Feature image: Sandborn map of Prather’s alley, Mount Vernon Triangle. The alley houses alley dwellings, stables, a bakery complex, a blacksmith shop and a warehouse.

See previous post: alley history 

For this post, I want to showcase some of the alley typologies and different alley-lot structures/uses, and as such, will privilege graphics and imagery over writing.

The majority of the images, unless otherwise noted, were taken from the 2014 DC Historic Alley Buildings Survey publication conducted by the Office of Planning in DC and led by Kim Williams, the Architectural Historian/National Register Coordinator in the DC Historic Preservation Office. The majority of these images come from the DC Office of Planning collection.

As mentioned in the previous posts on alleys, the interesting thing about DC’s alleyways has to do with the city’s baroque planning. Its wide blocks allow the alleys to be, not only throughways, but wonderful interior block spaces and courtyards.

Alley configuration

1852 to 1984 subdivision of alley into new lots_Atlas of Pklat Sqaures, DC, 1852 and Faehtz and Pratt Real Estate Directory of the City of Washington, 1874

1852 to 1984 Subdivision of alley into new lots; source: Atlas of Plat Squares, DC, 1852

Most alleys in DC have an “H” or an “I” configuration, which allows for different subdivisions and alley lot distribution.

For the most part, alleys that were less than 30ft wide were not supplied with sewage, water mains and lights as they were considered service alleys. These previously service alleys usually have a width of 24’, 15’ and sometimes 10’.

Sadly enough the density and type of development that has taken place in Downtown DC completely took over the alleys. There are still a few interesting spaces and alleys that remain- one that comes to mind immediately is the alley behind St Mathews church- where Bell’s workshop/laboratory was located and where he made his first recordings.

st mathews court

alley housing st mathews.jpg

Another interesting area to mention is Georgetown, where the alleyways and alley structures where integrated in the urban fabric, and suddenly the alley houses – which were considered to be the equivalent to the tenement housing for the Irish in NY- went through a strong gentrification process becoming some of the most sough after structures in the area.  When in Georgetown, one can identify the former alleys and alley structures though the naming of the street (not following the numbers or alphabets and many times having, “place” or “court” in the name), and the change in the metering: smaller block widths with narrower housing  on their street (much of the alley housing being 12′ wide without a basement or cellar).

Alley structures

alley sruvey-stable.jpgIn terms of the types of structures, DC does not count with many intact collections of stables and alley structures, as the London mews present. To recap, many of the alley structures (housing, as well as stables) were destroyed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s; the long stagnant period after the riots in the 1960s, is what ironically saved many of the alley stables and carriage houses in DC.

The alley survey is pretty accurate in pointing out percentages and types of structures and their location in the city, both of which I will now share with you.

alley survey- building distribution.jpg

Though there are still alley auto-repair shops and garages/storage, stables are slowly being rediscovered and restored to become dwellings and where it was possible, office space. There are also a select few rehabilitated alley dwellings.

renovated stables_alley sruvey

stable, source-shorpy.com

Finally, one may also find beautiful alleys where the housing and alley have been rehabilitated and maintained for residential purposes. Many of these alleys are located in Capitol Hill, which were more consolidated areas.


To come…

As exciting as these images and structures are, alleys in DC still present an untapped potential for city, its development and its residents…. a potential that we will explore further in the next post. Stay tuned!


Some sources that I would like to share:

Dr. Salter’s blog: http://preservingdcstables.blogspot.com/2008/

Alley survey: https://www.nps.gov/shpo/downloads/dc-alleysurvey2014.pdf


2 thoughts on “DC’s Hidden City:: Part 3- Alley typologies

  1. Pingback: DC Hidden City: History | {FAVEL issues}

  2. Pingback: DC’s Hidden City: The vision for alleys (part I) | {FAVEL issues}

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