century working class and immigrant history. The district began its life as one of Washington's industrial hubs, active as a major shipping and warehousing center in the city. Later in the century, industries such as the Washington Gas and Light Company, two breweries, a fertilizer manufactory, and lime kilns were located here.

The George Washington University, or Columbian College, as it was known then, was founded in 1821. At that time, it was located to the north of the city. The school moved to a site on H Street between 13th and 15th Streets in 1884 and then into Foggy Bottom proper in 1912. At that time, the University bought or rented houses and small buildings that were easily converted into classrooms and offices. As one historian of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood notes, the University "fit well into the neighborhood as it took over the many attractive row houses which formerly had been modestly substantial homes." (5)

As the student population grew and University funds increased, several new buildings went up on campus between 1927 and 1959. GW was able to expand and consolidate with nine new buildings including Bell, Stuart, and Lisner Halls. (6) The George Washington campus continues to grow with buildings that serve both its students and the public. In 1948, with expansions in the 1970’s, the George Washington University Hospital, one of the premiere teaching hospitals in the country, was built along Washington Circle and 23rd Streets.

The University has also invested in beneficial real estate ventures, including constructing office blocks, a shopping mall, and other facilities and renting out space. (7) The facilities, particularly "The Shops at 2000 Penn" support a retail economy in a building both old and new. Through reuse projects such as "The Shops at 2000 Penn," the John Quincy Adams House, Stockton Hall, the Lenthall Houses, Woodhull and Underwood Houses, and numerous other historic buildings, the University has become a careful steward of many of the area's notable historic buildings. Although a number of historic buildings were removed to make way for new campus facilities, it is important to note that since 1965, when the National Capital Planning Commission decided that the city's universities should curb spatial expansion, George Washington University has developed primarily upwards rather than outwards. (8)

The incongruous nature of nine story buildings next to the older two and three story row houses may seem extreme, but it is just this upward expansion that allows the University to carry out the demands of a modern educational institution without developing further into the Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Given the already compromised nature of the area after the apartment construction boom from the 1930’s onward, the University's taller buildings do not seem so incompatible with the Foggy Bottom that has developed in the more recent decades of this century.

Common Building Types of the Foggy Bottom and University Districts

The Row House

The many men and women needed to run the large scale industrial facilities in Foggy Bottom found housing in the surrounding area. During the last quarter of the 19th century, row upon row of houses were constructed to house the mostly immigrant and African American labor force. They were modest in scale, providing simple brick dwellings with moderate decoration. The eastern end of Foggy Bottom, however, housed a more affluent population. Houses such as the Woodhull, Ringgold-Carroll, and Lenthall, as well as the several rows of houses turned into shops, restaurants, and campus facilities are still extant and in use in the eastern portion of Foggy Bottom.

The urban vernacular architecture of the row house is well represented throughout the residential neighborhood, on the George Washington University campus, and through a smattering of small private businesses. These share a common vocabulary of form, style, materials, scale, and decoration. Their presence throughout the area creates a cohesiveness that links the Foggy Bottom and University districts with their common past.

Recently constructed buildings on and off The George Washington University campus pay homage to the row house form in the use of similar materials, massing, scale, and architectural embellishments. The Support Building at 2025 F Street, the Jacob Burns Law Library at 716 20th Street, and Three Washington Circle were all designed on a small scale with articulated rooflines inspired by the row house.

Apartment Buildings

Another ubiquitous building type found throughout the entire Foggy Bottom area is the apartment building. Beginning in the 1930s, large, mostly brick apartments sprang up across the city and in Foggy Bottom in particular. Like all D.C. buildings, they are limited in height, reaching to about eight or nine stories. Many were built with flat facades, their windows resting flush with the exterior to create streamlined, upscale, modern buildings. Others are less sleek, but continue the use of brick, often tan or yellow in color, banks of windows, and decorated entrances.

Two of the most notable expressions of redevelopment plans envisioned from the 1940’s are the Columbia Plaza and the Watergate Apartments. Columbia Plaza, designed in 1963 by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon and located at 23rd Street and Virginia Avenue, was originally envisioned as a "packaged living" ensemble with hotel, apartments, commercial plaza, and underground parking. (9) More significant was the Watergate, designed by Luigi Moretti and Milton Fischer in 1963-1967, which used the ten acre industrial site on which massive gasworks were once located. Breaking from the usual development pattern, Moretti designed a series of curvilinear buildings that included apartments, a hotel, and office buildings, all placed within a landscape of gardens. Because of the size and scale of this complex, new standards for height and mass were put into place within this section of the neighborhood. (10)

On the University campus, other examples of fine apartment house design abound. These include the Statesman and several buildings that now house dormitories for the University, such as Schenley, Thurston, Onassis, Lafayette, Madison, and Mitchell Halls. Three exciting new projects include The St. James Suites at 950 24th Street, the Dakota at 2100 F Street, and New Hall 2350 H Street. All are tall residential buildings designed in an imitative historical style. New Hall, completed in 1996, is especially interesting with its classic H-shape and brick façade with concrete detailing, suggestive of stonework.

