The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Capitol Hill’s history and ambiance are right up this neighborhood’s alley

Charles Gessford, the architect behind Gessford Court, built the homes in the 19th century as affordable rental housing for working-class African Americans and immigrants. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Amid the glitzy high-rise apartment buildings and new-age restaurants springing up around the city, Capitol Hill remains a bastion of traditionalism in the District. It’s one of the most historic parts of the city, and some of its quaint rowhouses date back two centuries or more. Many of the tree-lined streets are solidly residential, fostering a quiet, almost suburban atmosphere. Though Capitol Hill maintains a calmer vibe than more touristy parts of the city, visitors still flock to the neighborhood to take in its rich history. But it’s mostly locals who are familiar with alley dwellings such as Gessford Court.

Gessford Court, tucked in an alley on 11th Street, between C Street and Independence Avenue SE, is easy to miss for the unknowing eye. But this tiny alley community has been around since the Civil War era. Charles Gessford, the architect behind this neighborhood, built the homes in the 19th century as affordable rental housing for working-class African Americans and immigrants. The alley is made up of two-story homes, with a common brick exterior, each one painted a different color. The homes’ interiors also have similar floor plans. The entrance usually is into the kitchen, with a dining-living area downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. Most of the homes average around 600 square feet.

“If you like Capitol Hill and you like the lifestyle, it’s a big jump in price to try to get something bigger,” said Chuck Burger, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. “When you like the idea of a house, it’s not as easy to size up because houses in the city are so expensive now.”

Near Baileys Crossroads, a historically black community remains a refuge

Most homes in Gessford Court are valued around $600,000, which is low for Capitol Hill.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of expense, and people here have learned to live smaller. This is affordable-home living on a smaller scale,” Burger said.

Residents in Gessford Court range from young renters to longtime residents who have put their own touches on these small, old homes. Will Fleishell is a professional artist who has lived on the alley since 1991. He is a native Washingtonian, and his family’s history on Capitol Hill dates from the 1800s, when his stone-carver German ancestors helped build the Capitol.

“I purchased the house for $124,000. Everyone thought I was crazy when I bought it. Back then, that was a lot of money for this house,” Fleishell says.

David Weiner has been in Gessford Court even longer than Fleishell. He moved to Gessford Court in 1983 as a 33-year-old looking to purchase his first home, which he did for $109,000 — about $36,000 less than the asking price.

He purchased the house next door 12 years later and worked with award-winning Bethesda architect Mark McInturff to combine the two homes. Today, it functions as a loft-style bed and breakfast. Both Fleishell and Weiner love living in Gessford Court for its classic Capitol Hill charm.

“It’s naturally a very community-friendly space because all the houses are quite small. It feels like a suburban neighborhood within the city,” Weiner said.

Twice a year, once in May and once in October, the residents of Gessford Court throw a block party with live music, children’s activities and grilling. Every month, Weiner holds a public jam session in his home. He’s the drummer.

“When I first moved here years ago, the neighborhood was dark and private, but it’s become a much more public space. There’s just a positive vibe around here,” Weiner said.

Between bay and river, Huntingtown, Md., keeps its small-town feel and values

Fleishell loves that he can bike anywhere he wants and enjoys spending time at nearby Lincoln Park when the weather is nice. The community space is used for everything from a place for children and dogs to play, to picnics and people-watching.

“I even saw a wedding happening there once,” Fleishell said.

Eastern Market and Barracks Row are within walking distance, providing an array of dining options. Little Pearl is a favorite neighborhood breakfast and lunch spot. Rose’s Luxury is an eclectic American establishment that boasts a Michelin star. Wine and Butter Cafe and Market is on the corner of 11th and East Capitol streets, with offerings such as Illy coffee, sandwiches, and gourmet meats and cheeses.

Living there: Bounded by 11th and 12th streets SE to the east and west, and Independence Avenue and C Street to the north and south, Gessford Court is in the heart of Capitol Hill, about a 10-minute walk from Eastern Market.

There have only been three sales in Gessford Court in recent years. A two-bedroom, one-bathroom home has sold twice in the past 10 years, first in 2013 for $455,000 and again in 2017 for $575,000. A two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 672-square-foot home sold for $605,000 in 2017.

The emergence of larger two-bedroom condominiums throughout the area has kept and will continue to keep prices for these smaller alleyway houses in the $589,000 to $615,000 range, according to Burger.

There are a few rentals in Gessford Court, which typically go for $2,100 to $2,700 a month, depending on their condition.

Schools: Peabody Elementary, Watkins Elementary, Stuart-Hobson Middle, Eastern High.

Transit: Eastern Market is the closest Metro station, on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines. The area is also served by several bus routes .

Crime: In the past year, there has been one burglary in Gessford Court, according to