Downtown was once the center of urban life of Washington. Located just east of the White House and northwest of the Capitol, the downtown area was the ideal spot for boarding houses, hotels, and the like when the city was first established. Washington's downtown area also become the home to many Congressmen, and, unfortunately, criminals as well.
In the mid-nineteenth century, places like the Willard Hotel gave Downtown some respectability. Seventh Street was Washington's Park Avenue, a boulevard for strolling about, for dressing up, and for having lunch with the ladies. Its proximity to the White House and the Capitol made Downtown the perfect location for the press. The area gained the nickname "Newspaper Row" for the many news bureaus and papers which set up shop there. The Washington Post was one of the many newspapers housed there.
The entire area deteriorated during the Civil War. Criminals swarmed into Downtown and the rest of Washington to prey on its overcrowded citizens. The small police force and the military police were overwhelmed by the level of crime and prostitution in the area. Things didn't get much better as time went on. Upper 14th street became one of the best-known and most dangerous strips in the town. The entire area was full of cheap liquor stores and prostitution.
It didn't help its reputation either, that Downtown's Ford's Theater was the site of Lincoln's assassination. Much planning for the murder also took place at Mary Suratt's House, located in now the heart of Chinatown. The Petersen House, known as "The House Were Lincoln Died", is also located here in Downtown, across from Ford's Theater.
The wedge of real estate known as Federal Triangle was once the center of all this crime and prostitution. However, it saw substantial redevelopment after being purchased by the U.S. government in 1926. It now houses several federal buildings, including the Internal Revenue Service building and the National Archives.
In the meantime, race riots in 1968 and the sudden growth of peep shows in the 1970s deteriorated the area even more. A few politicians and various other government officials of Washington couldn't help visiting the area. Mayor Marion Barry was renowned for his visits to various nightclubs in the area. It was also at the Vista Hotel that he had his downfall. Congressman Wilbur Mills was also exposed as a regular at the Silver Slipper, where he spent time watching (and even dancing) with his girlfriend on stage.
However, recent redevelopment in Downtown seeks to erase the area of its seedy reputation. In 1997, a new sports arena is scheduled to open near Chinatown. Hopefully this will help restore downtown to its former, respectable, glory.
Sites in NW Downtown
The tour begins with a visit in NW Downtown. It then continues to the Washington Post building and then to sites dealing with the Lincoln assassination. The tour ends with a visit to Federal Triangle.
Here is a full listing of stops on the tour, in the order traversed. Feel free to jump ahead to places which interest you the most.
Lincoln Assassination Sites