Headquarters of Organizations

Several notable associations and organizations call Foggy Bottom "home." Among them are the Pan American Health Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the American Red Cross, several embassies, and other smaller associations. The often significant architecture contributes to the Foggy Bottom area as a whole. The Pan Am/World Health Organization Building, for example, was built in 1964 as one of Washington's most exciting architectural experiments. The Red Cross Building, currently undergoing renovation, has been a landmark in the area since its construction in the 1950s. The styles of these buildings differ, from the restrained 1930s American Foreign Service Association to the ultramodern Pan Am/World Health Organization building, but their designs add character to the area.

Office Buildings

The Foggy Bottom neighborhood and the campus area in particular are surrounded to the east and north by Washington's Central Business District, with a particularly intense area of business activity centered along the Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street corridors. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing until today, many large office mega-blocks have been constructed to house modern office functions. These predominantly eight to ten story buildings employ modern materials, and are built using steel frames. They are primarily functional constructs and are nondescript architecturally.

Foggy Bottom has been described as a "neighborhood of schizophrenic sensations,” (11) a "mishmash of buildings and highways," (12) and is an area constantly in flux. It has been in a state of constant change since its early days as an industrial center, through the years of University's development, through urban renewal and transportation changes in the 1950s and 1960s, and today, faced with the expansion of the Central Business District down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The George Washington University campus acts as a buffer zone between the central business district to the north and east, and to residential and governmental areas to the south and west. (13) The University is itself a reflection of the myriad of forces that continue to shape Foggy Bottom. As with many urban college campuses across America, George Washington University's buildings reflect a combination of historic buildings that have been adaptively reused to meet many of the University's needs, as well as a series of new academic buildings that reflect major stylistic trends in architecture. As the University's Master Plan notes, most buildings erected in the 1960s and 1970s reflect Modernist or Bauhaus forms that illustrated the "form follows function" aesthetic popular during the period. (14) During the 1980’s, the University's architectural palette changed, like much of the architecture in other sections of Washington. New university academic building construction placed a much greater emphasis on historical form, successfully employing historical design trends and features to better relate these buildings to historical models nearby.

The University's campus historic preservation record is also worth noting. As part of its Master Plan, the University has placed emphasis on the preservation of historic buildings and structures that help it achieve its educational mission. Examples of this emphasis abound across campus, beginning with the continued use and careful care given to early buildings such as the Victorian rowhouses at 2142-2136 G Street, N.W., which now house Judaic Studies, the University Honors Program, and the University newspaper. Stockton Hall, constructed in 1924, is an excellent example the continued use of a larger Georgian Revival academic building that serves as the centerpiece of the Law School complex. Other academic buildings from the 1930’s and 1940’s also continue to serve academic and civic functions, including the School of Public Management/Hall of Government (constructed in the Streamlined Modern style in 1938), and Lisner Hall at 2023 G Street (built in 1939, also in the Moderne style). Even 1950’s academic buildings such as the Psychology Department at 2125 G Street, N.W. represent the preservation of other buildings of this era, with their broad geometric design, use of concrete and broad bands and windows.

Today, Foggy Bottom represents a rich, ever-changing mix of architectural styles and is essentially the product of many different periods of construction. George Washington University, as stated earlier, is reflective of the myriad forces which shaped the Foggy Bottom community in which it resides. Through careful implementation of the campus Master Plan, the University will continue to shape its campus to achieve its primary educational mission for the next century. Perhaps as importantly, the University will perform this work with respect to the architectural and historical form of its larger neighborhood, through the creation of new buildings that honor the University's associations with Foggy Bottom and the city as at large.


1. Scott, Pamela and Lee, Antoinette. Buildings of the District of Columbia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 204.
2. Personal communication with Professor Richard Longstreth, December 7, 1999.
3. Joint Committee of Landmarks of the National Capital, Foggy Bottom Historic District Application Form, 10/15/86.
4. National Register of Historic Places, Foggy Bottom Historic District Nomination Form, 10/14/87.
5. Sherwood, Suzanne Berry. Foggy Bottom 1800-1975: A Study in the Uses of an Urban Neighborhood. Washington DC: George Washington University, 1978, p. 39
6. Ibid.
7. Scott and Lee, p. 214.
8. Sherwood, p. 42.
9. Scott and Lee, p. 212.
10. Scott and Lee, pp. 213-214 and Weeks, Christopher. AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. Washington DC: Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, 1994, p. 156.
11. Weeks, p. 146.
12. Sherwood, p. 61.
13. The Campus Plan for the Year 1985 Through the Year 2000. Washington DC: George Washington University, 1986, p. 11.
14. Campus Plan, p. 23-24 and personal conversation with Rob Hammell, December 3, 1999.

Document Information

Images: 0
Photographic Credit: n/a
Author or Source: Reconnaissance-Level Architectural Survey of Properties in Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C., 1999(RG0063, Series 10, Box 1, Folder 3).
Document Location: University Archives
Date Added to Encyclopedia: December 21, 2006
Prepared by: Lyle Slovick

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