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The Lockkeeper’s House, a piece of D.C. history, reopens to visitors

The 185-year-old building offers an immersive six-minute video that tells a story of the National Mall

Mikayla Gloeckler, left, and her grandmother, Clara Gloeckler, from Fayetteville, N.C., look at a map of the National Mall in the newly remodeled Lockkeeper's House. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Katy Roat and her mother, Kathy Roat, stopped outside the 185-year-old building on the National Mall in the early morning sunshine Friday.

Katy Roat, 28, of D.C. passes by the Lockkeeper’s House often on her runs but wanted to take her mom, who loves history, to see it while she was in town for a visit. Kathy Roat, 63, said the modest stone structure has lessons to teach us.

“It helps us appreciate what we have and that there were people who came before us,” she said, “who lived in more meager means, that allowed us to have the life we do now.”

Beginning Saturday, visitors will be able to go inside the Mall’s oldest existing building, which once served as the home of a canal lock tender, according to the National Park Service. The house will be open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The site underwent a restoration and relocation in 2018 in partnership with the Trust for the National Mall, but the pandemic shut its doors. Now the historic building is reopening with new interactive exhibits and a multimedia program that takes viewers through the history of the structure and the evolution of the Mall.

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“We see this as a nice orientation spot for visitors to be able to go in, learn a little bit about the history of the Mall as they’re going in to see the monuments and memorials,” Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said of the house’s location at the southwest corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, near Constitution Gardens.

The 540-square-foot house sits on a stone plaza shaded by a willow oak, about 50 feet from its original location along a canal that once flowed through what is now Constitution Avenue.

The renovation project, including the stone plaza and oak tree, was funded by $6 million in private support from the Trust for the National Mall, trust spokeswoman Julie Moore said.

The interactive exhibits and multimedia programming came from an investment of about $1 million from the National Park Service, Moore said.

Catherine Townsend, president and CEO of the Trust for the National Mall, said the trust is the philanthropic partner of the National Park Service, bringing expertise and private financial support to help with solutions and improvements to the Mall.

“The National Mall cannot be only taken care of by government funding alone,” Townsend said. “It will take private philanthropy to help sustain, restore and preserve those iconic treasures to the country for years, generations to come.”

After visitors enter through a wooden door, they encounter an immersive six-minute video that explains the area’s Native American history and the development of a canal system. It also touches on the history of slavery and the Civil War, and describes the building of monuments and museums along the National Mall. The video projects onto a screen, and images also project onto the interior walls.

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The building’s windows display a “snapshot in time” of what people might have seen looking out from the house through the years, Litterst said, including images of a scene of the developing city, a family floating by on a canal barge, cattle grazing on the grounds of an incomplete Washington Monument, and a civil rights march down Constitution Avenue.

A desk features a visitors map of the Mall along with a comparative map from 1837 so people can see how the landscape has changed, Litterst said.

Displays include touch screens with additional information about the house and its history.

The building can hold about 20 visitors at a time, Litterst said.

A group of about 10 people got a preliminary look before the official reopening Saturday.

Kelly Peavler, 55, of Oklahoma said the video portrayed the Lockkeeper’s House as having a “voice.”

“If walls could talk, this house would have a story,” she said.