The Love and Respect murals by Lisa Marie Thalhammer and Billy Colbert, respectively, enliven Blagden Alley in Northwest Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

I’d love to learn more about the alley network in Shaw, from Blagden Alley to Naylor Court.

Rebecca Jacobs, Washington

There was a time in Washington when people thought that the only alley a resident would visit would be the one behind his or her house. But today, a lot of alleys in the District are hot, both as trendy places to drink or dine and as unique places to live.

That wasn’t always so, and the ups and downs of alleys — alley-oops, let’s call them — symbolize the changes the entire city has undergone over the decades.

What is an alley, anyway? In its original form, it’s a hidden backstage area where the private functions of a house take place: Horses are stabled, carriages are parked, coal is delivered, trash is removed.

In early plans of Washington, narrow passageways — 15 feet wide — led from the edges of a block into an H- or I-shaped configuration of wider, 30-foot passages in the interior. These were dubbed “blind alleys” because they weren’t easily visible from the streets outside.

As the city developed — and rowhouses were built around the edges of blocks — this space on the inside was seen as wasted. Property owners subdivided their lots, and up went commercial buildings, including livery stables, barns, warehouses, tin shops and sheds, said Kim Prothro Williams, an architectural historian in the District’s Historic Preservation Office. In 2014, she completed a three-year survey of all the city’s alley buildings.

Something else went up in the alleys, too: houses.

“Alleys became very attractive for people of lesser means,” Williams said.

Alas, these alley houses were usually woefully substandard. Floors were laid directly atop earth, and the homes lacked running water, sewer lines or electricity. Despite this, they were in demand. A single house — two stories high and barely a dozen feet wide — might include a multigenerational family and lodgers.

Social reformers such as Jacob Riis decried alley conditions, and the city made periodic attempts to forbid people from living there. These met with only spotty success.


The alley dwellings of the 1940s drew families of modest means. (Edwin Rosskam/Library of Congress)

A pamphlet published in 1912 found 3,337 houses in 275 D.C. alleys and asserted that secluded alleys bred crime and disease that would “kill the alley inmates and infect the street residents.”

What happened to the District’s alleys may sound familiar. While early alley dwellers had typically been poor white residents, over time, the makeup shifted to poor black residents. While it’s true that alley dwellings were often unfit for human habitation, it wasn’t entirely clear where African Americans were supposed to move when they were displaced.

In 1934, Congress established the Alley Dwelling Authority, another attempt to rid the city of inferior housing. It mandated that no one could live in an alley house past 1944. There was an unforeseen complication: That date turned out to be in the midst of World War II, when the city’s population swelled and housing was at a premium.

Meantime, Williams said, middle-class Washingtonians had seen the value in alley housing. They bought houses in neighborhoods like Georgetown and brought them up to code. The prohibition was lifted.

By the 1980s, most of Washington’s alleys had been altered beyond recognition. The large footprints of office buildings obliterated classic alleys. Some alleys were widened and turned into proper streets.

There are alleys in Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill, but a pair of blocks in the Shaw neighborhood are the best preserved. Their stables, warehouses, carriage houses, workshops and garages were relatively untouched and ready for new tenants.

“For whatever reason, that collection of buildings managed to survive,” Williams said.

One is Blagden Alley, the center of the block formed by M, N, Ninth and 10th streets NW. The other is Naylor Court, a block north.

They were named after men who owned lots there: Thomas Blagden, who ran a lumber yard, and grocer Dickerson Nailor. (The name seems to have evolved over the years.)

In the center of Naylor Court is a large warehouselike building erected in 1883 as the Tally Ho Stables. Later, it was used by the District government to store street-cleaning equipment — and the horses that pulled it. Today it’s home to the D.C. Archives.

While neglect had spared the blocks earlier, they gained real protection in 1990 when they were named to the National Register of Historic Places.

“Their intact condition makes them beautiful relics of the past,” Williams said. “We don’t have carriage houses anymore. We don’t have stables.”

Maybe not, but we do have yoga studios, like Shaw Yoga in Naylor Court. We have coffee shops, like La Colombe in Blagden Alley. We have murals, artisanal cocktail bars and stables turned into houses that are architectural gems.

We have something else, too, something that may have appealed to poor Washingtonians of a century ago: a sense of cozy quietude.

Said Williams: “There’s a tranquilness in the alleys.”

Ever wonder?

If you have a question about something you’ve seen in the Washington area, write to answerman@washpost.com.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.