Underground Finds Tell of Washington's Lost History
Archaeologists Bring Long-Buried Artifacts To Light After Digging
By Arielle Levin Becker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page GZ05
It fell out of use sometime in the Taft administration and was razed to its foundation in 1912.
After nearly a half-century of housing the horses that carried presidents, the Executive Stable -- what was left of it -- spent 90 years as part of Washington's paved-over past, joining centuries of foundation stones, bone fragments and other artifacts of everyday life beneath the ground.
That is, until three years ago, when plans to improve security around the White House put the area in the hands of archaeologists charged with the task of uncovering the stable.
"It's something you hadn't thought of," said John Bedell, a senior archaeologist with the Louis Berger Group Inc., which excavated the site under contract with the National Park Service. "Of course the president had a carriage and had horses. But where were they?"
They stood, Bedell and his team of four archaeologists learned, near 17th and E streets NW.
Digging by hand and with machines, the team navigated the remnants of nearly a century of below-ground projects -- a 19th-century sewer line, a working sewer, telephone and electrical lines -- as they unearthed the foundation walls of the stable and a large iron fence that had stood in front of it.
"It's a bit of forgotten history," Bedell said.
The White House stable is part of an underground legacy that stretches throughout the city. Beneath what is now the Ronald Reagan Building, at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, archaeologists found traces of a once-raging red-light district. And buried below what is now Barney Circle were relics of a prehistoric Indian village.
In a city where monuments mark almost every major passage of our nation's history, countless fragments of the past remain forgotten, either lying beneath the ground or tucked away in obscure offices.
"There's a very rich history of the city, and that history, both that which is written and that which is unwritten, is left to be discovered through archaeology," said Stephen Potter, archaeologist for the National Park Service's National Capital Region.
Like some other significant finds, the Executive Stable was uncovered as part of a modern construction project.
The excavation occurred as part of aesthetic improvements to White House security, replacing a fence that had been erected after the Oklahoma City bombing with more attractive security bollards.
The archaeologists first uncovered the foundation of an iron fence around the stable; it was so large they initially thought it was the stable. They also found horseshoes and bottles, probably left by people who had worked at the stable. The artifacts are "working their way through the Park Service bureaucracy," Bedell said.
When they emerge, they will become part of the large collection of artifacts of the District, unearthed from a few inches below the city surface and dispersed in paper bags and cartons in archives of government agencies and curatorial facilities.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company